Michigan And The Refs: The Facts Behind Penalties


By now, the phantom holding call issued to Michigan senior running back Karan Higdon has been dissected as much as the Zapruder film (though I still can't see where the flag comes from).

This has led to conversations about officiating and how it seems that the Wolverines are unfairly penalized compared to their competitors. In Jim Harbaugh's four seasons, U-M has ranked as the 121st, 95th, 17th and 86th most penalized team in the country (2015-present, respectively, and penalties per game). Meanwhile, the Maize and Blue have seen their foes very little penalized, Michigan ranking 106th, 82nd, 91st and 85th in penalties against per game.

I wanted to dig a little deeper so I looked at every opponent Michigan has faced in Harbaugh's four seasons -- all 44 of them -- comparing the number of penalties called on them relative to their season average without the U-M game as a factor. What I found is that in 16 games, the opponent was called for more penalties against the Wolverines than their season average while in 27 games they were penalized less and in one game, it was equal.

In 2015, opponents were actually called for more penalties in seven games and saw fewer calls go against them in six games. However, it has swung dramatically the other way ever since, opponents drawing more penalties than average in just 4 of 13 games in 2016, 4 of 13 games in 2017 and 1 of 5 games in 2018.

The biggest beef should be with Michigan-Penn State games, where the Nittany Lions haven't hit their season average for penalties once. In 2015, the Nittany Lions were called for an average of 5.3 but were flagged only three times against U-M. In 2016, they had a season average of 5.1 but were called just twice against Michigan and in 2017, they averaged 4.4 but were called for a mere one penalty against the Wolverines. If you're keeping track, that means that Penn State has been called for 8.8 fewer penalties than their season average when they play the Maize and Blue.

Here is the rest of Michigan's matchups with Big Ten East foes.


2015 9 > 6.8 season avg.

2016 4 < 6.3

2017 5 < 6.0

18 total < 19.1


2015 5 < 7.3 season avg.

2016 6 < 6.8

2017 7 = 7.0

18 total < 20.3

Michigan State

2015 5 < 5.4 season avg.

2016 7 > 6.4

2017 11 > 6.1

22 total > 17.9


2015 7 > 6.5 season avg.

2016 7 > 5.2

2017 3 < 6.2

17 total < 17.9

Ohio State

2015 5 < 5.8 season avg.

2016 2 < 6.7

2017 9 > 6.8

16 total < 19.3

Penn State

2015 3 < 5.3 season avg.

2016 2 < 5.1

2017 1 < 4.4

6 total < 14.8

In 18 total games, opponents have been called more than their season average six times (twice apiece for Rutgers and Michigan State), and 11 times have been called for fewer than their average, with one equal to.

Michigan had a legit argument in its 2016 matchup with the Buckeyes as OSU was a highly penalized team that year but was called just twice in THE Game, 4.7 fewer penalties than its season average. Besides Penn State, there really are no other egregious discrepancies among Big Ten East matchups.

Northwestern was flagged only twice last weekend but has been earning just 3.7 flags per game in their other three contests. The Wildcats rank second nationally this year in penalties per game.

Do with this what you want, but in Michigan's 12 losses under Harbaugh, opponents have been flagged for fewer penalties than their season average eight times, by an average of 1.9 penalties. They were called for more than their average in four games -- against Utah in 2015, Michigan State in 2017, Ohio State in 2017 and South Carolina in 2017 - by an average of 2.5 per game.

Is the difference overall significant? That's up to you to decide. Opponents have been called for fewer than their season average in 61.4 percent of Michigan's games, including 66.7 percent of the Wolverines' losses.

Overall, the change in those 27 games that foes have been called for less than their average is a 1.9 fewer penalties than their average while in 16 games in which opponents have been flagged for more, the average is 1.6.

In its entirety, opponents have averaged 0.5 fewer penalties per game against Michigan than their season average during the past four seasons.