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Anatomy of an Upset: Appalachian State vs Michigan (2007)

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It was recently concluded on Study Hall that a look at previous David > Goliath upsets might make for an interesting series, a subsidiary of the Classic Study Hall, so to speak.  So we begin that today. This series will focus mostly on games in which mid-major (or FCS) teams knocked off their athletically-superior opposition.  In comparison to the Classic Study Halls, these pieces won't go quite as in-depth about the games themselves (in other words, no quarter-by-quarter recaps); they will instead focus on the details of the box score (and whatever other important aspects emerged) from a "what mattered and what didn't" perspective.  Hopefully over the course of a few pieces, we will begin to see themes emerging.

We start with the upset to end all upsets, the game that sent the 2007 season spiraling toward an almost unprecedented number of crazy results (and made 2007 one of my favorite seasons ever ... that and the not entirely unrelated "Mizzou was ranked No. 1" thing).  I want to approach these pieces from an "underdog strategies" perspective, and that's going to be difficult to do with this one since I don't have full-season play-by-play numbers for Appalachian State, but it's still a good starting point.

Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32

App. St.

App. St.
Close % 100.0%

Field Position % 56.9%

Success Rate 45.2%
Leverage % 63.6%

PPP 0.36

S&P 0.811

EqPts 28.8

Close Success Rate 43.9%

Success Rate 41.7%
Close PPP 0.44

PPP 0.57
Close S&P 0.875

S&P 0.988

EqPts 11.0

Number 3
Close Success Rate 41.0%

Turnover Pts 12.7
Close PPP 0.28

Turnover Pts Margin -2.2
Close S&P 0.692

Line Yards/carry 3.03

Q1 S&P 1.140

Q2 S&P 1.319
Q3 S&P 0.538
EqPts 17.8

Q4 S&P 0.364
Close Success Rate 48.2%

Close PPP 0.66

1st Down S&P 0.612
Close S&P 1.140

2nd Down S&P 0.907
SD/PD Sack Rate 9.1% / 18.8%
5.6% / 0.0%

3rd Down S&P 1.426
Projected Pt. Margin: App. St. -6.8 | Actual Pt. Margin: App. St. +2

What Mattered: Field Position.  Over the last six seasons, the typical Field Position % is in the 43-44% range.  Appalachian State's was 57%, suggesting both sustained drives and good starting field position.  Seventeen points came off of drives that lasted at least nine plays (12 for 65, 9 for 65, 11 for 64), and seven of 14 drives started at ASU's 33 or better.  Neither seem like huge numbers, but it was big enough to make a difference.

What Didn't Matter: Leverage %.  Appalachian State's Leverage Rate was below average for the game as a whole.  They weren't particularly adept at avoiding passing downs on offense, and consequently, eight of their 14 drives ended unsuccessfully in four plays or less.  Of course, it was the other six drives that mattered.

What Mattered: Passing Downs.  Really, Michigan allowed only four sustained drives all afternoon.  But Appalachian State maximized the impact of those four drives (and a fifth one -- a short, 37-yard touchdown drive) because of passing downs success.  They were nearly fifty percent better in terms of Passing Downs S&P, and the impact was felt at key times.  Down 14-7, ASU went 3-for-3 in converting passing downs on their third drive; they completed an eight-yard pass on second-and-nine, an 11-yard pass on third-and-six, and a nine-yard touchdown pass on second-and-goal from the nine.  They were two-for-two on their next scoring drive.  They were two-for-four on the next one.  Their success came in batches, but it worked for 34 points.  This was, perhaps, the single biggest key of the game (blocked kicks aside, anyway).  ASU was better on passing downs than on standard downs.  For the season as a whole, Michigan's defense was actually quite good on passing downs (second in Def. Passing Downs S&P+, in fact), but as Oregon would discover the next week, they were certainly not very good at the beginning of the season.

What Mattered: Timing.  In big upsets or tight games, we typically remember what happened in the fourth quarter.  And to be sure, Appalachian State made the fourth-quarter plays to win (two blocked field goals, the 24-yard pass from Armanti Edwards to CoCo Hillary that set up the game-winning field goal, etc.).  But they truly won the game in the first half.  And that furthers one of the "truths" I've mentioned many times: the first and second quarters matter as much as, or more than, the third and fourth.  They define how the game will play out.  Appalachian State found a weakness in Michigan's defense and exploited it to the tune of four touchdowns in their first five drives.  They went up 28-14 late in the first half, and Michigan spent themselves attempting to come back.  In a lot of ways, this was the same as the Alabama-Texas game we reviewed yesterday -- ASU won the game in the second quarter, then almost gave it all away late (but didn't).

(Another way timing mattered: if this game were played in October or November, when Michigan's defense had things figured out, it would have probably played out differently.  But the first week of the season was a completely different story.)

What Didn't Matter: Turnovers.  I doubt this is a trend with these games, eh?  ASU survived three turnovers, including one that took place right after Michigan had taken the lead with less than five minutes left.  Michigan even recovered two of three fumbles. I guess this proves the age-old truism: if David is to beat Goliath while losing the turnover battle, he better block two field goals.  Hey speaking of which...

What Mattered: Special Teams.  How did Michigan lose a game they were projected to have won by 6.8 points?  Well, they had field goals of 43 and 37 yards blocked, for starters.  They went 2-for-4 in field goals while ASU went 2-for-3.  That's not a huge difference (especially since most of the rest of the special teams battle was either a draw or in Michigan's favor), but in a game you lose by two...

The Lesson

Really, the major takeaway from this game is that Goliath (Michigan) let David (Appalachian State) off the hook when they had the opportunity to end either drives or the game as whole.  Passing downs mortally wounded Michigan long before the blocked field goals finished them off.  As long as Goliath inserts the dagger when he has the chance, David's opportunities will be very limited.

And because I just can't help myself...and because it's still funny five years later...

Next up: Alabama vs UL-Monroe (2007).