This one is obvious, but just how much Michigan's turnovers swung its previous two games is an important aspect of why those games were so close. Against Akron and UConn, Michigan combined for eight turnovers — five interceptions, two fumbles, and a muffed punt. What did those turnovers lead to?
- Two defensive scores (int return in 4th quarter for Akron, fumble return to start second half).
- Three turnovers inside the opponent's 35 yard line.
- A muffed punt inside Michigan's 10-yard line.
Michigan directly gave up 14 points and indirectly set UConn up for another seven thanks to a muffed punt. Furthermore, Michigan left all sorts of points on the table by giving the ball away in the opposition's territory a handful of times.
Rest assured, this team's fortunes will rise and fall on the back of its turnover margin. Against Akron and UConn a minus-5 turnover margin is survivable. Against Northwestern and Michigan State its a 20-point blowout waiting to happen.
On the flip side, when Michigan's offense is taking care of the ball it is able to move down the field and score on long drives. Against Akron if you remove the end of half and turnover drives, Michigan had nine total. Four of those were touchdown drives, and three went over 70 yards. Another was a missed field goal. Even in a game when Michigan was repeatedly behind the chains it was still scoring (or setting itself up for what should have been a score) more than half the time when turnovers were cut out. The UConn game is similar: nine non-turnover non-end-of-half drives, four scoring drives.
Turnovers will happen, but if Michigan can limit its mistakes to once a game rather than three or four times a game, the offense is potent enough to move the ball down the field. Case in point, the Notre Dame game in which Michigan had seven scoring drives, three punts, and one turnover against a good defense.
Turnovers now and forever will be the name of the game for this Michigan offense.
Limiting Negative Plays
Through the end of September Michigan had allowed 32 tackles for loss (8.0 per game) for 121 yards which put the Wolverines at 111th in the nation. Michigan's run game was having some moderate success, but it was too set back by negative plays that led to long second- and third-down attempts at conversions. Sacks weren't a major issue either, with Michigan giving up just 6 in four games (t-51st nationally).
Against Minnesota that changed. Michigan had just four runs go for a loss and one sack. In fact, Michigan's one fumbled snap — an excusable number given the fact that Graham Glasgow was making his first start at center — netted more negative yards than Michigan's four allowed tackles for loss.
Fitzgerald Toussaint was stopped just once for a one-yard loss. Derrick Green was stopped three times for one-yard losses, but all three runs came on Michigan's last drive of the day on which the Wolverines were A) heavily committed to running the ball and Minnesota knew it and B) scored anyway because it was just one of those days.
Michigan went three quarters with just two negative plays — one sack and one rush for a yard-loss for Toussaint. Michigan's run game looked marginally better overall, gaining 101 yards on 27 tailback carries for 3.7 yards/carry. However, the biggest improvement is in the few losses that the team suffered in the run game. Those plays let Michigan move the ball with a little more consistency on the day, and ultimately helped out in another area.
Third down conversions for Michigan in its two games prior to Minnesota were an issue. The Wolverines managed just 3 of 10 conversions against Akron and 7 of 16* against UConn. Against Minnesota? Ten of 13. What could possibly be the reas—
*(We won't count the 3rd-17 kneeldown to end the game)
If your answer was shorter third-downs are easier to convert than longer ones then pat yourself on the back. Michigan's game against Akron featured a lot of mid-distance conversions and nothing short. Michigan's game against UConn was split almost halfway between third-and-manageable and third-and-holy-crap-how-is-it-always-like-15-yards-for-a-first-down.
Against Minnesota Michigan set itself up well to convert third-downs by keeping the distance reasonable. More than half of Michigan's attempts came from six yards or less and none were longer than 15 yards. Shorter distances led to more conversions which led to more long drives which led to more points. Part of this has to do with Michigan's rush offense keeping the Wolverines from falling behind the chains early in possessions, and part of the success was Devin Gardner's good passing day. For the record, Michigan missed conversions on third down attempts of 1, 5, and 8 yards.
Michigan's offense was very consistent on the day, and this is exactly the kind of play that we need to see out of it going forward. Move the ball reliably, don't go backwards, and keep conversion distances within reason. If Michigan can continue to approach this level of success not only on third down, but on the second downs that set up third-down conversion attempts, the offense will be much more effective.
Turnovers At The Right Time
The lack of sacks and pressure once again stood out to many, and for good reason. Michigan was only able to sack Mitch Leidner once all game. This shouldn't be so galling as Leidner only attempted 22 passes, but coupled with Michigan's three tackles for loss it again portends an inability to create negative plays — something necessary for a truly dominant defense.
However, Michigan's defense was still a big star on the day. The early forced fumble on Minnesota's first drive set Michigan up for a quick touchdown and an early lead that was even more necessary when Minnesota then ripped off the longest drive in history.
Michigan's defense then capped the game with a Blake Countess interception return for a touchdown, which was a very nice play by Countess to read the quarterback and adjust his zone to take away the throw — very similar to what Countess did on his first interception against Notre Dame. While Countess has had a couple tipped balls handed to him, his other two interceptions have been masterfully executed zone coverages that take advantage of quarterbacks quick to try and get the ball out underneath.
Michigan's defense had another quietly effective day suffocating drives and making the opposing offense execute for long stretches, but this is another good example of Michigan's defense forcing important turnovers that have a large impact on the final score.
The Boa Constrictor Defense
About that quiet defensive efficiency. Michigan has yet to establish itself as a big play defense capable of inflicting major damage. The numbers bare that out:
- 74th in the nation in tackles for loss (5.6 per game)
- 54th in the nation in sacks (2.0 per game)
- 78th in the nation in third down defense (.411 conv. allowed)
Michigan isn't getting into the backfield, and it is allowing teams to convert on third downs at a rate well behind some of the better defenses in the country. However, a few other numbers stand out.
- 9th in the nation in rush defense at 90.4 yards/game and 17th in yards per carry allowed at 3.14.
- 18th in the nation in first down defense with 84 allowed.
- t-18th in plays of 20+ yards allowed with 15 in five games.
- 27th in the nation in scoring defense with 19.4 points per game allowed.
In short, Michigan has been keeping teams from scoring quickly, and using longer drives to let teams beat themselves. Michigan's third down defense hasn't been stellar, but the Wolverines' rushing defense has slowed progress for opposing teams on the ground, and in doing so it is making life just hard enough on opposing teams that drives are stalling out and becoming long field goals rather than chip-shots or touchdowns.
Against Minnesota Michigan did the same thing. The Golden Gophers had one long touchdown drive that went 75 yards in 16 plays and included five of Minnesota's eight converted third downs on the day. The rest of the game Minnesota was forced to punt the ball three times and held to field goals twice.
This has been Michigan's defensive strategy all year, and it continues to pay dividends. While not being the most exciting or aesthetically pleasing thing to watch, Michigan's defense has time and again given the Wolverine offense advantageous positions in the game, and breakdowns have primarily led to plays of 10-15 yards and not 40-50. Thank you, Greg Mattison. I feel like we don't say that enough.