The Big Ten Championship Goes Through Ann Arbor*
Five thoughts on the Northwestern win and upcoming Michigan State game, plus this week's best GIFs.
It’s hard to learn much from a game against 2021 Northwestern. Some years they’re terrible at offense and feisty on defense. This year, they’re just terrible.
One can confirm their priors and that’s about it. Is Cade McNamara the right quarterback for the team over JJ McNamara? Your opinion is almost certainly the same as it was before the weekend. Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins are extremely good. We can agree on that, at least.
This is a return to the norm. We aren’t discussing whether Michigan can beat Rutgers in regulation or avoid embarrassment against Michigan State. We’re focused on the important thing: how any given play is a signal Michigan won’t beat Ohio State.
That’s a surging Ohio State, which has turned back into a murder machine following the Oregon loss and subsequent demotion of defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. They already had the #1-ranked SP+ offense before Saturday’s evisceration of Indiana; now they’re #1 in SP+, period. Fans are no longer calling for quarterback CJ Stroud to be replaced, instead talking up his Heisman Trophy chances.
There’s a sense of resignation among a large portion of the fanbase that’s both ridiculous and reasonable. Michigan is 7-0, ranking fourth in FEI and seventh in SP+. Ohio State has won every game in the series since 2003 except the one time they had an interim head coach. Jim Harbaugh has only been responsible for the games from 2015 onward. Jim Harbaugh has been responsible for the games from 2015 onward.
It’s ridiculous. It’s reasonable.
Five Thoughts For Post-NW, Pre-MSU
1. Transitive Wins Are Good Now
The invaluable My Team Is Better Than Your Team allows one to input any two college football teams and see if, based on the power on transitive wins, one’s team is indeed better than another’s. Folks, Ohio State is going to have trouble in Ann Arbor:
The numbers don’t lie. Every Big Ten team save for two, in fact, has a direct transitive loss to Concordia University, the Pride of That Area Out Geddes With The Traffic Circles. Those two teams: Michigan and Michigan State.
One way or another, the Big Ten title runs through Ann Arbor. Concordia should replace Rutgers in the conference during the next round of realignment.
2. Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins: Extremely Good
Blake Corum is the top-graded back in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Hassan Haskins is third.
Corum and fellow backfield partner Hassan Haskins tore up the Northwestern defense Saturday and find themselves first and third, respectively, in the overall running back rankings with Texas’ Bijan Robinson sandwiched between them. Against the Wildcats, the duo produced a 0.58 missed tackle rate and gained a first down or touchdown rushing on 43% of their carries while averaging 5.5 yards per carry and four yards after contact per rush.
Corum did some evil shit to Northwestern defenders on Saturday. This run is sorcery, particularly the second juke, which he doubles up:
Not many players can put a safety in a blender or pancake them; Corum can do both. He needed only 19 carries to gain 119 yards with two touchdowns and added 23 receiving yards on four targets (all caught). According to Game on Paper, he added 14% of win probability against the Wildcats, an absurd figure — Haskins was at four percent.
While Corum got the higher-leverage plays in this game, both have been reliable to get yards on their own. Even when the numbers didn’t shine against Rutgers and Wisconsin, both backs earned the majority of their yards after contact.
3. Kenneth Walker III May Be The Best Back in Michigan
Kenneth Walker III is a Heisman candidate despite transferring away from a legitimate playoff contender in Wake Forest. (What? It’s true.) He’s producing similar numbers as Haskins and Corum combined.
These stats are from PFF. “15+” is runs of fifteen yards or more, “MTF” is Missed Tackles Forced (followed by MTF per attempt), and “YAC” is Yards After Contact (followed by YAC per attempt). Common opponents are highlighted.
Walker has more 15-yard runs, missed tackles forced, and yards after contact than the Haskins/Corum duo combined on 70 fewer carries. Both rushing attacks beat up on Northwestern and one of the other two common opponents (Michigan against Nebraska, MSU against Rutgers).
The only schedule difference is in their other two Power 5 games. Wisconsin has an elite rush defense and Washington a bad one; Michigan surpassed both opponents’ YPC allowed on average. Indiana and Miami (FL) both have below-average run defenses; State thumped the ‘Canes and struggled against the Hoosiers.
Michigan is easily the best run defense Walker has faced so far. If they can hold down the breakaway runs, they can keep him more in the Nebraska/Indiana output level than the games fueling his Heisman candidacy.
4. The Hidden Pass-Rush Factor
Sacks are a quarterback stat.
Sack rate does seem to have a lot to do with a quarterback’s style, decision making, and willingness (or unwillingness) to gamble with a throw before ready. A quarterback with a tendency to take fewer sacks is going to get rid of the ball; it’s his yards per attempt and completion percentage that are going to reflect whether the line did a good job.
That’s not to say offensive lines don’t factor into pressure — of course they do. The quarterback, however, chooses how long to hold onto the ball, whether to throw it away or scramble or eat a hit, and so on.
Michigan has only allowed three sacks all season. Cade McNamara’s pocket presence and command of the offense is critical to that pass protection. According to PFF, among QBs with at least 80 dropbacks this season, he ranks ninth in average time to throw, averaging only 2.41 seconds to get the ball out. He’s not just chucking it in the face of pressure, either; PFF has him down for one pick and zero other turnover-worthy plays when he gets rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds (and only one TWP when he goes over).
Payton Thorne has eaten ten sacks in five games against Power 5 competition. He’s prone to trying to make something big happen when the more prudent decision is to give up and live to play another down. His average of 2.75 seconds before throwing is tied for 71st (with CJ Stroud and others) and that shoots up to 3.61 seconds (88th) when sacked and 5.13 (101st, just behind Auburn’s idealized Forcier, Bo Nix) when he decides to scramble.
State appears to have a major advantage at quarterback until you drill down into the sack-adjusted stats, where that advantage narrows significantly.
Thorne goes from averaging 1.9 more yards per attempt than McNamara down to 1.1 when adjusting for sack yardage. Three of Thorne’s four interceptions have occurred when he’s rushed the ball out in under 2.5 seconds. He’s dangerous when he gets extra time to throw, with nine TDs against only one pick when taking over 2.5 seconds, but he’s also made four turnover-worthy plays that weren’t capitalized upon by the defense.
MSU is reliant on big plays to power the passing game. Those plays often take time to develop. We’ll see if Thorne actually gets that time.
5. The Not-So-Hidden Pass Rush Factor
Related to the last point: sweet tapdancing Jesus, Aidan Hutchinson. He’s beating his blocker on nearly 30% of pass-rush opportunities, making him PFF’s highest-graded edge rusher in the Power Five:
Hutchinson put together another huge game, headlined by four pressures and a sack against Northwestern as the Wolverines held the Wildcats to seven points. Hutchinson’s pressure rate (21.7%) ranks third in the country, and his pass-rush win rate also ranks third (29.3%).
He’s credited with six sacks, seven hurries, and 21 pressures; he’s missed a single tackle all season while recording 20 stops and forcing a fumble. Northwestern’s tackles are the strongest unit of their offense save maybe the two outside receivers and Hutchinson made them look like MAC-level bait.
Meanwhile, MSU ranks 101st in passing down sack rate allowed, giving them up on 9.8% of such dropbacks. Ultimately, I think Michigan’s ability to generate heat and McNamara’s knack for avoiding it will make the difference in this game.
One Frame At A Time: Northwestern
Done via Twitter to save some space.
5. Tip Drill
4. Bull Rush
3. Air Cornelius
2. Jelly Legs
This was gonna be the Corum run embedded earlier but it was, well, embedded earlier, and this is pretty cool too.
1. Forward Progress
Jim Harbaugh asked for this one.
Thank you for reading The Bucket Problem.