Everyone's Fatal Flaw: Going Through Michigan's Remaining Schedule
Remember: there are no Good Teams except Alabama (and maybe Georgia). Let's find out why everyone on Michigan's schedule is Actually Bad.
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Earlier this week, after Michigan won ugly against Rutgers, I ran down the AP top ten beyond Alabama and Georgia to point out that everyone’s had a wet fart of a game.
I figured it’d be helpful to do something similar for M’s remaining opponents. It’s time to take aim at everyone’s Achilles’ heels.
At Wisconsin (Saturday): Graham Mertz
Graham Mertz is the highest-ranked quarterback commit in Wisconsin history. He chased off the serviceable Jack Coan to transfer into a starting job at Notre Dame.1 In the first game of the 2020 season, Mertz ripped apart an Illinois defense that never deviated from Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 coverage, going 20-for-21 for 248 yards, five touchdowns, and no picks.
Here are Mertz’s numbers against Power Five competition since that game:
They’re horrible! The two games out of eight in which Mertz managed to crack the not-even-good mark of six yards per attempt were also the two in which he attempted the fewest passes.
After collapsing against Notre Dame (😬), tossing back-to-back pick-sixes in the fourth quarter, he’s thrown more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns since the Illinois game. His only multi-touchdown game came against last year’s Michigan secondary.
As B5Q’s Drew Hamm said on this week’s bonus podcast, Wisconsin’s great defense will be wasted if Mertz can’t elevate his play.
At Nebraska (Oct. 9): Non-QB Runs
After looking terrible in the Week Zero loss to Illinois, quarterback Adrian Martinez has completed over 70 percent of his passes at more than ten yards per attempt over the last four games.
Unfortunately for the Nebraska offense, Martinez is also their most effective rusher. After removing the 17(!) sacks he’s taken in four games against FBS competition, he’s rushed for 428 yards and four TDs on 47 carries (9.1 YPC). That’s better production than the entire running backs room has provided on twice as many carries:
Scott Frost was Oregon’s offensive coordinator and the head coach of a couple fun UCF teams. He was supposed to bring back a strong running game to Nebraska. He’s missing a critical component of a good ground attack right now: any sort of threat at running back.
Incidentally, the Huskers are having trouble converting third downs. It’s tough to stay ahead of the chains without at least one reliable RB.
Northwestern (Oct. 23): Throwing the Ball. Again.
0:54, 1:23, the two plays starting at 1:48
oh wow i can’t believe it a pat fitzgerald northwestern offense is ass
and you’re saying they can plug away at the run but the quarterback situation is once again “2008 michigan”
also the defense is allowing six yards per carry
quarantine this team
At Michigan State (Oct. 30): The O-Line, As Usual
Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III leads the country in rushing yardage with 554 on an impressive 7.3 per carry. According to MSU’s game notes, 427 of those yards (5.6 per carry) come after contact, which is also first nationally.
That’s good and bad news. The good: Walker is tough to bring down and dynamic in the open field. The bad: the offensive line is getting him only 1.7 yards per carry before he has to start breaking tackles. Walker has been the only MSU back to produce much of anything against FBS competition, though they haven’t spread the carries around.
Meanwhile, the line has allowed eight sacks on 88 dropbacks against FCS competition. Nebraska recorded three of their six sacks on the season against the Spartans. Northwestern and Miami have both had trouble getting to the QB facing other teams.
While the starting five has remained the same in all four games, MSU is rotating through nine offensive linemen; they’re not settled on a top five. Walker managed only 61 yards on 19 rushes (3.2 YPC) against the Huskers last weekend. State’s going to have trouble winning in the East division if they can’t get better play in the trenches.
Indiana (Nov. 6): Mike DeBord 2.0
Remember when Tom Allen hired Literally Mike DeBord to be his offensive coordinator, watched the offense commit DeBordian crimes for two years, and then forced him into a (short-lived) retirement from coaching? And how IU’s offense instantly got better under Kalen DeBoer?
Allen didn’t learn his lesson. When DeBoer left to take Fresno State’s head job, Allen promoted Nick Sheridan, who’d handled QBs for two years before taking the TEs for his lone season under DeBoer. Guess who brought Sheridan to Bloomington in the first place?
Yup, fellow Michigan Man™ DeBord, who was the offensive coordinator during Sheridan’s last two seasons as a grad assistant at Tennessee, cannot speak glowingly enough about Sheridan:
“He has more knowledge of football than a lot of people in this business,” DeBord, now an analyst at Michigan, said. “We had a great staff (at Tennessee), but it was Nick that I leaned on. That’s when it really struck me that, this guy is unbelievable. His knowledge, everything, the way he communicates, the way he relates with players, everything. Just thought he was outstanding.”
You won’t believe what happened next: Indiana’s offense became predictable and leaned on a sub-par running game. Run-run-pass-punt became a familiar sequence. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had to bail the team out when they got behind the sticks on a regular basis.
That’s carried into this season, only Penix is playing bad football. It’s tough to judge him too harshly, though, when Sheridan refuses to deviate from running on early downs. Here are Indiana’s yards per play and first downs gained for runs and passes on each down:
Indiana is averaging 3.3 yards per carry on first and second down and gaining a first down on only 14% of those plays, yet they’re running more than passing on early downs. It’s as if Sheridan is using DeBord’s 2007 playbook.
That’s put Penix in some tough spots. Only 13 of his 34 third-down pass attempts have gained a first down; he’s needed seven yards or more on 22 of those plays. Three of those throws were picked off; one went for a TD. While he needs to play better, he could get a lot more help from his play-caller.
At Penn State (Nov. 13): The Running Game
I went to Penn State’s situational stats page on cfbstats to remove their rushing numbers from playing FCS opponent Villanova and realized taking those out would make their stats better. They instead ran all over Ball State, the #119 defense on SP+.
Take that game out and PSU has rushed 80 times for 243 yards (3.0 YPC) with sacks removed. That includes 31 carries for just 96 yards against ‘Nova, which, again, is an FCS team. On third down and three yards or fewer, they’ve reached the line to gain on only four of ten attempts. When the margin is within 14 points, they’re averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
They’re bad at running the ball, is what I’m getting at here.
At Maryland (Nov. 20): Special Teams
The Terrapins have looked solid in their 4-0 start, albeit with a 20-17 “win” over Illinois floating in the punch bowl.
Their special teams play could make the difference in other close games, and not in a good way. Kicker Joseph Petrino has missed three of his ten field goal attempts, including a 32-yarder against Illinois, and he also failed on an extra point versus Kent State. Petrino went 11-for-12 on FGs in 2019; he’s 6-for-12 since. He’s hit touchbacks on only five of 25 kickoffs; opponents are averaging a healthy 25.8 yards per return.
In the advanced numbers, Maryland ranks 122nd out of 130 teams in Football Outsiders’ Kickoff Efficiency, which measures the scoring value gained or lost on opponent kick returns. They’re middling on returns, so even though they’ve come out +3 in turnovers and rank fifth in Punt Efficiency, they’re hurting in the field position battle — they’re 94th in average offensive starting position, 114th on defense, and 109th in net field position.
I could’ve also put “Mike Locksley’s coaching career” or “it’s Maryland after September” but figured a little more effort would be appreciated.
Ohio State (Nov. 27): Defensive Coaching
This one wasn’t difficult to pick:
Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is no longer calling Ohio State football’s defense, as coach Ryan Day turned those duties over to secondary coach Matt Barnes for Saturday’s 41-20 victory over Tulsa.
Asked if Barnes calling plays was a permanent move, Day said “That’s the way I see it going forward.” It would be the first in-season change of coordinator duties in Day’s three-season tenure and the first in recent memory for the Buckeyes program.
Tulsa amassed 501 total yards. Barnes was the most experienced playcaller beyond Coombs because he called “at least part of a season” at Maryland in 2018. At OSU, Barnes has mostly handled special teams.
The Buckeyes shut down Akron last week. The Zips rank 123rd in offensive SP+.
Minnesota and Tulsa were able to move the ball effectively through the air. Oregon smashed OSU on the ground, going off for 269 yards on 7.1 per carry.
The coaches added some Cover 2 coverages to a defense that had played exclusively either Cover 1 (man-to-man) or Cover 3. It didn’t take against Tulsa, according to The Athletic’s Bill Landis:
[OSU’s problem defending the pass] starts up front, where OSU continues to struggle to put pressure on the quarterback. Brin looked far too comfortable on the majority of his drop-backs. OSU sent extra rushers, stood up its rushers on passing downs to provide a different look and mixed personnel on the line as liberally as it has all year — and none of it led to sustained pass rush. That ended up putting more pressure on a back seven — linebackers and safeties more specifically — that still doesn’t look particularly comfortable in zone coverage.
While their starting cornerbacks looked decent, they don’t have a first-round pick or three roaming the field like they’ve often had in recent seasons. The same goes at defensive end, where Zach Harrison hasn’t morphed into a Bosa/Young-level destroyer and the others either don’t have the talent or are too young to get there.
Having a defense full of superstars covered for vanilla defensive schemes in the past. This year’s defense doesn’t have the elite talent to get away with running sloppy man coverage on the back end that leaves the safety in deep centerfield even when switching to zone.
OSU has the offense to outscore anyone in the Big Ten. They may need to win that way all year.
This might be a sign Wisconsin fucked up.