After Morgan Ellison’s indefinite suspension, I’ve seen it stated that perhaps this isn’t a big loss. That nearly half of his rushing yards came against 2 terrible opponents in Georgia Southern and Rutgers. It’s true! Nearly 48% of his rushing yards game in those 2 games. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry in those 2 games versus 3.6 in the other 9.
But is that enough to discount Ellison’s departure?
I mean, Cole Gest averaged 8.4 yards per carry against Georgia Southern and Charleston Southern and 4.1 yards per carry against other opponents.
Ricky Brookins averaged 64 yards per carry on carries against Purdue inside a minute left in the first half and 3.3 yards per carry the rest of the season.
This last example is clearly a ridiculous split. While it is true that Ellison feasted against poor competition, that’s true of a lot of backs. And while he didn’t rack up yards at the same rate, it is worth further examination.
First off, Indiana faced a lot of tough rush defenses in 2017. Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State all finished in the top 18 in rushing defense S&P+.
Their other 5 FBS opponents ranked 50th or worse with an average rank of 91.
In non-garbage time, 57% of Morgan Ellison’s carries came against the 6 tough run defenses. Only 36% of the carries by Indiana’s other backs1 came in these 6 games.
Simply put, a higher percentage of Ellison’s carries came against tough run defenses. Michigan State finished 4th in rushing defense S&P+. Should we punish Ellison for the 17 carries for 47 yards he put up against the Spartans? The only other back to receive carries in that game was Cole Gest’s 3 for 11 yards. Would Gest have performed better than Ellison had he received more carries? Possibly, but certainly not guaranteed.
Where Ellison excelled last year, especially compared to the rest of the backs, was his efficiency. His success rate on the ground was 47% compared to 28% for the rest of the backs.
Breaking it down between the tough run defense and the generous run defenses shows a divide as well. His success rate in the tough 6 games as 33%. That’s not good, but indicative of the opponent and the offensive line struggles. But the other backs were way worse in these games. Their success rate was a paltry 23%. In fact, Ellison’s success rate was higher in the 6 tougher games than the other backs averaged in the 5 combined games against Virginia, Georgia Southern, Maryland, Illinois, and Rutgers.
While not his specialty, his explosive run rate in these 6 games was 7% versus 5% for the other backs.
It’s true that Ellison dominated against some poor opponents in 2017. But he was clearly IU’s best back last season. It’s impossible to pretend that the variance in his performance throughout the season means he was unproven while also ignoring the performance of Indiana’s other backs. He was literally the most proven of all the Indiana backs in camp this fall.2
To act like his indefinite suspension won’t impact the Hoosiers going forward because he performed well in 2 games is naïve.
Clearly Indiana was a better football team with him on it.3
Perhaps Stevie Scott takes the Ellison role as an efficient back. Perhaps Cole Gest takes a step forward. Perhaps Ronnie Walker displays the complete back skills that made him such a highly regarded recruit.
It’s not impossible that one of these things will happen in the same way that Ellison broke out last year or Devine Redding put up 1,012 yards after a season of just 29 carries. Sometimes newcomers make impacts. Sometimes returning players show substantial improvement.
But until one or more of these things happen, Indiana’s backfield is a complete unknown. Again.