Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Vincent Smith saved Michigan's season

During Michigan's game-saving two-minute drill against MSU, one play stands out as the most unexpected and perhaps most important play of the game: Vincent Smith's 12-yard first down run to move the chains and stop the clock. The thing is, he never should have touched the ball, but because of a terrible read by Denard, Smith had to engage super-ninja mode to get any positive yardage.

It is first and 10 with exactly two minutes left on the clock. Michigan has just forced a three-and-out against MSU to get the ball back. Taking a tackle for loss here would be devastating: Michigan would either lose 10-15 seconds or have to burn its only remaining timeout. Michigan comes out in a four-wide, one-back set. MSU is in a nickel package with four down linemen. The playside defensive end is actually Max Bullough Marcus Rush.

As the ball is snapped, Bullough Rush (highlighted) is left unblocked by Taylor Lewan. The only problem is Denard is reading one of the linebackers and fails to see Bullough standing there.

Michigan is running the inverted veer here, so if the defensive end stays high like he is, Denard is supposed to pull the ball and head upfield. The linebacker that Denard is currently reading is actually the assignment of Patrick Omameh who is pulling across the formation. But because that linebacker is staying in the middle of the field rather than bouncing out to defend the Smith run, Denard hands the ball off.

Omameh has now pulled around the formation and is about to block the MSU linebacker that Denard was reading. Meanwhile, Bullough has started to move outside to contain Smith.

I mean holy crap:

[insert Chris Berman noise]

Denard squares up to block someone, but the rest is all Smith...

....sneaking through defenders to pick up the first down.


The Takeaway
Under Borges' system, Denard has spent a lot of time reading linebackers on the option, but this is an emphatically bad read. MSU's best player had Vincent Smith dead-to-rights in the backfield on the game-winning drive until Smith reminded everyone why he's Michigan's best space player. There's a reason Rodriguez utilized Smith so much on passes out of the backfield and running plays: if you get him into the open field with a single defender, he's going to make that guy miss. Do you trust Fitz Toussaint to make that cut this year or would you expect him to try and bounce outside past Bullough? Not only does Smith keep this play alive, but he makes it past the first down marker, stopping the clock and allowing Michigan to set up the rest of the drive.

All hail Vincent Smith, Michigan's most underrated player for three-years running.


FMH said...

I'm pretty sure the DE is Marcus Rush (#44) and the filling LB is Max Bullough (#40). This looks like a bad read to me as well, but honestly it seems that Denard is reading the wrong person. If Denard is in fact reading an LB (which he seems to be as his head is facing straight forward) then he should hand if off. With all the LB's inside of the play, the play would be to hand the ball to the outside, would it not? The problem is that DE you pointed out. My understanding is that you're supposed to option the unblocked person. So the options about what is supposed to happen are:

1. Lewan was supposed to block the DE (seems least likely)
2. Omameh is supposed to block the DE (seems more likely as we seem to have pulling linemen block guys who are supposed to be seemingly optioned all season) and Denard reads the filling LB
3. Omameh blocks the filling LB and Denard is supposed to option the DE (seems likely, but Denard never even looks at him)

I'm not sure what the blocking schemes and reads are supposed to be for this play, but this kind of thing seems to be happening all season. Denard has never been very good at the read option, but after RR left, I'm not surprised his elegance with read options has not developed. I think this is a coaching issue; either with Borges not really understanding read-option adjustments and/or coaching the players to adjust their reads on the fly. The commonality of this exact thing happening often makes me think it's a coaching issue.

Either way, amazing play by Smith and I agree probably saved this game and our season.

Chris Gaerig said...

You're right re: Rush/Bullough. Got their numbers mixed up in my head. As for blocking schemes, Lewan completely blowing that assignment seems less likely than Denard getting confused on who he would read, but you're right in that a) pulling linemen have been blocking the guy Michigan is technically optioning and b) Denard has been reading linebackers a lot in the last two years.

I'm not sure what went wrong here, but if I were to guess, I would say the fault lies on Denard.

Jason Roberts said...

First, you couldn't be more right about the importance of Smith's play here. (Most underrated for the last 3 years is another matter, though.) Without it, Robinson-to-Dileo seems highly unlikely.

Second, though, doesn't this look more like Omameh making a "mistake" because he's not expecting a LB in that hole? I know that (1) we're never going to know if Denard sucks at the read game as much as some think he does, (2) if Denard is allowed to audible, and (3) whether Borges truly hates the spread or just can't use it well, but it seems really unlikely to me that Denard just completely whiffs on his read responsibility here. Do we think he's that dumb?

When Denard makes the read, this looks like MSU's Double A-gap blitz, which would clog the middle, leading Denard to hand off as Omameh blocks the end, making this one of those weird Borges-only spread plays that actually option no one. But then Bullough just glides past the mess and pops into a huge hole. If Bullough's the read, then Omameh has to block the end, right? Except that Bullough was suddenly right in front of him.

I'm probably too in-the-tank for Denard, but I just can't believe he'd bust this read so badly.

Mark said...

Denard has never been good at executing the zone-read play. He wasn't in 2010 under RR and he's still not two years later. He doesn't read defenses very well at all. My issue with Hoke & Borges is that they shoud take that into account when constructing a gameplan and insall some sort of "check with me" system so that we can audible out of playcalls that are doomed before the goshdamn ball is snapped.

Jason Roberts said...

I assume that when people say that the soon-to-be best rushing QB in NCAA history is bad at the option game, they mean that he looks at the player being optioned and makes the wrong read. As I understand it, the premise of this post suggests that Denard looks at the wrong player altogether. As in, he should have been looking at the end, but instead looked at the LB. But the player being optioned should be determined before the play, right? So after four years, and especially after the last 4 weeks, when Denard ran the veer many, many times, he still looks at the wrong player here?

Honestly, I wouldn't know. Never played a down of football in my life. But it's hard for me to imagine that Denard still doesn't know pre-snap who he is supposed to read.

(At his current pace, Denard will finish with more career rushing yards than Mike Hart... as a QB! Who really only played for 3 years! And just imagine how good he'd be if he weren't so obviously terrible.)

Mark said...

Denard's bread & butter running plays in '10 were the QB Iso & QB Draw. RR pretty much abandoned the zone-read play as the season went along in '10 because Denard was so bad at executing the play correctly. Last year, Denard got much of his rushing yardage off of QB Iso and QB Sweeps. There is a "feel" that an option QB needs to have in order to execute a play like the zone-read and Denard doesn't seem to possess it.

Denard is an outstanding running quarterback but that does not make him a great option QB.

Jason Roberts said...

That makes its own kind of sense, but still doesn't clarify why this particular play seems doomed. (Nor does it do much to explain the many yards Denard has gained on read plays throughout his career.) Again, as I understand the original post, the problem with this play is not Denard's "feel" for the read, but who he thinks the play is supposed to be reading by design. In other words, the argument is that Denard busted the play call, not the read itself. And I'd be willing to accept that, I guess, though it still doesn't jibe with the fact that UM used the veer extensively for the last month.

Unless I'm missing something about how such plays work, if this play is Denard's "fault," it's because he thought he was supposed to read the LB before the ball was snapped, not because he made a bad read after the ball was snapped. All I am saying, then, is that I find that unlikely, given the last month, and that even if that is case, I don't know why people then leap to "LOL Denard sucks," especially when they're UM fans.

And I agree that being a good running QB and being a good option QB are not the same thing, but, like most UM QBs before him, Denard is routinely held to a standard that, in my mind, often defies logic and reason. Just two games ago, he ran for 235 yards, most of which he gained on read plays (or what I understand to be read plays).

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