The Wolverine

Sept 2023

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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SEPTEMBER 2023 ❱ THE WOLVERINE 65 T he bar has been set for Michigan football in 2023. The expectations are sky high. As the back-to-back Big Ten champions, the second-ranked team in the preseason Associated Press poll, the fifth-ranked program in re- turning production according to ESPN's Bill Connelly and one of the few con- tenders returning their starting quar- terback, the Wolverines are aiming for a national title. As a result, people will be focused on Michigan as it starts the season to see if it has all the pieces necessary to make it happen. However, they will have to look at more than just the results in the first few weeks of the season. The Wolverines should not be tested as a team during September. Accord- ing to SP+, a tempo- and opponent- adjusted algorithm that measures ef- ficiency and was created by Connelly, Michigan is projected to win each of its nonconference contests against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green by at least 40 points and its Big Ten home opener against Rutgers by 37 points. These games should be over by the third quarter. Therefore, people will need to look deeper than the final score to see if Michigan is doing what it needs to do to build the foundation to compete for a national championship. In doing so, the people should be focusing on the following two metrics during the first month of the season — forced incom- pletion rate and contested catch targets and rate. FORCED INCOMPLETION RATE Although sophomore Will Johnson is expected to blossom into a star, maybe Michigan's only major question is at the second corner spot with the departures of DJ Turner II and Gemon Green. The Wolverines need to assess who is ready to line up opposite Johnson, particularly with Ohio State's wide re- ceiver duo of Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka waiting at the season's end. One of the best ways to do that is to check the candidates' forced incomple- tion rate. Forced incompletion rate is a newer statistic created by Pro Football Focus that more accurately measures a cor- nerback's performance against the pass. PFF defines forced incompletion rate as forced incompletions (pass break- ups, interceptions and tight coverage) divided by total targets. The purpose is to try to remove the noise in corner- back statistics due to errors by the of- fense, such as an inaccurate throw or a dropped ball, and highlight plays being made by the defender. Mich igan's first four oppo nents likely will have lots of self-inflicted errors on offense with errant passes and misrun routes. Looking solely at converted receiver Amorion Walker's completion percentage allowed or UMass grad transfer Josh Wallace's passer rating permitted will not por- tray a full story. The plays that Walker, Wallace or any other Michigan cornerback make, such as running step for step with receiv- ers and swatting balls away, will better indicate who is ready and prepared to plug up Michigan's pass defense when opposing offenses start to get better. Do n o t b e s u r p r i se d i f Wa l l a ce emerges as the starter. Last season, when Walker was a wideout, Wallace tied for 20th nationally in forced in- completion rate (25 percent) among corners who played at least 20 percent of their teams' snaps. Now he needs to show he can do it at the Power Five level. CONTESTED CATCH TARGETS AND RATE Offensively, Michigan should have one of the best and most dynamic rushing attacks behind senior Blake Corum and junior Donovan Edwards. However, Michigan needs to demon- strate that it can have more balance with the ability to throw the ball and that it trusts quarterback J.J. McCarthy and his receivers to make plays, partic- ularly against those tougher defenses U-M cannot just bludgeon. Therefore, when defenses load up against the run, Michigan needs to be more willing to let McCarthy put the ball up in the air and let his receivers go get it. That happened very infrequently last season. The Wolverines had only 52 con- tested throws, whereas, for reference, Georgia had 77 and Ohio State had 75. Michigan's number was not so low because it had receivers running wide open all game long. Michigan was ac- tively avoiding the risk of a turnover, which, to be fair, U-M did very well (third nationally, with 0.71 turnovers per game). To also be fair, Michigan may have recognized that its receivers strug- gled to make contested catches. They hauled in only 20 contested catches for a low rate of 38.5 percent compared to Georgia (46.8) and OSU (52.0). The Wolverine receivers need to be much better at bringing in 50/50 balls, and there should be improvement this season. The team's contested catch rate was so low because McCarthy and NFL draftee Ronnie Bell were not in sync on those plays (3-of-18). However, in a very small sample size, Cornelius Johnson (3-of-7), Roman Wilson (3-of-4) and Colston Loveland (3-of-4) were more successful. With those three expected to be McCarthy's main targets this season, Michigan's ability to make difficult catches should be better and more on display. It will benefit the Wolverines to work on this aspect of their offense in earlier, less competitive games. ❑ INSIDE THE NUMBERS ❱ DREW HALLETT Two Stats To Watch In September Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on X @DrewCHallett. Last season as a freshman, tight end Colston Loveland went 3-for-4 on contested catches for a 75 percent success rate, albeit on a limited sample size. The Wolverines will need to improve their team average in this category, which was 38.5 percent a year ago. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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