Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. Does anyone in the NFC South have any pass rushers? Well, the Bucs might, but they still need more players to catch the ball.
11 Sep 2009
By Bill Connelly
While some teams fell far short of expectations in Week 1, a couple of storied programs exceed theirs. While expectations for Michigan and Notre Dame were at least incrementally higher in 2009 than 2008 (much higher if your name is Lou Holtz), both teams created a buzz with just how good they looked in their season debuts. A 14-point favorite thought by many (including yours truly) to be ripe for an upset, Notre Dame pummeled a seemingly solid Nevada team, 35-0. Meanwhile, Michigan was potentially even more vulnerable after recent player upheaval, but they never gave Western Michigan a chance, winning 31-7 and creating more highlights in one game than in all of last year.
So how good did they really look? Is the gushing a bit of an overreaction? Let's consult the Varsity Numbers Box Score for more information. The VN Box Score was introduced last year and can be a pretty solid tool for digging below the surface of the score. But before we dive in, let's revisit a few dusty concepts:
Field Position % -- A crude attempt at measuring the field position battle, "Field Position %" simply compares the number of plays one team ran in opposing field position to the number of plays the other team ran in opposing field position. The two numbers here add up to 100 percent.
Leverage Percent -- This is derived from the idea that leveraging a team into as many Passing Down situations as possible is a subtle, effective way of winning games. Leverage % = Total plays run on Non-Passing Downs / Total plays. The higher number, the better. Anything higher than about 75 percent means the offense stayed in comfortable situations most of the game.
Along with the basic Varsity Numbers concepts (Success Rate, Points Per Play, S&P, etc.), these can uncover quite a few narratives. There are a couple of additions to the tables below: The "SD/PD Sack Rate" is simply a breakout of the sack rates for both Standard Downs and Passing Downs. And at the bottom, "Projected Pt. Margin" is simply the scoring margin expected by combining Turnover Points Margin and EqPts Margin. For instance, in the Notre Dame-Nevada table below, Notre Dame outgained Nevada by 19.4 EqPts (33.1 to 13.7) and held a 20.6-point advantage in Turnover Points Margin, resulting in a Projected Pt. Margin of 40.0.
So with that in mind, it's time to examine the first-week performances from Notre Dame and Michigan.
|Field Position %||35.7%||50.8%|
|Close Success Rate||40.0%||58.8%|
|Close Success Rate||53.9%||55.0%|
|Close Success Rate||14.3%||64.3%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||12.5% / 0.0%||0.0% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.886||0.969|
|2nd Down S&P||0.524||1.065|
|3rd Down S&P||0.334||1.202|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
At first glimpse, Notre Dame really shouldn't have shut out Nevada. They posted almost two touchdowns' worth of EqPts, and their Leverage % of 71.4% was good enough to keep them out of too many Passing Downs. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, they were awful on Passing Downs (0.309 S&P, 12.5% Success Rate), and, not only did they have three turnovers, but they had three costly turnovers. Notre Dame intercepted them twice, once in the Irish end zone, and Nevada's Vai Taua lost a fumble at the Irish 7-yard line. Add to that a missed 38-yard field goal, and Nevada cost themselves somewhere between 10 and 17 points.
That said, there was no way Nevada was going to keep up with Notre Dame here, shutout or no shutout. Notre Dame's Passing S&P of 1.798 is about as high as you will see. Of course, you don't need advanced statistics to know that. Jimmy Clausen's line -- 15-of-18, 315 yards, 4 touchdowns -- could have told you that just fine. Michigan's defense will be a very interesting test for Clausen and the Irish offense. In their last two games, last year's Hawaii Bowl and last week's battle with Nevada, Notre Dame has proven that its offense could completely and totally dominate a WAC schedule, but Michigan could be the real deal on defense. Rack up serious yards against the Wolverines, and suddenly it that blind squirrel Lou Holtz may have found a nut this year (no comment on his predicting 10-2 records for the Irish the last two seasons).
There are some warning signs here on defense, however, particularly up front. Notre Dame's Passing Downs performance was impeccable, but Nevada lacks a go-to receiving weapon for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Nevada's strength is its stout rushing attack, and they demonstrated that on Saturday. Anything over 3.0 line yards per carry is good, and Nevada's 4.11 per carry is far too much. That suggests that Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua didn't even have to start working until they were four yards upfield. It didn't matter because Notre Dame was up by so much so early (it was 28-0 at halftime), but that is a red flag that Michigan will try to exploit.
|Field Position %||23.8%||53.3%|
|Close Success Rate||15.0%||54.8%|
|Close Success Rate||14.3%||52.6%|
|Close Success Rate||15.4%||58.3%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||4.0% / 6.3%||0.0% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.535||0.944|
|2nd Down S&P||0.726||0.954|
|3rd Down S&P||0.523||0.809|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
Lost amid the highlights of Michigan freshman quarterback Denard Robinson slicing through the Broncos' defense with his shoes untied was the fact that the Michigan defense was impenetrable while the game was close -- which wasn't for very long. The WMU offensive line got no push whatsoever in the running game, and WMU quarterback Tim Hiller had absolutely nothing to work with in the passing game. Eventually the passing game got going enough to score a touchdown in the second half but couldn't perform with the game on the line and trailed 31-0 at halftime.
Also lost in the hub-bub: Michigan's two freshman quarterbacks actually looked pretty good throwing the ball. In his first collegiate game, Tate Forcier was 13-of-20 with 179 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore receiver Junior Hemingway was the favored target, with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns. A clearly solid running game will open up the passing game a bit, but it looks like the passing game is better this year as well.
(Plus, looking at the run-pass splits, it looks like there could be a place for both Forcier and Robinson in the offense. Robinson carried the ball 11 times and threw just four, while Forcier rushed 11 times and threw 20.)
You don't want to read into numbers too much after just one game -- especially if that game was a blowout and less than half of the plays took place under "close" circumstances. That said, Michigan's VN Box Score was pretty much flawless. They were very good on Standard Downs and filled with big-play potential on Passing Downs. They erased the WMU run and pass and limited their opportunities on every down. Their line yardage was very good, and their line yardage allowed was less than zero. They seemingly could have won by 60 had they not gone conservative in the second half. You cannot prove you are a great team in the first week of the season, but you can still reveal potential weaknesses, and Michigan showed none.
While these numbers should be taken with a large grain of salt, neither Notre Dame nor Michigan stumbled into an accidental blowout. They took the fight to their non-BCS opponents and played relatively flawless first halves. Notre Dame showed more weaknesses, primarily in run defense, but they also faced a stronger opponent. Coming into 2009, Nevada was a legitimate threat for 8-9 wins, and they might still be. The coming weeks will tell us a lot more about not only Notre Dame and Michigan, but also their opponents. In the meantime, the only conclusions that we can draw are that Notre Dame is capable of racking up 400-plus yards per game against WAC teams and Michigan is more explosive and well-rounded than they were a year ago.
In 2008, Notre Dame lost to a 3-9 Syracuse team at home, while Michigan did the same to a 3-9 Toledo squad. We do not yet know the ceiling for either of these teams, but it is safe to say that both played better last week than they did at any point last year. Michigan will provide a sturdy test for both Notre Dame's biggest strength (pass offense) and weakness (run defense), and for the first time since 2006, Michigan-Notre Dame is a game to watch.
6 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2009, 5:51pm by Bill Connelly