In his 5-year coaching tenure with the Michigan Wolverines, Jim Harbaugh has been through it all; heartbreak, triumph, losing seasons, championship seasons, fan criticism, and high fan praise. This article will take a look at his offense’s progression through these years–specifically comparing his run/pass tendencies. This past season, a common saying (referring to Coach Harbaugh’s play style) amongst Michigan fanatics was “Run the damn ball!”, celebrating the Wolverine’s effective ‘run it down your throat’ style of play. While this is certainly fun to holler out from the bleachers of the legendary Big House, it might be worth taking a look at some trends to see how much of an effect Harbaugh has had on the Maize ‘n Blue’s run game.
Below we can see Harbaugh’s Wolverine’s trends of rush attempts vs. pass attempts since 2015 (with a lag year to show changes in his first year). What we see isn’t much of a surprise–the Michigan Wolverines LOVE to run the damn ball. Last season alone, Harbaugh’s offense handed the ball off over 550 times, in comparison to their 400 pass attempts. With 57.5% of his plays finding his RB’s gut, there is no questioning how this offense operates. It is especially important to note the uptick in carries following 2019–possibly following a mid-tier Shea Patterson season performance, Harbaugh thought it would be best to fully commit back to his ground and pound style of play if he wanted a chance at beating his rival, OSU (he succeeded in case anyone forgot!).
Now let’s take a look at how effective this run-heavy offense has been. Michigan has not only been incredibly efficient with their run game, racking up over 2000 rush yards in every season other than 2015 which Harbaugh has been at the helm, but has also done a fairly decent job keeping their production balanced. In each of the 3 seasons Harbaugh has been coach and the Wolverine’s pass/rush yard totals were well balanced (2016, 2018, and 2021), they have made a New Year’s Six Bowl (Orange, Peach, and Orange). It can’t go unsaid that the Wolverines played in the Outback bowl in 2017 without a strongly balanced offense, but it is without a doubt that offensive harmony will help push a team to its full potential.
Now looking at Michigan’s EPA (expected points added) and WPA (winning percentage added) progression through Harbaugh’s tenure, the first thing we notice is the net rise in both stats over the past 5 seasons. Michigan is getting better. Even more noticeable is the volatility of Harbaugh’s pass offenses vs. his run offenses. While his running game EPA totals have typically fluttered at a net of 0, the Wolverine passing game fluctuates each year. Hopefully, they will be settled in from this point out with McNamara coming off a stellar season and J.J. McCarthy ready to prove himself.
It is also key to look at Michigan’s trends in comparison to the rest of CFB (each start of the season in the graphic is marked by a red dotted line, starting at 2015). When looking at mean EPA (rolling mean calculated on a 10-game basis) for the past 7 years, we see again that Michigan is typically average with their running efficiency–last year’s remarkable season performances from Corum and Haskins however have pushed them near the top going into 2022. We also see Harbaugh’s effectiveness as a QB coach in the second slide. Following his hire in 2015, there was an immediate rise in pass EPA for the team, and despite some struggles by Shea Patterson in 2017, Harbaugh has coached his QB room well, generally keeping them positive for avg. passing EPA.
We see similar trends with rolling average WPA for the Wolverines as well.
We do see that Michigan lies in the upper tier of CFB offenses in terms of rush attempts, and has been consistent in that manner as well. The direct opposite goes for their passing game.
All in all, it is safe to say Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team is an effective, run-heavy offense, and it is acceptable to continue to yell “run the damn ball” in imitation of our coach from the bleachers on game day. Go Blue, and cheers to (hopefully) another great upcoming season for our beloved coach Jim Harbaugh (the GOAT) and our Michigan Wolverines.