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Inside the Numbers: Michigan’s Explosive Plays Masked a Potential Problem

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Michigan’s 26 offensive points and 433 yards against Florida should not distract you from a potentially major red flag.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re an enthusiast for long, methodical drives, Saturday was not for you.

Florida gained 192 total yards against Michigan. It was the ninth time in 27 games under Jim Harbaugh that Michigan has held an opponent to fewer than 200 yards, and Florida would not have been close to that threshold if it were not for a few big plays. The Gators tallied 151 of their yards on six plays — five passes and one scramble — and two of those plays, which combined for 48 yards, came during garbage time.

This means that Florida gained only 41 yards on its remaining 47 plays. Yes, your math is correct. That’s less than one yard per play (0.9 YPP). The Gators struck on the seldom big play, but otherwise they simply could not move the ball against Michigan’s frenetic defensive front. For example, after Feleipe Franks found Josh Hammond for a 34-yard completion down to the Michigan 22-yard line, Florida proceeded to move backwards six yards and settle for a 46-yard field goal — the Gators’ only offensive points of the game. A significant reason for this is that Florida could not generate anything on the ground. Only one called run gained more than six yards, and it went for just eight yards. As a result, the Gators consistently found themselves in 3rd-&-long situations, and with Michigan’s defense pinning its ears back, that tended to lead to disaster.

With Florida struggling to keep its offense on the field, it had fewer and fewer opportunities to strike on big plays, which was the only way it could move the ball.

However, this does not apply only to Florida.

Michigan’s offense very much relied on the big play as well. The Wolverines accumulated 303 of their 433 yards on 11 chunk plays, gaining 20-plus yards on four passes (48, 46, 37, 28 yards) and 10-plus yards on seven runs (36, 29, 22, 18, 14, 13, 12). Yet this led to only two offensive touchdowns. Chris Evans’ 29-yard scamper was immediately followed by a 46-yard bomb to Tarik Black for a touchdown, and Ty Isaac’s 18-yard fourth-down run and Grant Perry’s 28-yard reception on the opening drive of the third quarter set up Karan Higdon’s game-deciding touchdown two plays later.

How does an offense with two plays of at least 40 yards, four of at least 30, and six of at least 25 score just twice? On their other 64 plays, they had just 130 yards (2.0 YPP).

Of those 64 plays, 36 were designed runs, which totaled just 85 yards (2.36 YPC). The most alarming part is that precisely half of those 36 runs either went for a loss or gained no more than one yard. If a Michigan running back did not break a big run by bouncing to the outside, he often was swallowed whole at the line of scrimmage, putting Michigan in difficult down and distances. The Wolverines slithered out of some of those situations with brilliant third down delayed runs, but that’s not sustainable.

The other 28 plays were designed passes with 22 throws and six sacks or scrambles, and they earned 45 yards (1.61 YPP) — 59 through the air and minus-14 on the ground.

This was not as stagnant as the Gators’ offense, but it raises a red flag: when the explosive plays are not connecting, will the Wolverines be able to move the ball?

Their struggle to do so against Florida left the Gators in the game longer than it should have. Michigan registered only one touchdown in four red-zone trips, though, to be fair, it should have been two if U-M was not incorrectly flagged for illegal receiver downfield. A 37-yard dime to Black late in second quarter was followed by three straight negative plays and a 55-yard field goal — good thing Quinn Nordin has a cannon. Two fumble recoveries in Florida territory in the third quarter led to Michigan three-and-outs and field goals. And a 48-yard throw to Nick Eubanks in the fourth quarter placed Michigan inside the 10-yard line, only for the Wolverines to go backwards and miss a 32-yarder — Nordin isn’t the best kicker of all-time just yet.

These are missed opportunities that Michigan got away with against Florida but may not be able to afford in the future against better offenses. A positive for Michigan is that Florida may have a defense that can shut down methodical offenses. The Gators were ninth nationally in defensive efficiency in 2016, and with the strength of their defense this season being in the box, it would not surprise if they thrive there again.

However, a negative for Michigan is that Florida was so-so at defending the big plays last season (42nd), and with a brand-new secondary this season, that could get worse.

Therefore, it would not surprise me if Michigan has a more difficult time hitting on explosive plays throughout this season, especially with a shaky right tackle and young receivers trying to find their bearings. Michigan’s offense must be more efficient moving forward. It must churn out those five- to six-yard runs and connect for 10 to 15 yards through the air consistently. If Michigan can do that, down and distances become much easier, the chains will move more, and U-M will capitalize more in the red zone.

And, as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly discovered, that will, in turn, lead to more big plays:

“The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.”

So the big plays were fun and exciting on Saturday, but the lack of consistent, successful plays for Michigan’s offense raises a potential concern moving forward.

If that problem arises again against Cincinnati, who ranked 83rd in defensive efficiency and second (!) in defensive explosiveness in 2016, it won’t be a potential one anymore.

So if you’re not an enthusiast for methodical drives, become one next week.