Michigan has been having a few issues this season that have been handy to track on a week in and week out basis. The Wolverines won last week against Indiana, and the offense moved the ball at a record setting pace in many cases. Was it because Indiana's defense was that bad, Michigan's offense was that good, or something in between?
(probably Indiana's defense being that bad, but let's move on)
Third-down distance and efficiency
One of Michigan's big problems for the year has been converting third-down opportunities. The Wolverines' struggle to move the ball on early downs because of a bad rushing offense set up a lot of third-and-long situations that made it harder on the offense to sustain drives.
Against Indiana Michgian converted on 7 of its 11 third down opportunities. Was this because Michigan magically set itself up better for third downs? Yes and no.
|1-3 yards||1, 1, 3||-|
|4-6 yards||6, 6 (TD)||4 (sack), 5|
*(The ensuing fourth-and-one would end in a touchdown)
So that is actually pretty positive on the whole. Michigan had almost two-thirds of its third-down opportunities happen at a manageable distance, and of the four third down chances that Michigan didn't convert, one of them (a third-and-17) went for enough yards (16) to set up a one-yard touchdown run for Fitz Toussaint.
There is still the issue of the average distance on third downs — 7.8 yards per attempt — which was weighed heavily down by three 15+ yard attempts, but considering Michigan was by all practical means 2/3 on those attempts (assuming you count setting up a fourth-and-one on the goal line as a conversion from third-and-17, which I do) the average distance doesn't look so bad.
Again, this was Indiana's defense, so you can slap a caveat emptor all over the chart above. Still, doing this against bad defenses might not be a revelation for an offense, but it is at least the baseline of what you need to see to not continue panicking. How did Michigan do setting itself up for third downs? On to...
Negative Plays Allowed
Against Penn State Michigan seemed to move the ball backward as much as forward. Last week I tracked run plays by tailbacks to find that six runs went for negative yardage and another 11 went for no gain. That is 17 of Michigan's 30 tailback rushes. Add in three sacks for 22 yards, and Michigan spent too much of the day moving backwards.
Against Indiana — again, it is Indiana we are talking about, so keep this in mind before proclaiming Michigan's run game fixed — Michigan had a better day. How does it break down?
2nd Down - Jeremy Gallon was dropped for a loss of five and Fitz had a no gain run and another for a three yard loss. (3 plays, -8 yards)
3rd Down - Devin Gardner was sacked for a loss of 17. (1 play, -17 yards)
Considering the previous game, in which just the tailback run plays of loss/no-gain were well into double digits, having less than ten plays end up in a loss or no gain is a pretty impressive day, and almost half of that negative yardage came on one really horrible sack/intentional grounding.
So we can mark this down as drastic improvement against a defense that should allow most anyone to drastically improve.
Ill Timed Turnovers*
This has been a constant theme of Michigan's season. Either Michigan will be knocking on the doorstep about ready to score, or the turnover will set the other team's offense up with a redzone possession and an easy touchdown. In this one, it was both.
First, Michigan gets the ball at halftime to hopefully extend the lead that was chipped into late in the second quarter. At that point the game was 28-17 and a Michigan touchdown puts a lot of breathing room between the two teams while taking the wind out of Indiana's sails.
Two plays into the drive, Fitz Toussaint fumbles a counter pitch which is returned to the five yard line. Three plays later, Indiana scores to make it 28-24 and Michigan has itself a ball game on its hands. You may remember similar situations from both the Akron and UConn game. Akron took a pick-six back early in the fourth quarter to cut Michigan's lead to single digits, and UConn took a fumble back to open the half and build a big lead on Michigan (after a turnover in the second half set up UConn's go ahead TD).
Michigan's second turnover came at an even worst time. With just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, shortly after Indiana had scored to pull the game within two points at 49-47, MIchigan drove all the way down to the Indiana two-yard line. The Hoosiers had scored on their last seven possessions of the game and Michigan looked incapable of getting a stop. Extending the lead to nine points was a necessity. Instead, a fumbled snap — the third in as many games, all since Graham Glasgow has taken over at center — gave Indiana the ball with a long field and the chance for a lead.
Fortunately for Michigan, Tre Roberson would leave the game on that drive, Nate Sudfeld would come in, and Thomas Gordon would grab Michigan's first turnover of the game by undercutting a pass and taking it back to the Indiana five-yard line, setting up Michigan for another chance to extend the lead to nine.
This has been Michigan's M.O. all year. Set opposing teams up for easy scores while shooting itself in the foot just yards away from scoring. This is either really bad luck or, well, it's just really bad luck. Let's hope it changes, because even if Michigan does better in the first two categories against teams better than Indiana, 14-point swings against Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State are a whole lot harder to deal with.
*(Yes, they are all ill-timed, but just like equality among animals, some are more ill-timed than others)