Tuesday, November 17, 2009

To beat OSU: Break tendency; play the underdog

Michigan's deep in it going into their final game of the season against Ohio State on Saturday. Rich Rodriguez has long said that he doesn't care about time of possession, and that's pretty obvious from the stats this season (Michigan is 119th in the country in time of possession at 26:22 a game). If Michigan wants to have any chance going up against Ohio State on Saturday, it's going to have to break this tendency and try and grind out the game, slowing it down to a crawl.

A great post a few months ago from Brian at MGoBlog went a ways to explaining it. I suggest you read the entire thing to get the whole scope of it, but the gist is this:
And it's the same for the favorite and reducing their variance: sometimes it's worth reducing expectation to get it, but only in certain situations and when you're a considerable favorite. In Bo's time, Michigan was a considerable favorite much more often and the game lent itself to low-variance moves: a 40-yard punt is much more valuable in an era when ten points is a potentially game-winning number.

Anyway, to the assertion above: modern offenses have more variance to them because they score more. Don't lose sight of expectation here: Missouri had a lot of variance in their scores but that was because they averaged 42 points a game. Michigan had far less but they were averaging 20.

Offenses that do this quickly are actually more predictable because they get in more trials. Moving fast without sacrificing expectation is advantageous to the better team, which is why Oklahoma was in zero even halfway close games against the Big 12 rabble. (Texas is not rabble, obviously.)

Defenses reduce variance by, you know, having safeties that can tackle. The very best defenses are low variance because all of the outcomes have the same result for the opposition: shame and humiliation. In that situation, punting your ass off makes sense, because you're a big favorite, you're not giving the opponent much of an opportunity and you're reducing variance in a way that helps your overall chances of winning. The main problem with Michigan's defense over the last few years has been their suckiness, which by the way increases variance as your defense falls to a point where opponents can drive the field on them regularly.

So what does that mean for Michigan on Saturday? It means they need to chew up as much time off the clock when they have the ball and pray for Terrelle Pryor to arm punt his way to a loss. The other problem here is that it presumes Michigan will be able to stop the OSU offense, um, once or twice or three times, which at this point, seems unlikely.

Having Brandon Minor this week is going to go a long way to make this happen. Without Minor, Michigan's run game (and subsequently, it's most consistent way to run time off the clock) takes a serious hit and depends a lot on Carlos Brown--a player who has made his mark this year on the big play. Vincent Smith, last week, looked like he might have the ability to cut through holes and pick up 4 or 5 yards at a time. If Michigan can get this kind of consistent play from Smith and Minor is out (for the record, it being Minor's last game, I assume he'll play, injured or not), it will go a long way to this end.

When the ball is in Forcier's hand, Michigan is going to need to limit sacks, penalties, and dropped passes. I'd be surprised to see Michigan take more than one shot downfield if they realistically want to win this game--it seems counter intuitive, but the faster Michigan scores, the more chances it gives Pryor and his offense to score. If Ohio State is blowing up Michigan's bubble screens and breaking into the backfield on rushes, Michigan will lose. There's no doubt about it. Also, Michigan is going to need to slow the pace of their offense down. Not that they should huddle up after every play, but taking most of the time off the play clock before snapping the ball would be advantageous.

On the other side of the ball, the key for Michigan is limiting the big play. Ohio State has lived off of the big play this year and has struggled when they haven't gotten it. Misdirection plays are going to be key, like they usually are for OSU, and the safeties' ability to stay home on these will be critical. If Michigan can force Pryor to march down the field, they further take time off the clock and increase the chances that Pryor will throw a pick. It's an uphill battle and Michigan needs to treat it as such if they want to have any chance in this game.


Tim said...

You'd want to limit variance (i.e. reduce number of opponent possessions) if Ohio State's offense was good.

It's not, so you take the points where you can get them, and hope that OSU turns the ball over a few times (they're middle of the pack in turnovers lost).

Not that Michigan isn't playing from a talent deficit, but changing your game to try to lessen the number of possessions probably isn't of the utmost importance for Michigan's gameplan.

Chris Gaerig said...

Well, I would assume that limiting the number of crushing defensive lapses is the primarily focus of Michigan's gameplan for this game, but as we've seen continually this year, Michigan's defense is capable of making anyone's offense look great. Scott Tolzien, Ricky Stanzi, and Joey Elliott are nowhere near as good as they looked against Michigan. What's to say that a quarterback like Pryor, who has significantly greater physical attributes than all of the above--albeit is a markedly worse passer--wouldn't be able to elevate his game similarly.

It's my contention that Michigan should've been trying to slow the game down against all of their opponents when it became obvious that there's not really anyone this defense can stop. (This, admittedly, happened later in the year--I think against PSU--but nonetheless.) Michigan's offense has proven time and again that it can move the ball and score. What the team hasn't proven is that it can stop anyone. The hope is that Michigan can move the ball consistently against Ohio State, while limiting the number of chances they have to score. And then pray for turnovers.

Tim said...

Limiting number of possessions doesn't do a whole lot if your offense isn't putting points on the board though.

In a typical undersog situation, it might be best to try to extend the game. In Michigan's case (above average offense, horrible defense), I'd think it's probably better to take your points where you can get them, and do whatever it takes to not give up the big play (Michigan's achilles heel this year, obvs), hoping the Buckeyes shoot themselves in the foot a time or two.

Obviously it's all (pointlessly) academic from our end, but I think that's the gameplan that maximizes Michigan's chances of winning.

Chris Gaerig said...

I understand where you're coming from here, but Tolzien threw a pick and fumbled away a touchdown. Michigan was still beaten by 19.

The problem with just trying to avoid giving up big plays is that Saturday is going to be 12th game of the season and not once this year has there been a time when you think, "OK, these guys are progressing and are clearly making less mental mistakes." It's Utopian to think that in this game, Michigan will be able to remove the one thing that's been recurring all year and shown no signs of disappearing. At some point, you just need to concede that these players, right now, aren't good enough to remove the big play and scheme otherwise.

Michigan has been able to move the ball, at least moderately well, against everyone save MSU and PSU. Wisconsin and Iowa have comparable offenses and it's reasonable to think that Michigan will be able to produce a similar output. The problems for the Michigan offense seem to be teams adjusting to what they're doing by the half. If Michigan still has some new tricks left then (i.e., if they slow the game to a pace that they don't show everything in the first half), the offense might be sustained long enough to pull out a victory.

Agreed, very academic and theoretical, but Michigan has to play to their strength and minimize their weakness. The team's weakness, at this point, is not just the big play; it's the defense as a whole, as the big play is simply part of the defense by the end of the season. To expect otherwise is a bit too optimistic (though so too might be hoping for a W).

Lankownia said...

Run the offense, as you normally would to start the game. If you (somehow) run out to 10-0 lead then you definitely start the eat clock game. If you're behind, obviously, you want to maximize possesions.

Consistently using the full play clock could be a good idea if the game is tight, especially if paired with a few plays where you quick snap and can catch the defense off guard.

Hopefully the gameplan has a lot of "we didn't expect this" for OSU.

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