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Breaking down Michigan's smothering win over BYU and what it tells us about the Wolverines going forward

Michigan took BYU to the woodshed on Saturday, and in doing so the Wolverines made a strong case that everyone is underestimating the improvement this team has made over the last month.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There is no such thing as a perfect game in football.  The myriad of moving parts and the complexity of the thing lend a greater degree of difficulty to the pursuit of the perfect 60 minutes of football.  Somewhere at some time some guy is going to blow his assignment, a bad play will happen, and things will stall on offense.  Punting is just like pooping: everyone does it some time or another, some people just need to do it a lot more than others.

Make no mistake about it: what Michigan did to BYU over the course of four quarters on Saturday tested the theoretical limits of a close-to-perfect game.  The Wolverines ran out to an imposing 31 point lead that might as well have been 310 points given that the defense played absolutely lights out.  BYU wouldn't even crack 100 total yards until the 60th minute of the game.

Saturday was a powerful example of what this team can become.  Michigan dominated both lines of scrimmage, avoided turnovers, churned out positive yards, and discombobulated the BYU offense.  What followed was a picture of complete control; football as played by a boa constrictor.

Staying Ahead of the Chains

On the first play of the game, Jake Rudock took a quick boot on run action and delivered a pass to Henry Poggi who leaked out to the flat on the backside.  Poggi caught the ball and immediately fell to the ground despite acres of open field in front of him.  Meanwhile, Jehu Chesson was standing alone near the sideline, because the defender covering him fell down almost immediately leaving him wide open.  Second and eight.  Two plays later Michigan would punt.

That play, right now, is indicative of what Michigan's offense has struggled with at times this year.  The first drive stalled because on first down the Wolverines left yards on the field leading to a long second down conversion try.  Second and eight became third and seven, ratcheting up the difficulty to keep the drive alive.  If Rudock sees Chesson running open it is probably six points.  If Poggi doesn't fall it is second and short.  Two separate instances of mistakes on one play leaving yards on the field and ultimately pushing Michigan to a longer third-down conversion attempt which it wouldn't convert.

Michigan has struggled at times with this going back over the past two years.  A team can successfully grind out drives even when facing a lot of long third-down conversions because of yards left on the field, but it isn't ideal.  Florida was 5/5 on 4th down against Tennessee on Saturday, in large part because it was 3/15 on third down.  Yeah, the Gators converted them all and won, but they didn't do themselves any favors.

After Michigan's first drive against BYU, things changed.  Michigan converted five of six third downs over the next five drives, only once having to deal with a conversion over 6 yards.  By the end of the half Michigan had rattled off 31 points.

Meanwhile, BYU was 4 of 15 on third down, in part because it was staring down longer distances to move the chains on third down.  The Cougars had five of 15 third down attempts of over 10 yards and only four attempts under five yards.

The differences are matters of degree and not kind.  Michigan's average third-down conversion distance over the first half was six yards on seven attempts (five of which were converted).  BYU averaged 7.5 yards per third down attempt in the first half and converted on two of eight.  Under two yards of distance on average doesn't seem like a lot, especially when considering the massive yardage disparity in the end result, but it provides further confirmation that Michigan football in 2015 is much more capable of setting itself up for longer drives than it has been the last couple years.  This offense isn't an explosive unit like Baylor or TCU, so without the threat of big plays, Michigan depends a lot more heavily on grinding down the field.  There is little difference in that statement between this year and the last couple.  The difference is that this team seems entirely more prepared to set itself up to keep the chains moving.

Going Negative

Of course, there is another side to what we see above: negative plays.  Michigan's success in the game was moving forward on offense more often than not.  While BYU managed to post more tackles for loss (seven in the game), two of those were sacks that accounted for 15 yards, leaving five TFLs of very little consequence.  Meanwhile, Michigan's 6 TFLs for negative 38 yards is even more impressive when you factor in that Michigan's defense faced two-thirds the amount of total snaps BYU's did.

Offense: Total Plays Neg Plays No Gains Neg Play%
UM 76 7.0 3 9%
BYU 50 6.0 0 12%

The only place where BYU had an advantage was in the number of no-gain runs, which Michigan had three of compared to zero for the Cougars.  Michigan's offense had a lower rate of negative plays, and those plays were much smaller in distance and impact.

The reason for all of this is simple: Michigan's defensive line is full of bad, bad men who abuse offensive linemen and do horrible things to opposing offensive skill players, often in their own backfield.  Michigan's defense is an internet gaming troll.  Its all up in your base killing your dudes.

As it stands right now, Michigan ranks fourth in the nation on defense in adjusted line yards, an advanced stat that gives overwhelming credit to the offensive line for getting the running back in the hole and a few yards down field, but not for yards after that.  Michigan is repeatedly winning its battles up front and bottling up offenses before they get anywhere.  Michigan also sits 3rd in defensive IsoPPP, a measure of how explosive an offense is based on a points per play basis.

The hand-wringing from this off-season that worried Michigan would struggle without a pass rush specialist at the WDE position now looks foolish.  Michigan's defensive line two deep is packed with quality players, and there is enough pass rush acumen from the interior line to keep constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and collapse pockets into sacks.

Ducking The Haymaker

Michigan's defensive line may have turned the heat up on BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, but it was the secondary that threw the lid on the pot.  BYU's game this year has been predicated on big passing plays to keep games close or grab comeback victories.  Against Michigan, just passing the ball farther than ten yards down the field was a miracle.  I mean that literally.  BYU's longest pass of the day was a 14 yarder that went right through Channing Stribling's hands and to the BYU receiver for the first down.  The rest of the day the long pass for BYU was seven yards.  That happened twice.

The Cougars did get one shot downfield: a seam route that attacked Delano Hill in coverage.  Hill was beaten on a similar play against UNLV, but this time he flashed impressive closing speed, got away with a little grab of the receiver's jersey, and made an impressive play to muck up the catch and knock the ball away.

This continues a trend for the Michigan defense, which is not only doing an exceptional job winning at the point of attack, but it is also avoiding the backbreaking plays that make all that work for naught.  On the year Michigan has only given up seven plays of 20-plus yards which ranks fifth nationally.  Only one play has gone over 30 yards, which has Michigan tied for second in plays of 30-plus yards allowed.

The Road Ahead?

Last weekend was a big one for the perception of Michigan on a national level, as Michigan soundly beat a ranked team in a shutout, only to watch Utah rip apart Oregon like undercooked fois gras at night.  The non-conference season is over and we now know a few things:

- This defense is for real.  It is currently ranked fourth in S&P+'s defensive rating.  Michigan is holding opposing rushing teams to just 2.5 yards per carry, good for the top ten nationally.  Meanwhile Michigan is top five in avoiding big plays on offense and top-15 in total TFL on the year.  After two years of waiting, the defense we all wanted has arrived.

- The offense is built for success on this team.  By that I mean, Michigan looks a lot like the MSU teams of a couple years ago when Connor Cook was still getting his sea legs and the defense was owning everyone in sight.  The Wolverines have a big and improving offensive line that is driving a solid rushing attack that is matched up with a low-upside passing game.  If this offense continues to avoid turnovers and churn out solid gains on the ground, there just doesn't seem like anyone outside of MSU or OSU can hang for a full game.

As of this week, Michigan's win probability ratings have Michigan the overwhelming favorite (Win probability >85%) in four remaining games: Maryland, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Indiana.  Michigan is also solidly favored (win probability >60%) against Minnesota, Michigan State, and Penn State.  The model also puts Michigan's win probability against OSU at 54%, but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet...