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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Zone Gives, Zone Takes

This fall Michigan's run game took a radical departure from the pull-, iso-, and draw-heavy early 2000s. In the place of plays like "argh not another second and long draw," Michigan implemented an Iowa-like zone scheme. At first glance the results were encouraging: Michigan vaulted from 44th to 21st in total rushing. Yards per carry (discounting QB runs and kneeldowns) shot up from 4.3 to 4.9. This despite Michigan featuring an unbalanced offense that ran 56% of the time. So bully for all that.

But there was one major issue that our stretch-play-mad offense developed during 2006. UFR aficionados already know this deep in the marrow of their bones, but now I can put it in attractive graph format.

Here is the Michigan offense's third-down conversion rate by distance in 2005:

(How to read the above: the thick line is the NCAA average. The thinner line is Michigan's performance. You want this to be above the line for an offense; green is good.)

Poor performance on third and long was counterbalanced by a surprising competence on third and short.

Here is the same graph for 2006:

(Disclaimer: this data is sparse and may not breach the threshold of official statistical significance. I don't know. I'm not a statistician. I do know that this is all the data we have and that it can be useful when coupled with previous observation.)

It does not take a jeweler's eye to see that the graphs are near inverses of each other, even down to the weird aberration at third and 11-13. The improved performance on passing downs is easily explained by an improved receiving corps and quarterback. But the startling regression on short yardage is inexplicable given the improvement the zone brought to Michigan's running game.

Unless, that is, you watched Michigan roll out three wideouts and run a stretch play into nine penetrating guys far too many times. Which, uh, I did:
Why do we suck on third and short?

I dunno. We were actually really good last year, but it seems you put us in third and short this year and we run out three wideouts and run a stretch play into nine guys. This doesn't work so good, evidently. What's wrong with lining up in a big set and cramming it down their throats? We have the personnel for that sort of thing.
Hopefully, Michigan will identify this ugly tendency and stop actively trying to turn third and short into punts. In Michigan's transition year perhaps it made sense to focus on the stretch to the exclusion of all else, but now that we've established hadouken, we should try to work on some shoryuken for situations when the objective is closer at hand.


Remember 2005? (It's okay to say no.) Pat "Moonwalk" Massey and an occasionally interested Gabe Watson were the defensive tackles. David Harris and yuck were the linebackers. Alan Branch toiled out of position at defensive end. The short yardage numbers were ugly:

Yeah... not so much this year. Anyone doubting Alan Branch in even the slightest tiny way should look at this, tremble, and shut up:

You can see 6'6", 330 of angry New Mexican hauling the tail end of that graph down like a black hole in spacetime. That's Alan Branch. 33 percent! On third and one! Six of eighteen! SIX OF EIGHTEEN!


We are all going to miss last year's defense very much. Except for the secondary, which I fear I won't miss at all.