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Tuesday Morning Brews: Taking stock of the offense

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Something’s up with Michigan’s offense, and it isn’t Wilton Speight

Air Force v Michigan

Welcome to Morning Brews. Yesterday we got some good news and some bad news about a two injuries sustained during the Air Force game. Tarik Black has a fractured foot that will require surgery. It’s not clear whether this will end his season or not (it probably will), but the good news is that Black should qualify for a medical redshirt if the injury prevents him from playing again this year. The good news is that Harbaugh thinks Ty Isaac will be okay. Isaac sustained what appeared (to me at least) to be a rib or back injury, but it looks like it won’t keep him out of action for long - if at all.

In this morning’s Brews, we’re taking stock of the offense. Plenty of Michigan fans are fired up about the offense, and about Wilton Speight in particular. Over the weekend, I looked at all sorts of statistical measures of offensive productivity and came away with two conclusions.

Without further ado, let’s get to it:

Air Force v Michigan

Statistically speaking, I’m not sure what the problem is

For having a team that’s 3-0 and ranked in the AP Top-10, not to mention the win over the likely SEC East champion, a lot of Michigan fans are displeased with the Wolverines. At times like these, I’m inclined to remember what John U. Bacon wrote is his most recent Michigan sports-based book (Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football). You’ll have to forgive me for paraphrasing, I lent my copy to my father and so I’m unable to find the precise wording, but it amounts to an assertion along the lines of, “there is a large portion of the Michigan fanbase that isn’t happy unless it’s unhappy.”

Instead of delving into the idiosyncrasies of the Michigan faithful this morning (I’m neither qualified nor have sufficient space to conduct an adequate analysis here), I’m going to take a look at the offense and try to suss out the shortcomings. After examining the stats, I have two overarching conclusions that I’ll explain below. The first, Wilton Speight doesn’t deserve most of the vitriol he’s getting from the fans. The second, and perhaps more concerning, is that there is indeed something wrong with the offense - but I’m not sure what it is.

Speight of the union

Let’s start with Wilton Speight. Through the first three games, some of his throws have had a tendency to sail on him - leading to untimely incompletions and interceptions. While this is frustrating, I will point out that Speight hasn’t thrown an interception since the Florida game - giving him an average of 0.66 interceptions per game. This puts him back into the realm of his average last year of 0.5 INTs/gm or one every other game.

Speight’s yards per attempt figure is also in the same ball park as last year’s figure (7.4 vs 7.7), though I will point out that his attempts per game is lower this year than it was last year (25.7 vs 27.6) His completion percentage is a little lower this year (54.5%) compared to last year (61.6%), but this breaks out to 2 missing completions per game over the first three - so I can’t be sure that this isn’t due to having not yet played traditional stat-padding games like Rutgers.

Missing two completions per game this early in the season is also well within what could be expected from having a mostly new offensive line and having all new starting receivers. Young guys don’t run routes as well as veteran starters do, and sometimes they struggle to get open. What’s more is that Jake Butt, the second most active receiver last year, isn’t lurking over the middle to bail out Speight when things go wrong with in his route progression anymore. The sort of relationships that forge between QB and WRs take time.

Returning to Speight, can you guess which Michigan quarterback of yesteryear that his stat profile most resembles? Tom Brady. Yeah, I’m serious. Brady’s best year at Michigan consisted of a 61% completion rate, ~2,200 yards, 7.5 yards per attempt, 16 TDs, and 6 INTs. Speight last year? A 61.6% completion rate, ~2,500 yards, 7.7 yards per attempt, 18 TDs, and 7 INTs. Single season completions and yards record holder John Navarre? Completed only 59.2% of his passes in his best season. Career completions, yards, and TDs record holder Chad Henne? 61.9%.

What does that mean? Ease up on the guy. I’m not saying that Speight is going to go on to have a Hall of Fame caliber NFL career, but he’s dealing with a new line and new receivers. He’s doing what he’s suppose to, which is not losing games by turning the ball over. If you want to get fired up about something, keep an eye out for Drew Hallet’s article later this morning. It’s about Michigan failing to convert TD when in the red zone, again.

Ghosts in the machine

Now, just because I’m defending Wilton Speight this morning doesn’t mean everything is going great for the Michigan Wolverines. There are some troubling trends for this team that need to be addressed (Drew’s coverage of the red zone struggles are but one aspect of a larger trend). The problem is, I can see that there is a problem and I can measure it - but I don’t know what the problem actually is or how to fix it.

Theoretically, the offense should be performing about like it was last year - yards per play stands at 5.85 this year, as it did last year - but it isn’t. Through the first three games, first downs per game stand at 17. Last year the average was 22 per game. Last year the 3rd down conversion rate was 43%. This year it’s 34%. Some of this can be explained by youth (for instance, penalties per game stands at seven this year compared to just under five last year). Other things are harder to explain away.

When looking at the rushing and passing situational stats, I see a concerning trend. In the first quarter of games, the completion percentage for passes attempted stands at 62.5%. The second and third quarters are in the middling 50% range, and the fourth quarter stands at... 43.8%. For rushing, yards per carry dip from 7.59 in the first quarter to 5.27 in the fourth quarter. Last year’s numbers look similar in terms of a regression occurring over the course of a game, albeit less severe.

The team’s inability to put games away in the fourth quarter was a problem last year. It contributed to the two regular season losses. The offense had a chance against both Iowa and Ohio State to win the game in the fourth quarter by scoring points. It didn’t. In both games, even just running time off the clock would have been sufficient to seal a victory. It didn’t happen; and these struggles appear to have carried over into this year.

I don’t know what the problem was then, and I don’t know what the problem is now. I don’t think the team is tired at the end of games, because this team looks as fast and well-conditioned as they have in years. Perhaps it’s play calling. Perhaps it’s execution. Perhaps it’s a lack of focus. I don’t know for sure what the problem is, and that means I don’t know how to fix it. However, what I do know is that there are going to be close games this year. And if Michigan struggles to finish in the fourth quarter, there will be close losses as well.

Poll

How concerned are you about the offense?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Not at all
    (57 votes)
  • 21%
    A little
    (285 votes)
  • 38%
    A moderate amount
    (512 votes)
  • 35%
    A lot
    (464 votes)
1318 votes total Vote Now

Quinn Nordin was again a bright spot for Michigan on Saturday, going 5/5 on FGs and accounting for 17 of Michigan’s 29 points. The five FGs tied a school record for a single game, and the 17 points left him one shy of another single-game record. The performance earned him B1G Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. Nordin’s 11/13 effort through the first three games has him well positioned to make a run at Michigan’s single season record of 25 FGs, and has earned him the confidence of the head coach. Of Nordin, Harbaugh recently said, “He's kicking confident and relaxed. . . . he's just going out there and doing his job.” For more on Nordin, check out the feature above from MGoBlue.