Before the Wisconsin game, I took a look at Michigan’s performance in big games from previous years. I also pulled in statistics from Harbaugh’s run at Stanford and the Badgers’ recent run of success under Paul Chryst.
The idea behind the piece was to analyze Michigan’s offensive failures and put them into a context of “What is Harbaugh trying to do?” and “Is this even possible?” Now that the Wolverines have made it through the toughest part of their schedule without so much as a goosebump, it’s time to review.
What did Michigan do (besides win) in 2018 differently from 2017? While the numbers across the board are significantly better, I want to isolate three main areas:
- Turnovers vs Scores from the Quarterbacks
- Offensive Line Play
- Defensive Trenches
Let’s dive in
Turnovers vs Scores from the Quarterbacks
Michigan’s QB struggles were talked about ad-nauseam during 2017. A year later, John O’Korn is selling insurance, Brandon Peters has been third or fourth on the depth chart depending on Jim Harbaugh’s mood, and Wilton Speight is struggling at UCLA. Talent was an issue as the production was not nearly enough to beat teams with a pulse. Here are the combined numbers for Brandon Peters and John O’Korn against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State:
- MSU: 16/35, 195 yards passing, -9 rushing, ZERO scores and THREE turnovers
- PSU: 16/28, 166 yards passing, -3 rushing, ZERO scores and ONE turnover
- Wisconsin: 11/26, 176 yards passing, -5 rushing, ZERO scores and ONE turnover
The final results give you a 48% completion percentage with 520 total yards, ZERO touchdowns, and FIVE turnovers. Now compare that to the QB numbers put up by Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey, and Joe Milton against the same three teams:
- MSU: 14/25, 212 yards passing, 24 rushing, TWO scores and ZERO turnovers (The fumble on read-option was Higdon’s)
- PSU: 11/17, 144 yards passing, 56 rushing THREE scores and ZERO turnovers
- Wisconsin: 14/20, 124 yards passing, 156 rushing, TWO scores and ZERO turnovers
Despite watching those games, actually typing out the numbers is pretty jarring. The 2018 totals are 62% completion percentage, 716 yards, SEVEN scores and ZERO turnovers.
Whenever you see a double digit increase in completion percentage, an almost 200-yard difference in production and a +12 shift in touchdown/turnover discrepancy across only three games, good results are bound to follow.
Offensive Line Play
How much money does Ed Warinner deserve when his contract is up? The answer is “however much he’d like”. Michigan has some outstanding position coaches. Jay Harbaugh’s work with the running backs’ blocking has been tremendous, and everything Chris Partridge touches turns into gold. However, it’s really been Warinner that’s had the largest impact on the team.
Michigan’s offensive line looked legitimately bad against Notre Dame. They couldn’t run and Shea Patterson was scrambling for his life. Since then, UM has touted one of the best lines in the country, and the Revenge Tour was a great chance for the rest of the country to see. In 2017, the offensive line put up these performances:
- MSU: 102 yards on 39 carries (2.6 ypc), four sacks given up
- PSU: 103 yards on 42 carries (2.5 ypc), seven sacks given up
- Wisconsin: 58 yards on 37 carries (1.6 ypc), two sacks given up
Final totals are 263 yards on 118 carries (2.2 ypc) and 13 sacks given up in only three games. Put bluntly, those were atrocious numbers. Now, insert Warinner, some momentum, and the threat of the QB around the edge:
- MSU: 183 yards on 53 carries (3.5 ypc), two sacks given up
- PSU: 259 yards on 52 carries (5.0 ypc), one sack given up
- Wisconsin: 320 yards on 48 carries (6.7 ypc), three sacks given up.
The Wolverines carried the ball 153 times for 762 yards, almost exactly five yards a pop. They controlled the trenches, essentially tripling their rushing totals while giving up half as many sacks. With improved offensive line play and quarterbacking, it’s easy to see how the Wolverines points per game jumped from 12 to 34 against these three squads.
How about the other side of the ball?
Don Brown’s 2017 defense was absurdly talented yet equally absurdly young. They made lots of splash plays but struggled at times to remain balanced and keep to their fundamentals. This translated onto the field as slow starts and big rushing plays. Michigan was done-in at times by these tendencies last year:
- MSU: 158 yards given up on 40 carries (4.0 ypc), 0 sacks
- PSU: 224 yards given up on 35 carries (6.4 ypc), two sacks
- Wisconsin: 182 yards given up on 40 carries (4.6 ypc), three sacks
While Michigan’s passing defense was generally solid in these games, a lack of discipline on the ground allowed MSU, PSU, and Wisconsin to average roughly 27 points per game against the Wolverines. Let’s compare one last time to 2018:
- MSU: 15 yards given up on 23 carries (0.7 ypc), four sacks
- PSU: 68 yards given up on 30 carries (2.3 ypc), five sacks (should also note that 52 of PSU’s yards came on 10 carries by a backup QB in garbage time)
- Wisconsin: 183 yards on 29 carries (6.3 ypc), two sacks
While the Wisconsin game was a bit of an outlier, you still see a dramatic difference in overall play. Yards per carry dropped from 4.9 to 3.2, and Michigan tallied six more sacks (two per game) than the pervious year.
Michigan improved in other areas as well, including forcing about twice as many turnovers than they did in 2017. They controlled clock better and won the field position battle.
All of these things combined to flip three of Michigan’s worst games in 2017 to undoubtedly their three best of the 2018 season. It will be interesting to look at the numbers after Ohio State to see if the trend continues.