January 3rd, 2011. The Orange Bowl: Miami, Florida; #4 Stanford vs. #13 Virginia Tech. If you didn’t know what Jim Harbaugh had built in Palo Alto, you were about to find out.
The 2010 Cardinal had a litany of future NFL stars like Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman, but to me, what stands out watching the game today is the offensive line play. Anchored by two future NFL starters in Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro, Stanford mauled the vaunted Virginia Tech defense up front to the tune of 247 rushing yards at eight yards per carry. The game was an absolute masterclass in power football; a throwback to a different time, before the era of the dual-threat quarterback.
When the game zigged, Harbaugh zagged; doubling down on size, power, and physicality in a college football world increasingly moving towards the up-tempo spread. Perhaps it’s in his DNA, having been coached by Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Mike Ditka in Chicago, or perhaps he saw something the masses had missed.
Regardless of where it came from, Harbaugh established himself as one of the elites that night. He would go on to carry the downtrodden San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC title game appearances and to the precipice of a Super Bowl win.
Things looked very different that evening in Harbaugh’s hometown of Ann Arbor. The morning after the Cardinal trounced Virginia Tech, Rich Rodriguez was dismissed as the head coach of the University of Michigan. A tenure that began with a ham-handed coaching search, endured a nonsensical witch hunt by the Detroit Free Press, and ultimately saw its defensive ineptitude outweigh the euphoric highs of Denard Robinson’s playmaking was finally over.
As far as the Michigan brass were concerned, the spread experiment had run its course. It was time to go back to the old way: pro-style, Schembechlerian football.
Despite glaring deficiencies in his resume, the athletic department quickly announced the hiring of Brady Hoke. Hoke was 47-50 as a head coach at that point and had never been a coordinator at any level. I’ll save Michigan fans the experience of reliving that era and fast forward to December 2014.
The return of Jim Harbaugh to Michigan
By now, most of us know the story of how Jim Harbaugh came back to Michigan.
Against all odds and the mockery of national pundits who were dead certain that Harbaugh would never – under any circumstances – return to the college ranks, Harbaugh turned down contracts from pro franchises that would have made him the richest man in football to restore his alma mater to greatness.
The program that Harbaugh led to victories over Ohio State as a young quarterback was now his. And after two seasons, the restoration is ahead of schedule.
In 2015, Harbaugh elevated a roster that had gone 5-7 the season prior to 10-3, including a 41-7 throttling of Florida in the Citrus Bowl. In 2016, with the addition of Don Brown, the excellent defensive coordinator who had built elite units at Boston College with primarily two and three star recruits, the team went 10-3 again, though this time around Michigan never slipped out of the top-ten in human polls and never out of the top-five in most computer rankings. Their three losses were by a combined two regulation points (including a double-overtime loss at #2 Ohio State that saw the Buckeyes benefit from dubious officiating).
A stolen game aside, Michigan played at an extremely high level in 2016 and will only continue to get better as the roster becomes further stocked with players hand selected by Harbaugh. The one missing piece from last season, however, has proven to be the one simultaneously most desired and most elusive to the program: a devastating run game.
Supporters of Michigan watched Harbaugh’s Stanford teams impose their will against opposing front sevens and couldn’t help but fantasize about the Maize and Blue once again doing the same. By the end of his time in Palo Alto, Harbaugh’s Cardinal offenses would first confuse helpless defenses with a dizzying array of pre-snap motions and personnel packages, then mashed them physically, wearing down exhausted linemen and linebackers with a merciless rushing attack. “Win With Character, Win With Cruelty,” signs inside of the Stanford Football facilities read.
Michigan isn’t nearly to the level of offensive proficiency that Stanford had achieved during the Harbaugh & Andrew Luck era, but it takes time. How much time is the question.
Is Michigan Stanford yet?
Harbaugh is second to none in the arena of quarterback development. Look at his accomplishments:
- Built a future number one draft pick in Luck at Stanford
- Rescued Alex Smith’s career from the scrapheap in San Francisco
- Saw what nobody else did in Colin Kaepernick en route to a Super Bowl
- Turned Iowa castaway Jake Rudock into a second-day draft pick
We can sleep soundly about the long-term health of the Wolverines’ passing attack.
But correcting the running game is a more difficult endeavor, as it isn’t centered around one man’s physical ability and decision making like the passing game, but requires five very large gentlemen and one smaller (and much faster) one working together in perfect harmony.
If one lineman misses an assignment and blocks the wrong man, or worse, blocks no one at all, it doesn’t matter if the other four did their jobs flawlessly – the play fails. And even if all five linemen are perfect on an individual play, the running back has to play his part as well – that means hitting the right opening created by the line at the right time.
So it makes sense that Michigan’s current rushing attack is lagging behind where Stanford was at by 2010, but by how much? And how do you separate the performance of the offensive line from the running back’s? If a back takes a handoff from his own ten-yard line and dances through the defense all the way to the goal line, the offensive line assuredly did its job. But (to the chagrin of the big men up front) they should not get credit for what’s happening after the back is propelled past the linebackers and into the secondary, where all that separates him from paydirt is similarly-sized defensive backs and lots of green grass.
One way to do study the impact of an offensive line is by examining a stat created by Football Outsiders called Line Yardage. A partial description of the statistic is as follows:
Based on regression analysis, the Line Yardage formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:
- Losses: 120% value
- 0-4 Yards: 100% value
- 5-10 Yards: 50% value
- 11+ yards: 0% value
For example, a loss of two yards equates to (-2) * (1.2) = -2.4 line yards. A gain of six yards nets the offensive line 4 yards for the first 4 yards, then half of the next two yards, which totals 5 offensive line yards.
I have charted the yardage of every run play of the Harbaugh era at Stanford as well as his first two seasons at Michigan and fit this to Football Outsiders’ Line Yardage formula. The following chart shows each of his six offensive lines at Stanford and Michigan.
(It should be noted that the adjustment Football Outsiders does with these numbers differs from my own, as we will only be comparing one program’s trajectory to a historical precedent instead of trying to rank every offensive line in the country based on their run-blocking ability. The numbers I am presenting are unweighted, as there were no substantial differences in the strength of schedule between any of the six years examined.)
A few caveats here:
- Sacks were not considered, as a play that results in a sack was not a designed run play.
- Run plays that were not the direct result of conventional offensive line blocking, such as jet sweeps or quarterback scrambles, are included, as I had to look through the play by play to chart this which don’t go into enough detail to parse these types of plays out.
- Perhaps the most important caveat: the actual line yardage number for each season is meaningless outside of comparing it with other seasons. An individual line yardage number itself doesn’t directly translate to what you see happening on the field, so it is not advisable to make any literal interpretations from them.
As we can see, Stanford’s offensive lines (at least in terms of run blocking) followed a smooth, upward trajectory from mediocre to elite while Michigan’s first Harbaugh-led offensive line was above national average yet stayed at about the same level between years one and two.
Based on the Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yardage for 2014 (the last year of the Hoke era) vs. 2015 and 2016 (and these numbers are adjusted by F.O. based on game situation and strength of opponent), the Michigan offensive line performed at right around the same level, at least in terms of run blocking, in each of the three seasons. While a bit disappointing, this lends a lot of credence to the reasonably-common theory passed around Michigan circles that the development of ’16 seniors Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnusson, and Ben Braden was stunted by the previous regime. Michigan had a program-record eleven players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, yet none of the draft-eligible trio of seniors were taken by professional franchises.
Though Michigan’s offensive line will lack experience this season, it is still anchored by all-conference player Mason Cole. He’ll be accompanied by younger linemen (unlike in 2015 and 2016), but likely ones with greater athletic ability and, perhaps more importantly, ones that are a clean slate for Harbaugh and his staff to mold into the type of bulldozers he had at Stanford.
Next, let’s look at another couple charts; both of which are promising for Michigan supporters. First, the adjusted offensive rushing efficiencies for the four Harbaugh years at Stanford and his first two at Michigan, both by The Power Rank’s yards per carry adjusted for strength of schedule (TPR Rushing) and Bill Connelly’s S&P. The last column shows total offense by S&P.
|team||The Power Rank||S&P Rushing||S&P Offense|
You’ll notice that even as the Stanford offensive line was still a work in progress, the run game took a massive step forward in 2008. This goes to show the impact that a back like Toby Gerhart (2009 Heisman finalist and first-team All American) can have on an offense. Remember that line yardage doesn’t give the offensive line total credit for big, explosive plays like the long runs Gerhart ripped off with regularity at Stanford during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Fortunately, Michigan has a young back in Chris Evans that, while being much different than Gerhart stylistically, has the potential to be similarly explosive. As a freshman, the Indianapolis product ran for 7.0 yards per carry on 88 touches; he’ll have even more of an impact as a sophomore taking the lion’s share of the carries.
You’ll also notice that the Stanford run game dropped off from excellent to merely good between 2009 and 2010, and yet, the offense as a whole continued its meteoric rise. Of course, Stanford had a two-time first-team All American and future NFL Pro Bowler at quarterback in Andrew Luck during Harbaugh’s final season in Palo Alto.
Given Harbaugh’s track record, I wouldn’t bet against Harbaugh having a quarterback playing at a similar level in Ann Arbor before too long. And once that young man is accompanied by an offensive line like Stanford’s in 2010, the sky is the limit for Michigan.