Sunday, January 25, 2009

WVU's improvement in Year 2 Under Rodriguez

Benjamin Disraeli once said that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics".

Studying statistics in the context of college football might very well be an exercise in self-deception, or at least wishful thinking.

Michigan football is closing out the 2009 recruiting campaign and will begin spring football practice in 2 months time. The Wolverine coaches and football players will endeavor to erase a painful 2008 campaign that ended with a 3-9-0 record and perhaps the worst offensive and defensive showing for a Michigan football team in decades.
Following the 2008 season, the Wolverine coaches and players realize that they have a lot of work to do, but that they are on a completely new path.

So what can Michigan fans come to expect from the Wolverine football team in 2009?

Good question.

We know that past performance does not guarantee future results. This is particularly true under current Michigan Wolverine football coach Rich Rodriguez.

Everyone knows the major transition undertaken by Rodriguez and his staff for the future of the Michigan football team. New weight training facilities, new conditioning program, new offensive playbook (spread option attack), and a new defensive scheme.

But Rodriguez has been through these transitions before, and the early stages of these transitions have historically proven to be brutal.

How brutal?

Consider his first inaugural football season as head coach at West Virginia.

Rodriguez inherited a 7-5-0 team from former head coach Don Nehlen, including veteran OL, receivers and backfield, but a relatively new defensive line, LB corps and secondary. Don Nehlen ran an multiple I formation attack since his first season at WVU in 1980.

Rodriguez did not hesitate. He proceeded to introduce his radically new player conditioning program and his Glenville College spread option playbook.

With so many veterans returning on offense, including two proven QBs in Brad Lewis and Scott McBrien, expectations for WVU football were very high in 2001.

Instead, West Virginia's on field actual results were disasterous under Rich Rodriguez. The team finished 3-8-0.

Below a comparison of WVU football team offensive stats between 2000(Nehlen) and 2001(Rodriguez) seasons :


With the new spread option attack of Rodriguez, Brad Lewis and Scott McBrien's cumulative pass attempts in 2001 were the same as the year prior under Nehlen and their accuracy actually improved (48% to 54%) under Rodriguez. But interceptions just killed the Mountaineers in 2001 and no doubt cost football games. 19 interceptions and only 9 touchdown passes over only 11 games.

Whoa, those stats hurt. These passing turnovers left a mark on Rodriguez. He would change his approach the next season.


In 2001 West Virginia returned an impressive stable of running backs, including two shifty tailbacks named Avon Coubourne and Cooper Rego. Rushing attempts were essentially the same as under Nehlen, but spreading the field allowed the Mountaineers effectiveness to improve from 3.6 yards/carry to 4.2 yards/carry. The biggest change here was that the Mountaineer quarterbacks under Nehlen in 2000 rushed for -75 yards. Under Rodriguez, QB Rasheed Marshall became the Mountaineers' 2nd leading rusher (and the second string QB) with 210 yards.


The marked decline in passing offense was witnessed in the receiving statistics between 2000 and 2001. West Virginia just ceased becoming a big time scoring threat through the air. 16 passing TDs in 2000 vs. only 9 passing TDs in 2000. West Virginia was turned into a run-centric team in one season. The receiving yardage in 2001 under Rodgiuez was over 700 yards less. Rodriguez's sideline-to-sideline passing attack was evidenced in the yards per catch decline: 15.6 in 2000 to 9.4 in 2001.

What is more startling is to view West Virginia's offensive stats from 2001 (Rodriguez's first season) with Michigan's offensive stats in 2008 (also Rodriguez's first season):


Shockingly similar passing stats in attempts. WVU's completion % was better, but Michigan's inexperienced quarterbacks Threet & Sheridan, if you can believe it, threw dramatically fewer interceptions that Brad Lewis and Scott McBrien did.


Michigan's 2008 rushing stats were virtually identical with those of WVU in 2001. Look at yards gained and yards per carry.


This is made more surprising if one considers that although Michigan did return veteran running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, both served mostly backup or cleanup duty roles prior to this season. Michigan also did not return a veteran offensive line in 2008. The Wolverines returned one starter (Steve Schilling) and that was it, and for the most part struggled to stay healthy and find cohesiveness.


Again, Michigan's 2008 receiving stats are almost a carbon copy of West Virginia's in 2001 in yardage, yards per catch. Only WVU's attempts were more than Michigan's.

Year 2:

So in 2002, Rodriguez's second year, the Mountaineers returned most of the OL and an experienced backfield. The Mountaineer receiving corps would be brand new, however. But Rodriguez had had just about enough of the interception throwing escapades from 2001. He would use Rasheed Marshall at QB full-time and in every game. RichRod's 2002 strategy emphasized the run even more with Marshall, Cobourne and new speed-demon slotback Quincy Wilson. The results were very, very different from 2001, and not a little bit impressive:


Could the above chart be Rodriguez saying "f&ck you!" to interceptions? 19 interceptions in 2000, man. Nightmarish. Never again, he said. Note the massive drop off in passing attempts. The yardage and accuracy remained the same, but the effectiveness improved: more TDs, fewer INTs.


Whoa dude! That's what happens when flintlock-gun-packing Mountaineers run through the brambles and kick everybody's ass in embarrassing fashion!

Just spread the field, sprinkle in a workhorse tailback (Cobourne) with a mercurial slotback (Quincy Wilson) and a mobile and elusive QB (Rasheed Marshall) and guess what?

Defenses start to get deer-in-the-headlights confused on who to cover and where to be.

It's just science.

For the record, in 2002 QB Rasheed Marshall rushed for 666 yards (Football IS THE DEVIL!) and 12 Mountaineer TDs! The leading rusher Cobourne hit paydirt 17 times. Quincy Wilson 6 times.

West Virginia scored 38 touchdowns in 2002. 38!

That's 22 MORE TOUCHDOWNS than the year prior! WTF??


Yes, RR may have said to hell with the passing attack in 2002, but he really didn't.
The quarterback threw more efficiently, the receivers improved their yards per catch from 9.4 to 11.9, and scored 11 TDs. Also, eight different players caught TD passes for West Virginia in 2002. Go ahead, defensive coordinators. Game plan that one!

Spreading the field, dishing the ball off to multiple home-run capable slotbacks, and adding in a fast and elusive QB with just average throwing accuracy (53%) is sometimes enough to create mushroom clouds of destruction on the gridiron.

West Virginia finished 9-4-0 in 2002 and was one of the nation's most improved teams.

Can Michigan's team repeat such a ferocious turnaround in 2009?

This remains to be seen. The Wolverines have a more experienced and relatively, deep and improved offensively line, plenty of speed at slot and wide receiver.
But the Wolverines don't yet have a mobile and elusive quarterback. It's possible that freshman signal callers Tate Forcier (and possibly recruit Denard Robinson) might be able to contribute that last required ingredient to Michigan's success.

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