Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why you shouldn't be encouraged by 383 yards

After reading through the myriad game recaps yesterday, something that The Wolverine Blog said stuck out in my mind:
Sometimes I think I’d be able to make a better assessment of this team if I didn’t watch the games... I’d even be encouraged by the defense, which faced a senior quarterback and a very good pair of receivers and allowed under 400 yards — that would qualify as progress this season...

Watching the game, however, it’s tough not to dwell on the bad penalties, shanked kicks, turnovers, and far-too-easy Hawkeye passing touchdowns and think this team is just spinning its wheels, especially when placed in direct contrast with an Iowa team that played mistake-free football and capitalized on Michigan’s mistakes time and again.
When you look at the box score, Michigan dominated several offensive categories (522 total yards vs. 383 total yards, 4.5 YPC vs. 3.8 YPC) and were close in most others (10.3 YPA for Iowa vs. 7.6 YPA for Michigan). And at face value, that's a pretty significant upgrade from the Indiana, Michigan State, and even UMass contests. But for those actually watching the game, the defensive performance looked just as soul crushing as it had earlier in the year. There's only one reason the numbers don't agree: field position.

Iowa starting
field position
Iowa 387 yards, punt
Iowa 445 yards, punt
Iowa 1684 yards, TD
Mich 4949 yards, TD
Mich 4848 yards, TD
Iowa 11 yard, End of half
Iowa 297 yards, punt
Iowa 144 yards, punt
Iowa 3763 yards, TD
Iowa 4060 yards TD
Iowa 205 yards, punt
Iowa 4060 yards, FG
Mich 43End of game
Surely penalties and the four turnovers Michigan coughed up also played a big role in the difference between total yardage gained and points scored, but more importantly, Iowa just didn't have to go as far to score. The chart on the right is Iowa's starting field position and the result of the ensuing drive. If you exclude the two "drives" to end the first half and the game, Iowa's average starting field position was at their own 34 yard line. Michigan's average starting field position, meanwhile, was at their own 23 yard line.

While that 11 yards may not seem like a ton, extrapolated over the course of a game (and especially one in which each team saw double digit possessions), that amount of yardage really adds up. For example, Iowa had 11 real drives, meaning that the 11-yard difference in field position equaled 121 yards difference. And when you add that in to Iowa's 383 total yards on the game, that gives them 504 yards, a mere 18 short of Michigan's total.

This is obviously not an exact science. You can't just add those yards onto Iowa's total and come out with Why It All Happened, least of all because that extra yardage could've changed the complexion of the drive--Michigan might've forced a stop. But given that Stanzi completed 70.8% of his passes and what we know about the Michigan defense, it's safe to say that moving Iowa back 11 yards on each possession likely wouldn't have changed the outcome of any of those drives. It may seem encouraging that Michigan forced 5 punts on the 11 drives, but they also forced 4 punts on 10 Michigan State drives. The point being, there wasn't really anything about the Iowa game that should inspire confidence in this defense.

Fortunately, the difference in field position has no bearing on how well Michigan was able to move the ball offensively. It was clear that Michigan was marching up and down the field against Iowa and were it not for turnovers, the score likely would've been much different, and may have even swung in Michigan's favor. Then again, without those same turnovers, Iowa's advantage in field position shrinks, they probably hold onto the ball longer, rack up a lot more yardage, and lower the amount of possessions by each team, all of which is to say that Michigan was decidedly behind the 8-ball in this game. And for as much as we'd all like to use this game as a stepping stone for the defense, it's really difficult to look at the numbers and do so. This defense is sunk.


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