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The Illusion of Progress

[Ed Note - I started with a standard emo post about the loss to OSU and came out thinking about something entirely different. If you want an emo piece, I'll probably have one up later today or tomorrow. But for now, something of substance.]

Over the last year those of us who support Rich Rodriguez have consoled ourselves with the notion that the offense he has installed is a sleeping giant waiting to explode. The general numbers seem to support this contention. Michigan ranks in the top ten in scoring offense and 11th in rushing. MGoBlog has even posted an article on this very subject entitled "How Good is the Offense? Are We Really Asking This?" Well... After Saturday's game, and a long look at this season's stats, yes. Yes we are.

Michigan's offense in 2010 and Michigan's offense in 2009 would seem to be completely different beasts. At least on the surface. Michigan was being piloted by two completely different quarterbacks and the offensive lines and wide receivers are far more experienced this year than last. The only position where 2009 would seem to have an advantage was at running back where two veteran tailbacks provided more "umph" than this year's tailback by committee. Even though Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson were both early Heisman contenders, only Denard had a legitimate shot at it. The fragility of 2009'stailbacks made them virtually interchangeable with this year's group. The difference at receiver, well, that's a difference comparable to the distance between the earth and the sun.

So, by every quantifiable eyeball worthy measurement, this year's team was vastly superior to the 2009 team. At least that was my initial prejudice going into this post. But there is something that's wrong with that assessment. The offense's first half performance. I went back through the 2010 season and 2009 season in their entirety, looking at scoring and total offense in the first half alone and what I found was shocking. Of all the indicators I looked at: points, yards, turnovers; the only first half statistic where Michigan improved offensively from 2009 to 2010 was yardage. And it was a big improvement. Michigan racked up 62 yards a game more in the first half this year than they did in 2009. Extrapolating that out, that's 124 more yards a game! Wow! That's a big improvement. Sadly, that was it.

There are some basic prejudices of this analysis I need to get out of the way early. The reason I got on this train of thought was that despite the offense's brilliant numbers, Michigan always seemed to be trailing at the half. By a lot. Naturally I chalked that up to the defense, thinking they couldn't stop anyone and if they could, oooooh boy. But as I thought about it, that didn't really seem to hold water. In every game Michigan lost this season they were tailing at the half. By a lot. And they hadn't put up that many points either.

This is important because a team's performance in the first half is generally indicative of how a game will turn out. Sure you've got big comebacks and all kinds of fun stuff on Sportscenter, but generally a team that's down by a pile of points at the half is going to lose the football game. If you can't score in the first half, it makes it that much harder to score in the second because you've become one dimensional and are playing against the clock. I think these are valid assumptions, yes?

I also think it's safe to say that an improving offense, especially one that puts up the kinds of numbers that Michigan has this season, should be able to perform as well in the first half as in the second. It should be able to score points and keep games close, even if its defense ain't that good. When you're ranked 23rd in scoring offense and averaging 33.44 points a game, you would expect a good team to get on top early and stay there.

As a general rule you want to get a lead early. Preferably a big one. That way you can execute your offense as you see fit, you're not forced to change your game plan, and you can force the other guys to play predictably. That's the big assumption here. The first half is really important. It's not rocket science, but that's my prejudice here. My other prejudice is that non-conference games don't matter here. Michigan has played nothing but tomato cans the last two years and the only thing we've learned from those tomato cans is that we can score points and our defense can't prevent them. It's in conference where you find out how good your team is. You play teams that see you year in year out, have film, and time to prepare. That's when you see how well you can execute. When you start rolling up points against teams that are ready for you, that know you, that hate you; then you're a good offense.

We've already noted that Michigan averaged 62 yards more in the first half this year than last. That number is based solely on conference games, as will the rest of the numbers used here. We've got 8 games and the same opponents in 2009 and 2010. Fortunately, we're also talking about teams (save Illinois) that largely returned intact or at the same physical level they were the year prior, so there's little difference between the teams save some added experience in the matchups. Additionally, I didn't count points scored in overtime in the equation. It's not the same type of game, so numbers accrued in OT were thrown out. We're only looking inside four quarters.

So those are our prejudices going in.

By now you're probably looking for something shocking to keep you interested in this post, so I'll get on with it. Michigan lost seven conference games, including two games where they score 3 and 6 points in the first half. Predictably, Michigan didn't fare so well scoring in the first half in 2009 losses averaging only 12.43 points in the first halves of 2009. Not good, yes?

In 2010, in Michigan's five conference losses, the Woverines averaged 6.8 points per first half.

And it's not like the numbers get better if you include the conference wins. In 2010 Michigan managed to put up 31 points on Illinois and in spite of that the Wolverines only averaged 12.5 points per first half in conference play. They actually averaged more than a full point less than they did in 2009, when the Wolverines scored 13.75 points per first half. Michigan was actually a better scoring offense during the first two quarters in 2009 than in 2010!

It gets worse after the jump.....

As you might expect, this didn't serve Michigan well when they went into the break. In the Wolverines' five conference losses they had deficits of 7 (MSU), 14 (Iowa), 18 (PSU), 24 (Wisc), and 17 (OSU). The result was an average first half deficit of -16 points. Including the three games Michigan won, it doesn't get much better. The only game Michigan led at the half was Indiana, where they led by 2 points. Illinois and Indiana were tie ballgames. As a result, regardless of the game, the average comes out to a deficit of 10 points at the half (-9.8 points).

Last year? Michigan's average first half deficit was -1.5 points.

That's insane. This season, despite all the improvements on offense, this team was down an average of 16 points to any team with a heartbeat. In 2009 Michigan's biggest deficit at the half was 11 points to OSU, with 9 points to Penn St. being the second worst.

Turnovers were actually worse this year in conference than last. Michigan coughed the ball up 9 times last season in conference (10 if you count a safety against MSU) in the first half. In 2010, Michigan gave it away 12 times in the first half.

What it comes down to is that this team was only marginally improved over last year. Mental mistakes remain a constant problem. While the offense can roll up yards they can't put points on the board. They can't hold on to the football. Most critically, they can't score points against good defenses.

The overall numbers are extremely deceiving and the numbers mid game paint a picture that should rightfully call both coaching and execution into question. The offense is good at rolling up yards but awful at putting points on the board when the game is starting out. As a result, Michigan is constantly playing catch up and putting its maligned defense in a completely untenable position.

And it's not like the Defense is getting smoked in the first quarter. Michigan's only given up 44 points in the first quarter this year. It wasn't until the second quarter that the doors came flying off. Despite giving up less than a touchdown in the first quarter, Michigan's offense has contributed 52 points in the first quarter this year. There have been opportunities to change the complexity of the game early, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on them.

Michigan appears to be a better team this year than last. The overall numbers seem to support this assumption. But looking in-conference, in-game, the numbers look very different. In 2010 Michigan has spent nearly every conference game playing catch up. In 2010 Michigan has turned the ball over more often. In 2010 Michigan has scored less in the first half in every game, and even less when it loses a game.

Despite all the great things we saw early this year, we saw the same thing last season. Michigan may be racking up more yards, but they're also scoring fewer first half points. Is the offense really that good? Maybe. Maybe it is. But I think it's fair for people to say that improvement may really be illusory. What clear as day is that Michigan wasn't competitive against Ohio State. And no statistic will say otherwise.