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Jim Harbaugh’s hilariously obscure praise of Rutgers is actually valid

The Scarlet Knights do have “ridiculous statistics” on kickoffs.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

One of football’s most time-honored traditions is coaches using their game-week press conferences to pretend the bad teams they’re playing are actually good. Virtually all coaches do it, and they’ve made it so common that no one usually bats an eye anymore.

It takes something truly amazing — like Dabo Swinney calling Louisville “the best 2-6 team I’ve seen. I don’t know how else to say it” before scoring 77 points on the Cardinals — for anyone to think it’s notable when a coach does this before a game.

Michigan plays Rutgers this week. The Scarlet Knights are No. 126 in S&P+ and have won one game. Then, Jim Harbaugh offered some obscure praise.

“Their kickoff coverage is really impressive,” he told reporters Monday. “One of the best in the nation. Ridiculous statistics in that regard.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that was a backhanded compliment, or Harbaugh trying to amuse himself by reaching for something nice to say. But actually, Rutgers is deeply good at covering kicks.

The Scarlet Knights are giving up 14.88 yards per kick return. That’s second in the country behind Eastern Michigan in 2018, but it’s even better than that in a few ways:

  • EMU’s average kickoff is only 59 yards (108th in the country), while Rutgers’ is 61 yards (78th), so return men going against Rutgers have a few extra steps to get going when they want to bring out a kick. But EMU’s only 0.88 yards ahead of RU in average return length.
  • Only five teams since 2009, when cfbstats.com started tracking national kickoff return totals, have given up fewer yards per runback than Rutgers so far in 2018.

Advanced stats don’t like them as much. They’re only 31st this year in Kickoff Success Rate, a measure of how often the returning team gets past the 25-yard line. I am choosing to chalk that up to Rutgers being just 87th in touchback rate. The average RU kickoff goes 61 yards, meaning it gets caught at the 4-yard line, which seems like a pretty good spot for a speedy return man to get going. It’s hard to pin down the exact reasons for a kickoff unit’s success without watching lots of all-22 film, and obviously, no human should spend time combing through film of Rutgers kickoffs with a fine-toothed comb.

It’s important for everyone to find something they’re good at.

The potential problem against Michigan is that kicking off more than once in a game requires you to score points. Michigan has the country’s No. 1 defense by S&P+ and has held Rutgers’ to 30 points in their previous three meetings, including zero in a 78-0 romp of historic proportions in Piscataway in 2016. I suppose we will see what this Saturday brings.