Stats that matter in 2014: run defense

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan defense against the run

2013 review: The Wolverines struggled against the run last season. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were in charge of the defensive line, but Michigan never reached any level of consistency with a four-man rush, and pressuring the quarterback was no easy task last season.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game last season and 3.8 yards per rush, which put Michigan in the top 40 nationally in both of those categories. But it’s hard to compare the Wolverines’ total allowed rushing yards on a national scale, considering the difference in spread vs. pro-style teams and the effect that has on passing and rushing yardage.

However, comparing Michigan to other Big Ten teams provides a better look at where the Wolverines fell and where they could improve. Michigan finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, behind Michigan State (86.3), Wisconsin (102.5), Ohio State (109.4) and Iowa (128.3).

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan's run defense under Greg Mattison ranked in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in 2013.
Though the Wolverines did allow big rushing yards last season, they didn’t allow big rushing scores. Opponents only scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 478 rushes. That means that opposing teams only scored on 3.1 percent of its rush attempts, putting the Wolverines in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

While the Wolverines kept rushers out of the end zone, they didn’t stop them from picking up yardage, however. Michigan struggled stopping the run in critical situations. On third downs when opponents chose to rush the ball, they converted 47.8 percent of the time. The national average was 49.3, but the Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten in that statistic.

And it only got worse when it came to fourth-down rushing conversions, as opponents moved the chains on 71.4 percent of their attempts. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Ohio State (81.8 percent), and it put Michigan about 10 percent below the national average of 60.8 percent.

Opponents were able to convert on that percentage of third and fourth downs because the Wolverines allowed opposing offenses to pick up too many yards on first and second down. Michigan didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and get into the backfield nearly enough to wreak havoc. The Wolverines kept 109 rushes from getting past the line of scrimmage, but that was only 22.8 percent of the total rushes.

And once opponents did cross the line of scrimmage, they had relatively good success picking up solid gains. Of the 478 times opponents ran the ball against Michigan, they gained at least five yards on 171 attempts and at least 10 yards on 64 attempts. That means that, on average, at least one in three runs against Michigan got past the defensive line as well as some second-level defenders.

2014 preview: The defensive coaches have shuffled around and Hoke hopes that the combination of Mark Smith on the defensive line and Mattison coordinating the linebackers will allow Michigan to make strides next season.

But, what exactly would those strides be from a statistical standpoint? Here’s a look at the rushing stats allowed by teams that played in BCS bowl games last season and how they compare to Michigan in those same categories. Again, with some of these statistics you face the same issue of schedule and scheme, and that yielding 150 rushing yards to Auburn is a very different statistic than yielding 150 rushing yards to Purdue. But by looking at BCS bowl teams, it does give a general idea of numbers to aim for.

Yards per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.8
BCS bowl team average: 3.6

Touchdowns per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.1 percent
BCS bowl team average: 3.1

Third-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 47.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 45.1

Fourth-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 71.4 percent
BCS bowl team average: 51.5

Percentage of rushes stopped before the line of scrimmage:
Michigan defense: 22.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 27.7

Percentage of rushes going for five-plus yards:
Michigan defense: 35.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 34.4

What these numbers show is that if the Wolverines rushing defense can step up in certain areas, they’ll be pretty similar to that of rushing defenses that played in the biggest games of the 2013-14 season. Obviously there are other parts of the game that need more growth, and the run defense is only a part of the defense as a whole.

Another thing to note about those numbers: Those defensive stats were being put up by teams that typically had much stronger offenses. When an offense is putting up 100 more yards and 14 more points per game and giving up the same amount of yardage as the Wolverines, there’s going to still be a big difference, even if some of the numbers are similar.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter

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