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Inside the Numbers: Harbaugh era pass/run ratio in big games

How Michigan aims to defeat the Badgers could be as important as whether they do or not

Dustin Johnston - Maize N’ Brew

To some, Wisconsin represents the archetype for what Michigan football should be: run-centric power-football and 10-win seasons regularly.

Well actually, Wisconsin is exactly what Michigan must avoid emulating; a stagnant and unimaginative team that isn’t dynamic enough to beat the elites of the elite. 1980’s football cannot win you titles in 2018, and Wisconsin shows this.

Paul Chryst is a great coach, and Wisconsin doesn’t have the resources of the Wolverines. They have to play a certain style, one that they’re really really damn good at. However, Michigan can be more. That doesn’t mean that they will be or are (they certainly aren’t at the moment), but this program undeniably has a higher ceiling - a ceiling that can only be reached if the Wolverines move pass the Badgers on the field and in their vision of the program.

Stanford v Oregon State Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh wants to recreate the “magic” of his tenure at Stanford. Between 2009 and 2010, Stanford went 3-1 in what I’m arbitrarily calling big games. While I provide no specific criteria for these games for this exercise, they basically come down to both being highly ranked teams with high expectations.

In the three victories, Harbaugh only threw the ball more than 40% of the time once - a game that was really Andrew Luck’s last opportunity to flash his NFL skills. While in the Pac-12, Stanford was able to win its big matchups by overpowering its opponents racking up huge rushing totals. The one time the Cardinal were forced to throw, Oregon blew them out. I present these numbers to show what it is that Harbaugh wants to accomplish. He wants to run you over and grind down to a win.

Let’s move on to Michigan’s record in “big games” since 2015 to show how this has translated for the Maize and Blue:

In the two big games Michigan has won, they’ve thrown the ball less than 45% of the time and averaged three or more yards per carry. The sample size of wins is small, but that’s kind of the point here. The Florida game is really the only time Harbaugh’s Stanford vision has come to pass for the Wolverines, and the Gators were a reeling team that barely showed up.

I want to first focus on the YPC in the losses. Even though sacks skew the running numbers, it is staggering that Michigan has failed to crack three yards per rush in any of those games. They’re 2-0 when they do and 0-9 when they don’t. What this tells me is that the running game, for whatever reason, has constantly failed to show up when the lights get the brightest.

Finally, before we move onto the last set of data to consider, I want everyone to look at the wide range of “Percent Passes” across the losses. This is important. It’s not about Michigan “opening it up” against Wisconsin - it’s about creating a culture of balance and explosiveness that allows all of the elements of your offense to work symbiotically together. Put a different way, your passing game not only has to be able to bail you out sometimes, it needs to also act as a counterweight that keeps the defense from loading up to stop the run when you’ve had success.

“But Dan, Wisconsin has been really good and they basically copy the Stanford blueprint. Why can’t we?”

In reality, Wisconsin has faced many of the same issues in big games as the Wolverines - something we all got to see the last time the Badgers visited Ann Arbor.

Playing in the B1G West, Wisconsin has not had as many opportunities over the last few years to match up in these bright light games. When they have, well, they’ve lost. What I want everyone to notice here though is that Wisconsin has actually succeeded where Michigan has struggled running the ball, and it didn’t matter one bit.

Primarily, peep 2016’s matchups against Ohio State and Penn State. In both games, the Badgers threw the ball less than 40%, averaged about five yards per carry, and jumped out to two-score leads.

They played the exact games that they wanted, and they still came up short. In 2018’s current climate in college football, you cannot consistently overpower teams and run the clock out on them. It doesn’t work.

The other Daniel suggested this week that Michigan doesn’t have an offensive identity. To that I say, “GOOD! Great even!”. Many on this staff have argued for the better part of two years that Michigan could be better served by expanding their offensive reach. Many are (and others are not) tired of running the ball for a yard or two on every first down. While there’s surely an argument that tough runs wear down a defense, the evidence is lacking for the Wolverines.

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Again, it’s not about coming out against Wisconsin and throwing the ball 40 times. It’s not about ending the game with splits within a certain range - the numbers show that. What it IS about though is creating an offensive culture that’s unpredictable, that’s dynamic.

Michigan has made strides in this direction this year. No longer are fans heading into these games saying “we’re going to need a huge day from Higdon or Evans to keep this within range.” A lot of that has to do with Patterson, but Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton do deserve some credit for expanding the playbook over the last three weeks.

Saturday’s game against Wisconsin couldn’t be more important for Michigan. Wisconsin does Wisconsin better than anyone, and the Wolverines would likely be foolish to try to beat them at their own game. For the present and future, Harbaugh and Co. have to move passed the Badgers, in more ways than one.