Hidden within the IU offense’s well-documented turnover and red zone woes was a factor that maybe didn’t get quite enough attention: bad injury luck. On the other side of the coin, good injury luck played an under-reported role in the IU defense’s dramatic improvement.
“Luck,” for our purposes, is anything affecting a team’s performance that is outside of the team’s control. Injuries qualify as luck because the amount and extent of injuries to a team’s players are almost entirely outside of the team’s control. A team with good injury luck loses very few players to injuries and for very few games. The opposite is true for bad injury luck. Like other forms of luck that affect athletic performance, we expect injury luck to more or less balance out in the long term.
The charts below show players that missed time during the 2016 season due to injury. The number of possessions and games missed for each player are shown. For players that wouldn’t have rotated if they had played – really just offensive linemen – the possession calculation was easy: just add up all the possessions in the games that player missed. For everyone else, it’s a little more complicated: I calculated the percentage of possessions that a given player participated in while healthy, then multiplied that percentage by the total number of possessions in the game or games that player missed due to injury. The idea is that while losing Cole Gest for the rest of the year in the season’s 3rd game certainly hurt, in reality, Gest was only seeing about 1 possession of action per game through the first three games. So while Gest missed 10 games, it’s quite a bit different in terms of actual possessions missed that the 11 games and 151 possessions that Dimitric Camiel missed because he would have played every possession at right tackle.
Also of note in the charts below, I did not start tracking player participation by possession until the Wake Forest game so the game and possession totals only relate to the “Power 5” portion of the schedule (aka the last 11 contests after the FIU and Ball State games).
501 offensive possessions and 52 games lost due to injury. 66 defensive possessions and 6 games lost due to injury. That’s more than 7x as many possessions and almost 9x as many games lost of the offensive side of the ball.
Let’s start with the defense. In the regular season, the extent of IU’s injuries were two D-linemen – Jacob Robinson and Robert McCray – who each missed two games against Power 5 opponents. Not a single player, starter or reserve, from IU’s secondary or linebacking crew missed time with an injury.1 Even with the injuries to A’Shon Riggins and Marcus Oliver that kept them out of the bowl game, this was a crazy run of good health. We should not expect it to continue in 2017.
On offense, things went off the rails early. By the start of the Wake game, IU was already down an All-American guard (Feeney), its top returning wide receiver (Cobbs) and it’s starting right tackle (probably IU’s 2nd best OL, Camiel). Over the course of the season, three other offensive linemen would miss time. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th running backs on the depth chart all missed significant time (Majette, Williams and Gest). Each of those backs saw the field early in the season due to IU’s heavy rotation at that spot, and their absence forced IU – for the 2nd consecutive season – to rely on walk-on RBs late in the year. This run of bad luck probably (hopefully) won’t repeat itself in 2017 either.
When you combine the two sides of the ball, it’s hard to say that injuries ultimately cost IU anything in 2016. Sure, a full season of Feeney, Camiel and Cobbs would have helped the offense – the presence of those three may well have flipped the Wake game. On the other hand, significant injuries to Ralph Green, Tegray Scales, Jonathan Crawford or Rashard Fant would have caused real problems on a defense without proven depth. The Michigan State or Purdue wins may have flipped without a few key defensive performers.
Looking to 2017, we can only hope that the young offensive players forced into action by injury – like Nick Westbrook and Simon Stepaniak – turn into experienced vets. On the defensive side, continued good health would be ideal, but hopefully Coach Allen & Co. have developed some depth if the injury bug does finally bite.