Stats that matter in '14: rushing percentages

The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really 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’s rushing percentages

2013 review: Looking at statistics gives a general idea for whether a team excelled or struggled, but to really piece in how much that team struggled in a certain facet of the game, sometimes it helps to look at percentages. For Michigan’s run game, that’ll be key in reviewing last season and looking forward to 2014.

There are three percentages in the run game that are particularly important to look at when deciding how effective it was. The following is a look at those percentages for Michigan and comparing them to other leaders.

Percentage of runs that were 0/negative yards:

Michigan: 34.9

Big Ten leader (Ohio State): 15.0

National leader (Navy): 12.4

Percentage of runs that were 5-plus yards:

Michigan: 33.8

Big Ten leader/National leader (Ohio State): 54.6

Percentage of first downs per rush attempt:

Michigan: 21.6

Big Ten leader/National leader (Ohio State): 35.2

Obviously, negative plays were a huge issue for the Wolverines last season, and Brady Hoke and Doug Nussmeier both know that must improve in 2014. The negative plays in the run game were a particular disaster for Michigan as it led the nation in both percentage of rushing plays for zero or negative gain as well as the total number of those runs (174).

The team that accounted for the second-most unproductive runs was Utah State (163), but it ran the ball about 100 more times than Michigan, so it only accounted for an unproductive run about 20 percent of the time as opposed to Michigan, which saw one out of every three runs go nowhere.

Considering how many of the Wolverines’ runs went nowhere or backwards, it’s kind of surprising how many did eventually break out for gains of five-plus yards. It’s still a percentage that needs major improvement considering the Wolverines didn’t crack the top-100 nationally, finishing 109th, but it's surprising that they gained five-plus yards at the same clip that they were held for zero or negative yards.

In the best-case scenario, the percentage of runs that account for five or more yards needs to be much greater than the percentage of runs that account for zero yards or negative yardage -- a good rushing team can't be stopped that quickly that frequently. When looking at programs that finished in the top five in percentage of team rushes gaining five or more yards, it’s not surprising how much more prevalent productive rushes were in comparison to unproductive ones. Each of those teams broke out for five-plus yard runs at least 2.5 times more often than they accounted for rushes of that gained no positive yardage (Ohio State: 3.6, Texas A&M: 2.6, Oregon: 2.7, Northern Illinois: 3.5, Wisconsin: 2.5).

It’s also important to look at how often a team gained a first down when rushing. Just 10 teams in the country accounted for a first down more than 30 percent of the time they rushed the ball. Michigan was not one of them, only accounting for a first down 21.6 percent of the time it rushed the ball.

It didn’t take a whole lot of statistics to know that the run game was unproductive last season. But it certainly does help to dive more in to see exactly where and exactly how it was unproductive, then use those stats to see where the Wolverines need to make their most significant gains in 2014.

2014 preview: This is a part of Michigan’s game that must improve if the Wolverines want to have a successful season. Michigan could improve by 10 percent in each category, and that still might not be enough for the Wolverines to end up as Big Ten Champions.

However, if the Wolverines had been conference champs this season, that means they would’ve been headed to a BCS bowl game, so we can look at the statistical averages of the 10 teams that did play in BCS bowl games see where the Wolverines would need to hit in order to put themselves in that company.

As far the rushes of zero or negative yards, where the Wolverines struggled the most, BCS teams had an average of 19.8 percent of rushes going for zero or negative gain. That means the Wolverines would almost need to cut their percentage in half to reach that level, and would’ve required the Wolverines to have gained yards on 75 more runs than they did in 2013.

The Wolverines weren’t quite as far off in five-plus yard runs. With 33.8 percent of Michigan’s runs gaining at least five yards, it's less than 10 percent behind the average of last season's BCS teams. Those 10 teams, on average, gained at least five yards on 43.5 percent of their rushes.

And when it comes to first downs per rush, the average of the 10 BCS-bowl teams was 28.5 percent, with the lowest being 23.8 (Stanford). That average would require Michigan to boost its percentage by just 6.9 percent.

So while those might be high goals, but they’re goals that Michigan must strive for if it wants to find itself competing in the national spotlight any time soon.