Friday, September 30, 2011

Preview: Minnesota 2011

Minnesota (1-3) vs. #19 Michigan (4-0)
The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: 50s, 30% chance of rain

Last week
North Dakota State 37 - Minnesota 24. Minnesota is hardly even worth talking about. This is, almost without question, the worst D-I program in the country. After playing the murderers' row of USC, New Mexico State, Miami (OH), and North Dakota State, Minnesota is 1-3 and ranks 102nd in pass efficiency defense, 33rd (?) in rushing defense, 102nd in pass efficiency, 44th in rushing per game, and 75th in scoring. They have played basically no one and have been a total black hole doing so.

Against NDSU, Minnesota was outgained by 44 yards, putting up a measly 292 yards of offense. Their two quarterbacks combined to throw 9/20 for 124 yards (6.2 YPA) and two interceptions. The defense allowed NDSU to rush for 5.0 YPC on 28 attempts and generously offered 9.4 YPA through the air. This was an all-out shellacking at the hands of an FCS team that ranks in most categories somewhere around 30th best FCS program.

San Diego State 7 - Michigan 28. Game recap. Last week, Michigan thoroughly dominated Brady Hoke's old stomping ground San Diego State. It didn't hurt that linebacker-sized quarterback Ryan Lindley was awful. Lindley was 23/48 and averaged 5.3 YPA. Star running back Ronnie Hillman ran well (5.2 YPA on 21 carries) but fumbled twice. The rest of the SDSU offense spent the game dropping passes or getting bulldozed by Mike Martin. It was a convincing defensive effort.

On the other side of the ball, Denard had another rough day, completing only 8 of his 17 passes for 93yards and 2 interceptions. He did, however, run all over the tiny SDSU defense (200 yards on 21 carries). Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith battled back and forth with highlight carries and the receivers all turned in their usual performance.

Offense vs. Minnesota
Regardless of Denard's passing struggles, Michigan is going to steamroll Minnesota's defense. The Gophers' passing defense has been as porous as any in the country even against the FCS patsies that they've played thus far. The only thing that makes you double take Minnesota's passing defense is the 19-17 loss to USC, but a look at the box score reveals that a) Matt Barkley was 34/45 for 3 TDs and zero INTs and b) Lane Kiffin is still an idiot for going for two-point conversions after every touchdown. (As a side note, how bad is USC that Minnesota could even nominally compete with them?)

The Minny rushing defense appears to be at least functional. They currently rank 33rd in rushing yards per game allowed. However, with a secondary as porous as Minnesota's, any time a team runs against them, it's a win for the Gophers. Expect that number to drop significantly when Denard comes to town and turns the secondary into stone pillars as he dashes by them to the endzone. If Michigan punts more than twice in this game, it will be a failure. There should be virtually no resistance.

Defense vs. Minnesota
Offensively, Minnesota uses option packages with quarterback Marqueis Gray, who is reportedly questionable for the game on Saturday. Through the air, Gray has completed 39 of 77 attempts for 6.8 YPA, 3 TDs, and 3 INTs, otherwise known as Threetidan+. On the ground, he has been marginally better, carrying the ball 71 times through the first four games for 351 yards (4.9 YPC). If Gray can't go, freshman Max Shortell* gets the lucky task of going against Walk-On Ray Lewis and Mattison's wonky blitzing schemes. Shortell has seen spot action this season, completing 13 of the only 28 passes he's thrown with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. He is a 6'6" lankmonster that isn't going to do any damage with his legs. Watching him throw against Michigan's zone blitzes should be Bauserman-esque.

Despite being an option offense, the Gophers are not very intimidating on the ground. That could be because their offensive line two-deep is made up primarily of freshmen. Gray is the team's leading rusher with 351 yards and zero TDs. He's followed by fifth-year senior Duane Bennett who is averaging a hilarious 3.7 YPC on 44 carries.

If Gray is able to play on Saturday, the key will be for the linebackers/DEs to keep the edge and force the run back inside. If Shortell plays, the key will be not dropping hilariously thrown interceptions. Either way, this is another chance for Michigan's defense to pad their stats.

*Shortell's high school highlight films appear to be video of him throwing into double coverage and having his passes batted down. -10 points for lack of music. -25 for not using Rick Ross' "Hustlin".

Have you seen this Minnesota team play?

Denard throws a pick. Denard runs for over 150 yards. Devin Gardner sees his first "meaningful" snaps. The defense wins the turnover battle by at least 3.

Michigan 45 - Minnesota 16

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Denard's passing vs. offensive structure

Denard's passing numbers are down (obviously), after Al Borges brought a new "pro style" offense to Michigan. Recently, Borges took some responsibility for Denard's struggles (emphasis mine),
Well, it’s a work in progress with our offense. That’s the thing … because it’s different. Now part of that, too -- and I’m going to take the rap for that a little bit. I’ve got to get him some better throws. I’ve got to put him in position to complete some more balls so he can gain some confidence and gain some rhythm. Get in a little bit of a zone. He’s a capable passer, you know, but as a playcaller you have to consider everything we’re calling in terms of the passing game. This kid really threw the ball well in two-a-days and threw the ball well in spring. He did. All his numbers were better numbers than now. I think game situations are different. As he learns about how to do this, you’ll see progress. Because he does have a good arm, and he has an accurate arm when he’s comfortable. But part of that has to be my responsibility to get him in better situations to complete some throws.
A few months ago, I did a post about Denard's passing abilities on obvious passing downs that indicated not only that this regression would happen, but that he was probably a little overrated as a pure passer last year. The basis of that post was the definition of an obvious passing down:
The first step was to establish the criteria for OPD. The basic parameters:
  • 2nd down and 10+ yards to go
  • 3rd down and 7+ yards to go
  • 4th down and 7+ yards to go
  • All situations where over 20 yards were required for a first down were omitted
  • All first downs were omitted
Given Denard's success last year and the conclusion of that post (31/71 passing for 5.7 YPA, 0 TD, and 5 INTs), it seemed likely that Denard wasn't in a whole ton of those long distance situations last year. A quick sanity check bears this out: the goal of Rich Rodiguez's option offense was always to stay ahead of the chains and pick up first downs. The logical assumption, then is that the offense last year wasn't in many long down and distance situations, or at least Denard wasn't throwing the ball from long down and distance situations as much as he is this year.

With the help of MGoBlog's Upon Further Review series, I charted all of Denard's passes from 2010 (until the Ohio State and bowl games, neither of which received a UFR), as well as all of Denard's passes through the first three games of the 2011 season (Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and Eastern Michigan). My hypothesis was that when Denard threw the ball in 2010, he was probably throwing it in more surprising situations (e.g., 2nd and 5, 3rd and 3, etc). In other words, a defense was likely to be preparing for a run and was caught off guard. The results:

Down Comp/Att Average yards to go YPA
1st 54/76 10.39 10.16
2nd 54/87 8.21 10.87
3rd 39/69 7.54 6.7
4th 3/6 7.17 10.5
Down Comp/Att Average yards to go YPA
1st 13/24 10 13
2nd 13/21 8.14 9.86
3rd 6/15 6.53 5.93
4th 0/1 5 0

Those numbers are, well, really surprising.

There are some explanations here. Rodriguez was far more likely to run Denard in long down and distance situations. Borges seems to run Denard early in series to get to these short down and distance situations. When he does put the ball in air, there's usually less ground to cover for a first down. Another reason Denard threw in long-distance situations so much last year was because the offense took far more penalties than they have this season, necessitating longer passes.

My other inclination was that Michigan's offense had so many big plays in 2010 that the higher average yards to go were less impactful because of the team's ability to pick up chunk yardage. However, in the 11 games surveyed last season, Michigan averaged 2.45 plays of 15+ yards per game. In 2011, they are averaging 2.66 plays of 15+ yards per game. Recalibrate that for the strength of schedule (as 2011 gets more difficult, you would expect that number to drop), and you probably have a similar, if slightly lower number in 2011 than in 2010.

Unfortunately, these numbers sort of contradict Borges comments: it's not necessarily the structure of the offense that's hurting Denard's passing numbers. He appears to be throwing the ball in favorable (or at least more favorable than last year on average) situations. Given the indecision that we saw against SDSU and Denard's general accuracy problems, I find it difficult to imagine Borges finding more favorable situations for Denard to throw in. The flip side of that is that Denard's decision making is something that can be improved and probably will get better as the year progresses.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Denard's INTs versus San Diego State

Yesterday, we saw Denard locking onto receivers when he gets man coverage on the outside without safety help over the top. This resulted in an incomplete jump ball to Roy Roundtree that could have just as easily been intercepted. In an effort to find something (anything) to write about in the most dull game of the last three years, I noticed that both of Denard's interceptions in the game were the result of him locking onto receivers.

Michigan is in a three-wide set with two RBs flanking Denard. Jeremy Jackson is in the slot and Drew Dileo is the outside receiver on the strongside of the field. San Diego State is in a 3-4 defensive formation.

On the snap, Denard rolls out left. Jackson is running a 10-yard hitch route. Dileo will run a circle route to the outside (YMRMFSPA: Forcier to Matthews to beat Notre Dame in 2009). SDSU rushes four and is in zone coverage but will jam the outside receivers.

As Denard rolls out, Dileo plants his foot to break to the sideline. Jackson will continue upfield.

At this point, the SDSU corner covering Dileo is reading Denard's eyes and starting to sink downfield on the hitch route. Dileo is breaking to the outside and will be wide open in a minute.

When Denard finally squares his shoulders to throw, the SDSU corner is completely abandoning his assignment because Denard is staring down Jackson downfield. Dileo is breaking open to the sideline as the corner's momentum carries him downfield.

As Denard lets go of the ball, Dileo is wide open and the SDSU corner is dropping to make the interception.

In this scenario, Denard needs to recognize the coverage and see the corner sinking off of Dileo who is wide open. He has time in the pocket to throw and no one in front of the underneath route. It's likely that Denard saw Jackson run unabated through the underneath zones and stared him down, allowing the corner to read the route and make the interception.

His second pick wasn't exactly the same, but it does show Denard failing to see the whole field.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Denard locking onto receivers

Ed. note: It's going to be a relatively slow week on the site this week. I have family in town and this game was never in doubt. Chances are there will only be one post a day this week. Some might come later than usual.

A lot has been made of Denard's regression in the passing game this year without many answers. His accuracy has always been a problem, but more disturbingly, Denard makes poor decisions, often throwing deep into double coverage. Jump balls have become a staple of the offense but they haven't been a particularly reliable option. One jump ball that Denard threw against San Diego State illustrates why his passing numbers may be so poor this season.

It's midway through the first quarter and Michigan just forced the first of Ronnie Hillman's fumbles. The offense comes out in a shotgun, three-wide, two-back set. The defense is in a 3-4 front wth man coverage.

On the snap, the defense rushes five with a stunt on the defensive line. Denard has man coverage on all the receivers with one "deep" safety (who is only six yards from the line of scrimmage).

A moment later, Denard has locked onto Roy Roundtree on the outside. My impression is that the coaches told Denard to take shots down the field. He was likely told that whenever he has one-on-one man coverage on the outside without safety help, that he should throw it up to that receiver. Here, Roundtree has single coverage on a fly route. On the other side of the field, Drew Dileo and Junior Hemingway are bother going to run hitch routes; Denard will never see these.

Hemingway and Dileo are breaking off their routes. The closest defender to either of them is five yards away. Roundtree, meanwhile, was jammed at the line of scrimmage and being pushed to the outside. Denard is about to throw to Roundtree who still hasn't beaten his defender.

As Denard lets the ball go, Roundtree is still below his defender. In addition, SDSU's safety is breaking on the pass, though he's too far from Roundtree to be a factor. Dileo and Hemingway are wide open.

This is a fundamental difference between Al Borges' and Rich Rodriguez's offense. In Rodriguez's option offense, the focus was always to pick up yards and stay ahead of the down and distance. Any time they did take a shot downfield, it was the QB Oh Noes that were wide open. In this pro style offense, the coaching staff expects Michigan's players to simply out perform the defense, rather than keeping them guessing with simple routes and reads that would produce 5-6 yard gains and possible yards after catch*.

There's nothing wrong with this style of offense if you have the players to do it (the Chad Hennes and Braylon Edwards of the world). Michigan. however, is loaded with players that aren't necessarily able to out perform their counterparts, rather, they're able to make something out of nothing. Denard needs to recognize the cushion that the weakside defenders are giving Dileo and Hemingway and pass on the single coverage against Roundtree, who isn't much of a leaper.

I'd have to go back and look at the other ill-advised jump balls that Denard has thrown this season, but this seems like it's probably indicative of the problem: Denard making up his mind before the ball is snapped and throwing even when his receiver can't get free. It'll be crucial for Denard to be more judicious in these situations if the team is going to sustain drives and if Denard is going to keep his numbers up.

*It would be difficult to track, but I would bet that a significantly higher percentage of Denard's passing yards last year came after the catch. This season, when he completes passes, they seem to be further downfield. This probably also explains his lower completion percentage.

Monday, September 26, 2011

SDSU 2011: Where Denard can run

San Diego State 7 - #22 Michigan 28
Melanie Maxwell |
My family and friends have always made fun of me because, in their words, "You won't do anything until your brother does it first." For proof, see: boot cut jeans, Sigur Ros, shoulder strap backpacks, being born. To an extent, they're right. I am notoriously hard-headed and set in my ways. If something isn't an immediate upgrade (and sometimes, even when it is but if I'm in a particularly ornery mood), I shun suggestions in favor of the status quo.

Before Michigan's season opener against Western Michigan, Al Borges said that the first play from scrimmage would probably be a power run. It was a carry by Denard Robinson. Against lowly Eastern Michigan, Denard ran the ball 26 times, despite the coaching staff's insistence that he carry the ball less this year. Against San Diego State, Denard carried the ball 21 times. What was clear to everyone else prior to the season is now clear to Borges: Denard Robinson is an immediate and noticeable upgrade over any other option on the Michigan offense.

The use of Denard in the running game is necessitated, however, by his total inability to throw in this system. Whether its early-season jitters, a lack of confidence in his reads, or a clearer display of the inaccuracy he showed last year, through four games, Denard's struggles in Borges passing system are no fluke. Robinson followed up a 7/18, 2 TD, 1 INT game against EMU with a 8/17, 93 yard, 2 INT game against a San Diego State defense that was 72nd in defensive pass efficiency heading into Saturday's matchup.

But as the score indicated, all was not gloomy in Ann Arbor. The defense was able to stuff an offense that had averaged 38 points per game (albeit against mediocre competition). They held SDSU star back Ronnie Hillman nominally in check (5.2 YPC on 21 carries; he was averaging 6.5 YPC coming into Saturday's matchup). And uninspiring senior Ryan Lindley completed less than half of his passes for a pedestrian 5.3 YPA. He was plagued by drops, but for the most part, Michigan covered well, got pressure, and once again looked like a competent defense, which for the next 3 years will be the greatest compliment levied toward this unit.

  • Blake Countess can cover. After Troy Woolfolk got injured for the 27th time this season, Countess came into the game over Courtney Avery who struggled in pass coverage. San Diego State tested Countess by throwing at him as much as possible. For the most part, he held up and showed not only good coverage skills but solid tackling fundamentals. I would not be surprised if Countess rockets up the depth chart and even finds himself in the starting rotation soon.
  • For the second week in a row, Michigan didn't bring many blitzes. Greg Mattison either felt the team was performing well in their base defense or didn't want to show new blitz packages, but what was a heavy blitzing defense in the first two games has been relatively subdued in the last two games, especially once the score was no longer in doubt.
  • Vincent Smith had his two best runs of his Michigan career in this game. On the one, he sneaked through a hole in the offensive line that didn't exist and ran for 32 yards. The second was his scatbacking for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. This is the performance that excited Michigan fans during Smith's freshman year.
  • Stephen Hopkins has officially fumbled his way out of the running back rotation. He should get little to no carries for the rest of the year because doesn't give the team anything they can't get anywhere else and isn't reliable enough holding onto the football.
  • Am I the only one that's worried about the coaching staff calling Denard's number on every third and short? If the idea is to keep Denard healthy, always running him between the tackles on third and short is the best way to get him injured. He's running directly into swarms of linebackers that are taking shots at him. Eventually, this will take Denard out of a game.
  • I'll have to rewatch the game, but Will Campbell appeared to have a decent game. Caveats about the size of SDSU's offensive line aside, any progress from Campbell is a positive.
  • Brendan Gibbons, to no one's surprise, missed another field goal. That Matt Wile didn't attempt that kick is discouraging, though I expect the coaches will give him a shot in the coming games. Gibbons is simply not a functional field goal kicker.
Next week
On Saturday, the atrocious Minnesota Gophers, who are 1-3 with losses to North Dakota State and New Mexico State, come to Ann Arbor. This is the lockiest lock of the Big Ten season. Michigan should trounce these guys.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Preview: 2011 San Diego State

San Diego State (3-0) vs. Michigan (3-0)
The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Low 60s, chance of rain

Last week
SDSU 42 - Washington St. 24. Last week, the Aztecs took on Washington State and were able to hold a fairly prolific passing attack nominally in check on their way to a not-so-lopsided victory. Washington St. averaged 386 passing yards per game headed into the SDSU game, where senior QB Marshall Lobbestael threw for 368. What killed the Cougars were turnovers, of which they had four (including two interceptions by Lobbestael and three total turnovers in the fourth quarter). But SDSU also allowed touchdowns of 80 and 78 yards.

The Aztecs won the game on the strength of their rushing attack. Ronnie Hillman averaged 6.0 YPC on 32 (!) carries, tacking on four touchdowns. Before the Washington St game, Hillman was averaging a ridiculous 6.8 YPC, albeit against Army and Cal Poly. Regardless, Hillman is the workhorse and if Michigan's linebackers can't get their gap responsibilities in check, he could have another big game.

SDSU's senior quarterback Ryan Lindley has had an uninspiring year given preseason expectations. He's currently completing just 53.7% of his passes and his yards per attempt have dropped from 9.1 last year to 7.59 this year. He can't be totally to blame, though. The SDSU receiver corps has been decimated by injuries. Against Washington St., Lindley went 21/37 for 273 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 Int. In other words, despite lofty expectations, Lindley doesn't look like he can harm Michigan too much on the strength of his arm alone.

Eastern Michigan 3 - Michigan 31. Game recap. You know what happened: Michigan played EMU and beat them like Michigan playing a lower-level MAC team should, on paper at least. If you watched the game, Michigan struggled a little bit. The offense had trouble finding its rhythm, the defense looked porous against the run, and the receivers had their worst day of the year. Denard's struggles have been well documented around here, so his performance wasn't much of a surprise. It was disappointing, however.

The defense is still a work in progress and had a few flaws here and there against EMU. They did, however, play the most vanilla schemes we've seen from Greg Mattison to date. Their lack of blitzing against EMU and insistance on playing basic schemes allowed Ron English and Co. to carve up the defense with jet sweeps and unbalanced lines.

As the game wore on, Michigan proved their dominance, however, and all was right in the world.

Offense vs. San Diego State
It's become obvious to everyone--including Al Borges if Denard's 26 carries against EMU are to be believed--that this offense works best out of the shotgun. Given the team's documented struggles running under center and Denard's difficulty in the passing game, Michigan will likely play most of this game from the shotgun. After last week, Vincent Smith has taken over the nominal starting RB role, though you should expect to see plenty of Fitz Toussaint et al on the field.

SDSU defensive coordinator Rocky Long runs the oft-discussed, rarely seen 3-3-5 (a real 3-3-5, not that hybrid Greg Robinson was running last year). The 3-3-5 is an aggressive, blitzing defense that uses pressure and confusion to cause turnovers and force negative plays. SDSU has ridden that defense to six fumble recoveries (3rd in the country) and two interceptions. HOWEVA, the Aztecs are currently 98th in rushing yards per game (197, though they allow only 3.91 YPA) and 72nd in defensive pass efficiency, which is not great. The Aztecs are allowing 8.86 yards per passing attempt. If you want to know how bad that is, it's a full half yard more per attempt than Michigan allowed last year (8.32). This is, without a doubt, a high risk, high reward kind of defense, which places the impetus squarely on the shoulders of....

Denard Robinson. Denard has to be better if Michigan wants to win this game. SDSU is capable of capitalizing on offensive mistakes, and Denard is prone to making those. While the SDSU defense appears to be somewhat Swiss cheesy, they're likely to throw some zone blitzes at Denard that he hasn't seen yet this year. Eastern Michigan did that once on a Michigan screen pass and Denard smartly pulled the ball down and scrambled for a handful of yards. Making smart decisions like that will be key.

Expect a lot of boom or bust on Saturday. Drives will either gain momentum as Michigan exploits SDSU's aggressiveness, or the Aztecs force a few negative plays and put Michigan behind the chains. A 50% success rate on drives should be enough to get Michigan the win.

Defense vs. San Diego State
This is where things could get hairy. Though unimpressive to date, QB Ryan Lindley could create serious havoc on a still untested secondary. He doesn't have the weapons of Notre Dame, but if he gets on a roll, Michigan could find themselves in a shootout. More likely, SDSU will use the run to set up the pass with Ronnie Hillman. Hillman scares me in this game. Given his prolific numbers to date and Michigan's, well, less than stellar run defense, he could have another big game. A lot of this game is going to fall on the shoulders of the defensive ends and linebackers keeping contain and staying disciplined (Lord help us). Mike Martin and whatever other large-ish body the coaching staff puts next to him should be able to hold up against a relatively slight offensive line.

As for schematically, Michigan will return to their blitzing ways. Mattison very clearly didn't want to blitz against EMU, and that's probably for the best. The team still has a lot of the fundamentals to perfect, and not showing too many blitz packages against Lock of the Year wins is best. This will be a chess match though. SDSU is no doubt aware of Mattison's tendencies and will attempt to counter with screens and draws to Hillman. If Michigan forgets their gap assignments or becomes too aggressive, that will mean big plays for the Aztecs.

On the other side of the coin, Michigan's pressure should complicate things for an underachieving Lindley. Despite having a 7/1 TD/INT ratio this season, Michigan's pressure should be able to add a few notches to the negative. If the front four or linebackers are consistently getting to Lindley, that will mean good things for the defense. Given SDSU's relative lack of playmakers at the receiver position, Mattison should feel confident leaving the corners on and island and bringing heat.

Michigan is going to be in for a fight on this one. Hoke did a good job turning this SDSU program into a respectable unit. The Aztecs will have some tricks up their sleeves and will counter some of Borges' offensive staples (though not all as Denard adds a new layer of deviousness). But Hoke has insight into the Aztecs schemes as well. I expect a lot of swing plays in this game. There will be a couple of 50+ yard plays as well as a few turnovers from both teams. Whichever team is able to more consistently capitalize or create these swing plays will come away victorious.

To win, Michigan will need to hold down Hillman, but not at the expense of Lindley's success. The front four will have an up and down day, but the team will hold Hillman well below his season average of 6.5 YPC. Lindley will have a mediocre game, turning the ball over twice, once in Michigan territory. Michigan's offense will be similarly hit-or-miss. Denard throws at least one more pick and finishes the day with a 1/1 TD/INT ratio for the game. In the end, it'll come down to who came make a few more stops.

Michigan 28-27

Thursday, September 22, 2011

QB power oh noes pt. 2

Earlier today, we saw a power run from the shotgun. Michigan would use that play to set up one of the QB Oh Noes that Rodriguez would deploy any time he wanted an 80-yard touchdown. Al Borges will look to use power running schemes to bait EMU's linebackers and force them out of position. The setup:

Michigan once again comes out in a three-wide set with a tight end on the line of scrimmage and Toussaint flanking Denard. Here, EMU is in a 4-3 under with one of their safeties pulled into the box.

As the ball is snapped, Toussaint immediately starts to his right. Left guard Ricky Barnum steps away from the line of scrimmage and will pull across the formation.

Barnum continues to pull across the formation, but as you can see, the rest of the offensive line is pass blocking. Taylor Lewan has taken a step back from the line of scrimmage despite not being rushed by anyone and the rest of the line is careful not to rush downfield. Importantly, however, the linebackers have identified Barnum pulling across the formation and have reacted by rushing upfield.

Touissaint is leaking out of the backfield and running by the linebackers, one of whom now recognizes that Denard is stepping back to pass. Barnum has pulled around the formation but, IMO, missed his block on the closest rusher, who will force Denard to throw the ball a little soon. Notice, though, that Barnum doesn't cross the line of scrimmage, a clear sign that this was a designed passing play.

Denard steps back to pass--again, probably too early, but that was forced--and lofts the ball to Toussaint down the sideline who hears the footsteps of the EMU safety and drops the pass.

This is an interesting play. First of all, hats off to the EMU linebacker who recognized it and covered Toussaint. Had he not gotten back in time, this is an easier throw and a possible touchdown. But this play is intriguing because it's basically just a simple play action pass. Last year, Denard only needed to take a step or two toward the line of scrimmage to bait opposing defenders, but here, Hoke and Borges bring a power running sensibility to the play: pull the backside guard. By using a defensive key (pulling lineman) to sell the run, Borges can manipulate linebackers and force them to react to something that's not going to happen.

The differences between this and Rodriguez's variation go further. Toussaint and Roundtree essentially run a smash concept that forces the safety to make a decision on who to cover, the deep or short route. The hope here, like it was last year, is to get the safeties to neglect their deep coverage responsibilities as the receivers streak downfield. On this play, the safety stays with Roundtree running downfield, which opens the underneath zone where Toussaint is running. If Barnum blocks the man pressuring Denard, he doesn't have to loft this pass to Toussaint, giving the safety less time to defend the play.

While Borges might not be able to totally maximize Denard's talents, it's clear that he gets it and is willing to tinker and experiment with offensive playcalling to punish a defense.

QB power oh noes pt. 1

Yesterday I broke down a QB stretch against EMU that utilized gap blocking and power principles. Specifically, the playside tackle and center both individually pulled to the first gap playside of them. This... well, it didn't work. It took too long for the linemen to pull playside and EMU was able to stretch the play to the boundary where the pursuit defenders could tackle Denard. I concluded with NO MOAR GAP BLOCKING, which isn't entirely accurate. It should have read don't block like this anymore because it totally sucks. Early in the second half, Michigan ran some more basic power runs with Denard in the shotgun that were more effective and, more importantly, set up the blogosphere-coined QB Oh Noes. This is the setup; the Oh Noes will come later today (UPDATE: Part 2).

Michigan just received the ball to begin the 3rd quarter. This is their first play from scrimmage of the second half. Michigan comes out in a three-wide set with Toussaint in the backfield and a tight end on the line of scrimmage. Eastern Michigan is in a basic 4-3.

As the ball is snapped, Mark Huyge's first step is away from the line of scrimmage as he pulls across the formation to the weakside of the field. A pulling lineman is often a key to the opposing linebackers of what direction the play is headed.

Toussaint crosses Denard and fakes a handoff (this was never a zone read). Denard keeps the ball as Huyge pulls across the formation. Ricky Barnum seals the playside DT to the inside while Taylor Lewan punishes EMU's playside defensive end, kicking him out to the sideline and opening a huge hole for Denard to run through.

Huyge is now Denard's lead blocker and about to pancake an EMU linebacker.

EMU linebacker: nullified. Denard has turf and a free safety ahead of him and will pick up eight yards on the play.

All power schemes are not created equal. The one we saw yesterday nullified Denard's most dangerous weapon (his explosiveness) and allowed EMU to stretch the play to the outside. This is a more traditional power play, except that it's run from the shotgun. This is a deadly offense. A defense has to protect against a handoff, zone read, QB keeper (like here), and the threat of a pass, all with power blocking schemes. With the talent of Michigan's linemen, this kind of playcall should be a staple of the offense.

Later today (UPDATE: Part 2), we'll see Al Borges doing his best Rich Rodriguez impression with a QB Oh Noes that unfortunately falls incomplete, but at this stage, it's more important that we see Borges tinkering with his systems and looking for ways to exploit a defense. In any case, this is proof that power running schemes can be effective with Denard in the shotgun.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pulling linemen on QB stretch

On designed QB runs against Eastern, Denard was being stopped for little or no gain on more plays than I can ever remember happening in the past. Especially against EMU-level competition, the QB stretches and draws that became a staple of the offense in 2010 were being stopped behind or just beyond the line of scrimmage. One reason for this loss of effectiveness is move from a zone blocking scheme to a gap blocking scheme with pulling linemen.

It's early in the first quarter and Michigan has a 1st and 10 on their first drive. The offense comes out in shotgun with two tight ends and two receivers. Toussaint is lined up to Denard's left. Eastern is in a 4-3 under front with both of their safeties in the box.

As the ball is snapped, the offensive line starts blocking to the left line except David Molk and Taylor Lewan, whose first step is away from the line of scrimmage as they pull around the formation.

A moment later, you can see Lewan and Molk pulling toward the playside as LG Ricky Barnum and playside TE Brandon Moore block the playside DT and DE respectively. Toussaint is headed outside the tackles as a lead blocker.

Lewan and Molk are still running to pull beyond Moore and Barnum respectively. The EMU linebackers are flowing with the play. Denard is looking for a hole to run through but there aren't any.

How to defend the jet sweep: Kenny Demens apology edition

Yesterday, I diagrammed an Eastern Michigan jet sweep that went for 18 yards because of indecision on Kenny Demens' behalf. Of course, the analysis gods wanted us to see that play again and wanted to give Demens an opportunity to redeem himself.

It's the end of the first quarter and Eastern is driving and in the red zone. They come out in a two-wide set with a tight end on the backside of the play and an H-back and RB on the playside of the field. Michigan is in a 4-3 under formation with Jake Ryan as the EMLOS (hey!). Demens (red) is lined up over Eastern's running back.

Before the ball is snapped, Eastern's wide receiver will sweep across the formation. Like before, Michigan is in zone coverage so no one follows him.

After the snap, the H-back and running back immediately step to their left to block. As Alex Gillett and the wide receiver get to the mesh point, you can see Demens is already taking a step to the playside. In the last instance, Demens is still flat footed at the mesh point.

Here, Demens is looking into the backfield at the ball carrier rather than locking onto Gillett, and following the play. Meanwhile, Thomas Gordon is headed upfield as the contain defender forcing the play back inside (this is key to Michigan's success defending the play).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How not to defend the jet sweep

On Saturday, Eastern Michigan's nominally vaunted rushing offense (racking up big yardage against Howard and Alabama State before playing Michigan) was in full force. They even threw in a wrinkle here and there to positive effect. One such instance was an 18-yard run on a jet sweep that caught Michigan's linebacking corp, specifically Kenny Demens, completely off guard.

It's first and 10 on Eastern's second drive of the game. They had just completed one of three passes for the game and came out in a running formation with a tight end, H-back, and two wide receivers stacked on the strongside. A running back is aligned to QB Alex Gillett's right. (UPDATE: I just realized that EMU is in an unbalanced line here. The left tackle motions to the right side of the line.) Michigan is in a 4-3 under with Kovcas pulled into the box on the strongside of the field and Jake Ryan on the weakside of the line of scrimmage.

Before the ball is snapped, one of Eastern's stacked wide receivers begins to run across the formation. Michigan is in zone coverage and no one follows the EMU receiver.

After the ball is snapped, Michigan rushes its four down linemen and Ryan on the weakside edge. Michigan appears to be in a cover-3 formation with three underneath defenders (Demens, Brandin Hawthorne, and Kovacs). The EMU running back immediately starts running to his right, which is a key to the linebackers that the play is headed in that direction. Even if it isn't, I believe it's Demens' responsibility to cover the weakside under zone.

A moment later and Gillett has handed the ball off. (FWIW, this was not a zone read. It was a direct handoff.) Demens still hasn't moved. Ryan is doing his best to contain the outside but can't compete with Eastern's right tackle tight end.

As EMU's wide receiver begins to turn upfield, Demens hasn't taken more than a step in the direction of the play. Van Bergen is already in pursuit from the backside. Demens is looking into the backfield at Gillett.

At this point, Michigan is in trouble. Ryan is being tossed to the ground by the EMU right tackle tight end while the ball carrier and running back hit the edge with only Troy Woofolk between them and the endzone. Demens still isn't charging after the play.

The ball carrier cuts upfield beyond his blocker where Woolfolk takes an angle to push him back inside. If this was an option play, a pitch to the running back here would be an easy six points for EMU.

Demens will take a terrible angle here and get bailed out by Thomas Gordon playing free safety and Hawthorne who has come from the strongside of the field to make the tackle.

Not to pick on Demens too much, but this continues a disturbing trend in which he struggles when tasked to move sideline to sideline, whether in coverage or here in run support. Last year, Demens was caught staring into the backfield on a few passing downs and blew his coverage (though he remedied that issue a few games later). But even this year against Notre Dame, Demens forgot his assignment and the Irish were able to easily throw a slant route.

Here, Demens fails to recognize the play until it's far too late. In fact, he barely recognizes the play at all. But probably more bothersome is that he doesn't appear to know where his support is on this play. With Kovacs in the box on the strongside of the field and Hawthorne next to him, Demens needs to start moving once the wide receiver sweeps across the formation. If Ryan were dropping into coverage instead of rushing, Demens wouldn't have that outside responsibility, but with Ryan rushing, that leaves on Woolfolk to cover against a ball carrier and blocker.

When attacking downhill, Demens is decisive and hits gaps with force, but when you ask him to cover across the field, he's shown a tendency to make mental errors and struggle with his decision making. And though he appears to learn from those mistakes, that he keeps making them is problematic. He can't continue to blow his coverage this badly if Michigan's defense is going to consistently stop drives.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Eastern Michigan 2011: Where Threetidan looms

I can still remember the final pass of Michigan's season opening 2008 defeat to Utah in vivid detail. Despite a putrid all-around performance from the offense, Michigan still had a chance. Down by only two points with a little over two minutes to go, Michigan received the ball with the opportunity to drive for a final touchdown or field goal and seal an unlikely, and mostly undeserved, victory. On fourth and seven, Steven Threet hurled a ball 10 feet over the head of Darryl Stonum and out of bounds. The game was effectively over, but more importantly, I remember the distinct sense of doom that fell over me and everyone else watching the game once the offense limped to the sideline.

On Saturday, Michigan won, and if you only look at the box score, won in convincing fashion, hammering Eastern Michigan to the tune of 31-3. But for anyone who watched the game, things were not so peachy. Michigan gained a total of 32 (!) yards in the first quarter, went three and out three times during the game, and showed an offense that looked as dysfunctional as it did unsustainable. It wasn't until the second half when Al Borges decided to let Denard Robinson loose on QB draws that the offense began to resemble a functional unit.

After a 7/18, 95 yard (5.3 YPA) day against a MAC bottom dweller, it's difficult to see Denard Robinson as a sustainable option at quarterback in Borges' offense. It may sound reactionary, but after another game riddled with poor decisions (chucking the ball into double coverage) and spotty accuracy, and against competition that shouldn't be able to compete with Michigan's athletes, it's clear that Denard's struggles in the passing game last year, his uninspiring spring game, and his poor passing performances against Notre Dame and Western Michigan are no flukes. He locks onto receivers, struggles with his accuracy, and frequently makes near backbreaking decisions.

There is a silver lining though. Had Rich Rodriguez brought back Mike DeBord to coach the 2008 offense, it still would have been terrible. With this team, there are options. When Borges did unleash Denard, he ran wild, as he (and everyone else on the team) should have against a hodgepodge of JUCOs and lower-level MAC players. If Borges is smart, and I think that he is, this game will be a clear indication that in order to move the ball, Denard's legs will have to bear the brunt of the load. Not only could Denard run against Eastern, but his legs once again opened up the QB draw play action that was used to devastating effect last year.

It's not that Denard can't be a great college quarterback. Last year proved that he can. It's that he can't be a great quarterback in a pass-first, I-formation offense. If Borges and Hoke know what's good for them, they'll start tailoring the offense around Denard's legs now to avoid a catastrophic meltdown as the season progresses.

  • Though I wanted to see the I-formation in this game, after watching Michigan's linemen struggle with blocking and running backs fail to hit the proper holes, consider this my vote to have the I-formation banned from the playbook for the rest of the year. There are just far too many fundamental problems with how the team runs it currently, that it's not something they should be utilizing in games yet.
  • Eastern Michigan averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 46 carries which is really bad, but I wouldn't read too much into it. Greg Mattison seemed to play the game in the most vanilla fashion imaginable. There was very little blitzing and the team spent most of the game in a Ron English-like defense. This does, however, go further to explaining why Michigan struggles so mightily to open games without blitzing: they're terrible in zone coverage and struggle stuffing the line of scrimmage without added pressure from the linebackers and safeties.
  • I assumed the offense would fruitlessly burn the redshirt of one of their freshman running backs and lo and behold, Thomas Rawls got two carries and looked like a true freshman. This is an utter waste with three to four established running backs higher on the depth chart.
  • Devin Gardner desperately needed more than one garbage time possession. With Denard's early-season struggles, there's a good chance he'll be needed (regardless of injury to Denard) later this year. I remain unimpressed by his performances to date and would've liked to see him get more time to develop in the system.
  • Craig Roh had a decent game and seemed to outperform Jibreel Black, who is currently fighting for the starting role. Roh had one sack and seemed marginally more effective than Black who was often chasing, and being outrun by, EMU running backs.
  • Other insights gleaned from the rest of the game are hit or miss. EMU rarely threw the ball, so the secondary wasn't tested. The defensive line saw a lot of rotation, though we already knew the backups were a noticeable step back. And none of the running backs really impressed.
Next week, Michigan takes on Hoke's old stomping ground San Diego State. Chances are this is when Michigan will start using Denard in running situations more consistently and tailoring the offense around him. If not, this is going to be a long year.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Expectations against EMU: Defense

In lieu of a traditional preview, for what are hopefully obvious reasons, I thought it would be more useful to point out some things to watch for on Saturday as well as a few things to expect/hope for. Previously: the offense


Will Campbell. The real thing to watch on the defense will be Will Campbell. He had a remarkably productive game against Notre Dame and should be able to repeat that performance against a run-heavy Eastern Michigan team. If Campbell is going to become a contributor for the defense, he'll need to prove that the Notre Dame game wasn't a fluke. He'll also need to become more consistent against the run and double teams. EMU provides a good avenue for him to get reps and work on his technique.

Jibreel Black vs Craig Roh. Roh has entered his third year on campus in a supremely underwhelming fashion, so much so that Black mostly replaced him against Notre Dame. There are rumblings that Roh has/had mono which is slowing his production, but that seems too convenient, especially when Hoke almost explicitly dismisses the suggestion. This is probably the most intriguing position battle on defense. These two should get about equal playing time tomorrow and we'll be able to see which can consistently provide the pressure that Michigan desperately needs from their front four.

How does Marvin Robinson bounce back? Robinson is just learning the free safety position and prone to some ugly coverage errors. It's even questionable whether or not he can be a permanent solution at free safety. MGoBlog says he's probably not, but I'm a proponent of gambling with the best talent. In my opinion, having Robinson on the field and gambling that he'll grow out of these rookie mistakes is far more preferable to trying to put a less athletically talented player on the field who might not make as many mental errors early. Mattison will likely call a lot of those presnap bluffs in this game and see how well Michigan handles the coverage. Robinson's performance will be telling: if he can learn and progress from his errors against Notre Dame, he could very well be Michigan's free safety of the future.

Speaking of Robinson... I want to see Mattison continue to dial up pressure against EMU and show the same presnap formations that we've seen already this year. There's no need in taking it easy against EMU, so coming out with the full defensive playbook--at least the stuff that they've already shown--will be important. Michigan is still badly blowing coverage on what should be some of the base formations of the defense. This is a good opportunity for Hoke and company to really coach up a few of the culprits (Kenny Demens and Marvin Robinson, specifically, who have both had difficulty remembering their assignments).

Stop face guarding. For whatever reason, it seems as though the coaching staff has told Michigan's corners to face guard opposing receivers. In the first two games, I can't remember a single instance of man coverage down the field when Michigan's corners weren't face guarding. Courtney Avery was even called for a bad pass interference call in the endzone because of it. Maybe they're just inexperienced and bad at identifying the ball, but the corners' technique seems far more indicative of a systemic approach from the coaching staff. With a quarterback that struggles throwing the ball, Michigan's corners should be able to finally rectify these struggles, if only for a game. Michigan should have this game firmly in hand, making this good practice for the corners to be more aggressive and work on technique that they may not be completely comfortable with.

Fergodsakes, rest Troy Woolfolk. Injured ankle, hand cast, and a shredded nose is enough. There's no purpose in playing Woolfolk in this game. Michigan can gain nothing by putting its injured starting cornerback on the field against a team that can hardly threaten the secondary. This will also open playing time for the young corners that Michigan will use throughout the year. However, given Woolfolk's desire to play and Hoke's emphasis on toughness, he'll probably be out there for one or two series.

Expectations against EMU: Offense

Eastern Michigan (2-0) vs. Michigan (2-0)
The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Mid 60s

In lieu of a traditional preview, for what are hopefully obvious reasons, I thought it would be more useful to point out some things to watch for on Saturday as well as a few things to expect/hope for.


Quarterback. Denard has not gotten off to the same blazing start that he did last year. Some of that is due to operating under a new offensive system, but I think more than that, Denard is being asked to make more traditional throws and doesn't have the benefit of teams overcompensating for his legs like he did last year. While some of his struggles can be attributed to the new offensive scheme, applying that logic to his irresponsible jump balls doesn't follow. Denard has been making poor decisions and often throwing inaccurately to the receivers that he does connect with.

While I've been skeptical of Denard in this system for some time now, tomorrow's game will be an interesting test. He should have open receivers and clear passing lanes for most of the game. If we see him throwing behind or beyond his receivers, it will be a sign of bad things to come this year. Denard needs to be throwing between people's numbers with time in the pocket. This should be treated as a practice for Denard to drop back and throw from the I-formation.

As for the backups, Devin Gardner should get snaps. I'll be watching his throwing motion and whether or not he can read defenses, both things he did exceptionally poorly during Michigan's spring game. I'm relatively certain that he'll never see significant playing time at Michigan, but getting him prepped for game time should Denard get injured is crucial. Behind Gardner is true freshman Russell Bellomy. I'd love to see Michigan burn Bellomy's redshirt in this game and get him some action on the field. With one more year of eligibility from Denard followed by Shane Morris' arrival in 2013, Bellomy will likely never be a long-term option, so preserving his eligibility is not really an issue. He could, in my opinion however, supplant Gardner on the depth chart if he shows better fundamentals in the passing game. This is the perfect opportunity for the coaching staff to give him some early burn and see how he handles himself on the field.

I Formation. Despite my desire to never see Michigan play from the I formation, it's clear that it's a priority for Hoke and Borges. And given the team's struggles under center, getting reps against EMU will be crucial. Namely, I'd like to see Denard throw a few traditional running back screens--the likes of which he horribly overthrew against Notre Dame and had intercepted--as well as a few more two-receiver sets for Denard. Getting Denard comfortable with his reads and building his confidence that he can make the throws from the pocket should be beneficial for the rest of the season.

Running backs. Since Michigan shouldn't need Denard to carry them through this game, expect the team to be in the I formation a lot. Hoke recently said he'd like to run more from the I and giving his backs reps against Eastern seems the best way to get them experience. For the most part, we know what Mike Shaw can do. Fitz Toussaint, if healthy, will hopefully get a few reps just to get back in the flow of the offense. Similarly, it would be nice to see Vincent Smith and Stephen Hopkins get some touches.

Mike Cox and the various freshmen still seem relatively far down the depth chart and probably won't challenge for much playing time this year. Cox will get a few carries, but as for the freshmen, I'd rather they redshirt this year than burn it getting a few reps against cupcakes only to sit the bench the rest of the season. I suspect that we'll fruitlessly burn one redshirt against EMU.

Various offensive thoughts. Elsewhere, Martavious Odoms should come in for a lot of playing time in this game. He's been injured and bumped down the depth chart despite being Michigan's most consistent offensive player since Rodriguez's first year. The other receivers should all see spot time, but given the logjam at the position, any playtime they earn will be temporary.

The offensive line will need to make hay against Eastern. They've really struggled this year in Michigan's power running game, so if they can't push around the EMU defensive front, consider that the death knell for any positive rushes coming from the I formation this year.

Oh, and let's maybe try a field goal or two in this game.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mailbag: Cover-3 and ND's late touchdown

There seems to be a lot of consternation about Greg Mattison's tendency to align all of Michigan's linebackers and safeties on the line of scrimmage in an effort to conceal Michigan's coverage and confuse opposing quarterbacks. Case in point:

I liked the breakdown this morning of the zone blitz package and it reminded me of something I've been thinking about since listening to Mattison's press conference yesterday. In talking about ND's last TD, he said they were trying to disguise their 3-deep zone coverage by having everyone at the line. He said the play was not executed properly, which I assume means Marvin Robinson did not get back into his middle third deep zone quickly enough. Mattison also mentioned that this coverage was the same coverage that he called on Kovacs INT. On the Kovacs INT, ND still had a receiver wide open in the seam for a long TD if Rees sees him.

My question - would it be fair to call this defensive coverage "unsound"? I can't figure out how the coverage is supposed to look like without there being a gaping hole somewhere downfield with our pre-snap alignment (with the DBs being close to the line).

Tony is referencing the Tuesday press conference in which Mattison said this:
Was Notre Dame’s last touchdown due to a breakdown in communication? “No it wasn’t. We didn’t execute it exactly like we wanted to. I’ll be dead honest with you, there’s sometimes calls a guy makes that afterwards you say, God I wish I hadn’t made that call. That was the same call we got the interception on earlier in the game. It looks exactly like the blitz, and we had blitzed right before that, and they knew we were going to blitz the closer they got down there, so I just thought to myself, you know what, maybe we can do the same thing. Show that blitz and come out of there. We didn’t execute it as well as we did the first time, and they hit it. I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m not always 100%, and if it was all over again I probably wouldn’t have called that.”

Is disguising coverage more important in college than in pros? “The thing about disguising is you’ve got to be pretty experienced. A lot of times out there you’re just saying, ‘Guys, make sure you’re in the right place.’ Disguising is the next phase. The first thing we have to make sure is we don’t bust on coverage and make sure we’re in position to make the plays we can make. As they get more seasoned and as they get better, then you can say, ‘Okay, now you got that down, now let’s make it look like this and go to this.’ But we haven’t been able to disguise as much as you’d like to, and we’ll get there.”
While he gives us some hints as to what the playcalls are on the Kovacs interception and Notre Dame's final touchdown, I think the more telling comment is when he says that the team really needs to not bust the coverage because on both of the plays, Michigan blew their coverage pretty badly, directly leading to the touchdown and what could have been another if Tommy Rees wasn't intent on forcing the ball to Michael Floyd. The design of both plays, however, couldn't be more basic: Michigan is running a simple cover-3 with five underneath defenders in zone (the diagram may look cluttered, but the actual execution is simple).

Here's the presnap formation for Kovacs' interception:

Here, Notre Dame is in a 5-wide set. Michigan is showing an aggressive man defense with no safety help over the top.

On the snap, you can see Michigan's three down linemen rush while everyone else drops into coverage. Marvin Robinson (on the hash at the top of the screen), turns his head toward the middle of the field and begins to sprint toward his zone in the deep middle of the field. As we'll see in a bit, this is problematic.

A moment later Robinson is hauling from his presnap position to cover the deep middle of the field. Floyd and Avery are also running downfield to cover their respective deep third.

Now Robinson has identified the Notre Dame receiver running the seam route and is trying to get over in coverage. He still hasn't looked behind him to see what the strongside receivers are doing. For what it's worth, I believe that it's either Kovacs' or Jake Ryan's responsibility here to re-route the seam route to the outside where JT Floyd can pick up deep coverage. When they don't, the Notre Dame receiver has a clear lane to the endzone.

This is how the play fortuitously ends: with Tommy Rees throwing into bracketed coverage on Floyd. Robinson, meanwhile, is on the opposite hash from a Notre Dame receiver streaking down the field and he never once looked to the strongside of the field.

In this instance, Robinson identified the Notre Dame receiver running down the seam and did his best to get into position. Had Ryan or Kovacs pushed the seam route outside, Floyd would be able to show coverage and hinder a throw while Robinson gets into position. In addition, the underneath coverage is terrible. Demens and Hawthorne are falling over one another (this is Hawthorne's fault), leaving gaping holes in the coverage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Making checks at the line of scrimmage

One of the things that pro-style quarterbacks are expected to do is read defenses and make checks at the line of scrimmage, though less so on the college level. A key component of Denard's transformation from spread prodigy to drop back passer will be his ability to recognize defensive fronts and make the proper adjustments. There is a fairly basic check, though, that Denard used against Notre Dame: the This Is Going to You check.

It's early in the fourth quarter and Michigan is down by 10 points. After calling a timeout at the 14 yard line, Michigan comes out in an I-formation with Junior Hemingway to his left and Jeremy Gallon to his right. Notre Dame is showing an aggressive, man coverage front with a single high safety.

Still under center, Denard takes a half step back and swipes his right hand across his helmet. This tells Jeremy Gallon that, regardless of the playcall earlier, he's getting the ball:

(I know it's really hard to see in this screen capture and curse my inability to edit video. All of the highlight reels from the game cut out the audible at the line.)

If you were wondering why Al Borges called for a back shoulder fade to Jeremy Gallon in the endzone, especially when Denard had single coverage against Junior Hemingway on the other side of the formation, it's because he didn't, Denard did. Clearly I don't know how much freedom the offensive staff has given Denard or whether or not they'll allow him to make seemingly illogical checks like this at the line in the future, but Denard must have seen something he liked because Gallon caught the touchdown pass that started Michigan's fourth quarter rally.

While this play itself isn't necessarily that interesting, it's the concept behind Denard's audible that intrigues me. We haven't seen Denard make any actual audible calls at the line of scrimmage this year, but this is practically the same thing. Denard's freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage is something I'll be watching as the season progresses. And just as a general viewing tool, unusual signals like this are usually a signs that the play has been changed.