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Inside the Numbers: Michigan’s “Pour” Persistence to Pass

Michigan’s decision to air it out in a monsoon against Michigan State is one that never should have been made.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Jim Harbaugh expressed that we (the media, fans, etc.) have the right to question Michigan’s play calling after his team posted a tenure low for points (10) and season lows for total yards (300) and yards per play (4.05) in the loss to Michigan State.

Well then. Allow me to exercise my right.

Harbaugh, however, warned that it is convenient to praise a play call when it is successful and criticize it when it fails and added that “hindsight is 20-20.” “Hindsight is 20-20” insinuates that one is able to evaluate past choices more clearly after the outcome has become known than at the time of the choice. That is absolutely true.

However, it was pretty clear what the outcome would be when Michigan chose to drop back and pass on 50 percent of its snaps in the middle of a monsoon. In the second half, John O’Korn, making only his second start in three years, completed just 6-of-16 passes (37.5%) for 86 yards (5.4 YPA) and three picks on consecutive drives. And 33 of those yards came on two completions to Karan Higdon underneath in the final 34 seconds as Michigan State’s defense played prevent. So remove the numbers from the final drive and O’Korn’s second-half stat line was: 4-of-11 (36.4%) for 53 yards (4.8 YPA).

And three interceptions.

Now, in a vacuum, throwing as often as Michigan did in the second half would have made sense. I even called for as such prior to kickoff. Michigan State’s front seven is aggressive and flexes its muscle in the interior, which is why the Spartans’ defense was fourth in run success rate entering the game. Michigan’s offense, on the other hand, was 103rd in run success rate, and it was anticipated that the Wolverines would have a difficult time finding room to run between the tackles. Plus, Michigan State’s safeties are susceptible to being beaten over the top and losing tight ends crossing between the hash marks, so this would have been the perfect time to call on O’Korn’s number.

Except the second half wasn’t played in a vacuum, but in a whirlwind of pouring rain.

Harbaugh and his staff had to know the weather they would be encountering in the second half. The storm had been reported on for days prior, and the media was providing regular updates the day of. And they had to know just how difficult it is to toss and haul in passes in such weather. It is much tougher for a quarterback to see down the field when rain is pelting him in the eyes and much tougher to accurately deliver and securely catch a slippery football. And Michigan was asking its backup quarterback to do that and target inexperienced receivers behind an offensive line that has struggled mightily in pass protection all season (119th in avg. sacks allowed).

It’s no surprise that the passing game was so discombobulated in the second half.

But it was surprising that Harbaugh kept going to it. For the game, Michigan called 39 passes (35 attempts and four sacks) in 74 plays for a pass frequency rate of 52.70 percent. This was Michigan’s sixth-highest pass frequency rate in the Harbaugh era:

Under Harbaugh, Michigan has passed more frequently in only two situations: (1) when Jake Rudock was feeling himself (2015 Ohio State, 2015 Indiana, 2015 Penn State); and/or (2) when U-M trailed by two-plus touchdowns (2015 Ohio State, 2015 Utah, 2016 Florida State). Here, however, O’Korn has not yet shown that he can perform at the All-Big Ten level Rudock reached by the end of 2015, and Michigan did not trail Michigan State by 14-plus points. In fact, U-M was down four much of the second half.

Oh, and none of those other five games played an entire half in a monsoon.

This was not a situation where Michigan needed to launch the ball down the field in a hurry to stage a valiant comeback. In this weather, with a menacing defense that didn’t permit Michigan State to get a first down in its first seven drives of the second half, Michigan needed to realize that this was a field position game. It would have been prudent of Harbaugh and his staff to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible and pick up yards in pieces. Initially, it seemed that they were going to do that. When the Wolverines got the ball back after cutting the deficit to four, they handed the ball to Higdon four straight times, and each run resulted in a five- or six-yard gain. They were slowly churning out yards and preparing to either score or at least flip the field.

However, as the Detroit Free Press’ Nick Baumgardner noted on Monday:

In U-M's three possessions where the rain and wind were at their strongest, Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton asked O'Korn to drop back eight times. Three of those throws ended in interceptions. None of them had a chance.

All of those interceptions killed Michigan’s shot to improve field position for the next drive, so with 9:41 left, Michigan was back on its own 20-yard line. Harbaugh and his staff then realized their error, returned to feeding Higdon, and provided him three straight carries, which totaled 17 yards, to open the possession. But the problem was that the drive stalled, and Michigan was running out of time to play for field position. They were then left with no choice but to throw, and well, you know how that went.

Michigan’s persistence to pass the ball in a downpour in the second half was a poor decision and one that sunk U-M’s chances to squeak past MSU and avoid a disastrous upset.

That’s clear. And hindsight isn’t needed to see it.