What Went Wrong: Penn State

Justin K. Aller

Because this dead horse isn't going to beat itself.

We've been here before.  Not exactly here, as this is Michigan's first loss, but somewhere close where after the game it seems all we have are negative takeaways and worries for the future.  Michigan continues to do the same things wrong, and it has hurt the team repeatedly.  This was the first game in which these mistakes cost Michigan in the win column, but the consistency of these issues and the escalation of competition means that this is surely not the last time we are here.  Let's slog through this one more time.

You're Not Supposed To Set Them Up In the Red Zone

When Devin Gardner threw the worst interception in the history of football against Notre Dame we all shrugged and said, "well, it can't get any worse".

It has.

Not in terms of one single play, but in three of Michigan's last four games it has handed the opposition easy points far too often.  Michigan gave away a touchdown (pick-six) against Akron and a field goal thanks to a shanked punt.  The next week against UConn a fumble return touchdown and an interception returned inside Michigan's red zone meant 14 points.  Against Penn State it was two interceptions that set Penn State up with 24- and 20-yard fields and two more touchdowns.  In those three games, Michigan has allowed just five touchdown drives of over 50 yards on defense.  The offense has completely erased that massive advantage thanks to giving up two defensive touchdowns on turnovers and setting the opposing offense up for three more touchdowns on short fields.

This is absolutely the biggest issue going forward, and it doesn't even count all the other turnovers and special teams miscues that have robbed Michigan of what could have been fruitful possessions.  Consider:

Game Points Given Up (Off) Points Allowed on 50+ Yd Drives Scoring Margin
Akron 7 14 +4
UConn 14 7 +3
Penn State 14 14 -3

Michigan's defense has taken some heat for its struggles late against Akron and Penn State, but you absolutely can't fault the defense for its full game effort.  Michigan's offense has turned three 10+point wins into nailbiters simply by giving away scores.  This is even worse when you consider the level of competition.

In games against teams with strong defenses (MSU, OSU) Michigan is going to have a much harder time overcoming late deficits after ceding so much ground earlier in the game.

Forget limiting turnovers — if Michigan could just keep its turnovers from becoming easy touchdowns for opposing teams, the Wolverines would be in much better shape (as well as 6-0 without nearly the same level of hand wringing over it).

You're Going The Wrong Way

Once again, Michigan's offense gave up negative play after negative play to the Penn State defense.  The offensive line should officially have everyone in panic mode for the foreseeable future.  Michigan spent all game blowing assignments and giving up inexcusable TFLs.  How many did Penn State finish with for the game?  Eleven for 44 yards (three sacks).

Michigan ran the ball 30 times with its tailbacks.  How bad was it?  Let's look at the numbers.

1st down: Michigan ran the ball 15 times total for an average of 1.9 yards/carry.  Six of those runs went for a loss or no gain while three more went for just one yard.  Only one run (a 12-yard run by Toussaint in the first quarter) went over 10 yards.

2nd down: Michigan was somehow worse on second down, running the ball 11 times for just two total yards.  Four of those runs were for no gain, three were for negative yardage, and only two plays (three and four yard runs) went for more than a single yard.

3rd down: Unsurprisingly, Michigan didn't get the chance to run much on third down, given the exceedingly long third down attempts it faced.  Michigan had just four runs on third-down.  Three went for no gain and another went for a three yard loss.

For the day, MIchigan's run totals went like this:

Result Number
Negative 6 (-17 yards)
No Gain 11
1-3 Yards 9
4+ Yards 4

I am running out of ways to format these numbers to show how badly Michigan performed running with its tailbacks. Nearly 60% of Michigan's tailback run plays on the day either lost yardage or broke even.

Michigan did get 121 yards on 24 carries from Devin Gardner, but because of blocking deficiencies and a stubborn adherence to running play calls that continue to not work, Michigan essentially set 17 downs on fire and got a below average return for its investment on another nine.

On the year, Michigan is one of the worst teams in the nation when it comes to allowing negative plays in the run game.  Michigan is allowing eight TFLs per game on the year.  Only six teams in the nation are worse, and they have a combined record of 10-26.

Is It Supposed To Be This Hard

Do you know what happens when a team can't run the ball effectively with its tailback but does it anyway?  That team ends up staring down a lot of long third-down conversion attempts.  MGoBlog's Mathlete explains how bad this is:

Michigan's average third down is 7.6 yards. They haven't had a single game better than 7 yards to go on average for third down. 95 teams average less than 7 yards to go on third down for the season. 95 teams average third down is better than Michigan's best game average.

He also talks more about how bad Michigan's run game has been, so be sure not to miss that if you hate yourself and want to feel bad about the thing you hold most dear.

Against Penn State Michigan picked up just four of its 18 third-down attempts.  This is so ludicrously bad that I can't even bring myself to laugh at it.  What's worse is that this is the same thing that has been plaguing Michigan's offense all season long in games like these.

Michigan's defense thrives on forcing teams to complete long drives down the field to score after 10-12 plays, because it leaves more room for mistakes that lead to punts.  Unfortunately, Michigan's offense plays the kind of herky jerky offense that is stopped up by this defense.  Michigan had three touchdown drives that went longer than 70 yards in a game where the team converted just four third-down attempts.

The talent on offense is there.  Michigan has the receivers to make big plays in the passing game and a quarterback capable of picking up yards on the ground and through the air.  Once Devin Gardner shook off his bad start he put together a solid game.  But Michigan's offense as a whole is so erratic that it can't grind out drives because it refuses to set itself up for easier third-down conversions.

--

For the better part of the first month of the season these things all had a bright side: they could be improved upon and Michigan's offense could settle into a rhythm in which it would effectively move the ball against most defenses.

Not anymore.

This is Michigan.  A team that has no reliable tailback run game, can't set itself up for manageable third-downs, and will routinely give up crippling interceptions that put the defense at a huge disadvantage.  This isn't going to change.  Michigan is going to spend the season as the same gut-wrenching highwire act it has been since Akron.  Some days it'll plummet to the net below, Some days, no matter how many times a foot slips, Michigan will make it to the other side.

Strap in, because we've probably got a few more of these columns coming before it is all said and done.

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