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Graphing the Tide at the Rose Bowl: Close, but no Rose

Bama lost on passing, explosiveness, and Red Zones, which is weird for 2023. But, alas!

Michigan Wolverines defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 27-20 in overtime to win the 110th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Pardon the extra editorial (but this is s’posed to be a data column PAWWWLL), but I actually got to go to this game in person, and it was (mostly) really amazing.

It was my first Rose Bowl, and it was everything it was rumored to be. The stadium was old fashioned but beautiful, the Pasadena weather held up, and the fans from both teams really showed up. The folks in my section (high, sunny side) especially — Crimson and Blue alike — were largely good sports through their teams’ respective ups and downs. Plus, they all stood up for every dang play of the game (exhausting, but due in a close one, I think).

I was prepared for most potential outcomes to this game, as I didn’t share the rampant — if not illogical, mind you! — optimism of our fine editors and authors here on RBR. I was ready to lose, if it was in the cards, but hopeful for more. After all, it was a surprising season, we came back from the dead, stopped Georgia, and I was ready to feel ok regardless.

But what was indeed difficult for me was coming to that Buddhist acceptance after the Crimson Tide absolutely had this game late in the 4th quarter. Tide fans in the stands were up and hollering. I envisioned Bama continuing our stronger second half (more on that soon) and closing this thing out. It was unfolding before us all in Pasadena, too, before the close calls, difficult catches, clever play calls, and the disintegration of the Tide in the last few minutes of regulation. With OT looming, I was vaguely hopeful ... but I’d fallen back to earth, and hard. And we saw a different ending to the story instead.

Box Score: Alabama at Michigan (Rose Bowl)

Stat Alabama Michigan
Stat Alabama Michigan
Points 20 27
Total yards 288 351
Rush yards 172 130
Rush attempts 43 32
Yards per rush 4.0 4.1
Pass yards 116 221
Pass attempts 16-23 17-27
Yards per pass 5.0 8.2
1st downs 17 15
3rd down eff 3-13 2-11
4th down eff 0-1 2-2
Turnovers 1 1
Tackles 29 46
Sacks 1 6
Penalties-Yds 3-15 2-25
Possession 32:19 27:41

The stats call it a close game overall. It went into overtime, after all! But some of those stats were kinder to the Tide, some to the Wolverines, and it’s a fair cliche in this case that each team got its breaks, but just a few plays decide a close game.

The Wolverines won in the passing game (on yardage and YPR, if not completion rate), Sacks (big time), and, crucially, 4th down conversions. The Tide had an advantage in TOP and first downs (slightly), and penalty yardage (surprisingly, though it was a pretty clean game overall).

Note that I don’t really care about this box score YPR number: Alabama rushed the ball better, but these classic box scores include Sack yardage as Rush plays, which is asinine. My metrics below support the Tide’s advantage on the ground.

Not seeing graphs below? Tap here to fix it.

Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

I think it’s fair overall to say that Alabama was lucky to slog through a first half with a nearly tied game: the underrated Michigan defensive front had taken us by surprise, generated 5 sacks and more tackles for loss, and we were perhaps one muffed punt away from scoring only 3-6 points in that half.

But damned if Alabama didn’t bounce back in the second half to make this a game. I understand those of you that are saying we should’ve lost by more, but the efficiency metrics tell a story of two teams that, on average, went punch for punch in a heavyweight, defense-oriented match. Both teams hovered in below-average efficiencies (and low explosiveness), but, heck, Alabama had an eight point efficiency advantage (30% to 38%) right before that pivotal turning point in the 4th quarter ... the one where Michigan’s offense suddenly came to life again after getting stamped out for an entire half.

There were certainly flukes in the game, but each team did indeed earn overtime against their top-flight opponent. I think it’s what makes it hurt worse, in my opinion, rather than had we’d somehow Auburn-ed our way into a close one (even if this team did feel like that a few times this season, last night included).

All in all, Alabama was the slightly more efficient team on average, which is pretty nuts considering the putrid offensive drives we saw in this game. Unfortunately, Michigan was bafflingly the more explosive team, especially in the 4th quarter and in overtime, which is what did us in.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

The Tide chart is half encouraging and half horrifying, with a strong note of #RTDB. The running game was at above-average SR’s for practically the entire game, even including two skids where we rushed 6 (1st-2nd quarters), then 5 unsuccessful rushes in a row. We just didn’t get the last three rushes. Meanwhile, the passing game is obviously the topic of the day given that we lost this one. It was awful, with just a single explosive pass (and only five more successful ones) all day.

Michigan’s chart is much more balanced by the end of the first half. Their rushing game came out strong but drifted into average territory by the half. Including the halftime between them, Michigan ran twelve unsuccessful rush plays in a row. (Remember that time when Alabama was close to winning the game? It was at that time). The Wolverine’s passing attack was also DOA (5 unsuccessful passes) before a few successful runs in the first half got things going for them ... plus, of course, they strung together a few good passes right at the end of the 4th, just in time.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

Both teams ran pretty balanced offenses, with Alabama’s tilting more towards the rush for spurts of the game. And, look, I’m not one who thinks you can just run the ball all the dang time and win games that way — just look at our overtime results — but it is certainly stinging to see that the best moments of the game for us were during that rushing surge from the late 3rd quarter and most of the way through the 4th.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

The Play Type chart looks a lot like the over time series above. Alabama really did rush the ball pretty well — albeit with Milroe scrambles included — but the passing game was so putrid that we didn’t get the rout we’d hoped for, and instead lost the thing.

Speaking of a rout we’d hoped for: it’s interesting that we did actually limit the Wolverines on rushing to a large extent, just like we’d talked about on this here family blog. Sure, Michigan still ran a balanced offense (per earlier charts), but they weren’t going to win on a 32% Rushing Success rate. It took a notably better passing game, including an explosive one, but they won with it. That is, I guess we did make them a bit one-dimensional like we’d hoped to ... but J.J. McCarthy (and, I think especially, their OC) pulled it out and won using that less-preferred dimension.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

Alabama’s Play Map is about what you’d expected if you watched the game, but there are a few striking features:

  • An absolute stumble in the first half where we didn’t put up a single successful play for some 10-12 minutes of game time
  • A few flurries of success right around the halftime mark, then again in that 3rd/4th quarter transition
  • The absolutely awful Average Extra Yards line ... I think the worst I’ve ever seen. The negative plays in the first half just sunk this average to where it didn’t even sniff plus territory for the rest of the game (despite climbing through much of the remainder of the game)

And Michigan had some mirroring and some contrasting effects. They also were successful in patches rather than quarters (with an infuriating spree late in the 4th), but with more explosive passes and an Average Extra Yards line that was near neutral territory for much of the game. That last part, especially, may correlate with our perception that Michigan probably should’ve been up by more after the first half.

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

Yep, Alabama in 2023 tends to just play about a half’s worth of good football per game, and this one was no different: The Wolverines beat the Tide on efficiency and explosiveness in the first two quarters, then decidedly lost the second two (except for some explosive passes in the 4th), then blasted through overtime.

I’m actually surprised the first quarter looks so kind to the Tide; at that point you could argue that we were keeping up with Michigan on a down-by-down basis (though the muffed punt certainly gave us extra opportunities to make that true, and to score). And that 3rd quarter was an absolute banger for the Tide defense according to SR.

Unfortunately, yeah, the Overtime existed. After running a good second half, Alabama’s offense suddenly couldn’t do anything except pull off a single successful play on an explosive pass to Burton (an exceedingly rare sight that evening). We couldn’t even get the 3 points off of it because the defense had let Michigan’s zombie offense blow through in their OT possession prior.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

The Drives chart is a somewhat sickening echo of the other trends. Alabama’s second drive was technically after that muffed punt, where we ran 4 rushing plays (including two short Milroe gains), to get a quick touchdown. Other than that, it was 3-and-out city until we finally got feisty late in the 2nd quarter (drive 11).

The second half was a lot more charming, with some longer drives and middling-to-good success rates (aside another 3-and-out sprinkled in there, plus some late game garbage).

Michigan’s charts are, again, something of a mirror reflection of these, with success often happening during Bama’s droughts, and vice versa. They had one fewer 3-and-out but slightly fewer (or smaller) sustained drives, too. Honestly it’s weird to see this chart and think that this team accrued 63 more yards than the Tide, but I think the culprit is in those explosiveness measures per drive (yes, especially late), where the Wolverines added more yardage per play.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

Watching it live, I felt like Michigan won on 3rd downs (as you tend to feel when they convert a big one or two). But really neither team did much there, and Alabama technically won on efficiency. Unfortunately, 3rd down stops don’t necessarily end drives — especially not these days — and Michigan was 2/2 on 4th down while Alabama couldn’t muster its only 4th down opportunity.

Michigan won on 1st downs — and did a nice job in playcalling to use that down to try for explosive plays, it seems — but strangely the Tide seemed to set up well for 2nd downs and did rather well there.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

And yep, here’s one of those “ah, there’s the hidden victory” dimensions: the Red Zone. Neither team spent much time there (5 plays from Michigan to Alabama’s 6), but the trends were still drastic enough for those small samples to matter.

Alabama’s efficiencies largely lives between the 20’s, while the Wolverines made up for their overall disadvantage by absolutely cruising in the Red Zone. It reminded me of the 2018 Title Game loss to Clemson, where the Tua-led Alabama was much more efficient on most downs, but shat the bed on 3rd downs (especially on defense), and in the Red Zone (especially on offense).

And it sucks, obviously, but especially because this Alabama team has been pretty solid in the Red Zone (see the Tennessee win), with the notable exception being in the near-loss against Auburn. Sigh.

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

Wow. After seeing all of the mirrored results and contrasts between the charts from this game, it’s odd to see this normally-enigmatic chart show us nearly lock-stepped performance between the teams. So strange! Whatever these offenses were doing, they tended to be similarly successful from similar distances-to-go.

Frustratingly, the Tide was more efficient in most of these categories, with notable exceptions being SR/XR on long downs (10+), and explosiveness on short distances. The latter, I think, you can attribute to clever (and arguably risky) play-calling from the Wolverines — consider Michigan’s 4th-and-2 conversion in the 4th quarter, which resulted in a 27-yard explosive catch — whereas Alabama tends to “punch it in” from short and doesn’t rack up explosive plays there.

Top Rushers

Usually, it’s not a good sign when your QB is your leading rusher by yardage, attempts, successful plays, and efficiency (yes, we’re excluding sacks here given that those are considered passing plays in my numbers). Now, for the Milroe-led 2023 Tide it’s a bit more nuanced than that, but it still feels like a negative thing here. That said, Jalen Milroe did indeed do some good work with his legs.

It was good to see Jase McClellan back in the lineup after his injuries, and it was especially good to see him explode for a touchdown in his second touch of the game. But his efficiencies fell off quickly after that, which may have caused us to look to surprise backups Justice Haynes and Jam Miller to change the pace. For what it’s worth, they did something right, as they had 4/5 for 80% SR between them (albeit on few carries), though I’m not sure what caused Roydell to nearly fall out of the rotation after his pretty good game against Georgia in the SECCG.

On the Michigan side, this vaunted rushing offense really wasn’t very efficient. Blake Corum is being celebrated in postgame highlights today as a hero — and he did make the most of clutch opportunities, with 2 explosive rushes and an explosive catch in there too — but on the ground he wasn’t very efficient (36.8%), even falling shy of McClellan’s rate.

Other ‘phenom’ Donovan Edwards didn’t do much either, and McCarthy did have one big rush, as we feared he might, but otherwise didn’t scare us with his legs.

Top Passers

This is an unusual line for Milroe; not just because it’s generally bad, but because so many of these catches were unsuccessful catches, i.e., caught but not for enough yardage to really matter on that play. We’ve been talking all year about how we wish Milroe had more of an intermediate passing game, to take the check-down, etc.; but we apparently did try to dial up something like that and weren’t really rewarded for it. Perhaps an execution issue, but I’m not sure.

In any case, it does shed light on Milroe’s box score line: he actually does have a higher completion % than McCarthy coming out of this game, but so many of these weren’t actually good gains. Meanwhile, McCarthy racked up six explosive catches to Milroe’s single one, albeit on more attempts.

Top Receivers

Honestly, I feel like I don’t remember a single Alabama receiver catching anything all day. Apparently it did happen — albeit, again, most often on short unsuccessful gains — and unsurprisingly Isaiah Bond was the only one to really show any repeat success in the receiver corp.

Jermaine Burton actually had as many catches as Bond, but all of them were on gains that were too short to convert or be considered successful (with the last one being that important-but-not-successful 11 yard gain on 3rd and 14 in OT).

On the Michigan side of the chart, Roman Wilson gashed us with a few big plays — including some YOLO stuff with that double-pass early in the game — with three explosive catches that, in a vacuum, probably decided the game. Blake Corum also showed up here as the second-most-important receiver on the team. Kinda makes you miss Jahmyr Gibbs, doesn’t it?

Alabama Tacklers vs. Michigan (Rose Bowl)

Team Player SOLO TOT
Team Player SOLO TOT
Alabama Caleb Downs 6 8
Alabama Deontae Lawson 1 6
Alabama Kool-Aid McKinstry 5 5
Alabama Justin Eboigbe 4 4
Alabama Jaylen Key 4 4
Alabama Dallas Turner 2 3
Alabama Malachi Moore 1 3
Alabama Terrion Arnold 2 2
Alabama Tim Keenan III 1 2
Alabama Tim Smith 1 1
Alabama Kendrick Law 1 1
Alabama Jihaad Campbell 1 1
Alabama Kneeland Hibbett 0 1
Alabama Jah-Marien Latham 0 1
Alabama Jaheim Oatis 0 1
Alabama Emmanuel Henderson Jr. 0 1
Alabama Damon Payne Jr. 0 1
Alabama Chris Braswell 0 1
Alabama Trezmen Marshall 0 1
Alabama Trey Amos 0 0

Freshman phenom Caleb Downs was again our leading tackler, with 6 solos out of 9 total tackles. He gets the image feature in this sad article, even if it’s a picture taken during a negative time for the Tide defense. Kool-Aid also represented the defensive backs with 5 solo tackles of his own.

Deonte Lawson was the second tackler on the list, but he was usually just part of the pile given that he only had one solo. The next inside linebacker on the list, Jihaad Campbell, appears well down the list at 1/1, so perhaps Michigan was scheming to keep our linebackers out of it (or perhaps they just weren’t playing very well).

Otherwise, the top of this list is a mix of linemen and OLB (Eboigbe, Keenan, Turner, Smith), and more DBs (Key, Moore, Arnold). Braswell only showed up for a single shared tackle way down the list. It’s too bad that we’ve already seen some of these excellent names for the last time in Crimson!

Sigh. Double sigh. Eventually the logic will catch back up to us: the team played a good enough game to go to get to overtime against the #1 team in the rankings. Really, they were in a position to beat this #1 right after beating another #1 in December. That this team — young, new QB(s), new coordinators, no Will Anderson — was able to get here was a miracle in itself, indeed with micro-miracles sprinkled in along the way.

But, for now, I can relate to the dreariness. A few plays that flipped this game cause us to pick apart the negatives — bad snaps, bad reads, bad breaks — instead of celebrating the things that did go right — strong 2nd half drives, excellent special teams, a resurgent rushing attack — to put us there in the first place.

Advanced metrics can only tell you so much, and the oh-so-close might just feel worse, but just know that the team that lost last night deserved to be there, and, kinda amazingly, nearly played well enough to win.

As we say in these moments, Roll Tide, anyway.