Monday, October 31, 2011

Programming note

As expected, I got into town too late to watch the game and write anything, so there won't be a post-game column today. Regular posting will resume tomorrow.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Preview: Purdue 2011

Ed. Note: I'm going to be out of town over the weekend and probably won't get to watch the game until Sunday night. As such, there may or may not be a Monday game-wrap post.

Purdue (4-3) vs. #18 Michigan (6-1)
The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Forecast:Low 50s, 20% chance of rain

Last week
#23 Illinois 14 - Purdue 21. In a Zookian, non-shocking upset, Purdue took down Illinois last week, making bowl eligibility sort of attainable for the Boilermakers. Somehow, despite being outgained by 60 yards and holding even in turnovers Purdue pretty convincingly beat (Illinois didn't score until the fourth quarter) a team that many were picking as a sleeper in the Big Ten. Then again, Ron Zook.

Despite being noticeably worse on the ground (Illinois averaged 3.7 YPC on 33 carries, Purdue averaged 3.0 YPC on 42 carries), Purdue was significantly better through the air. Starting quarterback Caleb TerBush went 16/25 for 178 yards (7.1 YPA), while mediocre passer Nathan Scheelhaase went 22/35 for a measly 6.2 YPA. (Despite drastically improving his numbers this season, I'm not sold on Scheelhaase as anything special. His stat line from this game looked a lot like his numbers from his freshman campaign.)

The weirdest stat of the game? As many Purdue players carried the ball as did catch a pass: eight. Though the majority of the rushing load was carried by star running back Ralph Bolden and TerBush, the Boilermakers are not afraid of opening up the playbook a little bit with jet sweeps and wonky option plays. Despite this, Purdue's stat line was pretty abysmal. Bolden carried the ball 12 times for 28 yards, and TerBush carried it (sacks removed) 9 times for 24 yards.

Seriously, how did they win this game? The powers of the Zook are immeasurable.

   Too easy?

Offense vs. Purdue
The Boilermakers run a 4-3 defense but will likely spend most of the game in their nickel package like they did against Illinois. The Purdue defense is led by Ryan Kerrigan senior middle linebacker Joe Holland, who shows up all over the stat sheet with 31 tackles, a few TFLs and sacks, and a few pass break ups.

Holland leads a defense that's surprisingly competent this season: 55th in rushing yards per game, 27th in pass efficiency defense, 39th in total defense, and 24th in scoring defense. Those are Greg Mattison numbers. Then again, Purdue must have one of the easiest schedules to date: Middle Tennessee, Rice, SE Missouri State, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State, and Illinois. While three losses might seem like an acceptable number with ND, PSU, and Illinois on the schedule, one of those losses came at the hands of Rice where a missed field goal made the Big Ten's already putrid reputation even worse. The point is, don't read too much into those defensive numbers: Notre Dame put up 38 on them and Minnesota managed three (THREE!) scores.

The last time the Wolverines were on the field, they were snap-count-timed to death by the 4-3 defensive front of Michigan State. Purdue will not do that. Given Denard's struggles against pressure, you can be sure that Purdue will bring pressure throughout the game, but there's little to no chance that they are as aggressive or effective as the Michigan State front seven.

4-3 defenses are a wonderful defensive front to throw bubble screens against, but as Al Borges has made it abundantly clear, he won't be doing that. Instead, Michigan will probably continue to take shots down the field, which might be a good idea against Purdue's tiny cornerbacks. The man tasked with covering Junior Hemingway will be 5'11" Josh Johnson who has 5 PBUs on the year but is ripe for jump-ball exploitation.

But Michigan will likely make a majority of their yards on the ground. Notre Dame absolutely torched Purdue on the ground to the tune of 7.2 YPC on 40 carries. However, their last three opponents (Penn State, Illinois, and Minnesota) all averaged between 3 YPC and 4 YPC. If Rice can put up 4.6 YPC on 40 carries, though, something is wrong. Either Purdue figured it out in the last three weeks or this is a highly variable defense. It's the latter. Michigan will be able to get good yardage on the ground between Denard as the running backs, that is if they stay away from the I-formation, which seems custom built for Purdue to stop.

Defense vs. Purdue
Purdue's offense is Purdue's offense: a spread-type substance that has the potential to move the ball but always fails spectacularly in some aspect. While their running game grades out well (26th nationally, 295 YPG), their passing game isn't all there. Unfortunately it's the run that Michigan struggles to contain.

Ralph Bolden is Purdue's (non-)workhorse. Despite being their offense's best player, he hasn't carried the ball more than 17 times in a single game this season. His low was 6 carries against ND, but he averages somewhere in the range of 10 carries a game. On those, he's good-not-great, averaging 4.9 YPC. The problem for Michigan's defense, as it has been all year, will be containing Bolden, a sprite-like scat back who, if he gets outside of the tackles, can make some things happen that will make me very sad. Behind Bolden is Junior Akeem Shavers who is the team's bigger back. His numbers (325 yards, 5 YPC, 5 TDs) are as impressive, if not moreso, than Bolden's.

Fortunately, Purdue's spreadness is hampered by their not-that-mobile QB TerBush. TerBush has 206 yards on 55 carries (2.6 YPC). He's also a mediocre passer. Though he's completing 61% of his passes, his YPA (6.75) is uninspiring. Since neither of Purdue's top-two running backs are receiving threats out of the backfield, TerBush is throwing short hitch and out routes to dink and dunk down the field.

During the past few seasons, this style would've been a problem for Michigan's defense, but this year, it seems to play right into the unit's strength. The defense has been very Bend Don't Break all year, especially in the first half, and have managed to shut down opponents eventually, forcing field goals or turnovers on downs. If Michigan's defensive ends and linebackers can successfully contain the Purdue running backs to the inside of the field, they will produce a lot more field goal attempts than extra points.

Michigan is a 12.5-point favorite headed into this game, which might seem a little optimistic against a team that just knocked off a ranked Illinois team, but that spread sounds about right. Despite the recent success Purdue has seen against the run, I think it's more a function of playing teams that either can't throw the ball (PSU and Minny) or have a sophomore QB who wasn't much of a passer last year and is prone to these types of performances. Michigan will hand Purdue their second-worst defensive performance against the run on Saturday (there's no way they're making it to ND's output), much of which comes from Denard who Borges utilizes more in the running game. This will also be Denard's second game without an interception this season (and because I said that, he'll throw three pick six's).

On the other side of the ball, Michigan's coaches have recognized the containment problems and likely spent much of the bye week in the film room and on the field coaching up Jake Ryan et al. While there will still be a few frustrating outside runs, expect Ryan and the other linebackers to be significantly better forcing runs back to the inside. Otherwise, I don't think Purdue can do too much damage against this defense. TerBush doesn't have the arm to beat them deep and his dinking and dunking will come to an end either when the field compresses or Mattison calls for a zone blitz that forces an interception. Ultimately, they don't have enough firepower to outscore Michigan's offense.

Purdue 20 - Michigan 28

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 special teams

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team, The defense, The offense

Preseason expectations:
The word for special teams this season is competence. For three years, we've watched this Michigan team fumble and bumble basically every special teams play that didn't feature Zoltan kicking the ball to the moon. If the kickers are competent, that means 3-6 more points per game. If the returners are competent, that means better starting field position and more possessions. This year, all signs point toward competence. But don't expect much more.
Best case scenario for the 2011 season was a competent kicking game, competent returners, and no awful busts. For the most part, this has been the case. Despite uninspiring returns from the kick and punt return units and a few misses from Brendan Gibbons, Michigan has been spectacularly average. This is universal improvement over the endless stream of mistakes from the special teams last over the last three seasons.

Preseason expectations:
Projecting how these two will kick throughout the year is tough (How many opportunities will they get? How long will the kicks be? etc), but it's worth venturing a guess. While Gibbons is being given a shot early on, I expect him to struggle, making 2/4 or some other uninspiring performance, opening the door for Wile to assume the permanent gig. By the year's end, Michigan's kickers will be somewhere in the combined range of 18/24. Hoke's more conservative approach will see the team taking a lot more chances in the kicking game, and if Wile proves a noticeable improvement over last year (he has to be, right?), that shouldn't be such a harrowing experience.
Despite being given a scholarship to kick footballs through the uprights, true freshman Matt Wile hasn't attempted so much as an extra point. This ranks somewhere in the range of mildly disappointing, given the team's field goal struggles in the previous few years. Returning harbinger of doom Brendan Gibbons, meanwhile is 4/6 on field goals and 32/33 on extra points. While these are uninspiring numbers, Gibbons has at least been close on his missed field goal attempts as opposed to last year where, well, you know.

Before the season, Hoke said that Wile would be the kicker on long-distance field goals, but Gibbons has seen all kicking duty. I don't know if this is poor performance by Wile in practice or simply a coin flip, but for whatever reason, Hoke appears to be sticking with Gibbons throughout the season. He's been good enough that Michigan was able to run a fake field goal because MSU actually thought we could kick from that distance. This is a bonus.

Kickoffs, as expected, are being handled by Wile who has proven an immediately improvement over Gibbons. Wile has the leg to get the ball into the endzone on kickoffs, which pushes returners back at least 10 yards from where they were catching the ball last season. Unfortunately, there's something horribly wrong with Michigan's coverage. I don't know if it's getting out of your lanes or just poor tackling, but Michigan's kick coverage is broken. I don't understand a ton about the fundamentals of kickoff coverage, but I know that Michigan shouldn't be allowing returns to consistently bring the ball beyond the 30 yard line.

Grand Statement of Optimism: I don't know, Gibbons is 4/6 or something? His performance seems sustainable and Michigan hasn't kicked less than one field goal per game. If Gibbons can stay consistent within 30 yards, I won't curse his name every time he steps on the field.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Gibbons 2010. Michigan is currently tied for 93rd in the country with a 66% success rate.

Wet Owl sez:

Preseason expectations:
In [Hagerup's] absence, Wile will be handling punting duties. Here, best case scenario is no terrible shanks. Even if Wile doesn't boom the ball down the field like Hagerup can, as long as he doesn't commit any huge errors, Michigan should be able to sneak by the first half of the season with Wile puting. When Hagerup returns, punting should be a strong part of Michigan's game, and given Hoke's Carr-like tendencies, an integral part of the gameplan.
With Hagerup missing the first five games of the season, Wile did an admiral job holding down the fort. Zoltan he was not, but he got the job done, averaging 41.1 yards on 14 kicks. Hagerup's return, however, has been uninspiring. He is averaging a meager 33.6 yards per kick on 10 attempts. You would expect Hagerup's numbers to resemble those of last year eventually (43.6 yards per kick; a long of 72, wheeee).

The bigger issue punting has been the coverage downfield. MGoBlog has been railing against the use of the traditional punt formation all season and with good reason:

Michigan's return to a traditional punt formation puts a burden on two lone gunner tasked with tackling the returner. This can only produce bad things. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like Hoke will be changing this strategy anytime soon.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Hagerup proved last year that he has a good-to-great leg. His early-season struggles are probably just a statistical anomaly.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Traditional punting

Wet Owl sez:
Punt/kick returns
Preseason expectations:
Hemingway and Odoms have both proven themselves to be competent catchers, but neither are particularly explosive on punt returns--though Odoms' returns late last season would be to differ. My guess is that Dileo, who was recruited specifically for punt returns, will be the primary returner by season's end, unless he experiences the same drops and mistakes of the last three years.

As for kick returns, Gallon, Kelvin Grady, and Vincent Smith are listed on the depth chart. With the loss of Darryl Stonum for the year to his DUIshirt, there are very few explosive returners on the roster. Grady may have the shiftiness to make a few guys miss, but no one here has the flat-out speed to take one to the house. Again, we should hope for competence here and let the chips fall as they may.
This has been a constant source of frustration this season, though not in the areas you'd expect. Castoff Jeremy Gallon has developed into a sure-handed punt returner after being a travesty the past two years. Though he can't make a ton of yardage after fielding most punts (largely due to the spread/rugby punt formation), Gallon has caught everything that's catchable without any crippling fumbles. I don't know how the coaching staff managed this, but it's a testament to their skills.

Kickoff returns are another story. For whatever reason, the coaches have Vincent Smith as the primary kick returner. Smith is emphatically not a kick returner. Not only does he lack the prototypical speed to take it to the house, he barely gets beyond the 20 yard line on most returns. Michigan is currently 111th in kickoff returns and averaging just over 18 yards per return. What's odd is that the current make-up of the roster is that of speedy slot receiver types that are great in space. You'd think that someone (Grady, Dileo, etc) would be a viable replacement, but for whatever reason, Hoke has elected to use the team's #1 running back--a guy who couldn't take a long run to the house because he's just not built like that--as the primary kick returner. If I had a dollar for every time I screamed at the TV because Smith was returning a kickoff, I would have 7 dollars.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Gallon can catch punts and doesn't make my eyes bleed.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Vincent Smith on kickoff returns makes my eyes bleed. Same amount of eye blood loss.

Wet Owl sez:
Mid-season report
Though it hasn't been pretty, the special teams have mostly gotten the job done. Clear improvement from Gibbons is an added bonus but the lack of Wile appearances bothers me. If the team can correct its coverage issues on kickoffs and switch to a rugby punt formation, special teams could be something we don't have to constantly think and worry about.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Hagerup will get better. Gibbons is functional. Wile can force touchbacks on kickoffs.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Vincent Smith. Eye bleeding.

Wet Owl sez:
Ed. Note: In keeping with the series, I was going to do a coaches progress report, but I think most of that content would be redundant as it's already covered in the offense and defense posts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 offense

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team, The defense

Preseason expectation:
Matching the numbers from last year would be a near miracle and would make my season prediction the most off-base thing written all year. It's safe to say, however, that the offense, regardless of anything else, will revert back to the mean, if only slightly (best case scenario).

Despite my fear that this squad will look like the 2008 catastrophe, things are not really that dire. In reality, the offense will look more like the 2009 Forcier-led team: flashes of brilliance punctuating frustrating mistakes and crippling plays. If Denard can prove me wrong and become a consistent, accurate passer, this offense could really take off. Unfortunately, there's too much evidence to the contrary for me to buy into him as a quarterback that can lead a passing-oriented offense.
That is all depressingly, shockingly, [insert adverb here] correct. Michigan's offense this year has fluctuated between the Denard spread'n'shred that dominated opponents last year to a grab bag of unrelated plays that are neither surprising nor effective. A comparison between 2010 and 2011's numbers beckons:

Passing Rushing Scoring
2010 36th (250.15 YPG, 8.45 YPA) 13th (238.54 YPG,  5.58 YPC) 25th (32.77 PPG)
2011 81st (212.17 YPG, 8.90 YPA) 12th (239 YPG, 5.62 YPC) 28th (34.67 PPG)

It's not difficult to see what happened here. Despite the 2011 numbers being bolstered by a weak strength of schedule which will even out as the team heads deeper into Big Ten play, Michigan's passing game has fallen off a cliff. You don't need the numbers to tell you that though. This is largely due to Al Borges' pro-style passing attack that emphasizes deep, downfield throws rather than getting players into space (further evidence is the increase in YPA despite the drop in total passing yards). Borges has implemented the QB Oh Noes that accounted for a significant portion of Denard's passing last year, but this season, they've been more of the TE seam route variety than the hand-wavingly open slot receiver type we saw last season. Otherwise, Borges has called a lot of vertical routes that have ended in Denard throwing into double coverage or flat overthrowing receivers.

Those numbers are not quite as bad as I thought they'd be, however. Michigan's running game has remained mostly intact, while scoring is actually up slightly from last year. Again, as the team plays further into the Big Ten schedule, expect those numbers to drop, but they may not fall off too significantly. That's the hope, anyway. But on with the show...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 defense

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team
Preseason expectation:
Mattison will do wonders for this defense, not only teaching the fundamentals, but also varying up the playcalling with zone blitzes, man and zone coverage, and various personnel groups. If I had to put a number on it, I would guess the defense leaps to somewhere around the 60th best defense in the country. The talent and personnel are mostly in place with a few exceptions, and the defense should be able to hold itself together because of it. There will still be a number of forehead-meet-palm breakdowns, but not nearly as many as there have been in the past few years. Barring injuries, this will be a competent unit that will keep Michigan in games and won't explicitly lose any for the team.
For the most part, this has held true. A quick glace at national rankings shows just how much Michigan's defense has improved under this new staff:

Rush Def Pass Eff Def Total Def Scoring Def
2010 95th (188.92 YPG, 4.43 YPC) 103rd 110th (450.77 YPG) 108th (35.23)
2011 62nd (153.5 YPG, 4.68 YPC) 36th 36th (345 YPG) 8th (15.5 PPG)

With essentially the same personnel, Mattison has turned what was one of the worst defenses in the country last year into a defense that's decidedly above average. While Michigan's defensive numbers haven't taken the logical hit they will once their schedule evens out, this sort of improvement speaks bounds for Mattison's skills and reputation. One of the reasons for this success, as indicated by the image above, is Mattison's innovative blitzes. Especially early in the season, Mattison showed stunt blitzes and zone drops to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Occasionally, this cost the team, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, as the lead image also indicates, the defense is not without its flaws. Certain players and position groups, in spite of the defense's overall success, have been struggling through the year. Let's recalibrate our expectations and see where the defense stacks up to their preseason hype.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Where are they now: The team, the team, the team

Melanie Maxwell |
After Michigan State gave Michigan its first loss last year, the internets exploded with criticism or support of Rodriguez and his staff. This prompted me to write the following in response to a post by In Rod We Trust:
Michigan had two turnovers in the endzone which cost them points, but they don't address the fact that Michigan was outgained 536 yards to 377 yards, allowed 5.9 YPC on 42 carries (!), and forced all of seven incompletions, allowing Cousins to throw for 11.4 YPA. Michigan was crushed in this game in almost every aspect. They hardly belonged on the field with Michigan State.

Given what we know about this team--that Denard is young and inexperienced, the secondary is young and starts walk ons, and the team can't tackle--there's very little to say that this was an aberration or that this isn't indicative of how the team will perform going forward, unsettling as that may be. The future of the program looks bright. it's riddled with young talent and should-be stars/contributors. But that's only if Rodriguez can hang on long enough to see the team to the promised land. And unfortunately, the future of this team isn't all that promising.
You know what followed: Michigan finished 2-5, including an ugly beating in a bowl game, as well as lopsided losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Their only two wins were the triple overtime defensive crapshow against Illinois and the snowbowl against Purude. The good news is that 2011 doesn't look quite as harrowing as 2010 did--partially because of Michigan's remaining schedule--but that's not to say Michigan will finish out the season with much more success than they saw last year.

The Good
The most positive aspect of this season has been the revelation that Michigan's coaching staff is a significant upgrade over last year's. It has been so good, in fact, that I've had to create tags like "Al Borges' diabolical machinations" and "reasons to love Greg Mattison." Blitzes, overall defensive improvement, and an increasingly expansive offensive playbook all contribute to a coaching staff that is keeping opponents on their toes and providing tangible improvement from the personnel they've inherited.

One of those inherited player groups is the surprisingly competent secondary. The return of Troy Woolfolk was supposed to improve a still young and inexperienced secondary. In reality, Woolfolk looks far from 100% and has been pulled in favor of true freshman Blake Countess in each of the last few games. Though Countess has been the unsurpassed bright spot from the secondary, mainstay Jordan Kovacs has continued to his streak of competent-to-good play while second corner JT Floyd and free safety Thomas Gordon have all contributed to a unit that hasn't allowed any long touchdowns or massive breakdowns through the first seven games of the season. This constitutes unbridled success.

The Bad
In spite of a 6-1 start and the coaching and secondary improvement, the rest of the season has been either disappointing or flat out bad. First, the obvious: Denard Robinson's clear regression in the passing game. I was more skeptical of Denard entering this season than most. His struggles on obvious passing downs, high INT rate, poor spring game performance, and a changing offensive system that emphasized his arm rather than his legs painted the picture of a quarterback who would experience massive regression. What we've seen is exactly that: Denard is completing only 52% of his attempts and has thrown only 11 TDs to 10 INTs. More importantly, his arm was the primary reason behind Michigan's loss to MSU (caveats about the weather apply).

The second most disappointing aspect of the season has been Michigan's defensive front seven and run defense. Despite a mostly experienced group, the likes of Mike Martin, Kenny Demens, and Craig Roh have been largely ineffectual this season. Demens has frequently struggled with diagnosing plays, something that was an issue last year as well. Meanwhile, Michigan has gotten the bare minimum production out of the defensive line, a unit that was projected to really excel with the likes of returning starters Martin, Roh, and Ryan Van Bergen leading the charge.

The team's less experienced defensive ends and linebackers (Jake Ryan and Brennen Beyer, specifically) have accounted for a lot of Michigan's trouble defending the run. The team has shown discipline problems defending the run by allowing offenses to easily gain the edge and get to the second level. Fortunately, this is something that should improve throughout the season, one of the few negative trends this season that could be easily correctable.

The Future
The reason this season has the potential to end better than last year is because of the state of the Big Ten. Michigan's final five opponents (Purdue, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State) are all seriously flawed. Where once Illinois and Nebraska looked like intimidating forces, their recent collapses make them far less terrifying. Unfortunately, beating anyone else on the schedule largely hinges on Denard's improvement in the passing game. If he continues to struggle, it's possible that Devin Gardner, who has seen more and more snaps as the season has progressed, will take over the starting role.

Beyond this season, the future looks bright. Michigan has amassed one of the best recruiting classes in the country and with open season on high-profile recruits like Bri'onte Dunn and the recently flirtatious Gunner Kiel, the staff could bolster an already impressive recruiting haul. Combine that with the coaching staff's impressive start and the Hoke administration is aligned to be more successful sooner than most people thought they would be.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A call for recruiting fanatics

When I first started to really take this blog seriously (there were a few months upon its inception that it was just a general sports blog), I made an effort to produce content that you couldn't find elsewhere, an idea that quickly become my unofficial mission statement. This explains why the majority of the content here is comprised of Picture Pages and Xs and Os. Knowing that I'll likely never have the resources, inside contacts, or reach of Brian at MGoBlog, I wouldn't write on anything that I couldn't provide unique analysis or commentary on. Not having the time or the passion to invest in recruiting, that subject went almost entirely unreported here. Unfortunately, it may be too big a piece of the puzzle for me to totally ignore anymore, which is why I'm putting out an official call for a recruiting analyst to write for the site. With this being the bye week, I figured it was as good a time as any to gauge the interest of both readers and people who might want to write.

So here's the catch: right now, this site makes essentially no money, so compensation will be slim to nonexistent, but that's something that can be discussed later. I am, however, a professional editor and writer and can offer the benefits that go along with that. The point is, this is a position for someone who is already passionate about Michigan recruiting but never had an avenue to pursue it or didn't want to deal with the back-end management of a website.

The structure of the content has yet to be decided. In keeping with the site's goals, I'd like for it to be different than the various other Michigan blogs currently covering it, but the nature of the industry is such that there is bound to be some crossover. This would be something to brainstorm about and formulate.

If this is something that you're interested in, contact me at Please send a brief description of who you are, a bit about your writing background, and any ideas you have for coverage. I'll respond to all submissions and depending on the interest, determine where to take this.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The dangers of zone blitzing

One of the few complaints I can levy against the defensive staff after the weeks leading up to the Michigan State game was a lack of the innovative blitzes that Mattison showed early in the season. Michigan State, being a strictly pro-style offense, appeared to be the perfect team for Mattison to unveil a few of his NFL-style blitzes. In my opinion, the team didn't blitz nearly enough in the game. For the most part, any D-I offensive line can pass protect against four straight-ahead rushers, which is what the Spartan line was tasked with for most of the game. Occasionally, Mattison would bring a blitz, however, and on this example, he utilized a zone blitz but oddly used man coverage behind the blitz rather than zone coverage, necessitating that Michigan's defensive ends cover players they had no ability to cover.

It's third and eight with about four minutes left in the third quarter. Cousins had just thrown the backwards pass that wasn't a backwards pass. Michigan is in its nickel package with Coutney Avery as the nickelback and Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens as linebackers.

Before the snap, Michigan's linebackers show blitz, as does Jordan Kovacs who has come down from his safety position. These three will blitz the A gap, not unlike Michigan State did against Michigan all game.

As the ball is snapped, Michigan's defensive ends (Craig Roh and Jake Ryan) both drop off into coverage as Demens, Morgan, and Kovacs blitz the A gap. On the strongside of the field, you can see Avery and Blake Countess in man coverage against MSU's receivers. Roh is also assigned to man coverage against MSU's H-back. Ryan, lined up against BJ Cunningham on the weakside of the field is supposed to be in man coverage. You'll see in a minute that he is confused about his assignment on the play.

The blitzers are now getting into the backfield and will have a free run at Cousins (there aren't enough blockers to protect him). Roh is engaged with the MSU H-back. FWIW, I think he'd probably be called for defensive holding if the play had ended differently. On the weakside of the field, Cunningham is running behind Ryan. Cousins already recognizes that Ryan has missed his assignment as is getting ready to throw to Cunningham once he clears Ryan.

Morgan and Kovacs have blown by the MSU running back and are charging after Cousins. You can see Ryan pointing at Cunningham. Ryan thinks that this is zone coverage, and he's trying to alert Roh to the crossing route. Unfortunately, Michigan is in man coverage.

At the last minute, Ryan realizes that he's blown his coverage, but Cunningham is already wide open. The blitz was a step too late.

Blown coverage aside, this emphasizes the danger of running zone blitzes: if the blitz doesn't land, you have defensive ends in zone coverage against zippy slot receivers. This almost always ends poorly. This play, however, is especially perplexing. I can't understand how Mattison can call for man coverage from the defensive ends on a blitz, especially asking them to cover wide receivers. If they are assigned to tight ends, fine, they might be able to handle that. But asking Ryan to cover one of MSU's best receivers in man coverage is suicide. I think the design of the play calls for Ryan to jam Cunningham at the line of scrimmage so that the A gap blitz has time to land, but that's a risky call.

Other random observations
You can see the difference between this A gap blitz and the ones that MSU used against Michigan. As MGoBlog pointed out, MSU was timing Michigan's snap count and able to get into the backfield almost immediately. The Spartan defenders were able to build a full head of steam pre-snap. Michigan's blitzers, however, were slowly creeping to the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped.

Another thing to note is the pre-snap alignment of Ryan, who is lined up close to a yard behind the other defensive linemen:

Though I'm not positive, I think Ryan or Roh has done this before. It's something to watch going forward. If the defensive ends continue lining up too far from the line of scrimmage on the zone drops, it will tip off the blitz and coverage to opposing QBs. It didn't here, and I'm not sure if it's noticeable enough in real time, but it looks to me like it is. Ryan's helmet is a full yard off the line of scrimmage. If opposing linemen start picking up on this pre-snap, they can tip off the quarterbacks to a likely zone blitz. It will also help them in pass protection.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Using receivers to seal Michigan's linebackers

One thing that was clear to Michigan State's offensive staff was that Michigan was bad at containing the edge on running plays. When Michigan's defensive ends weren't being chopped down as they recklessly rushed upfield, MSU was using a variety of blocking schemes to seal Michigan's linemen and linebackers to the inside of the field. One such play would've gone for a touchdown had Edwin Baker not gotten a case of the fumblies.

It's the first play of MSU's second drive of the third quarter. MSU is in an offset I formation with one wide receiver and an H-back. Michigan is in a 4-3 even front with SAM linebacker Jake Ryan rolled up to the line of scrimmage as the EMLOS.

Before the snap, MSU's H-back will motion across the formation. Michigan doesn't change their formation at all. This is a problem because, if you can count, you can see that on the strongside of the field now (bottom of screen), Michigan has only five defenders. Meanwhile, MSU has the RG, RT, H-back, FB, and wide receiver on that side of the field to block.

As the ball is snapped, the RT immediately steps away from the line of scrimmage and pulls around to the playside. The fullback is also headed to the strongside of the field as a lead blocker. The H-back and wide receiver are tasked with sealing Craig Roh and Desmond Morgan to the inside of the field.  The right guard will reach block and seal Will Heininger. This is an outside pitch to Baker.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

MSU linebacker blitzes

We've already seen that Michigan struggled to run the ball against Michigan State. Much of that is due to the Spartans blitzing consistently and completely selling out on the run. Despite some pre-snap alignments that would've been gold to Rodriguez's staff last year, Michigan ran directly into the strength of the MSU defense en route to their far and away worst rushing performance of the season. The one blitz that MSU used most frequently--or maybe just to the greatest effect--was a linebacker blitz in which the strongside and middle linebackers blitzed the A gap. The following is just one of many examples of how the blitz worked.

Michigan comes out in a three-wide set with Vincent Smith in the backfield. If you're screaming at the computer screen "LOOK AT THE OPEN BUBBLE SCREEN", please stop. They can't hear you. Also, the game is over. Michigan State is in a 4-3 even formation with the WLB set up as the EMLOS.

As the ball is snapped, Michigan State rushes all four down linemen as well as the WLB and MLB, who are blitzing the A gap. The SLB drops off as an extra contain man should Denard pull the ball on the zone read.

A moment later, Denard is reading the strongside defensive end (William Gholston) who Koger left unblocked. Koger is releasing to the second level to block the SLB. Since Gholston is keeping contain, the proper read is to hand the ball of to Smith. Unfortunately, MSU has overloaded the A gap with blitzers that are staring down Smith in the backfield. FWIW, Omameh misses his block here, but even if he hadn't, MSU's weakside linebacker was also blitzing into the gap.

This is the same premise as Mattison's stunt blitzes against Western Michigan in which the defense overloaded one side of the offensive line and blitzed a specific gap.

As Denard completes the handoff, Smith is bottled up.

He's brought down behind the line of scrimmage. If Denard had kept the ball, he would've had two defenders in his face: the first is Gholston; the other is the MSU defensive tackle who's participating in Mark Huyge's SitB charity.

With the windy conditions and Denard's inability to throw the ball down the field, MSU spent most of the day selling out on the run like this. (They also used this same blitz on passing downs, including the pick-six that effectively ended the game.) This blitz effectively shuts down Michigan's zone read: by tasking the weakside defensive end with keeping contain on Denard, MSU can force him to hand the ball of into the teeth of the blitz.

The way to combat it is to make an adjustment at the line of scrimmage. Last year, Michigan would've checked out of this run and thrown a bubble screen. It was wide open and Michigan had a clear numbers advantage. Instead, Borges insists on running what's called in the huddle, which produces results like this. The fear is that other teams will replicate it. While it's unlikely that any other group of corners and safeties in the Big Ten will be able to cover Michigan's receivers this well for an entire game--nor is there likely to be these adverse conditions again--this at least provides a blueprint for how to shut down Michigan's zone read game. Borges will need to come up with variations on the running game or check into more advantageous plays when defenses present an unsound defensive front.

Offensive structure versus MSU

While reading MGoBlog's recap of the Michigan State game, I was struck by some of the numbers he cited. Though I found structural issues with Michigan's playcalling, Brian found entirely different ones based on rushing and passing numbers that seemed to go against what I thought I saw on Saturday. Specifically this:
While this doesn't paint a pretty picture for the run game, either, after halftime Michigan passed on 60% of its first downs, got one completion on a short route that turned into a big gain when Roundtree broke a tackle, and did nothing else.
For the game Michigan tried to pass at least 41 times*, averaging 2.8 yards per attempt and giving up a defensive touchdown.
Sorry. Sorry.
Michigan tried to run the ball 26 times and averaged… oh, Jesus… 5.2 yards per carry. Fitzgerald Toussaint got two carries, Denard twelve.
These numbers seemed wrong and after looking through the box scores that I typically look at (Rivals and ESPN), I still don't know where these numbers came from. Both box scores say that Michigan ran the ball 36 times for 82 yards (an average of 2.3 yards per carry). In college, sack yardage is inexplicably taken away from the running game, but even if we add in the yards from Michigan's seven sacks (62), Michigan average only 4 YPC (144 yards with sacks removed), not the gaudy 5.2 YPC that Brian cites.

The same discrepancies exist in the passing game. Both box scores list Michigan as completing 12 of 31 passes through the air for 168 yards (5.4 YPA). If you remove sack yardage from those passing numbers, Michigan averaged 3.29 YPA (102 yards with sack yardage subtracted)

To make the running numbers worse, 80 of Michigan's rushing yards came on five carries:
  • 26-yard Vincent Smith carry on a miraculous Denard zone read
  • 15-yard Denard scramble for a touchdown (supposed to be a pass)
  • 15-yard Denard carry on a jet sweep
  • 11-yard QB draw on 2nd and 18 when MSU is playing prevent
  • 13-yard Denard carry on a jet sweep
That's two base-offense carries, one scramble, and two jet sweeps. If you excise those rushes and sacks, Michigan produced 64 yards on 29 carries (2.2 YPC). This isn't a particularly fair process--you can't just cherry pick Michigan's best runs and remove them--but the sustainability of running Incredibly Surprising Denard Jet Sweep is questionable and scrambles can't be relied upon to produce consistent rushing numbers. Not that any of this really matters, but it does at least confirm what I saw on Saturday: Michigan couldn't run in this game because Michigan State was loading the box and forcing Denard to throw the ball.

[UPDATE: A commenter notes that if we remove sack yards from rushing totals, we also have to remove the rushing attempts. Therefore, Michigan produced 144 yards on 29 carries (4.9 YPC). For the cherry picked rushed above, Michigan average 64 yards on 24 carries (2.6 YPC).

Similar logic applied to the passing numbers. If you add rushing totals back into the passing numbers, Michigan netted 102 yards on 38 attempts (2.7 YPA).

I didn't expect Brian to make an error like this and by my math (wrong) it seemed like he had. While Michigan did struggle passing the ball, I still think saying the team rushed for 5.2 YPC (or 4.9, whatever the case may be) is a bit misleading.]

This is the kind of defensive formation Michigan saw all game:

Regardless of the weather, you don't run against this formation. You can't. MSU's safeties are 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and the defense is essentially playing cover zero. If your receivers can't get open (and QB can't throw to them) with this coverage, you're not winning.

Before the game, the logic was that the wind would hurt Michigan State more because they relied more heavily on the passing game. In reality, Kirk Cousins, being a much better passer than Denard, was able to more effectively manage the adverse conditions. The Spartan defense, therefore, was able to key on the running game because of Denard's existing passing struggles in addition to the blustery conditions.

The real problem with Michigan's offense in this game was the structure of the passing routes. Almost all of the Michigan receivers were running vertical routes that took too long to develop. With the MSU blitzes and the windy conditions, long-developing routes were never going to be successful. To make matters worse, MSU completely disregarded the bubble screen. Michigan hasn't used it once this season and so defenses are allowed to align like this:

That's Michigan's best receiver (Junior Hemingway) lined up in the slot with a safety 10 yards off the line of scrimmage in man coverage. Michigan would run a pitch option here that would net two (TWO!) yards. On the next play, Drew Dileo will dive for the first down on Michigan's fake punt.

For a coordinator that tries to exploit man coverage by taking shots down the field, it's willful stupidity not to throw bubble screens when a defense aligns like this. Worse still, Michigan ran into a defensive front that had eight men in the box openly showing a run blitz. Even one of those throwback screens that Michigan has used this season would have worked; MSU was overpursuing for most of the game.

I don't think Michigan threw the ball too much against MSU. The bigger problem was the passing routes that the team ran. With a defense so obviously selling out on the run by constantly blitzing (which also stopped deep routes), the short hitches and screen passes that Denard has proven he can throw would've been a superior option to the deep routes that Borges called in an attempt to exploit single coverage on the outside.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mark Dantonio: Pillar of class

I forgot to mention this in the game column, but it deserves to be noted: Though Michigan may have been beaten on Saturday, they certainly weren't outclassed. As if you didn't know this already, the Spartans are truly unsportsmanlike thugs. The ESPN announcers extolling the virtues of Mark Dantonio and the way he runs his program to try and offset yet another cheap shot by the Spartans was comical. After the Dorm Hall Massacres, it was probably a stretch to try and validate that program as anything other than a bunch of meatheads given total amnesty, but since Tressel's departure, Dantonio has become the poster boy for good, upstanding Christian men with strong jaws. This is just further proof that if you put on a good face and say the right things to the media, reality is unimportant.

I mean this with all sincerity: Fuck Mark Dantonio. You beat us, and that sucks, but I can live with the loss. What pisses me off is watching your players act like asshole as you're commended for your discipline.

Michigan State 2011: Where Little Brother finds your weakness

#11 Michigan 14 - #23 Michigan State 28
Jeff Sainlar |
The last time my older brother and I got in a serious altercation was on Thanksgiving Eve a few years ago. It was past midnight at our parents' house and we were both in town for the holiday. Neither of us felt like going out, so we opened a few beers and my poker set, and sat down at the dinner table to play a few games heads up until we got too bored, angry, or tired to keep going.

My brother is a better poker play than me. Aside from knowing the odds, he's also more disciplined; it's difficult to bluff if you haven't won any hands yet, but invariably, that becomes my strategy early in poker games. But I know my brother's greatest weakness and more importantly, I know how to exploit it: get in his head. If only I could win a few toss-up hands, I knew I could give him enough mental jabs to get him totally off his rocker. After about an hour of playing, he stormed off into his room as I sat at the table shrugging saying something to the effect of, "Whatever dude, just sit down and shut up and we'll play." This was a victory.

It's not just poker either. My brother is taller, stronger, and smarter than I am, and being of a religiously competitive breed, we spent most of our childhood figuring out Who Is Better, which meant I needed to figure out what his weaknesses are and how to exploit them. In basketball, I have a speed advantage that I use to get to the basket. Defensively, I know that when I don't contest his shot, he tends to shoot with less arc, causing more rim outs. These are petty, small, unsustainable strategies that have become my only defense against someone who is objectively better than me at a few key competitive events.


When Mike Hart now famously referred to Michigan State as Little Brother in 2008, the Spartans took it as the greatest sign of disrespect, but in reality, it's not that far off. When people think "football" and "Michigan", the first thing that comes to mind is the Wolverines; teachers called me by my brother's name an innumerable amount of times through gradeschool and high school. But less disrespectfully, Michigan State is a growing program, fighting for national relevance by slowly making itself a force to be reckoned with. Michigan, meanwhile, was the established entity.

Michigan's weaknesses are not the same as my brother's--he understands statistics, so he knows better than to punt from the opponent's 36 yard line on fourth and four. Michigan State plays like a little brother, though. For the last several years, more than any other opponent, they've identified and exploited Michigan's weaknesses en route to commanding victories.  Michigan's linebackers and defensive ends struggle with contain? They run almost exclusively outside of the tackles (even with two mediocre-to-bad offensive tackles). Denard Robinson struggles throwing under pressure? Bring heat constantly. Michigan runs well but struggles throwing the deep ball, even with man coverage and no safety help? Load the box.

You would think that Al Borges and Greg Mattison would change tendencies. How many times does an opponent have to blitz before Borges calls that throwback screen to Smith? How many times can Michigan State run outside the tackles before you bring a safety/cornerback blitz off the edge? In this game, unfortunately, either arrogance, ignorance, or just befuddlement caused Michigan's coordinators to spend most of the afternoon slamming their head against a brick wall and hoping that eventually, it would crumble. It didn't, of course, because the brick wall was made of brick and your head is made of squishy tissue that, if this were Rock-Head-Brick Wall, would lose to brick wall. (Head would also lose to rock for what it's worth. It doesn't seem like a very balanced game.)

So Michigan goes into its bye week 6-1. This was never supposed to be a BCS season, and 10-2 with a win over Ohio State would still be a better case scenario than most expected preseason. Michigan has its flaws and at this point, they're obvious to everyone, including the Michigan coaching staff. Finding ways to remedy those, or at the very least mask them, has become Borges' and Mattison's primary mission.

  • Borges comes in for some lashings after this game. The offense continued to run plays that were doomed from the start. All passing routes were vertical and downfield. Rushes were stuffed at the line as Michigan State loaded the box. There were no screens thrown against an aggressive blitzing defense. Borges was punked the whole game and seemed content to run the same plays through four quarters.
  • Mattison, on the other hand, called a pretty good game. Were it not for the defensive ends and linebackers giving up the edge on rushes, the defense shut down the MSU offense. Kirk Cousins averaged only 5 yards per attempt. The Spartan offensive line was as advertised: soft. But by doubling Michigan's defensive ends with tight ends, Michigan State was able to get the edge and run all over Michigan's undisciplined defense.
  • It was a good day for Mark Huyge's new charity Spartans in the Backfield (SitB). Huyge had a truly awful day and offered MSU's defenders a direct line to Denard on countless passing plays.
  • Denard struggled, but there were reasons for it outside of his control. SitB was a huge problem all game. In addition, the Michigan State defense loaded the box making running nearly impossible.
  • Despite playing against single coverage, Michigan's receivers were completely shut down. I'll have to watch again, but they seemed to get precisely zero separation against MSU's corners. Though Denard wasn't very accurate, he didn't have many open receivers to throw to.
  • Michigan showed another counter to the heavy-I formation they debuted last week but it was blown dead on a delay of game penalty, which is a shame because Fitz Toussaint had a 20+-yard carry.
Next week
Michigan is on its bye this week. They can use this time to get healthy and implement more of the offensive and defensive schemes. The following week, Michigan takes on Purdue, a game that will be a good barometer for the rest of the season.

Around here, this week will feature the regular post-game analysis. The following week will be a mid-season breakdown of where I expected to be at this point and where they are now.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Preview: Michigan State 2011

#11 Michigan (6-0) vs. #23 Michigan St. (4-1)
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Forecast: 50s, 20% chance of rain

Last week
Michigan St.: Bye. MSU is coming off of their bye week, but the previous Saturday, they went against Ohio State in a game that did wonders for the Big Ten's national reputation: a commanding 10-7 win against a team that couldn't field a functional quarterback. A little credit is due to the Spartans defense for holding the Buckeyes to 178 total yards of offense, but that's not saying much. Joe Bauserman (Michigan fans should buy up every Bauserman jersey available; love that dude) played most of the game, throwing the ball in the general vicinity of the football field. Though he didn't throw any interceptions, his 7/14, 87-yard stat line speaks for itself. Ohio State is a black hole.

On the other side of the ball, the underwhelming Ohio State defense was able to hold Kirk Cousins and the Spartan offense in check, though mostly due to two terrible interceptions by Cousins who seemed determined to keep OSU in the game. As it has been all year, the MSU running game was nonexistent, but that's what happens when your offensive line is a hodgepodge of position switch starters and Gumby characters. The highly touted trio of Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper managed just 85 yards on 27 carries (3.15 YPC).

Simply put, the Spartans barely looked like a functional football team playing fighting-for-bowl-eligibility Ohio State. If ever there were a confidence builder for Michigan fans, this game was it.

#12 Michigan 42 - Northwestern 24. Game recap. After being dominated in the first half against Northwestern, mostly due to three interceptions from Denard, the team rallied in the second half and scored 28 straight points to beat the Wildcats. The defense shut out the Dan Persa-led offense in the second half after the Northwestern squad left scorched earth in their wake during the first two quarters. Michigan was the beneficiary of a sketchy interception call that turned the momentum of the game, allowing the offense to take hold of the game.

After Denard's first-half arm punting, he settled down and led the offense to 541 yards on 17/26 through the air. Al Borges continued his tricky playcalling with a play action to the counter draw, as well as a heavy-I formation that earned Michigan an easy touchdown. The defense struggled with Northwestern's triple option, though. Defensive ends, who were assigned to the quarterback, often gave up the edge, and the Wildcats were able to throw bubble screens for significant yardage throughout the game.

Despite a shaky effort on both sides of the ball, Michigan came away with a commanding victory.

Offense vs. MSU
First, let's disabuse the notion that Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the country. MSU's ranking as the 3rd best scoring defense, 3rd rushing defense, and 2nd pass efficiency defense is a tenuous one when you consider the opposition. The Spartans' murderer's row of opponents includes: Ohio State, Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, and their one loss (in which they allowed 31 points) to Notre Dame. If you actually believe that Michigan State's defense is as good as those rankings, then I've got some land to sell you.

That's not to say Michigan State has a bad defense. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy looks like the best defensive prospect in the Big Ten this year. He routinely blows by offensive linemen and fights off double teams. Elsewhere on the defensive line, former 5-star prospect William Gholston has lived up to the hype. The secondary is also strong, recording seven interceptions in the first five games of the season.

How Al Borges schemes for this defense will be interesting. Like the last few weeks, running up the middle will be hard. Worthy will make inside runs far more difficult than they should be while Gholston and the MSU linebackers should be able to contain a lot of the outside carries. Against Northwestern, we saw Borges use Mike Shaw to get the edge on some carries, and I'd expect that to continue this game. Otherwise, Michigan will have to use some new option schemes or the speed option to get Denard and Co. in space against a traditional 4-3 defense.

The other concern is Worthy's pass rush. If you watch MSU games from this season, one thing you'll notice is how quickly Worthy and the rest of the defensive line get off the ball. In years past, it's been clear that MSU's defensive line was timing Michigan's snap count, and it looks like that kind of preparation has become a staple of the MSU defense. It'll be interesting to see if Borges starts using hard counts to slow down the aggressive pass rush. The other thing that should be effective against this front seven are screens and counters. Expect to see more from Vincent Smith as Borges uses him out of the backfield in an effort to slow the pass rush.

If Michigan's short stuff isn't working or Denard is forced to sit in the pocket and throw, things could get hairy. We've already seen how Denard struggles with pressure (throwing off his back foot and often throwing to the other team), and Worthy is the kind of defensive tackle that will get into the backfield. I'd guess that the deep jump balls will be rare to nonexistent in this game. Besides playing a cover-2 shell thus limiting those deep opportunities, Worthy is the kind of player that will get to the QB given enough time. Borges should have at least one or two new formations and wrinkles to throw at the Spartan defense to keep them guessing.

Defense vs. MSU
Though all of the above might seem foreboding, the good news is MSU's offense is pretty terrible. As inflated as MSU's numbers are against a schedule of patsies, their shoddy offensive production to date looks even worse. Currently, the Spartans are 79th in rushing offense, 34th in passing yards per game, and 62nd in scoring offense. When your second most difficult opponent is a Luke Fickel-led team, you've officially only played cupcakes. And against them, the Spartan offense has been pretty bad.

Much of that has to do with the team's offensive line, which features a defensive tackle position switch (who only switched to offensive line in the spring) and a JUCO as the tackles and a redshirt freshman center. This is a recipe for disaster, and it's been trouble for Cousins. MSU is 24th in sacks allowed, but Cousins is under constant pressure. In addition, the terrible offensive line has completely shut down what was expected to be a prolific rushing attack. With the trio of Caper, Bell, and Baker, Michigan State's running game was supposed to be one of the best in the Big Ten. Instead, they've produced an awful 3.4 YPC this season. There's trouble in East Lansing.

How Michigan's defense stacks up against this attack will be interesting. So far, the defensive line hasn't been as productive as expected, but given the Minnesotaness of MSU's offensive line, a big game is necessary. Specifically, Jibreel Black, Craig Roh, and Jake Ryan (when he has his hand in the ground) need to beat MSU's inexperienced tackles, though I expect Dantonio will use tight ends frequently to help out blocking on the outside. If Cousins has too much time in the pocket, he will pick apart Michigan's secondary, regardless of how much they appear to have improved this season.

Enter Greg Mattison. We've seen what Mattison's schemes can do to inexperienced offensive lines, and given that Cousins isn't a threat to run like Persa was last week, blitzing should resume in full effect this game. The stunts Michigan used earlier this year will hopefully cross up the inexperienced line and give Michigan a few free shots at Cousins. If nothing else, it'll force him to rush throws and get him out of rhythm.

Meanwhile, I don't think MSU has the pieces in place to hurt Michigan on the ground. Though the running back trio can be deadly, the status of the Spartan offensive line is too poor to make any lanes. Mike Martin will be charged with clogging up the middle of the field and taking care of any iso runs while the decisiveness of the indecisive linebackers will be put to test on power runs. It'll be key that Michigan doesn't let the MSU running backs bounce outside on power runs. Keeping everything in the middle of the field should effectively shut down the MSU running game.

Before the season, this was a Michigan State lock, but seeing the state of MSU's offense and the improvement from Michigan's defense makes this a lot harder to call. The chances that MSU marches down the field are unlikely. Without a functioning running game, sustained drives will be sparse. The key will be whether or not Michigan can get pressure and whether or not Cousins can pick apart the secondary. (Something to watch: With a pro-style QB, chances are he'll take advantage of Michigan's defensive backs face guarding. Expect multiple back-shoulder throws and a few pass interference calls.) A lot of Michigan's success will hinge on Mattison's playcalling.

On offense, Michigan will be forced to pick their way down the field. MSU's 4-3 cover-2 will all but eliminate Denard's jump balls. Borges is going to have to find ways to exploit a stacked box, necessitating a lot of tunnel screens, throwback screens to Smith, and short hitch routes. This will be Michigan's chance to really utilize the triple option that they showed against Minnesota. Ultimately, they move the ball well against MSU's conservative defense and rediscover the rushing attack that was absent against Northwestern.

Michigan 31 - Michigan State 20

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pretty sneaky, Mr. Borges pt. 2

Earlier, we saw Al Borges unveil a heavy-I formation which featured two fullbacks and a tailback. It's not an unusual formation--lots of teams use it--but the pre-snap shift of Steve Watson from the fullback position was curious. It gave away Michigan's intentions and as such, Northwestern was able to stop Michigan on a third and one. On the next play, Denard would run the ball for an easy first down (about which more later).

Later in the game, Michigan had the ball on the one yard line down 24-21. Devin Gardner was under center in the heavy-I formation seen earlier. Northwestern has loaded the box to stuff the run.

Prior to the snap, Watson shows the same motion he had in the play before, stepping up to his left under the A gap. Like last time, a Northwestern linebacker begins to creep into that hole.

As the ball is snapped, however, Watson plants his left foot and begins to pull across the formation.

Gardner fakes the handoff to fullback Stephen Hopkins as Watson continues to pull behind the formation. You can see the penetration that the NW linebackers have gotten through the A gap.

Hopkins stuffs the linebacker blitzing the A gap as Gardner rolls out with the ball. Brandon Moore released from the LOS to block the Northwestern safety, leaving only one slow-reacting linebacker to cover Gardner and Watson.

Gardner has a run pass option and will outrun the Northwestern linebacker to the pylon.

This is basically a one-time use play. Michigan intentionally showed this formation and pre-snap motion early in the game just in case this situation would arise. Now that they've shown it, this counter will be significantly less effective.

In retrospect, the most interesting thing about the first play was the field position. Michigan was on their own 40 yard line in a third and one situation. After going for it with the heavy-I formation and failing, Hoke made the decision to go for it on fourth down. Given Hoke's rumored conservativeness (I say rumored, because he hasn't really shown it to date), this seemed like an obvious punting situation. In reality, knowing that the offense can almost always get one yard with a QB draw, Borges used this opportunity to show off this formation and pre-snap motion. The knowledge that Denard could convert the first down allowed Borges to reveal a play that was intentionally ineffective in order to set up an easy touchdown near the goal line.

It's encouraging to see these one-off setup plays. Not only is Borges installing the base offense, it looks like he has one or two tricks for every team Michigan faces (see: Fritz formation, heavy-I formation). Borges is manufacturing touchdowns on a notepad. I'm curious to see how times he can unveil something like this.

Pretty sneaky, Mr. Borges Pt.1

Michigan didn't show a whole lot of new offensive formations against Northwestern, but they did debut the heavy I formation, which has two fullbacks lined up in the backfield:

This is obviously a short-yardage formation. In this instance, it's third and one about midway through the second quarter. Michigan is down 14-7 and has Steve Watson and Stephen Hopkins lined up as fullbacks. Fitz Toussaint is lined up deep as the half back. Northwestern is predictably loading the box.

Just before the snap, Watson takes a step forward and another step to his left, which seems like a horrible idea. This tips off the Wildcat linebackers as to what direction the play is headed. You can see in the screen below that the Northwestern MLB (or possibly strong safety, I can't tell) starts moving toward the A gap because Michigan has tipped their hand.

As the ball is snapped, you can see the linebacker is already at the line of scrimmage and about to engage Watson in the A gap. For a play that is designed to get one yard, creating a log jam at the point of attack is probably not the best idea.

Watson has now engaged the linebacker and is falling over. Hopkins is headed into the same hole as a lead blocker.

By the time Toussaint gets the ball, Northwestern has changed the line of scrimmage at the point of attack. Because the linebacker was able to key on Watson pre-snap, the Wildcats have plugged the A gap and pushed the Michigan blockers a yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Toussaint dives into the hole and fails to make the first down. After a few timeouts, Michigan would eventually make the conversion on fourth and one with a QB keeper.

This is MANBALL of the worst variety. If Watson doesn't motion pre-snap, he likely hits that linebacker a yard beyond the line of scrimmage instead of at the LOS. Hopkins then doubles that linebacker or finds someone else to block and Toussaint easily picks up the one yard. But as we'll see later today, there's a reason for this: Al Borges' diabolical machinations.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hold the edge fergodsakes

Throughout the season, we've seen Michigan's young linebackers and defensive ends struggle to hold the edge and properly funnel running backs to the support. Logically, discipline from the linebackers was a key to success against Northwestern's offensive attack. On the Wildcats' first touchdown Saturday, they exploited that inexperience with the triple option.

It's second and six, and Northwestern is trying to respond to Michigan's opening-drive touchdown. They align with trips receivers to Persa's Kain Colter's left (EDIT: the backup QB subbed in for Persa) and are in a strange formation that I'll refer to as the Pistol T. Michigan has their nickel package on the field and is in man coverage. Jake Ryan has his hand on the ground as the weakside defensive end.

As the ball is snapped, Ryan is left unblocked. Northwestern is running the triple option here. Currently, Colter is reading Ryan and will decide whether or not to hand the ball off for the RB dive. The running back to Colter's left is swinging behind the mesh point to act as the pitch man if Colter pulls the ball.

Ryan commits to the dive play, which...

...whoops, Colter pulls the ball. The right tackle and guard are releasing to the second level and about to smother Brandin Hawthorne.

Poor Jordan Kovacs. He now stands as the only player between the ball and the endzone, trying to defend a pitch option.

He's hopeless, as anyone would be facing this scenario. Colter cuts back upfield and runs untouched into the endzone.

Blame for this play falls on one of two people--Ryan or Hawthorne--and it depends on how the team was coached. At first blush, this seems like Ryan's fault for not holding the edge. However, it's possible that Hawthorne should have scraped over the top of the play. Unfortunately, we don't know how Mattison prepared the team for this play, but given Hawthorne's complete disregard for the option, this was either a terrible read by him or Ryan should have kept contain instead of attack the dive play. I'm inclined to say the latter.

While the linebackers are young, these are problems that need to be corrected soon. Northwestern is known for their triple option, and being this unprepared (or possibly just having a huge brain fart) is not sustainable for the future. With four of Michigan's remaining six opponents (Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State) featuring either running quarterbacks or packages for running quarterbacks, correcting these issues will be crucial. At the very least, this acts as a coaching point for the inexperienced linebacker corps.