Monday, November 14, 2011

Third and Doom*

*(The good kind of doom.)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that is either so wildly obvious or so naively reductive that I will lose all credibility in the eyes of you, my reader.  Here goes anyway.

It's all about the third downs, man.

I've long held on to third down conversion numbers as a sort of "go to" stat; something that, when looked at in the context of all the other numbers is going to tell me how well or poorly the offense or defense performed.  There is variation, sure.  When you play Minnesota you might not see many third downs because your team is so successful on first and second.  On top of that, some defenses are more designed to "bend and not break" and will necessarily allow more third down conversions as teams move the ball.  And some teams     cough, Notre Dame, cough     may have a lot of success converting third downs against you, but are done in by turnovers of the back-breaking variety.

So yes, I know it isn't a perfect system, but when taken in the context of a game, third down conversion percentage for both offense and defense can paint a great picture of just how good a team played.  Consider the following:

  • Would you have guessed that Michigan's worst loss of the year coincided with its worst day on third down in the Big Ten season? (Michigan State converted 7/14; Michigan converted 3/15; Woof.).
  • Or that Michigan's three most dominant defensive performances in the Big Ten came on days allowing just 29% (Illinois), 23% (Purdue), and 0% (Minnesota).
  • Or that Michigan's defensive third down rate is 40th in the nation right now (36%) while it was 95th last year (43%).  (Although the 2009 defense also posted a 37% allowed rate, good for 40th.  I say this for full disclosure.  I have no idea how that number is so good comparatively, but I do know that the numbers don't include just how crippling some of those allowed conversions were.  So, in that case I'd rather preempt you, dear reader, with evidence of my being an idiot, than have you point it out later).
All of this is going the long way around introducing what has been my favorite part of the 2011 Greg Mattison defensive revival: third down stops.

Over the past few days I have finally gotten around to reading Three and Out, and on Saturday I had a long discussion before the Illinois game began about the book with a friend who is just about as obsessed with the team as I am.  We argued about what the most disheartening loss of 2009 was (I said Illinois, he said Purdue), shared a laugh about the scene in the book where Brian Cook confronts Michael Rosenberg after the Freep-Jihad presser, complained about the lack of discussion of the Shafer -> Gerg transition, and both agreed that the 2008 Utah game might be the most inexplicable thing that happened during the entire Rich Rodriguez era.

Once the game began and the defense came out hot, we both shifted out attention to just how good this team has been on third down, especially third-and-short.  After just having read about a stomach churning third-and-24 conversion that I remember like it happened yesterday, it is strange to see the defense line up to stop a third-and-short conversion and know, I mean know in my soul, that the other team is going to be punting on the next play (or, if coached by Kirk Ferentz, break character and go for it on fourth down to infuriate me).

I mean, that right there is a thing of beauty.  This is what good defenses do.  They demoralize the opponent by refusing to budge even one inch when all the offensive player needs to do is simply fall forward to keep the offense on the field.

So when Illinois lined up in the first quarter in a third-and-one situation at its own 23-yard line, for the first time in years I waited, grinning at what I knew was to come because I had seen it before.  You don't get one yard on this defense without a fight.

It speaks to the job that Greg Mattison has done with this defense that I am more confident in a third-and-one stop that I am third-and-five or more.  Michigan still isn't perfect     no team is     but you can see every time that group steps on the field that the call is right, the effort is superb, and the assignments are carried out.  If another team gets two when it needs one, it isn't because the Wolverines beat themselves*.

More than all the other signs of hope for the future of this defense, from the quick development of freshman like Blake Countess, to the way young players like Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan fix mistakes from game to game to become better players, to the ever evolving series of blitz packages that are confusing the hell out of opposing quarterbacks, the thing that I have been most impressed with is that Mattison has delivered on his promise of the offseason: the team will work to stop the run.  Nothing is more central to that goal than lining up and stopping the other team when both you and they know exactly what is coming, and they dare you to make the play to stop it.

The offense may still be a bumbling mess tied to a  rocket powered cheetah, and Michigan's special teams play is going to haunt me for years like 'Nam haunts crazy old war vets     including fever dreams that are a series of rapid fire shots of Jeremy Gallon muffing punts     but for the first season in years, I can confidently say that the defense is in the right hands.

Now, about that shotgun formation...

*(Isn't always, I mean.  Typical freshman starters disclaimer applies.)

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