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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Too few cigars

Last night, during Michigan's final offensive drive, well, the one before the Stanford Band Play, Mike Tirico asked Kirk Herbrstreit if Michigan's having played in so many close games helped them in the tight situation they found themselves in, yet again. Herbstreit stated that it did, that it would give the Wolverines some comfort and experience to draw upon. This belief is often used as a way to question teams that steamroll over everyone. "Wait until they get into a close game and we'll see how good they are." I remember this being said about the 1999 St. Louis Rams who beat everyone by about 50 points in the regular season. But they won two tight post-season games, including coming back to win on their final drive in the Super Bowl.

I don't think having experience in close games necessarily helps you when you play another one, particularly if that experience is due to every one of your games being close. Basically, in a close game, your chances of winning are 50-50, maybe slightly higher if you're a good team since we can assume you have better talent. The superb NBA analyst Doug Collins has pointed out that a team's record in close games isn't the measure of how good they are. It's their record in blowouts, because the top teams will win more of those games. Coaches that say "Just get me to the 4th quarter with an opportunity to win" are just being arrogant. I'd rather have a team that is running out the clock with a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter. Your best opportunity to win is in the first three quarters.

How does this relate to Michigan football? The Wolverines played an incredible eight close games this season. I'm defining close as within one score. Obviously, a game that ends up 28-17 because the winning team returned an interception for a TD with 10 seconds left won't be counted as close when it should, but the same goes the other way - a 27-24 final where the losing team scored a meaningless TD on the last play will be counted as close. The Wolverines went 3-5 in those eight tight games. Disappointing, since, with their talent, you would expect them go at least 4-4 or maybe 5-3. But you couldn't reasonably expect them to be any better than that. Now I know that college football is more competitive than it was in the '70s. The Big Ten is pretty solid top to bottom, and playing Notre Dame adds an extra tough game. But eight close games sounded high, so I checked the results from the top ten teams to see how many close games they played in and their records in those games.

USC - 2 (2-0. W-ND, Fresno)
Texas - 1 (1-0. W-Tosu)
Penn State - 3 (2-1. W-Tosu, NW, L-Michigan)
Ohio State - 3 (1-2. W-Michigan, L-Texas, PSU)
Oregon - 4 (4-0. W-Fresno, Arizona, Cal, Wash St.)
Notre Dame - 4 (2-2. W-Michigan, Stanford, L-Sparty, USC)
Auburn - 2 (1-1. W-UGA, L-LSU)
Georgia - 5 (3-2. W-SC, Arkansas, Ga. Tech, L-Fla., Auburn)
Miami - 4 (3-1. W-Clem., Ga. Tech, UVa, L-FSU)
LSU - 6 (5-1. W-ASU, Fla., Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, L-Tennessee)

That makes 34 close games for the top ten teams which, you don't have to be an actuary to figure out, is 3.4 per team. Michigan played more than double that many close games this year. The total record for these teams was 24-10, which is much higher than 50-50, but since we're only looking at teams in the top ten, that's to be expected. Plus, it's somewhat skewed by LSU and Oregon's stellar records. Also, note how both Penn State and Ohio State - who basically played the same schedule as Michigan - only had three close games each. That's why they were 1-2 in the conference.

My point in all of this is that great teams aren't great because they win the close ones. They're great because they avoid the close ones. Once you get into a tight game it's a crap shoot. Teams that aren't as good as you only need one breakdown to take advantage of you and beat you (are you listening, Minnesota?). Michigan was simply involved in way too many close games in 2005. It exposed the weakness in the defense of not being able to make a stop when they needed it. It exposed the inability of the offense to pick up a first down to close out a game. But that's what close games do - they expose your weaknesses. If a coach really wants an opportunity to win a game, he should avoid having his weaknesses exposed in the first place.


Anonymous said...

great job crunching those numbers. very telling stats. it shows the good teams put opponents away and keep them there. mediocre teams (like us) don't.

another interesting question would be "who" the close games were against. i know tOSU and PSU's close games were against us, each other, and Texas (off the top of my head). USC had one against ND (@ND). point being that their close games were against good teams w/ good records (for the most part, at least). we leave mediocre teams hanging around so that one turnover can put them back in it, the good teams bury most of them.

thanks for the post.

IC said...

Excellent analysis.

The tendency or inclination to "just get me to the fourth quarter with an opportunity to win" underscores another problem, which has defnitely harmed us over the years: we are extremely reactive. This year's team especially had a glaring lack of (to use a tired but accurate phrase) killer instinct. This is because we set out to "manage" games on offense and "control" opponents on defense.

Sure, this approach can win, particularly with the kind of well-rounded, skilled players we, to Lloyd's and the staff's credit, continue to attract. But this philosophy leads to winning seasons, not championship seasons. And in seasons with more injuries than usual, it leads and will continue to lead to records of 7-5 or worse.

As evidence of Michigan's belief in this approach, read this excerpt from QB coach Scot Loeffler's official bio:
"He has worked to instill a mistake free mentality among Michigan's signal callers, evidenced by the 70 touchdowns to 29 interception ratio during his first three seasons."

Have you ever had someone tell you before an important performance of any kind, "Go out there and don't make mistakes."? Most people immediately clench when given that kind of "encouragement". They are passive, hoping the other guy screws up, rather than being aggressive, knowing that they can succeed by making something positive happen.

Of course we should want our players to be "mistake free." It's a lofty, though impossible, goal that can help lead to excellence. But it should be implied rather than explicit. We are defining ourselves by what we try to avoid rather than what we try to achieve. That's where the apprehension displayed by our defense late in games comes from. That's why we don't close out games on offense, defense, or special teams that we have in our hands. That's what losers do.

Benny Friedman said...

Surrounded, I edited the post to also show who the opponents were in the close games. A number of them were against other top ten teams. Of the 34 close games from the top ten teams, four were against non-bowl opponents, including ND's now mind-boggling defeat at the hands of Sparty. Of Michigan's eight close games, seven were against bowl teams, which includes Nebraska.

IC said...

One correction to your original post, Benny: Herbstreit responded to Tirico's question about whether Michigan's experience in tight games would make us "comfortable" by saying it would make us "familiar."

That's an important distinction made by a guy who, with the exception of calling Ecker "Eckler" (twice), again showed why he is one of the best analysts is sports broadcasting. "Comfortable" suggests confidence, which we didn't have, while "familiar" only indicates recognition.

It was very "familiar" when we had the lead and the ball with under ten minutes to go. But I doubt that any of us, or the players, were very "comfortable".

Yost said...

Excellent post, Benny! So good (and true) it's painful. Ouch.

Yost said...

Tried to leave this before, IG, but must've screwed up.

Great comment! That "play not to lose" mentality is killing us and so ingrained. And I'm not sure we have the staff to change it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the updated version. i think it's even more convincing. just looking at the common opponents (tOSU and PSU),it jumps out at you that they buried many of the teams we played close (NU/PSU being the only exception). none of our common opponents- Wisc/Iowa/MSU/Minn, were close to tOSU/PSU in the last two minutes. they went 4-0/3-0 against these teams, we went 2-2.

i had always "felt" we were just unlucky. we always seem to lose these close games when the other team gets a "big break" (for them)/"bad break"(for us)- i.e.; the fumble/broken tackle/bad call by the ref/etc.

looking at your post i realized that we aren't unlucky. we just suck at putting people away. if you're more than a couple of points ahead of someone late in the game(like tOSU and PSU were this season), when the "break" comes, it doesn't have the same impact as it does when you're trying to protect a 3 or 4 point lead (like we always seem to be doing).

thanks again.