"I mean ... there were a couple plays where they got first downs, We've got to look at that and correct it."
-Maurice Hurst, after Michigan's 28-0 dismantling of Maryland
It isn't often that a team wins 28-0 — its second shutout in as many games — and in the aftermath anyone wants to talk about the things that went wrong, but here we are.
So let's be clear: I'm not talking about the defense. Even though it is clear that the defense isn't happy until it hits the other team so hard that said team is transported to another dimension where offenses only gain negative yards and Willie Henry is the one who knocks. When the biggest gripe you can find with a defense is "those two or three first downs they got? Yeah, we aren't happy about that", then you're doing things alright.
Need more proof? Nationally, Michigan ranks:
- 1st in: Opp third-down conversions (19.44%), Opp IsoPPP* (.96)
- 2nd in: Scoring defense (7.6 ppg), Yards per pass attempt (3.9), Opp Passer Rating (77.55), Yards per game allowed (184), Opp plays from scrimmage of 20-plus yards (8)
- 5th in: Rushing yards per game (71.4), Yards per rush (2.32), Opp success rate** (28.8%)
*(An explosiveness metric from Bill Connelly that measures success on a play by play basis)
**(A measure of how a team does on a down by down basis staying ahead of the chains, also from Connelly).
That is just a smattering of the praise and statistical evidence behind Michigan's strong defensive showing so far this season. Thanks to this dominance, the Wolverines rank third in the overall S&P+ rankings from Connelly, and Michigan is right up there with similarly dominant Northwestern in most every defensive stat in the Big Ten.
So, what went wrong on defense? They gave up 105 yards, I guess.
End of discussion.
So, what really went wrong?
You knew you weren't getting off that easy. Yes, Michigan's defense is objectively great. Even great defenses have to leave the field every once in a while. The problem is, when Michigan's defense leaves the field, we still aren't entirely sure what we are getting.
Again, let's keep this in perspective. Michigan gained 378 yards of offense on over 5 yards per play, scored 28 points, and won the game comfortably. It also did all of this against a Maryland team that looked like butt (not that Butt) for pretty much the entire afternoon. Things you can get away with against Maryland's defense aren't going to be there in the next couple weeks when Northwestern and Michigan State come to town.
Keeping Drives Going (Third-Down's the Word)
One trait of good offenses? They stay on the field. How do I know Michigan isn't a very good offense as of yet? By any objective measure, Michigan struggles to convert third downs and extend drives. Consider:
- Michigan is 45th in third-down conversion percentage (42%)
- Michigan is 48th in Bill Connelly's success rate metric
- Michigan is 57th in standard down S&P+***
***(An advanced stat that measures how well teams perform on a play by play basis in regards to gaining yards towardfirst down.)
Pretty freaking average.
Looking back on the evidence from this game shows a team that fits that statistical profile well. Michigan converted just 5 of its 17 third-down opportunities in this game — 5 of 15 if you remove the two third-and-long tries Michigan had after Wilton Speight had entered the game (which I am doing for these purposes). The breakdown of distances is fairly even.
In this game, Michigan did not find itself repeatedly staring down third-and-ten or more — a common occurrence over the last two years. Michigan saw a relatively even distribution in third down tries, with only two being longer than 10 yards.
The big problem was that Michigan struggled a lot more than it should have on its short third-down attempts. All three of those four missed attempts under four yards came in the first two quarters. The first attempt was a third-and-three from Maryland's 49 yard line on Michigan's first drive of the game. The second attempt was on the next drive and happened at Maryland's 35 yard line, which led to the stuffed fourth down attempt on the next play. Midway through the next quarter, Michigan would fail on another third-and-three before being bailed out by Rudock's 20-yard scramble on fourth down. Three short third-down chances on the opponents side of the field in the first half; zero conversions.
Michigan had its first two drives break into Maryland territory and came away with zero points because it failed to convert two short third-down attempts. Change the outcome of those early plays and this game looks a lot different. The play immediately preceding Michigan's first failed third down attempt is a play-action pass downfield to Jehu Chesson in which Chesson is open and Rudock misses the throw long. Michigan had the play set up well, took its shot, got a man open and...
failed to convert. Yeesh, that's a lot of open grass. Its almost like Rudock didn't need to make the perfect throw there and could have given his receiver a chance.
On the next play (third-and-three), Mason Cole would get beat on an outside rush which would lead to a hit on Rudock as he released the ball. Fourth down.
The next drive followed Jeremy Clark's interception. It began with a run on first down on which Ty Isaac was brought down by a free hitter in the hole after someone likely missed a block (Houma?). On the next play Rudock threw to Drake Harris in the flat for six yards, but put the ball so low that he had no chance for a catch and run. The third down draw play gained only one yard.
So what really went wrong? Long story short, Michigan's offense is still a big unwieldy thing with rough edges that the coaches are trying to streamline into an efficient monster. When things are hitting, Michigan can run off five straight scoring drives on BYU (with a little luck, mind you). When they aren't, Michigan will see little mistakes pile up and hold the offense back.
In this game, in these instances, you have Michigan squandering a big play opportunity over top because of a bad throw, not giving the receiver a chance to gain YAC on another play, and a missed block on a run play. And that is why Michigan was just 1/4 on third-down opportunities less than four yards, while converting three of its seven tries from 5-9 yards: because year one in a new offense with a new quarterback just goes like that, sometimes.
Need more proof? Michigan's longest "drive" on the day was 66 yards; all of them gained by Jehu Chesson on one play. The next longest drives were: 5 plays, 53 yards, field goal; 8 plays, 35 yards, punt; 9 plays, 33 yards, missed FG; and 3 plays, 31 yards, touchdown.
It goes without saying that this is unsustainable against good teams. It would be hard to imagine Northwestern's stingy defense being so forgiving to a Wolverine offense that squanders a handful of drives into Wildcat territory. If Michigan wants to get another win and head into its matchup with MSU undefeated, the onus is on the offense to prove itself this week.