Monday, November 28, 2011

Those Who Stay Will Be Champions

Jeff Sainlar |
At halftime against Ohio State, I used the word embarrassing. I hadn't used that word about Michigan football since the 2009 Penn State game when, walking out of the stadium after a 35-10 shellacking at the hands of the #13 team in the country, I felt it was embarrassing that a 5-2 outfit--with only an overtime, road loss to MSU and a frustrating late road loss to Iowa--would be beaten that badly. Michigan's first-half defense against the Buckeyes was the worst it had been all season. The team allowed Braxton Miller to throw for a lot of yards and run for a lot of yards and let receivers frolic in the daisy fields of Michigan's endzones that prior to the season Greg Mattison had put a picket fence around with a worn wooden sign that read "Wolverines Only".

In retrospect, a 5-7 Michigan team had no business beating that Daryll Clark-led Penn State unit. And in reality, the first-half defense against Ohio State wasn't as bad as it seemed. The Buckeyes benefited from good field position thanks to a Denard fumble, setting up a 31-yard touchdown drive. Otherwise, Michigan blew a few coverages because they loaded up against the run and, for one of the first times this season, Miller made a defense pay for exploiting his obvious weaknesses. Those blown coverages were ugly but holding Dan Herron to 37 yards on 15 carries speaks for itself. So the does defense's first safety in 170 years.

Mattison didn't try to outscheme Ohio State. The Buckeyes had one obvious weakness and Mattison was willing to bet that his players would be able handle that weakness without any fail safe. This is how your cornerbacks get beaten on double moves for 50-yard touchdown passes. Without safety help over the top, this sort of thing happens unless you're on Revis Island. The minor outlying islands of Countess and Floyd appear to have quarterly ferries that shuttle receivers to greener pastures. This was a gamble, but given Ohio State's meager rushing numbers and Miller's still up-and-down day, it was a gamble that probably paid off.

Al Borges, on the other hand, was sitting on some of his best stuff until the Buckeyes came to town. That Koger touchdown was 100% Al Borges' Diabolical Machinations and the frequently deployed zone read that saw Denard head upfield instead of to the weakside was gift wrapped for Ohio State. Denard's best day of the season and Fitz Toussaint's 6.0 YPC performance were no mistake.

This was never going to be easy, or at least it shouldn't have been. Of course it featured the worst overturned touchdown of the season when Michigan had put the game away. Of course the team took 25 yards in penalties the following play when it looked like they had gotten into the endzone a second time. But Ohio State is Ohio State and they spiked the ball on 3rd and 6 with 45 seconds remaining. This is The Game. Things like this define the rivalry, and for the first time in too long, Michigan gets to celebrate the offseason the right way.

  • Congratulations to the seniors who deserved this game for all of the shit they've been through the last four years. Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.
  • You could see how much this game meant to Toussaint. An Ohio kid without an Ohio State scholarship offer, he had something to prove in this game. It's unfortunately that the final, clinching non-touchdown was called back because he deserved to get into the endzone.
  • Lordy, the non-touchdown. Every Michigan fan knew that it would be how Michigan lost its eighth straight to the Buckeyes. Michigan had the game put away until it inexplicably didn't. I have no idea how you can overturn that call. The two available angles showed differing opinions. Conclusive evidence yadda yadda. Water under the bridge, I guess.
  • Mattison using the okie package on the final drive was terrifying. I like that his version of prevent defense includes zone blitzing, but I do not like that his version of prevent defense doesn't appear to prevent anything. You have to have safety help over the top. I'll sit down with Mattison over a cup of tea and discuss my displeasure.
  • Denard had his best game of the season. He properly pulled the ball on zone reads and threw the ball better than he has all season. He still had a few frustrating runs where he tried bouncing outside, but these are minor complaints when his statline reads 170 yards on 26 carries.
There won't be many posts this week. I'm out of town for a conference for my day job until Wednesday. I'll probably have some play breakdowns on Friday and early next week, and as bowl season approaches, you can expect similar coverage to that of last year's Gator Bowl.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Preview: Ohio 2011

Ohio (6-5) vs. #15 Michigan (9-2)
The Big House
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: Low 50s, 50% chance of rain

Last week
#21 Penn State 20 - Ohio State 14. Last week, Ohio State continued their season of futility with a loss to Penn State. Rather than hilariously losing to Purdue in overtime after a late botched extra point, Ohio State lost after falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter and never climbing back into the game. The offense could muster only 289 yards and allowed Penn State's anemic offense to put up 327, though both teams were held scoreless in the second half.

Ohio State star senior receiver DeVier Posey played his first game and caught four passes for 66 yards, but that wasn't enough to bolster another awful passing day from Braxton Miller (7/17, 83 yards, 4.9 YPA, 1 TD). Miller had a decent day on the ground, rushing 18 times for 105 yards and Dan Herron averaged 4.2 YPC on 18 carries.

On the other side of the ball, Matt "Farvian Walk-On" McGloin wasn't much better (just watching this guy play this season makes me break out in hives; how did Michigan's defense make him actually look like Favre last year? Oh, nevermind). McGloin went 10/18 for 88 yards and 1 INT. Stephon Green did most of the damage on the ground, averaging 5.8 YPC on 16 carries while Silas Redd averaged 7.9 YPC on 8 carries. The thing that stuck out during the game was just how bad Ohio State's linebackers were against the run. It appears they attended the Obi Ezeh school of gap filling. PSU's running backs were finding holes at the line of scrimmage and no linebackers in sight. The hope is this continues because, well, dang.

#16 Nebraska 17 - #18 Michigan 45. Game column. Michigan followed up a dominating defensive performance against offensive-line-challenged Illinois with another great game against Nebraska, limiting one of the better running attacks in the country to 4.5 YPC on 31 carries. More impressively, the defense was barely on the field, whether it was from Nebraska special team turnovers or the 3/13 performance on third down. Infamous duck thrower Taylor Martinez was as advertised: ducky. He was 9/23 for 122 yards and 1 TD but looked awful getting there. He can't be totally blamed:

That's a run play, but Michigan's defensive line was getting that sort of penetration all game. Martinez was only sacked a handful of times but constantly had pressure in his face.

On offense, Denard scrambled, which was the unit's biggest revelation. When he wasn't dropping dimes to Martavious Odoms in the back of the endzone, Denard was scampering through a vacated middle of the field as Nebraska's secondary played exclusively man coverage. Unfortunately, he was indecisive on many of those runs, turning what should have been a big day into a mediocre 3.6 YPC day on 23 carries. Fitz Toussaint picked up the slack, though, averaging 4.8 YPC on 29 carries.

Offense vs. Ohio State
Though Ohio State has been universally awful this season, their one bright spot is defensively where they rank about where you'd expect an Ohio State team: 42nd in rushing defense, 35th in pass efficiency defense, 16th in total defense, and 14th in scoring defense. Aside from the rushing defense numbers, that sounds about right. Those numbers are largely because of defensive end John Simon. Short of Whitney Mercilus, Simon will be the best defensive end Michigan faces this year. The matchup between him and Mark Huyge in pass protection looms large, but any time I say something like that, Huyge comes through with a competent effort. To date Simon has 13.5 TFL and 6 sacks.

The other dangerman on Ohio State's defense is defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins whose numbers are similarly harrowing: 10 TFL, 3 sacks. He's not quite as terrifying, however, as the strength of Michigan's offensive line is David Molk on the interior.

The linebackers, as previously mentioned, are suspect. None of them have particularly great numbers (their starting linebackers combine for 6 sacks and 11.5 TFL). Ohio State is a prototypical cover-2 defense that doesn't blitz a ton, so those numbers aren't totally unexpected, but their ability to fill in run support was terrible against Penn State. Given that the team is 42nd in run defense, it's been that way for much of the year.

With the strength of Michigan's offensive line and the lack of discipline from the Buckeye linebackers, Fitz Toussaint and Denard should find plenty of room to run between the tackles in this game. Chances are the Buckeyes will load the box with their strong safety making it difficult to bounce runs to the outside, but Michigan should average solidly in the 4.5-5.5 YPC range.

Through the air, we'll see. It's expected to rain, which probably favors Ohio State (Miller can't throw anyway, so this makes Michigan's offense a bit more one dimensional), but if the weather holds up, the Buckeye secondary isn't all that harrowing. They're currently starting two juniors, a sophomore, and a redshirt freshman. They've accounted for 7 interceptions between them, which isn't spectacular. More interestingly, the safeties (Christian Bryant and CJ Barnett) are the #3 and #4 tacklers on the team, respectively, which lends credence to the linebacker-suck theory.

Per usual, this comes down to Good Denard vs. Evil Denard. Borges has shown a few new passing concepts in the last few weeks that have all had good results. Expect at least one or two new formations and route combination that pick up good yardage. If it's raining and both teams are having trouble throwing the ball, Evil Denard will likely rear his head a few times. Pressure off the edge from Simon or up the middle from Hankins will probably cause a few errant throws, but I don't expect Michigan's passing game to be significantly worse against the Buckeyes than it was against Illinois or Nebraska.

Defense vs. Ohio State: Where the LOLephants roam
Anyone who has watched the Buckeyes this year knows that the offense is barely functional. Watching Braxton Miller throw the ball is basically a redux of Terrelle Pryor during his freshman year: lots of armpunts, terribly inaccurate, and rarely effective. Given the current state of Michigan's secondary, chances are Ohio State will forgo passing the ball as much as possible. Floyd and Countess have been too good in coverage and Miller too bad passing for this to make a dramatic swing during this game.

Third and long will be interesting. In the last few weeks, Mattison has unleashed hell with Michigan's "okie" package, but Miller is a better athlete than Nathan Scheelhaase or Taylor Martinez and is better at escaping pressure than both. Fortunately, Michigan's zone blitzing is the kind of scheme that can confuse a young quarterback--especially one prone to scrambling--and force him into the strength of the defense. Expect at least a few moments when you say to yourself, "awesome blitz call" during this game. Simply put, Miller is not a threat through the air, even with the recent return of Posey, who Floyd will be Snuggie-ing all day.

The run game is where the Buckeyes will do the most damage. Miller's aforementioned athleticism will cause the team problems, but I'm not sure how many more than Scheelhaase and Martinez. Again, were this earlier in the season, I'd be worried about the edge discipline of Jake Ryan and Craig Roh, but in the last few weeks, Michigan has largely ironed those out. Per usual, Michigan will try to play contain on Miller and force a handoff to whatever running back is on the field.

That RB is likely to be senior Dan "Boom" Herron, he of TatGate fame. Herron has played in only five games to date but has accumulated 556 yards (5.2 YPC) and 2 TDs. He's a rumbling back (5'10", 205 lbs) that plays like a poor man's Beanie Wells. He's got some speed, but he makes most of his yards carrying the pile and running over defenders.

The Buckeye running game has really excelled because of their offensive line and fullback Zach Boren (yes, that Boren). The interior of the line is fierce, led by senior center Michael Brewster and the return of Mike Adams at tackle gives Ohio State possibly the best offensive line in the Big Ten. Were Michigan's defensive line not currently Swiss cheesing teams (see above), this would be a bigger worry. The real concern will be Michigan's linebackers filling the proper holes and reacting on time. I can already envision a few 20-yard runs after Desmond Morgan gets flattened by Boren, but if Demens and Co. can hold up against an aggressive, downhill running game, the Buckeye offense will be nonexistent.

It's really hard to see Ohio State moving the ball at all. They haven't been able to all season and with Michigan's defense playing its best two games of the season in the previous two weeks, I can't see that trend changing. Miller is a dynamic athlete and he'll be a terror to defend against in the next few years, but he's not there this season. The Buckeye passing game is barely functional and Michigan's secondary is good enough to shut it down. With Ohio State forced to exclusively run the ball, Ryan, Roh, and Kovacs will be left to clean up the option runs. This will not be too much of a problem.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan's run game is going to be extremely variable. Runs will likely go for either zero yards or 10 yards. Given how poor the Buckeye linebackers are, if Toussaint and Denard can make it past the defensive line, they won't see anyone until they run into the safeties downfield. Depending on the weather, the passing game may be a non-factor. Regardless, expect a run/pass split like we've seen the last few games.

Ohio State 13 - Michigan 23

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nebraska's scrape exchange

Against Michigan, Nebraska used the scrape exchange defensive playcall to defend Michigan's zone read. We saw Rodriguez toy with countering this a few times, usually using a pulling H-back to block the unblocked defensive end and the weakside tackle to block the scraping linebacker. Borges has been using more two-back sets to the same effect, one time busting Fitz Toussaint for a 10-yard gain. What's really interesting to me on this play is what the unblocked Nebraska defensive end does.

Michigan is in a basic two-back set with three wide receivers. Toussaint is to Denard's left and Stephen Hopkins is to Denard's right. Nebraska is in a nickel formation.

As the ball is snapped, the weakside defensive end is left unblocked (bottom of the screen).

Despite being unblocked, the weakside defensive end actually grabs on to Taylor Lewan (you can actually see his arm grabbing the side of Lewan) and restricts him from getting to the second level to block a linebacker. This also creates a log jam on the strongside of the field. Hopkins is running across the formation, to kick out any defender that that might crash down on the handoff.

At the mesh point, Lewan, who is being held by the defensive end, decides to block him and push him downfield. The weakside Nebraska linebacker has scraped over the top of the play and is playing contain on Denard.

Denard properly hands the ball off. However, Toussaint is running into a mass of bodies, in large part due to the Nebraska defensive end who engaged Lewan. The key here is Hopkins who is still pulling across the formation and going to engage the weakside linebacker that forced Denard to hand the ball off.

Hopkins engages and seals the linebacker to the outside. Lewan is trucking the Nebraska defensive end downfield. Toussaint, being a smart, patient running, sees this hole open up and cuts back to the weakside of the play.

Toussaint hits the hole and won't be tackled for 10 yards by a safety. (So maybe Hopkins gets away with a hold here, but so did the Nebraska defensive end in my opinion.)

Toussaint is probably the only Michigan running back that makes this play. His ability to delay and find the proper hole is something Michigan hasn't had since at least Mike Hart (and frankly, I think Toussaint does it better than Hart). But Michigan's response to the Nebraska scrape exchange also enables this play. Without Hopkins pulling across the formation to block Nebraska's weakside linebacker, that hole doesn't open up for Toussaint to run through.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remeber this?


These things are not the same. They are close though. That will be all.

Defending the option is hard

As a purely hypothetical exercise (because trying to assign blame in a realistic sense to anyone on the Michigan defense is silly), I wanted to look at the awesome triple option that Nebraska ran for their second touchdown on Saturday. You may remember it as the coolest fucking option play you've seen all year. You may not have remembered it so fondly if Michigan hadn't been shellacking Nebraska at the time, but rest assured, it still would've been the coolest play you've seen this season.

The play:
Nebraska has the ball on the three yard line and comes out in a basic shotgun formation: three-wide and two backs in the backfield. Michigan is in their 4-3 under formation. When the ball is snapped, Ryan Van Bergen is left unblocked:

In a typical option play, the quarterback would be reading the unblocked defensive end. On this play, I believe that Martinez is actually reading Kenny Demens. The Nebraska left guard is pulling around the formation to block Van Bergen.

The pulling guard (#77) engages Van Bergen. The slot receiver is sealing Jake Ryan to the inside of the field. Not pictured, Nebraska's playside wide receiver is trying to seal Blake Countess to the outside. This leaves Demens and Thomas Gordon unblocked. Demens is staying high rather than scraping over the play, which tells Martinez to hand the ball off.

At this point, Michigan is toast. Gordon is in space against a ball carrier and pitch man.

Duh. Touchdown.

If blame has to be assigned here, it's on Demens, but that's not really fair. The issue here is alignment and a brilliant playcall that you can't really gameplan for. But (technically) Demens needs to scrape over the top of the formation here because Kovacs, crashing on the backside of the play, has Martinez if he pulls the ball. But we're not blaming Demens for this. We're admiring how awesome this play is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

All your corn are belong to Rich Rodriguez

Melanie Maxwell |
When Michigan's shellacking of Nebraska came to an end, I expected Brady Hoke to walk to midfield to shake hands with Bo Pelini whereupon Pelini would pull off his cheap rubber mask to reveal that Rich Rodriguez had actually been in charge of the Cornhuskers' otherwise valiant attempts at bumbling, fumbling football. The mess of kickoff fumbles, blocked punts, and otherwise undisciplined sloppy play reeked of the last three years in the Big House. Except this time, it was the opponent (a non-Notre Dame opponent to boot) that was staring at the sidelines after the football that was supposed to be tucked high and tight in their armpits was bouncing gleefully into the arms of defenders.

I like Rich Rodriguez, more than I rightfully should after the last three years. But JT Floyd and Jeremy Gallon are making him look like an idiot. Since Gallon showed up on campus, he was a bad decision waiting to happen: not fielding punts that he should have in addition to a complete inability to catch. In the short months that Hoke has been on campus, Gallon has become a reliable punt returner and relatively sure-handed. And don't even get me started on Floyd who built on his Illinois performance with another game of jumping routes and blanketing receivers.

An honest question: What were Rodriguez and his staff coaching for three years? The only answer I can muster is "schemes". Rodriguez assumed that at this level, players should have the fundamentals down and focused on schemes. Hoke, on the other hand, mocks your lack-of-toughness schemes and teaches Will Campbell how to keep his ass low to the ground. Whatever it is, Michigan's back-to-back defensive smotherings of decent-to-good offenses prove that this isn't a fluke. The defense is under the best management that it has been since Greg Mattison was last leading the same unit to a national championship over a decade ago.

The offense appears just as well off. Denard ran the ball 23 times in this game, his highest total since Michigan's dismantling of Northwestern over a month ago (and his third highest rushing attempt total of the season). Borges gets it. Denard isn't Chad Henne or Shane Morris, but Borges understands personnel; the previous coaching staff understood schemes. So the offense will probably be a little wonky and grab bag until 2013 when Borges has his prototypical quarterback under center (and he will be very much Under Center). Michigan will run Totally Surprising Jet Sweeps that invariably lose five yards. But when Borges isn't outsmarting himself, he's putting together an effective offensive package that keeps defenses on their toes and finds ways to utilize all of Michigan's vast skill players.

At this point, it's fair to say that Rodriguez's recruiting hauls were probably not as deficient as previously thought. A lot of the non-contributors over the last three years, especially on defense, are panning out as effective starters and in some cases, possible All Big Ten performers. But that's not such a great thing for Rodriguez's reputation. The better this team gets--and they will continue to get better--the more you have to ask, What the hell was going on the last three years?

  • How nice is it that all of the special teams blunders are not being committed by your team? When's the last time Michigan blocked a punt? How enjoyable is it to be relatively certain Gallon is going to catch any punt sent his way but also make a few yards without fumbling?
  • Fitz Toussaint looks more and more like an NFL running back the more carries he gets. His lateral movement is incredible. There are only a few running backs in the country with a more effective cut than his. So long as he doesn't fall in love with it and maintains it as a tool to run vertically, Toussaint is going to be the best Michigan running back in a long time.
  • Denard, however, had another rough day running. For whatever reason, he's really struggled making decisions in the running game. In the last few games, Denard has shown a tendency to bounce everything to the outside, even when he has a lane up the middle. He may be trying to avoid some hits, but I'd guess he's trying to bust every run long rather than taking the running lanes given to him. The coaches will surely talk to him about this. His new-found ability to scramble is a wonderful addition to the offense, however.
  • Jibreel Black is done seeing relevant snaps this year. He refuses to play contain on the quarterback on option plays and was responsible for a significant chunk of Taylor Martinez's rushing yards.
  • Michigan ran 80 offensive plays in this game. Nebraska ran 54. Time of possession is a worthless stat, but those numbers are unreal. Michigan's defense booted the Cornhuskers off the field with ease (Nebraska was only 3-13 on third down and I believe they were 0-7 at one point) and the offense maintained long scoring drives.
  • Denard's interception was a clone of one that he threw earlier. He struggles mightily throwing those RB screens. Otherwise, he seemed to have a really good day through the air. That touchdown to Odoms was his best throw of the season.
Next week

Friday, November 18, 2011

Preview: Nebraska 2011

#16 Nebraska (8-2) vs. #18 Michigan (8-2)
The Big House
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: Low 50s, 30% chance of rain

Oddly, the first result in Google images for "cornhusker" is NSFW
Last week
#19 Nebraska 17 - #12 Penn State 14. Nebraska took on program-in-crisis Penn State last week and pulled out the victory despite Penn State making a game of it late. Nebraska held a 17-0 lead mid-way through the third quarter before PSU scored two unanswered touchdowns to make it a close game. The Nittany Lions were driving for a tying field goal when time ran out. Thus ended the first Penn State game since Jesus rode dinosaurs around the earth that Joe Paterno wasn't the head coach.

Though the scoreboard and box score say this game was close, that's not really the case. Nebraska holed up and played prevent football once they got a lead allowing PSU to crawl back into the game. Both teams' passing games were predictably inept with neither starting quarterback (Taylor Martinez or Matt McGloin) surpassing a 50% completion percentage. Both rushing attacks were mediocre, too. Rex Burkhead averaged 4.8 YPC on 25 carries while Stephon Green averaged a little less (4.2 YPC) on 17 rushes.

These are two teams with suspect offenses and the game played out as such. They were a combined 11-32 on third downs, 1-4 on fourth downs, and each team turned the ball over once. This game personifies The Big Ten in 2011.

#24 Michigan 31 - Illinois 14. Game recap. Illinois continued their Zookian slide in epic fashion against Michigan, failing to score in the first half and generating under 50 yards of offense for the game's first 30 minutes. Much of that can be attributed to Greg Mattison's schemes, but it's also largely due to Illinois having the worst offensive line in the Big Ten. Unable to run or pass block, and a sophomore quarterback who's a mediocre passer, this offense is barely functional. Michigan eventually capitalized on the strength of a 192-yard day from Fitz Toussaint. Denard Robinson came out of the game after mashing his hand on a defenders helmet, and Devin Gardner proved a serviceable backup.

The defense turned in its best performance since 2006 by playing disciplined in addition to great individual play from the secondary, which shut down AJ Jenkins and anyone else Scheelhaase considered throwing to. We were even treated to the best CB play of the last few years when JT Floyd--of all people--jumped a Jenkins hitch route and picked off Scheelhaase.

While this game is probably a bit of a paper tiger, there's a possibility, going up against two flawed offensive teams, that Michigan will be able to maintain this level of play for the rest of the year.

Offense vs. Nebraska
Nebraska's defense has been weird this year. Though they allowed only 3 points to MSU, they gave up 41 to Wisconsin, 27 to Ohio State, 29 to Fresno State, and 28 to Washington. They're currently 66th in rushing defense, 29th in pass efficiency defense (about which more in a second), 38th in total defense, and 36th in scoring defense. These are good-not-great numbers, but when you see Nebraska's schedule, they're a little underwhelming (Chattanooga, Fresno St, Washington, Wyoming, Ohio State, Minny, PSU; they also played MSU, Wisconsin, and Northwestern, but the majority of their schedule is either cupcake or has a broken offense).

Defensively, the Cornhuskers are led by senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and senior linebacker Lavonte David. A lot is going to be made of Dennard because of Michigan's obvious passing struggles and Dennard's status as the conference's best cornerback. However, I'm not sure he presents many problems for the team. Denard Robinson doesn't really have a go-to target (Hemingway, I guess) that he relies on heavily, so sticking Dennard on any one receiver doesn't make too much of a difference. Dennard will probably defend deep passes better than any other CB that Michigan has faced this year, but he won't be able to out-jump Hemingway.

David, on the other hand, allows the Cornhuskers defense to be incredibly versatile. He's good in coverage as well as run support, allowing them to maintain consistent personnel groups if Michigan starts changing between spread and pro-style concepts. David is fast enough to affect Michigan's running game, so getting a helmet on him downfield will be critical to the offense's success.

As for Michigan's schemes, those are once again up in the air. After using primarily an I-based attack against Iowa to disastrous effect, Al Borges went back to mostly spread schemes versus Illinois. This opened up a lot of running lanes for Toussaint, despite Denard having a relatively poor day on the ground. The expectation now is spread schemes for the rest of the season. I think Borges has experimented and failed enough with the I formation and pro-style attack that he's content running what the team is best at.

Though Dennard's ability to lock down Michigan's best receiver might not be a huge factor in the game, his presence will be felt. Denard will have to be careful passing into the Cornhusker secondary as they're one of the better units in the Big Ten. Expect a lot of short, horizontal routes, the likes of which Borges debuted against Illinois (I'm thinking specifically about the bunch receiver set that they used with a delayed route).

When running the ball--primarily with Toussaint as the coaches have made clear--Michigan will probably run between the tackles. Nebraska is dealing with injuries to their defensive line and is thin at the defensive tackle spot. Michigan's interior line should be able to seal the Nebraska linemen and get to the second level to block off David and the other linebackers.

Defense vs. Nebraska
Were this earlier in the season, Jake Ryan's persistent contain issues would be terrifying here. Martinez is every bit as fast as he's rumored to be, and giving him the edge, especially with Michigan's other indecisive linebackers, is a recipe for long runs. Fortunately, Ryan et al have shown considerable improvement defending the option (save Jibreel Black and Frank Clark, who both still struggle keeping contain, don't play).

Nebraska has the kind of QB/RB combo that Michigan had hoped for under the Rodriguez regime with Rex Burkhead lining up next to Martinez. Burkhead is averaging 5.1 YPC this season, has surpassed the 1,000 yard mark, and has 14 touchdowns so far. Though Michigan will still likely force Martinez to hand the ball off as much as possible, Burkhead can make defenses pay.

The problem with defending Nebraska's run game, as has been mentioned elsewhere and as Mattison brought up in his weekly press conference, is that they're able to run a variety of styles and formations effectively. Michigan's defense has to really be on their toes to defend the mix of power and option running that Nebraska will bring. Fortunately, they're coming off their best performance to date against Illinois--an option team--and looked universally sound on their assignments. This game will tell whether or not the improvement we saw from the defense against Illinois is for real.

Through the air, well... Nebraska is currently 101st in passing offense. God doesn't give with both hands, so what he gave to Martinez in speed, he subtracted from his passing abilities. Martinez can't throw a football like a quarterback. He shot puts the ball, which is about as effective as you might imagine. He's currently completing only 57% of his passes, has a 10/7 TD/INT ratio, and is averaging only 7.44 YPA. Martinez is only a real threat to throw the ball when safeties bite on play action.

This inability to throw and the emergence of JT Floyd and Blake Countess as legitimately good cornerbacks means that Michigan will be able to use Jordan Kovacs primarily in run support, leaving either Thomas Gordon or Troy Woolfolk as the lone deep safety. As long as Michigan's linebackers/defensive ends properly play Nebraska's option attack and force a handoff to Burkhead, Kovacs' presence should strip the Cornhuskers of the blocking advantage they gain.

In August, if someone had told you that Michigan would be 8-2 and favored going into this game, you'd probably have told them they were nuts, but Nebraska's disappointing season and the emergence of Michigan's defense makes this a very winnable game. If Michigan's performance against Illinois wasn't a one-off event, Michigan could similarly dominate this game. Because Martinez is hardly a threat to pass, Michigan will play primarily in man coverage in this game and load up against the run. The discipline of the front seven against a varied and unusual option attack will be key: always, always, always force Martinez to hand the ball off. Fortunately, Michigan's recent performances make me think they won't have much trouble containing this rushing attack and consequently, the Nebraska offense.

On the other side of the ball: Evil Denard vs. Good Denard. Nebraska's defensive line isn't strong enough to stuff Michigan's rushing attack, which should move the ball pretty well. However, Michigan will have to call on Denard's arm a lot more than they did against Illinois. Avoiding costly mistakes against the conference's best secondary is important. He'll throw at least one interception. If he starts turning the ball over multiple times, it may be too much to overcome.

A low scoring game that sees Michigan's defense dominate and the offense look shaky once again.

Michigan 20 - Nebraska 16

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Illinois sanity day

Rewatching the Illinois game again, I realized that I probably bit off more than I could chew this week with my Mattison blitz post because it stripped me of a number of things to write about. Instead of watching the game a second time yesterday to try and find something to write about, I decided to take a much-needed sanity day. Between my day job, applications to graduate school, and blogging, I was pretty worn out. Regular posting will continue tomorrow with the Nebraska preview. Posting for the rest of the month will probably be a little weird though, as I have a week-long conference for work around Thanksgiving, but I'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Defending Illinois' speed option

Though Michigan showed a lot of innovative blitzes against Illinois, perhaps the most memorable play from the game was one of the few times the Illini ran from their signature pistol formation. The most highlight-worthy moment of the play was Jake Ryan flattening Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase a moment after he pitched the ball, but it was the play of Jordan Kovacs (shock) that really made the defense effective.

Illinois comes out in the pistol formation they're known for. Michigan counters with a basic 4-3 under formation. Instead of running the triple option as Illinois typically does from their formation, they run a speed option to Scheelhaase's left with the H-back used as a lead blocker.

As the ball is snapped, Michigan rushes all four down linemen. Ryan reads the play and makes an incredible break on the ball. Illinois' slot receiver will try and block Ryan or at least impede his path to Scheelhaase, but because of how quickly Ryan diagnoses the play and breaks on the ball, he's able to beat the block. (As a sidenote, look at how quickly Mike Martin came off the ball. He's already beyond the line of scrimmage as Michigan's other down linemen are just standing up. Explosiveness, he has it.)

A moment later, Ryan has beaten the block from the slot receiver. Illinois' H-back (acting as a lead blocker) recognizes this and tries to slow up and block Ryan but is unable to. This play is intended to option off of Kovacs, but because Ryan is in the backfield so quickly, Scheelhaase is forced to pitch the ball too early.

Despite the H-back trying to block Ryan, he's still able to hammer Scheelhaase who pitches the ball. At this point, the running back is essentially in space against Kovacs. Martin is flowing to the play in pursuit but is initially outrun.

This is where Kovacs makes the play. Illinois' running back is trying to get to the edge of the field and away from Martin and Michigan's other pursuit defenders. As you can see, Kovacs is coming downhill at the ball carrier but he's a yard or two outside of the ball, making sure to funnel the play back inside.

As Kovacs approaches the ball carrier, he's still aligned with the outside shoulder of the running back, forcing him back inside. Though it looks like Kovacs overruns the play (he doesn't, as we'll see), that's OK because he's forcing it back to the middle where his help defense is.

Kovacs reaches out and gets a hold of the ball carrier, slowing him enough for Martin to wrap up the tackle.

If Michigan fails to do any of these things (Ryan's jump, Kovacs' contain, or Martin's pursuit), this could have become anything from a 5-yard gain to a long touchdown. But the combination of these actions helps Michigan perfectly execute the play. Ryan's ability to force the pitch early simplifies Kovacs' read. Given that Mattison has assigned Michigan's defensive ends to play the quarterback on option runs, I'd bet Ryan was coached to go directly after Scheelhaase if Illinois runs from this formation.

Kovacs is the real key, in my opinion. For the last three years, we've been treated to corners/safties/linebackers giving up the edge as they rush without abandon to try and make the tackle. Kovacs is smart enough to realize that he's in space against a running back and will probably struggle to make a play. He shows the perfect amount of aggressiveness here: engaging the running back in the backfield, but being cautious enough to maintain leverage.

Martin is able to clean up the play because of his pursuit. It helps that he ripped through Illinois' suspect offensive line, but good defenses have players that make plays like this. Martin was heads-up enough to read the play and get himself in position to corral the running back if Kovacs kept contain.

For this blog's purposes, the schemes that Mattison brings are probably the most exciting aspect of the new coaching staff, but in reality, proper positioning and this kind of fundamentally sound play is the real benefit of Mattison and Co. Chances are that last year, this play goes for a significant chunk of yardage and the team continues to make the same basic errors. In the span of one season, Michigan's defense suddenly gets it. That's all coaching. I hate you Greg Robinson.

p.s. I hate you Rich Rodriguez.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Obligatory slobbering Mattison post

Late in the game against Iowa, Greg Mattison unveiled a pre-snap defensive alignment and blitz package that was similar to the one that produced the late Notre Dame touchdown. Michigan overwhelms the line of scrimmage with defenders and drops most of them into coverage, generally rushing only four defenders. The difference between the Iowa formation and the ND formation was the alignment of Mike Martin who, instead of lining up in the nose tackle position, lines up outside of the offensive tackle--Desmond Morgan instead lines up as the "nose tackle".

Against Illinois, Mattison went insane. Or rather, he put on display his brand of mad genius. Not only did Mattison dial up that pre-snap alignment six different times in the game, he showed just how deep his playbook goes by calling five (!) different plays from it, using a combination of zone and man coverage. Doing a Picture Page post for each one is probably redundant, so what follows are diagrams of the five different plays Michigan showed from that formation in addition to the game situation.

The first time Michigan showed the alignment, Illinois was in 3rd and 10 in the first quarter. This is the most coverage-heavy variation of the play Michigan showed. As you can see, Martin is bounced outside the Illinois tight end. Martin, along with Van Bergen, Roh, and Ryan will be the four rushers while the rest of the defense drops off into zone coverage. Hilariously, Ron Zook or Nathan Sheelhaase checked to a running play when Michigan showed this formation. My guess is that Scheelhaase was coached during the previous week to check to a run when Michigan showed this alignment because it was a zone blitz that would be susceptible to a run. But this was 3rd and 10 and Illinois came up obviously short.

The second time Michigan showed the formation, Illinois was once again in 3rd and 10. The biggest change is having all of Michigan's defenders play man coverage against Illinois' eligible receivers rather than drop into zone coverage. However, Ryan and Morgan will still drop into underneath zones. Meanwhile, on the strongside of the play, Van Bergen, Kovacs, and Martin are running the stunt formation that Michigan used to great effect against Western Michigan early in the season. Though this doesn't produce a sack, Scheelhaase makes an errant throw with pressure in his face and the defense gets off the field.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Illinois 2011: A reason to love Greg Mattison

Before the season, I was bullish on Greg Mattison and the Michigan defense, but ultimately thought the unit wouldn't rise above 60th in the country in most statistical categories. "Ten" games into the season (the NCAA doesn't recognize the shortened WMU game), Michigan is 41st in rushing defense, 39th in pass efficiency defense, 17th in total defense, and 7th (!) in scoring defense. As the season progressed, there were always caveats: the Big Ten is awful, the defense is recovering an inordinate amount of fumbles, mediocre performances against Iowa and MSU. But after dismantling a 6-3 Illinois team, those caveats get thrown out the window. This is a good defense.

Sure, there's not very much depth on the defensive line. After this year, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen graduate and the front seven looks less terrifying, but the one thing that won't change is Greg Mattison, whose schemes are some of the best in college football and who can find ways to generate QB pressure regardless of who is on the field. Last week, Mattison debuted the alignment above on third and very long against Iowa. Despite seven men crowding the line of scrimmage, only four would rush while the rest dropped off into coverage, confusing both the offensive line and quarterback. On Saturday, any time the defense forced the Illini into a third and long situation, Mattison dialed up this formation, each time rushing different players from different positions on the field. The Illinois offensive line was ill equipped to handle the attack.

Mattison is installing this defense a lot like Rodriguez or Borges installed their offense. Week by week, Mattison introduces a new formation or coverage scheme to the defense--usually only one. Early in the season, it was a basic stunt move intended to overwhelm one side of the offensive line. Against MSU, he debuted an A-gap zone blitz. Purdue: nickel blitz. Iowa: crowding the line of scrimmage. Michigan's base defense is a 4-3 under, man-coverage look that Mattison can slowly and effectively build upon. While he doesn't go back to the cookie jar in later weeks, the hope (and my expectation) is that when Michigan plays Ohio State, they'll have an arsenal of blitzing plays that can be deployed in unison, creating a defense that is as unpredictable and consistently effective as the constantly tweaked offense under Rodriguez.

Saturday was about more than blitzes though. That was the best defensive performance from a Michigan squad in four years. Though Illinois doesn't have a great offense, they do have an above average one, and Michigan was able to completely shut them down despite the offense affording the Illini 13 real drives. Illinois earned only 20 yards in the first half and didn't score until the end of the third quarter. The defense forced seven 3 and outs during the game and JT Floyd made the best play a Michigan cornerback has made since Donovan Warren ripped the ball away from an Indiana receiver to seal a Michigan victory in 2009. Were the offense able to move the ball at all, this game would've gotten out of hand earlier. Instead, it took the aforementioned Floyd interception to set the Wolverines up with good enough field position to capitalize.

With two games left against obviously flawed teams, Michigan can, against all odds, win 10 games this season. With a defense that appears to be getting better as the season progresses and an offense that's functional (with occasional flashes of brilliance), this is the most complete team wearing the Maize and Blue since 2006. And though making it to the Big Ten title game is probably out of reach (barring an epic collapse from Sparty), Michigan really only has one thing left to play for this season: ending Ohio State's seemingly endless win streak against the Wolverines. After Saturday's game, that seems more like a likelihood than a possibility.

  • I'm really glad I have a "Reasons to love Greg Mattison" tag already.
  • Al Borges' refusal to throw a screen pass makes me so angry. After Michigan took a 14-0 lead, Illinois started almost exclusively run blitzing, and rightfully so: Michigan only threw the ball 15 times throughout the game.  Borges' answer to these run blitzes was to... run. It obviously didn't work and Michigan's offense bogged down when they had a chance to blow the game open.
  • However, Borges' decision to play almost exclusively from the shotgun paid dividends. Though it seems like he's come to this conclusion before, Michigan still had the offensive debacle against Iowa, which was dominated by I formation runs. The hope is that Borges has finally learned his lesson and Michigan will forgo the I formation for the majority of the remaining games.
  • Great to see Martavious Odoms get a touchdown catch in this game. His lack of playing time is the most depressing aspect of the season.
  • My other gripe about the offensive playcalling: rollouts. They're awful. Michigan doesn't run them well and defenses are consistently defeating them by shooting a linebacker/defensive end straight upfield to play contain. Denard and Devin never have a run/pass option on those plays because of how they're defended. Instead, Borges is asking the team's mediocre passers to throw on the run. This is sub-optimal.
  • Illinois' offensive line is Swiss cheese. Though much of the pressure on Scheelhaase was created by Mattison's schemes, the offensive line provided little-to-no resistance.
Next week
Michigan welcomes 8-2 Nebraska to the Big House. The Cornhuskers are coming off a 17-14 win against Penn State. They've been relatively shaky all season, losing to Northwestern and being annihilated by Wisconsin. They also had a narrow escape against Ohio State. This is going to be a tight game that will probably come down to who turns the ball over less.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Preview: Illinois 2011

#24 Michigan (7-2) vs. Illinois (6-3)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
ABC regional/ESPN
Forecast: High 50s, 10% chance of rain

Last week
Illinois 7 - #19 Penn State 10. Despite playing a Nittany Lion team that still can't find an offense, Illinois lost last week thanks to a missed field goal at the buzzer that would've sent the game into overtime. Illinois' defensive numbers were great but Penn State has a way of making all defenses look good. The Illini only allowed 209 yards, 2.7 YPC, and 3.5 YPA through the air. Penn State's offense is awful. In spite of that awful output, PSU running back Silas Redd still managed 4.6 YPC on 30 carries, so there's yard to be had against the Illinois defense.

What ultimately killed Illinois last week were turnovers, of which they had four: interceptions thrown by backup QB Reilly O'Toole and wide receiver Tim Russel, as well as two fumbles. Otherwise, they won every offensive category on the box score. (A sidenote: Penn State is going to be the worst team to win the Big Ten in at least 20 years.) Then again, starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase only threw the ball 16 times, connecting on 9 of them for 63 yards.

Offensively, this game set the Big Ten back a decade.

#15 Michigan 16 - Iowa 24. Game column. Michigan struggled to score against a mediocre Iowa defense and managed to screw up an extra-point attempt to set up a frantic game-theory debated fourth quarter. In the end, Michigan came three yards short of a potential tying touchdown despite all of the receiver drops, freshman mistakes, and I formation catastrophes. Regardless, this is a game that Michigan probably should have won.

Desmond Morgan came in for much chastising after failing to keep contain on multiple Iowa runs, but otherwise, the defense held up well. Against an admittedly mediocre offense, Michigan held Iowa to 302 total yards, including 3.7 YPC. They were even able to hold Mooseback Marcus Coker below his season average, albeit not significantly (4.6 YPC).

The offense, on the other hand, was... bad. Denard had another poor day, but that was aided by multiple drops from his receivers. On the ground, the team averaged only 3.4 YPC. And the offensive line had arguably their worst game of the year. Much of that was due to the coaching staff's insistence on calling plays from the I formation, but this is life for Michigan in 2011.

Offense vs. Illinois
This looks harrowing. In addition to the offense coming off one of their worst performances of the season, the Illinois defense has been very good this year. They currently rank 15th in rushing defense, 19th in pass efficiency defense, 6th in total defense, and 13th in scoring defense. Despite those terrifying numbers, they're almost identical to those of the Illinois defense last year before Michigan's epic triple overtime win (19th in total pass yardage, 26th against the rush, 12th scoring defense). Unfortunately, Michigan 2011 /= Michigan 2010, and the chances Michigan exposes the Illini defense this season are hovering around zero.

This year, the Illinois defense is led by defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who already has 44 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, and 11.5 sacks. He'll be matched up against Mark Huyge, which, if recent returns are to be believed, is going to be a big problem. A key to winning this game will be making sure Huyge always has help on Mercilus, whether that's a running back chipping him in the backfield or a tight end. Michigan will either have to option off of Mercilus or run away from him. My guess is the latter.

Illinois boasts and old, experienced defense and it shows. The one weakness is probably 260-lbs defensive tackle (!) Glenn Foster. If Michigan is going to run from the I formation, it's going to be specifically to attack Foster. Illinois, meanwhile, heeding Michigan's previous performances, will likely load the box and force Denard to throw the ball.

As for what Michigan can do to attack Illinois: I have no idea. Against Iowa, Michigan made a significant shift in playcalling:
A lot more under center in this game. I've got Michigan with 9 snaps in an ace formation, four in Denard jet, and 14 in I-Form. Michigan had 26 shotgun snaps in hurry-up time and 22 outside of it.

Of Michigan's 49 snaps in their base offense, 22 were from the shotgun, a 45% rate. Big dropoff from before the bye week.
At this point, I have no idea what Al Borges is going to call, though maybe that's the point. If Michigan stays under center in this game, they'll have to attack Illinois' suspect defensive tackles because Michigan has struggled to run outside the tackles and Mercilus will shut down anything in his direction.

Through the air, it's another episode of Good Denard vs. Evil Denard. He showed improvement going through his reads against Iowa--except on his interception, in which he stared down Roundtree, randomly pump faked (that no one bought), and then threw the ball into triple coverage--but he still hasn't solved many of his accuracy problems.

Defense vs. Illinois
I would feel a lot worse about this situation if this game were earlier in the season and Michigan hadn't already played a triple option team (Northwestern). Since that time, Jake Ryan has shown significant improvement maintaining the edge and Michigan's undisciplined defensive ends have started to play more consistently. My big concern in this game is Kenny Demens, who has been slowed by a few injuries and has shown a lot of struggles diagnosing plays. This is the kind of offense that punishes linebackers for not making quick reads.

As Greg Mattison instructed the team to do against Northwestern, the unblocked defensive ends on the option will always play contain on the quarterback, forcing a handoff. This means there will be a lot of running plays headed directly at Desmond Morgan that he'll need to stay disciplined on. I expect Michigan's defense to play far more zone coverage in this game than they have all year as a safety valve for blown assignments.

For the second straight week, the secondary will have its hands full with another star wide receiver. This week its A.J. Jenkins, who has 68 receptions for 1,030 yards this season. It will be interesting to see whether or not Mattison leaves JT Floyd to cover Jenkins or whether he gives Blake Countess a crack at it. Floyd struggled last week, which may be a strong enough argument to give Countess the first shot at covering Jenkins.

Fortunately, Illinois' quarterback is still hit-or-miss thrower Nathan Scheelhaase. Though he's a shifty runner (not a lot of top-end speed, though), his throwing motion and accuracy are, well, iffy. He runs the option well, but when he's asked to throw the ball, he often struggles. For proof, in last year's triple overtime loss, Scheelhaase only threw the ball 25 times. Denard and Tate Forcier combined for 39 passing attempts in the game. Illinois does not throw the ball much.

I don't know. If I had any inclination what the offense will look like on Saturday, this would be easier to call. Unfortunately, Al Borges seems to be trending more toward an I formation system. If that's the case, Michigan is going to struggle to run the ball and Mercilus is going to add to his already gaudy stats. But even if Michigan does play primarily from the shotgun, it's tough to see them moving the ball against a defense that's proven to be one of the more consistent in the country. Denard's accuracy problems and the offensive line's struggles run blocking create an inconsistent offense that will likely struggle to move the ball. And given that the Illinois defense is more blitz-heavy than Iowa's, you can expect more pressure on Denard and more errant throws.

I don't expect Illinois' offense to move the ball much either. Aside from a few frustrating drives punctuated by linebackers giving up the edge, neither Scheelhaase or starting running back Jason Ford present too much of a threat on the ground. A.J. Jenkins will get his receptions, but I'm confident enough in the secondary that he won't be catching Michael Floydian deep jump balls. Though I do expect Illinois to put together a few more scoring drives than Michigan will be able to muster.

Michigan 17 - Illinois 24

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Penn State; Coach Taylor

I grew up playing hockey despite my parents’ constant refrain “You can play any sport you want. Except hockey and football.” My parents were concerned for my safety. But when the Muzzi’s moved in down the street and I saw Tony roller blading on the sidewalk, I ran into the house and told my parents “I want to play hockey.” As a five year old, Tony was the coolest person I had ever seen. Something about the way he would glide down the sidewalk captivated me. I wanted to glide like that.

After investigating the sport, my parents realized that contact and violence were slowly introduced. A few months after I begged them to let me play, my parents took me to Play It Again sports to outfit me with hockey gear. The helmet and skates didn’t fit right, but they were good enough for a Mini Mite. The salesman handed me a hockey stick without any curve on it and told me to hold it however it felt comfortable. That’s how I found out that I play hockey like Wayne Gretzky: a righty playing left handed.

I idolized my coaches despite not remembering many of them anymore. I remember coach Cooke because he made me captain of the team and selected me #1 overall in the open draft for players one year. I remember coach Mann because he was the best coach I had ever had, and because he arranged to have MSU goalie Ryan Miller come to a practice—I scored on him, but I’m relatively sure he wasn’t looking. Coaches were authority figures in a way that parents and teachers couldn’t be. In the locker rooms, they swore and talked about girlfriends. They were usually younger than my parents and didn’t seem like such stringent disciplinarians. Coach Mann advocated heart punches: if you screwed up in practice, he would punch you in the heart in the locker room. This probably wasn’t a great idea, but my favorite coaches were the ones that inspired you to play well but acted like your peer, despite being old enough to have birthed you.

One year, either in Squirts or Pee-Wee, our team had a new coach that I didn’t recognize: coach Taylor, I think, though I don’t remember exactly. Everyone loved Coach Taylor. He had an attractive wife and bragged about it in the locker room. He had two young children who used to come on the ice and practice with us. He was everything you wanted in a coach: a good motivator, someone who swore and talked about girlfriends, but also inspired you to go out on the ice and play your best hockey.

As the season wore on, Coach Taylor would invite the players to come watch him play hockey after our games. Players would hang out with him at the ice rink after practices and watch him skate later that night. My parents never let me stay despite my desire to hang out with Coach and the team. The players loved Coach Taylor. Eventually, he began inviting everyone to come over to his house and hang out. Once again, my parents never let me go. I felt left out when the team laughed about playing video games at his house over the weekend.

Then one night, my parents received a call. There were parent meetings and rumors of weird things going on at Coach Taylor’s house. At the next practice, we were told that Coach Taylor was no longer our coach and that he wouldn’t be allowed back ever. We were warned to cut ties with him. To this date, I don’t know exactly what happened—my parents never told me—but the bits I can remember included something unsavory in a shower. His wife left him and I don’t believe he was allowed to see his children anymore.

A few years later, my mom and I were walking around a Target when we came across Coach Taylor. My mom hurried us away and wouldn’t let me talk to him. This was the first time that I can remember feeling that adults—adults in my limited world, anyway—did bad things.

There’s no moral to this story and I won’t try to force its narrative on the one that’s currently playing out at Penn State. Sports seem like an avenue to gain access to young children, and how you monitor and control that is what really needs to be addressed in the wake of this scandal. With such a young and possibly at-risk population, reform and questions should be directed at the oversight of these charities and youth sports. The administration and athletic department at Penn State failed miserably in this regard, but that’s in the past. Now we need to establish ways to ensure that this never happens again.

Third and long? Get Mattisoned

Readers of the blog will know that I've been enamored with Greg Mattison all year. Aside from the obvious, tangible gains in performance, Mattison brought with him NFL blitzing schemes that I had been clamoring for during Greg Robinson's disastrous experiment with an "aggressive, blitzing" 3-3-5 defense. Early in the season, Mattison showed more than a few zone blitzes that had me really excited for the rest of the season, but as games rolled by, Michigan lacked the kind of defensive flare that got me excited. Finally, with Iowa in a 3rd and 16, Mattison unveiled a seemingly hellacious blitz that earned Michigan a sack and more importantly, got them off the field in a critical situation.

The play:
The first thing you'll notice is that despite Michigan having players swarming the line of scrimmage, only four defenders actually rushed, while the rest dropped off into coverage. There are a few players not pictured, but things of note: Martin is in a two-point stance outside of Iowa's tight end, Courtney Avery and Frank Clark are lined up over Iowa's slot receiver, and Desmond Morgan is lined up as the "nose tackle". It is difficult to get a read as to two is and is not rushing.

As the ball is snapped, most of the defenders on the line of scrimmage drop into coverage. Morgan drops from the NT spot, and Martin and Kovacs each begin dropping into their respective coverage zones. Meanwhile, Clark, Demens, Roh, and Van Bergen are the four rushers.

As the play continues, it's clear that Michigan's coverage scheme is a basic cover-2 with five zone defenders underneath. But because Iowa needs 16 yards for a first down, Michigan is able to mix up who they send into coverage without the fear of a blown play.

Iowa's receivers are all running shallow crossing routes, which, if this is defended even remotely how it should be, will net a gain of no more than 5 to 8 yards. Here, you can see that Michigan's underneath defenders are all within arms length of an Iowa receiver, forcing Vandenberg to progress through his reads.

Since all of the Iowa receivers are covered, Vandenberg steps into the pocket where Roh is headed.

Boom, Mattisoned.

A few things of note:

This is a difficult playcall to make unless the opponent has 10+ yards to go for a first down. Sending players like Mike Martin into coverage is risky business if your opponent only needs a few yards to convert, but surprising QBs with a zone drop from linemen is a way to force an errant throw or make them check down to a different receiver. Here, with no one open, Vandenberg has to eat a sack.

The pre-snap alignment also goes a long way toward this result. Obviously having Morgan lined up in the nose tackle spot is a wonky alignment, but in my opinion, the most critical alignment prior to the snap is that of Troy Woolfolk. When a quarterback reads a defensive alignment before the snap, one of the key things they look for is the alignment of the safeties. If there's one deep safety, chances are the team is playing cover-1 or cover-3. If there are two deep safeties, they're likely playing cover-2 or quarters. However, on this play, Woolfolk is the only deep safety, but he will roll to one side of the field as JT Floyd drops into coverage as the second deep safety.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Missed blocks (Iowa edition)

After a poor 2009 season blocking for Tate Forcier, Mark Huyge proved himself a decent-to-good right tackle last year en route to Michigan's best offense in over a decade. Unfortunately, 2011 hasn't been quite as kind. Against MSU, Huyge opened SitB for suffering Spartan defensive ends. And against Iowa, he was responsible for the death of a play that was setup to go a long, long way.

The setup:
Michigan is down 6-7 with just over 13 minutes left in the second quarter and has the ball on their own 40 yard line. Michigan comes out in an I formation with stacked receivers to Denard's right. Initially, Kevin Koger is lined up as an H-back on the left side of the field...

He will motion across the formation and line up directly behind Mark Huyge:

This is a basic power play. On the snap, Michael Schofield begins to pull across the formation as the lead blocker. Huyge and David Molk down block. Patrick Omameh needs to get to the second level to seal Iowa's MLB. Koger is responsible to kick out the playside Iowa linebacker. They're creating a hole in the C gap (to the right of the right tackle, Huyge) for Schofield and Fitz Toussaint to run through.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Should Hoke have gone for two?

[EDIT: There's been much contention about this. I post this in the comments, but it's worth posting here as well: If someone has a model to calculate win probability (other than the Advanced NFL Stats one, because it doesn't really work here), I'd love to see the analysis of win probably for the following (with 7:53 left on the clock and kicking the ball off):

WP(extra point) vs. WP(2-pt make)*.4 + WP(2-pt miss)*.6

I think this is the crux of my argument. My assumption is that WP(extra point) is higher.]

In the wake of Michigan's loss to Iowa, game theorists are criticizing Brady Hoke's decision to kick the extra point rather than go for two on Michigan's fourth-quarter scoring drive. Though I know it goes against traditional game theory to kick the extra point, I can't shake the feeling that it was the correct decision.

Hear me out. Michigan scored to make the game 15-24 with 7:53 remaining on the clock. Game theory states that Michigan should go for the two-point conversion because, if they miss, it will inform the coaches whether or not they need one or two scores with the remaining time, and can adjust their playcalling accordingly. But there's one play that this theory doesn't take into account: a successful, expected onside kick.

First, let's examine the path to victory that Michigan would have to follow for all of the possible scenarios (with the exception of missing the extra point because, well, if you do that twice in a game, shame on you):

Go for 1 Go for 2 make Go for 2 miss
Defensive stop Defensive stop Defensive stop
Touchdown drive Touchdown drive Touchdown drive
2-point conversion Extra point Extra point
Overtime Overtime Expected onside kick recovery
Field goal drive

Michigan, obviously, elected to kick the extra point. With that decision, the team was essentially playing for a coin flip (2-point conversions are successful about 40% of the time). Kicking off with 7:53 remaining, Michigan needed a defensive stop as well as a successful touchdown drive and two-point conversion. As the game played out, Michigan had ample time for that. Not only did the defense force a stop after 2:41, but they were able to fit in two more drives and a second defensive stop (offensive drives consisted of: 1:13 off the clock preceding a punt, and 2:15 off the clock ebfore stalling at the 3 yard line; the second defensive stop took 1:44). Had they been able to punch the ball into the endzone, they would've had a 40% chance of tying the game and sending it into overtime. From there, it's anyone's game.

If Michigan makes the two-point conversion, the same scenario unfolds as above, but instead of needing a two-point conversion after the possible tying touchdown they only need an extra point. There is ample time for this situation, and it is the best-case scenario.

The problem lies in missing the two-point conversion early in the quarter. If Michigan had gone for the two-point conversion and missed, it's a two-possession game (9 points) with 7:53 to go. In that instance, not only does Michigan have to force a defensive stop (which they do), but also receive the ball, march down for a score, successfully complete an onside kick (about which more later), and drive for another score. Not only does the successful completion of an onside kick present problems, but time then becomes a major factor.

Hypothetically, let's say that Michigan scores with 7:53 left in the game and misses its two-point conversion attempt. They're down nine, kicking off, and need two scores. If the defense produces the identical defensive stop, they will receive the ball on their own four yard line with 5:12 remaining. Michigan's fastest scoring drive of the day was its final one, which covered 57 yards and took 2:49 (0.337 yards/second). If Michigan continued that pace, a drive of 96 yards would take them 4:44. If we're generous and shave off a minute from that time, Michigan is left with 1:28 and probably zero timeouts. In that time, they have to successfully recover an onside kick and move the ball about 35-40 yards to have a makeable field goal for the win.

While this is doable, onside kicks present a huge gamble. According to Advanced NFL Stats (caveats about these being NFL numbers apply, but only barely),
Onside kicks in the NFL are successful 26% of the time. It’s true, but it’s also very misleading. Onside kick success rates are very dependent on whether the receiving team is expecting one...

When teams are expecting it, when WP is about 0.15 and below, the success rate is about 20%. But when teams aren’t expecting it, the success rate averages 60%.
In this situation, Iowa would be expecting an onside kick, making the success rate somewhere at or near 20%. With a true freshman kicker who has never attempted a collegiate onside kick? Michigan's chances would be low.

The point is that going for two points earlier in the quarter, while it would pay off significantly if you convert (40%) basically puts the game out of reach if you fail (60%). Not only does clock management become a significant issue if you miss the two-point conversion early, but Hoke would also be asking his team to play nearly perfect football for close to 8 minutes. With Michigan's current team, that's asking too much.

This is why I feel like the "information" angle of game theory here is short-sighted. Would Michigan's coaches know whether or not they needed two scores? Sure, but getting two scores in that time-frame while playing errorless football is the equivalent of putting the game out of reach. By kicking the extra point, Michigan creates a potentially one-score game and forces Iowa to play errorless football (a fumble or interception changes the game significantly). Most importantly, it removes the variance of a successful, expect onside kick.

As it played out, if Michigan was able to score, that gives them a 40% chance of taking the game to overtime. But that same 40% chance of making the two-point conversion earlier in the quarter significantly increases the win variance and Michigan's ability to convert what is needed for an eventual victory. So while kicking the extra point may not make the game a guaranteed one-score game, it does indicate that you're playing for one more scoring drive. Because with the time remaining, playing for two is nearly impossible.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Iowa 2011: Where first downs are a killer

#15 Michigan 16 - Iowa 24
Melanie Maxwell |
In the first three quarters against Iowa, Michigan had 20 first downs. They ran the ball on 14 of them and gained only 50 yards for 3.57 YPC, mostly because Iowa broke tendency and played a single-high safety defensive front, stacked against the run. With someone like Chad Henne under center--a polished passer--an average of 2nd and 7 isn't as large of an issue, but Denard Robinson has shown time and again that he can't excel in long down and distance situations.
On the season, he completed 62.5% of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt. On obvious passing downs, he completed only 44% of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt. In addition, Denard threw nearly half of his interceptions in these scenarios. While you might expect that (trying to force the ball to a receiver to pick up a first down), it implies that he's either not particularly careful with the ball in OPD (he had a 7.1% interception ratio) or he has difficulty reading defenses and executing the throws.
Regardless, when Michigan earned a first down against Iowa in non-hurry-up mode, 75% of the time, the team would line up in a running formation, with Iowa's defense loading the box, and head directly into it.

When the team was down 15 points in the fourth quarter, Al Borges decided to spread the field and air it out. On their fourth-quarter scoring drive, Denard threw the ball on all four first downs. He connected for gains of 7, 9, 13, and 7, all four complete and one of them for a touchdown. On that drive, Michigan marched 57 yards in just under three minutes, had one incompletion, and didn't have a single negative play.

Michigan is a better football team than Iowa, of this I cannot be convinced otherwise. This is a loss that can be chalked up to a coaching transition. The I formation, both the coaching staff's insistence on using it and the team's inability to consistently exceed from it, explicitly lost Michigan this game.  It's a growing pain, though the last time this happened, we were losing to Toledo, so things could be worse.

With the talent and performance of this Michigan unit to date, a loss like this shouldn't be too frustrating: they aren't good enough to challenge for a BCS bowl and in a non-Bizarro Big Ten, they wouldn't be anywhere near a Big Ten championship. But with everyone in the league intent on losing to vastly inferior teams, Michigan was solidly in the running for a birth in the Big Ten title game. This loss effectively takes them out of it.

What this says about the coaching staff is disappointing in the short term but not wholly unexpected. Brady Hoke's "We will run power" is not a lie, as early returns indicated. Losses like this don't need to happen but they do when you're switching coaches. Hoke is building a program in his image and unfortunately, that image doesn't best utilize the skills of Michigan's current personnel. Rodriguez did the same thing when he arrived on campus and Michigan went 3-9. With a team that's still wildly outplaying expectations and a coaching staff that has proven to be a significant upgrade over the previous one, this loss is the equivalent of being told you have to eat three more bites of vegetables before desert: you really don't want to but the reward will be something sweet.

  • Desmond Morgan is a freshman. Morgan was atrocious in this game (I expect MGoBlog's UFR to be ugly for him). The first two scoring drives were nearly single-handedly his fault. He lost contain on almost all runs and Iowa made it a point to attack Michigan's WLB all game. It was no surprise that the coach's pulled Mogan after Iowa's second drive, but I was surprised to see him back on the field in the second half. This is still a young team.
  • Blake Countess is a freshman. And he's really good. Countess is the best cornerback Michigan has had since well before Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor. He's going to be a special player.
  • Denard had another awful day. Most of Denard's issues, as mentioned above, came from throwing in a long down and distances. The other factor contributing to his struggles were the wide receivers once again completely unable to create separation. Opponents have seen the tape and taken note: if you're physical with Michigan's receivers, you'll stick to them like glue. Denard was, however, progressing through his reads better than he has all season, which is encouraging.
  • The running backs struggled because Iowa, like Michigan State, loaded the box and dared Michigan to throw the ball. The lack of audibles at the line is increasingly frustrating.
  • The goal line stand. Iowa called four straight house blitzes when Michigan had first down from the three yard line. My only real complaint with the playcalling was the timeout before that series. When Michigan had the ball 1st and goal with the clock stopped, they should've run the ball, giving Denard one chance to get into the endzone by himself, and then called the timeout. Instead, they allowed Iowa to set their defense and bring in the right personnel. They blitzed the house all four downs so that Michigan had to throw the ball. My other gripe was not calling a screen pass on fourth down. When it became clear that Iowa was bringing everyone, sneaking Vincent Smith out to the flat on the screen seems like the best course of action. Instead, Roundtree got pressed at the line of scrimmage and couldn't create separation.