Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On basketball, Crisler, and atmosphere

I went to last night's Michigan/NC State matchup on a whim. I was sitting in a class that runs until 7 pm, concerned about leaving early so that I could drive home and watch the whole game, when I realized that I was in Ann Arbor and there might be some tickets available on Craigslist. Then I remembered it was Michigan basketball and there were probably seats available on the official site. There were. Pretty good seats, too. There's not a whole lot I can tell you about the game that you can't gather by watching it: Nik Stauskas is a sharp shooter who can't play defense yet, Tim Hardaway Jr. has--mostly--accepted his role as a slashing 2-guard, Trey Burke is a magician with the basketball, and the big men are underwhelming but they work hard.

The stadium is beautiful and feels like a pro arena. There are escalators and waterfall fixtures and glass facades and poor wayfinding. And when the team was introduced after warmups, the lights dropped and this happened:

At some point in the last 3 months, someone in the athletic department had to arrange a time with Tim Hardaway in order to film him screaming into a camera. This is where Michigan basketball is at.

The Michigan blogging community is pretty disheartened by the Crisler experience. There's pump up videos and t-shirt cannons and free pizza giveaways and the problem is that this is not Michigan basketball. But you want to know what was actually missing from Crisler last night? Flames. Giant fucking flames shooting out of the scoreboard that you can feel hundreds of yards away during player introductions.

Basketball is a game about style. That's how this happens

and this

Since Beilein came to Michigan, I was never his biggest fan. He doesn't didn't recruit the players that I like to watch and the players that I think are true game changers. His results spoke for themselves, but basketball is a beautiful game and Michigan was playing and winning in ugly ways. With this edition of the team, that's all changed. This made me literally jump off my couch:

Michigan doesn't have a basketball culture. I know that because I bought tickets against a ranked opponent a mere hours before tip. I know that because the people that did come to the stadium last night were comatose, except maybe for the high school kid sitting next to me in a Tim Hardaway jersey that was tucked into a pair of basketball shorts. (Question for That Kid: Did you come dressed like that? Where's your coat? It was cold out.) The problem with the Crisler experience is not that they play Lil Jon tracks for literally three seconds after a Let's-Go-Blue chant. It's that they wasted time with the Let's-Go-Blue chant in the first place.

The Big House has long been known as the quietest 110,000 people in the world. That's not a mistake: with a relatively old fanbase, you get a student section (sometimes) filled with screaming co-eds and then the geriatrics who like to sit around fill the rest of the stadium. When you have 15,000-20,000 students yelling in unison, you can at least mask the poor showing from the rest of the crowd. With a capacity of 12,000 fans, Crisler arena is not so forgiving. But it's not quiet because people come and don't care about the team; the difference in volume from the crowd between The Victors and literally any other chant is embarrassing. It's quiet because there's never been a culture of Michigan fans screaming a slur of obscenities at an opposing player as he sits on the bench. To complain about a lack or destruction of an arena/experience/environment, there has to be something to destroy.

Some of this is the fault of the athletic department. The student section is relatively small save for overflow areas that are up in the rafters behind the baskets. With only a half of the student section able to really cheer in unison, you're basically killing any chance for an intimidating environment. But you can't fault Dave Brandon for not sacrificing the best seats in the house to put more drunk, probably late students. This is the equivalent of moving the student section in the Big House to mid-field, which is insanity. But this also makes building any kind of culture basically impossible. The best chant the student section could muster when NC State was at the foul line was "You're gonna miss it". Really? "You're gonna miss it" is the very best we can come up with?

The problem is, in the modern era, any Michigan basketball culture that's worth remembering has been explicitly forgotten. The Fab Five, for better or worse, have defined what Michigan basketball is for the last 20 years or at least should have. That was a team that typified style and culture, but most importantly talented, winning basketball. But they were also as far from a college experience as you could get.

Last night, Michigan basketball ran a ranked opponent out of the building, despite the closer-than-actual final score. Sometime in the second half incensed by the fans' lethargy and invigorated by the play on the court, Tim Hardaway Jr bounced down the court asking the fans to finally get on their feet. They did, but that takes balls. "I want more from you." It also takes balls to throw alley-oops in traffic. This is Michigan basketball now, the only Michigan basketball that matters.

Walking into the stadium, I commented to my friend that I've always wanted an NBA team to sell-out on style and skip the campy "YMCA"s in favor of playing "Hustlin" during every timeout. The Jay-Z owned Brooklyn Nets are my great hope. Now Michigan is inching toward that goal. Keep the band around for The Victors and halftime, but the crowd is clearly not responding to their calls for cheers. Crisler stadium will never be Assembly Hall or the Dean Smith Center. It's a pro arena.

We've been here before. The 2012 recruiting class is not the Fab Five, but they might take Michigan to the same heights without, ya know, all the cheating and improper benefits. Embrace the culture that's budding here. Crisler will also never be Yost or the Big House, places that will always do better what bloggers are calling for and what Crisler is half-heartedly doing. You can build a unique culture that doesn't include unenthused fans muttering out chants and it starts with the play on the court.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

We've been here before

This would have been up yesterday, but I spent the entire day driving back from Chicago on a MegaBus which said it had WiFi but definitely did not have WiFi.
Michigan 21 - Ohio 26
Daniel Brenner |

And so it finally, unmercifully, comes to an end. After two years of miserable playcalling, shoddy quarterback play, and more turnovers than you can shake a stick at, Michigan can finally say goodbye to Denard Robinson, he going out exactly the way he played: turning the ball over on a crucial drive. Al Borges will take the blame for the playcalling in this game, but he's not the one giving the ball away on three second-half drives. He's not the dual-threat senior quarterback that in his third year as a starter doesn't know how to protect the ball. But he is the one that's telling the Buckeyes exactly what's going to happen just by the personnel on the field.

I can understand Borges' thinking on playcalls in this game. I spent most of the weekend playing darts at various bars around Chicago. When you're an amateur playing another amateur in Cricket, there's a very specific strategy you should employ to ensure the best possible results: aim for the bullseye. The logic shows that with natural variance and drift on your shots, you're just a likely to hit one of the six other numbers you're supposed to, reducing rounds that you don't mark at all and optimizing your ability to get lucky. I don't throw this way despite my status as Amateur. If you're relying on noise, you'll never truly get better; push yourself to do the hard stuff and eventually it'll come naturally.

Unfortunately for Michigan, Denard and Devin on the field at the same time is not noise as Borges likely thinks of it (trick plays that are just as likely to get you zero yards as 60). Against OSU, Borges was throwing at the triple 20 over and over again and kept hitting triple 1. If you can hit your spot every time (say, running under-center power on third and three), there's no problem attacking that spot repeatedly, but Borges needs to accept that the status of his offensive line and running backs is not such that you can confidently rely on. Take the yards where you can get them and play your best strategy.

It was hard to watch this game and see Michigan's players just continually beaten, both physically and mentally. Stephen Hopkins was abhorrent and played perhaps the worst game I've ever seen from a fullback. The offensive line was tossed around like ragdolls. Michigan's corners completely unable to guard anyone and JT Floyd getting turned around like he did against Penn State two years ago. At times, this was men against boys, something I had thought was extinct after how well the team had played the last two years.

So now there's a bowl game left, but it feels like a punishment more than a reward. I don't want to watch this football team play another game. I'm tired of seeing the offensive line lost and unfit to play with the elite. I'm tired of Denard Robinson. I'm tired of JT Floyd. I'm tired of not having a viable running back on the roster. We're officially ushering a new era after this season: Borges will get his passing-capable QB, Hoke gets his offensive line of fridges with feet, the secondary rids itself of its most inadequate piece, and the more time that passes, the further we get from Rich Rodriguez's recruiting disasters.

2013 will hold better things for a Michigan team that was probably a lot better than its record showed. Having even a remedial offense coupled with an all-world defense is the way that LSU and Notre Dame and Alabama have won national championships in the recent past. They were bolstered by an excellent running game, the likes of which Michigan can't match, but perhaps the new offensive linemen will be a revelation. I'm excited for the future of this team, but I'm tired of where they've stalled this season.

Melanie Maxwell |

  • Lawdy lord, the defense. This defense rules. I cannot wait to see them in the future. They bend-don't-break'ed an offense that if you're bending, you're typically breaking. Jake Ryan's ability to stay with Braxton Miller's jukes in space is a revelation. Have fun on Sunday's sweet prince.
  • Howeva, the defensive line was struggling to hold up against double teams the way they had in previous weeks. That allowed OSU offensive linemen to release to the second level and seal off Michigan's linebackers. That ended poorly for Michigan and well for Carlos Hyde.
  • The Wolverine defense will get way better without JT Floyd, though. His weakness as a cover corner significantly limits Mattison's schemes. Next year we should see the defense take another step up when Mattison feels confident leaving Countess and Taylor out on islands.
  • No seriously, Stephen Hopkins was horrible. How he isn't smart enough to play fullback, I'll never know.
  • Devin finally came back down to earth. One of the main reasons is that the OSU defensive line play gap-sound and didn't allow him to break the pocket much. Gardner had no where to run on drop backs, something that they clearly gameplanned for.
  • Speaking of stopping QB scrambles: I hate rushing only two defensive linemen on third-and-long. That never seems to work. It allows the opposing quarterbacks to sit in the pocket and receivers to find holes in the zone defense which always develop with enough time. I think I remember Michigan doing this twice and neither time did it provide any results. Mattison, stick with your gut: blitz from one side of the field and force a scramble into your zone defenders like you've done all year.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Preview: Ohio 2012

#19 Michigan vs. Ohio
Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: High-30s, 0% chance of rain 

Last week
Ohio State 21 - Wisconsin 14 (OT). Ohio State continued its meaningless undefeated season last week by beating Wisconsin in overtime. Wisconsin's third starting quarterback this season, Curt Phillips, acquitted himself well by completing 14 of 25 passes for 154 yards and 1 TD. Meanwhile, Monte Ball did his Monte Ball thing by averaging  4.9 YPC on 39 (!!!) carries. Sacks removed, Wisconsin actually managed 4.69 YPC as a team. Those sacks may be what won Ohio State the game. Defensive end terror John Simon was nigh unblockable, marking the team's four sacks. The rest of the team managed only five tackles for loss.

Braxton Miller had a typical day: 10/18 through the air for 97 yards, and 20 carries for 70 yards. Carlos Hyde also had a good game averaging 5.8 YPC on 15 carries. Despite these performances, Ohio State was only able to manage 14 points in regulation. In overtime, the Buckeyes got away with a couple of glaring holding calls that allowed them to march into the endzone on four plays. And Wisconsin couldn't move the ball at all, resulting in an undramatic extra period.

Offense vs. Ohio State

Despite the Buckeyes' undefeated season, this is not a vintage OSU defense. A quick rundown of their statistical rankings proves as much: 17th in rushing defense, 28th in pass efficiency defense, 38th in total defense, 34th in scoring defense, 34th in sacks, and tied for 77th in tackles for loss. Those are good numbers, but they're not typical Ohio State numbers.

The defense is led by defensive end John Simon who is a scary dude. On the season, he has 22 solo tackles, 22 assists, 14.5 TFLs, and 9 sacks, in addition to 4 PBUs and a forced fumble. The scary thing for Michigan's offense is that Simon will probably be lined up across from Michael Schofield who I spent the better part of the first few games this season bemoaning his lack of speed and strength. This could be bad. Next to Simon is manchild Jonathan Hankins, an NFL-sized nose tackle that has lived up to every bit of his hype this season. Hankins has 23 solo tackles, 29 assists, 4 TFLs, and a sack, but his biggest impact is the ability to get into the backfield and disrupt plays.

So running the ball on Saturday is going to be difficult. Given the weakness of Michigan's offensive line and the strength of the Buckeye D-line, moving the ball on the ground will take some sort of randomness. Fortunately, Michigan showed a whole bunch of new running formations against Iowa with Denard Robinson in the backfield intended to get to the outside of the field where Michigan can make hay against OSU.

the Buckeye linebacker corps is led by sophomore Ryan Shazier who leads the team with 68 solo tackles. He's also marked 14.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 interception, and 12 PBUs. He is the heart and soul of OSU's defense, but he's also mistake prone. If Michigan can get him moving in the wrong direction on counter plays, he's liable to overrun plays. The LOLZ from OSU's defense come at the middle linebacker spot where converted fullback Zach Boren has taken over the starting position. Boren began the season as a fullback by moved to the other side of the ball when the existing linebackers proved to be miserable. Think Rich Rodriguez moving Mark Moundros to linebacker. How did that turn out? At the final linebacker spot is senior Etienne Sabino, who feels like he's been around forever. Sabino is and always has been good-not-great, and his numbers this season back this up: 24 solo tackles, 19 assists, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT.

So despite a hilarious middle linebacker situation, OSU's front seven is relatively stout. The weakness of the defense is, shockingly, in pass defense. When's the last time OSU didn't have a fleet of lightning fast corners that locked down receivers? Sophomore Bradley Roby and senior Travis Howard are the two Buckeye corners. Howard is the better shutdown man but Roby has more physical gifts. And neither of the starting safeties Christian Bryant and CJ Barnett are particularly threatening. Of concern for Ohio State is that three members of the secondary are in the team's top-five tacklers. They allow a lot of completions: against Big Ten competition, the OSU secondary has allowed QBs to throw for 144/256 through the air (56%) with 10 TDs and 6 INTs. Calibrate for the awfulness of Big Ten quarterbacks, and you have a secondary that's giving up a lot of completions and not particularly threatening with regards to turnovers.

With Michigan's newfound ability to throw the ball, this matchup actually slides slightly toward Michigan. OK, so Michigan's wide receivers are bad, but Michigan may not need to break a ton of long plays if OSU is allowing a bunch of mid-range throws that Devin Gardner has proven to be really accurate on. Running is going to be a harrowing affair, so getting John Simon blocked on drop backs (paging AJ Williams or Devin Funchess' non-existant blocking abilities) and giving Gardner time to survey the field and possibly scramble for first downs will be crucial for Michigan's offensive success.

Defense vs. Braxton Miller

So a few years ago, Michigan fans had to listen to that ridiculous stat that Denard Robinson accounted for 197% of Michigan's offense and every time someone said that, I got especially stabby. That receivers are not "responsible" for any of the yards on catches and YAC is dumb, but I digress. Now its Ohio State who has a quarterback responsible for their entire offense, but because Miller is an OSU quarterback and never gets injured, and because the Big Ten is atrocious and OSU hasn't played a decent defense to date, you don't hear the same conditionals about Miller's play: he is unequivocally awesome if you ask the media. And OK, fine, he's really good but he also has obvious limitations.

Miller is completing just 56% of his passes on the season with 14 TDs and 6 INTs. His yardage total is also fairly impressive but largely because safeties are bugging out against the run and getting caught out of position. He also has Devin Smith to throw to, which doesn't hurt. You might remember Smith from making one of the best catches of the season in week one. Or from any one of his long touchdown catches this season (he's averaging 19.8 yards per reception this year).

The rest of the OSU receiver corps is acceptable without a ton of gamebreakers. Corey Brown leads the team in receptions but is basically just a possession guy. And the name that you already hate and probably will more after Saturday's game is Jake Stoneburner, a senior wide receiver whose catches are all one yard further than the necessary yardage for a first down.

So that's passing which will be an annoyance but won't be a major threat to Michigan's defense like it was in last year's The Game. Beating the Buckeyes stops and ends with stopping their running game, which is no small feat. The offensive line starts four juniors and a senior and don't have any particularly weak spots. Combine that with rumbleback Carlos Hyde and Miller's top-end speed, and you've got a scary offense. Miller leads the team in carries and yards (207 and 1,416 respectively) and is averaging 5.9 YPC. He has breakaway speed, but he's less effective between the tackles and among defenders where he doesn't have the shake that someone like Denard does. Keeping outside leverage on Miller is essential, and hopefully Mattison has the defense better prepared to maintain the QB than they did against Northwestern. Hyde, meanwhile, is averaging 5.2 YPC this season and makes a lot of yardage after contact.

The one thing that has gone unmentioned is Greg Mattison who was Urban Meyer's defensive coordinator at Florida. Mattison has struggled with option teams in his two years at Michigan mostly because his gameplan is deficient heading into the game. He has something theoretical that he draws up which doesn't actually work. Against Meyer, you would expect Mattison's schemes to be more effective because of his familiarity with Meyer's schemes. If the linebackers and defensive ends properly execute whatever containment scheme Mattison has for the running game, I expect Michigan's playcalling on this side of the ball to produce good results against OSU.

How does Michigan win? Shut down Braxton Miller and don't turn the ball over. Despite Miller's gaudy numbers this season, the Buckeyes have had a tendency to have sub-par offensive outputs. Given the state of the Big Ten, that's especially damning. If Michigan can allow Miller to gain over 4 yards per carry instead of 5 or 6, OSU will eventually sputter out offensively. On the other side of the ball, Gardner needs to build upon the performances he's shown the last three weeks. Michigan has new wrinkles in the offense now that will allow Denard and a fleet of blockers to get to the outside, away from OSU's defensive strength. Hold onto the ball and Michigan can probably move the ball more consistently.

How does Ohio State win? Braxton Miller and sacks. Miller has to throw the ball a lot better than he has all season because Michigan's front seven is stout while the secondary will struggle against faster receivers like Devin Smith. If Michigan's gameplan isn't designed to shut down Miller, this will be an ugly, frustrating day. They also need a big performance from John Simon who, if he is going up against Schofield, will almost certainly be able to produce.

Arbitrary chance Michigan wins: 50%

Final Prediction. In my heart of hearts, I want to predict a Michigan victory. Gardner is playing really well, the defense has the speed to shut down OSU's rushing attack, and I firmly believe that Mattison will be a game changer. But... I just can't. This is Michigan and Ohio State in Columbus. Michigan has a QB who has been notoriously bad until the last three weeks. The Wolverine offensive line is bad. The defensive secondary is not good. And I can see nothing but Braxton Miller scampering for 19 yards over and over and over again. So if I'm being honest, 28-17 Ohio State. But like, fuck it, Michigan 23 - Ohio State 21.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Run defense vs Iowa

Though Iowa was able to check down to its tight ends to keep drives alive throughout the game, I was more concerned with Michigan's running defense against a team with a makeshift offensive line and no dynamic running backs. It became pretty clear what Iowa was doing to have success and you could see the difference between their success and Michigan's lack of success running under center.

Iowa shows a two-TE  ace formation with two wide receivers to the boundary. Michigan is in its 4-3 under with Jordan Kovacs rolled into the box. Iowa will run an inside zone to the weakside of the field.

The key to this play is the block on Campbell and the weakside B gap (highlighted), where the play is intended to go. On the snap, Michigan's defensive line slants toward the weakside of the play. Campbell engages the playside offensive guard. The right tackle will get a free release to the second level.

Campbell has now been sealed to the inside despite slanting toward the play. He's gotten decent penetration, but the offensive guard is allowing him to get inside. Craig Roh is in the process of overrunning the play.

Despite Campbell's penetration, he hasn't kept gap responsibility because the offensive guard pushed him beyond the point of attack. Roh has been sealed to the outside. And the linebacker who was supposed to cover this gap (James Ross) has gotten a free-releasing offensive tackle in his face (Iowa's #70).

Roh and Campbell both reach to make the tackle but can't stop Mark Weisman who has a full head of steam.

And this is where Brady Hoke gets upset....

...because JT Floyd gets absolutely trucked and can't stop Weisman from picking up the first down.


The Takeaway
This play starts with Campbell and the offensive guard getting playside of him. Campbell starts this play outside of the guard and, without any blocking help, allows the guard to seal him back to the inside. That's bad and that's why there's such a gaping hole here, but watching this play in contrast to Michigan's under-center runs highlights a stark contrast: Michigan doesn't create gaps like this. Despite the fact that Campbell doesn't play this particularly well, he's able to get good penetration and into the backfield, but the offensive guard helps him along, knowing that even if Campbell gets into the backfield, as long as he's kept to the inside, Weisman will have a lane to run through. Michigan's blocking schemes have confused the offensive line all season and may contribute to this lack of holes for running backs. Regardless, it's disheartening watching Iowa's mediocre offensive line able to create holes and separation for their running backs in ways that Michigan's line can't, but I'm hoping this is talent-related (Michigan's interior line is really weak) and not scheme-related.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A ray of hope

Iowa 17 - #21 Michigan 42
Melanie Maxwell |
I'm supposed to have something poetic to say about Denard Robinson, but Saturday's game left me cold. Denard lining up as a running back is not how this is supposed to go, not in college football where he turns dropped snaps into 43-yard touchdowns and made an entire fan base invent a whole new vocabulary to grapple with what he was doing on the field. For the last three years, Michigan fans have held their collective breath as Denard did whatever he could to get the ball 10 yards further toward the endzone. We usually exhaled pleasantly surprised.

The lasting image of Saturday's game for me, however, will be Fitz Toussaint's gruesome broken leg. In real time, there wasn't much to see but the slow-motion replay was one of those scenes they'll never show again and that I unfortunately saw before I could cover my eyes. Those are the kinds of injuries that end careers. For a player who has spent the last 11 games unsuccessfully fighting off tacklers in the backfield, in one of the first times all season he gets to the light of day and that happens. It all just seems unfair.

Toussaint has another season if he's able to recover, a luxury that's not afforded to Denard who lost his season to a similarly unfair albeit less horrifying injury. Denard's last game in the Big House felt like a dud though, and the heckling he'll get from Ohio State fans won't even be deserving of a his success. He'll be on the sideline rather than letting the "boos" rain down on him on the field. Denard Robinson's final game in a Michigan jersey will be in a half-filled stadium somewhere far away from Ann Arbor.

Of course Jordan Kovacs and Will Campbell and Roy Roundtree also touched the banner for their final time in maize and blue and unlike Denard, it's unlikely any of these guys will sniff the NFL. Were it not for Denard the last three years, this would probably go down as one of the most forgettable senior classes in Michigan history. Recruited by Rich Rodriguez, he specialized in finding the diamonds in the rough, of which none ever developed at Michigan. Three straight classes of pedestrian talent held together by Denard's heroics.

I think that's why Denard became so beloved. Put aside his smile or the fact that he's a talent that Michigan had never seen before. He was a ray of hope during the program's most devastating three years. Were it not for Denard, Michigan's abhorrent record during his tenure would have been even worse. There's a reason that there are multiple instances of Denard's first snap on YouTube with 60,000-plus views. He was Michigan football over the last year, both figuratively and literally.

With only two games left, Denard will be unceremoniously sent off to the NFL where his career will probably be a flash in the pan, not unlike his time at Michigan.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Preview: Terrible Iowa 2012

Iowa vs. #21 Michigan
The Big House, Ann Arbor, MI
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: Mid-40s, 20% chance of rain 

This game, like Minnesota, does not warrant a full preview. Despite playing in the worst conference in America, Iowa is 98th in rushing offense, 113th in passing efficiency, 102nd in scoring offense, 60th in rushing defense, 59th in pass efficiency defense, and 29th in scoring defense. Basically, this is an average defense in a terrible conference and an atrocious offense. The only way Michigan loses this game is if both Devin Gardner and Denard go down, and even then, Michigan will probably still be able to eek out a win.

I do have slight reservations about the game. It seems like every week, teams break tendencies against Michigan. Though Iowa OC Greg Davis may be allergic to passes longer than 10 yards, I would not be surprised if Iowa tried to attack Michigan's suspect secondary. It won't make a difference to the final score, but James Vandenberg has the arm to attack Michigan's corners. Michigan's front seven should demolish Iowa's janky offensive line and backup-backup-backup running backs, so they will eventually have to start airing it out.

Since this won't be much of a contest, things to watch in this game include: Can Ondre Pipkins build upon a decent outing against Northwestern? Linebacker rotation, specifically, how much time Desmond Morgan gets. How open do Iowa's receivers get downfield, regardless of whether or not the passes are completed. Jake Ryan, because he's going to have a monster game. Denard Robinson, if he's playing, because it's his last game in the Big House. Whether or not Dennis Norfleet can actually return a kick for good yardage or if he keeps just running directly into a wall of oncoming defenders.

Final score: Iowa 3 - Michigan 38

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Defending the speed option

Michigan got gashed on the ground a lot against Northwestern, but the one play that did consistent damage was the speed option. At the snap, Kain Colter and Venric Mark would both run to one side of the field and read (usually) the playside defensive end to determine whether or not to pitch the ball to the outside. Michigan spent a lot of the game forcing the pitch with no one outside to make the tackle, but that wasn't the only issue.

Northwestern is in a three-wide set with a tight end on the opposite side of the field and Venric Mark in the backfield. Michigan is in its nickel package. But before the ball is even snapped, you can see a huge problem: Michigan is badly outnumbered to the boundary side of the field. From the offensive center toward the boundary, Michigan has only four defenders. Nebraska has four men on the line of scrimmage, Colter, and Mark. There's absolutely no way Michigan can defend this play toward the sideline.

As the ball is snapped, Northwestern's center and right guard double Black, while the right tackle and tight end release to the second level to block Kovacs and Desmond Morgan. Brennan Beyer is left unblocked and is the player Colter is reading.

Beyer stays to the inside and forces a pitch outside to Mark. This is bad. The right guard is cut blocking Morgan and the tight end is headed straight for Kovacs.

Beyer is now in pursuit of Mark but has no chance. Morgan is Superman-ing over the right tackle. Kovacs is engaged with the tight end. The only player with any chance of making this tackle is JT Floyd and he's seven yards from the line of scrimmage and has to make up ground horizontally to get to where Mark is.

Kovacs keeps Mark to the inside of the field, but it doesn't really matter. There isn't anyone there to tackle him. Mark is now two yards past the line of scrimmage with a head of steam and Floyd is still five yards away. best case scenario, this is a six-yard gain.

But it's not because Floyd overruns the play.

Mark will scamper ahead for 30 yards.


The Takeaway
The obvious problem here is the way that Michigan is aligned, but that's a function of playing a spread team. They're in man coverage against the receivers with a safety over the top who also defends against a bubble screen (4 players) and have four down linemen (8 players), leaving only three players to defend against this option look. This is one of the inherent dangers of playing option teams like this, but because Michigan is so outnumbered, it becomes even more important for Beyer (or whoever is left unblocked). Forcing Colter to keep pushes him back toward the strength of the defense and toward a spot on the field where Floyd can more easily come downhill and make a tackle. If Colter slows down at all, he'll be tackled by the pursuit defenders (who eventually tackle Mark 30 yards downfield). Michigan defended the pitch this way for a large part of the first three quarters before making the shift in the fourth. Option teams present these problems and its up to Mattison to have a better gameplan to defend basic parts of the opposing offense.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Importance of Michigan's reach block

There's something very wrong with the offensive line, as we've come to realize over the last few games, but a few plays against Northwestern were particularly perplexing. The play below will make you yearn for David Molk and his unique skillset, but it will also make you wonder what exactly the offensive line staff is teaching this unit.

Michigan comes out in its new heavy I-formation, which features Mike Kwiatkowski on one side of the formation and Devin Funchess aligned as an H-back on the other side. This is a zone run left (maybe; I'll discuss this later):
The critical block on this play is for Elliott Mealer to reach the defensive tackle that's aligned off his left shoulder and seal him to the inside. Northwestern comes out in a 4-3 that looks more like a 4-4 with the backside cornerback rolled into the box because he has no one to cover.

Devin Funchess motions across the formation to the playside.

As the ball is snapped, the line blocks left, but the playside defensive tackle gets immediately inside Mealer. The other big problem is Ricky Barnum, whose first step is backward. He is now running behind Taylor Lewan instead of doubling the playside defensive end and allowing Lewan to release upfield.

Funchess comes out of the backfield to block the middle lineback, ignoring the the LB who was rolled up to the line of scrimmage on the playside (that's fullback Joe Kerridge's assignment). Mealer and Barnum are now two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Lewan, who was expecting help from Barnum (I think) is also being pushed into the backfield. This is before Gardner has even handed the ball off.

Toussaint has no choice but to try and bounce it outside...

...and it does not go well.


The Takeaway
OK, so what actually happened here. I'm inclined to think this was a zone blocking scheme, but Barnum's first step leads me to believe this is a man blocking scheme. Here's what I think is happening: Barnum is not technically covered by a defensive tackle. Instead, that tackle is aligned in the playside A gap. If an offensive lineman isn't covered, he's instructed to pull toward the frontside, but in this instance, that requires Mealer reaches his block quickly and without any help.

The other problem with this blocking scheme actually happens on the backside. Patrick Omameh tries releasing to the second level but is engaged by the backside defensive tackle. At the same time, Michael Schofield tries to cut block the backside DT and should have been called for a chop block.

Other surprising aspects of this play: regardless of what the blocking scheme was, Taylor Lewan gets absolutely blown off the line of scrimmage.

I don't pretend to be an expert at offensive line schemes, but this seems untenable. I've watched this play upwards of 20 times and can't figure out what this line is doing. It's entirely possible that absolutely everyone gets beaten off the ball, but there just seems to be too much confusion for that to be the real cause. Mealer can't reach the playside defensive tackle, that much is clear. But what is Barnum's assignment? What is Omameh's assignment? Why is Schoefield the only one chop blocking? Side note: Why is he so bad at it? For all of the work that this staff has done with both sides of the ball, I can't understand why the offensive line looks so ill-prepared and confused.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mattison's strong safety blitz

Allow me to preempt this because I realize it's ludicrous: I've been a little disappointed with Greg Mattison this season. The work that he's done with a relatively young and inexperienced defensive unit has been remarkable, but it seems like his blitz packages have been lacking this season. Last year, Mattison used the Illinois game to debut what has become known as his okie blitz package, but there haven't been all that many new blitz packages this season.

Against Northwestern, Mattison broke out perhaps his most innovative blitz of the season (a strong safety zone blitz), which was returning poor results on third downs until he made a subtle tweak, about which more later.

When Michigan blitzed in this game, this is the blitz that they used. It was successful approximately once (on a really important third down), and shredded otherwise, both because of unfortunate play calls and also because Kain Colter is a wizard.

Northwestern comes out in a four-wide set with a running back in the backfield. Michigan is in its nickel package.

Before the snap, Michigan doesn't do a great job of disguising its blitz. Desmond Morgan is also bluffing at the blitz, and Kenny Demens is in a two-point stance as a defensive tackle and will drop into coverage. In any case, Colter can see this coming.

As the ball is snapped, Jake Ryan and Jordan Kovacs come on a blitz.

Frank Clark sucks up the right tackle opening a hole in the B gap. The offensive right guard blocks Ryan, giving Kovacs a clear lane to Colter.

This is where the problem develops with the blitz: Kovacs is coming from Colter's frontside and he's able to recognize the blitz and do a bunch of wonky Colter stuff...

Colter steps away from Kovacs, does some yackety sax, and finds a receiver open at the sticks for a first down.

I could show you pictures of how the play ends, but the video does it justice.

Michigan tried this same blitz a few different times with worse results. At least in the play above, Michigan forced Colter to make an athletic play to find a first down. On other blitzes, Northwestern simply pitched the ball outside for a big gain because Kovacs was out of position due to the blitz.

Late in the game, though, Northwestern had a 3rd and 8 and Mattison dialed up the same blitz with a subtle change: he flipped the field, allowing Kovacs and Ryan to blitz Colter's blindside for the first time. As you can see, this is almost the exact same alignment except everything is flipped: Demens and Roh switch sides of the line and Ryan and Kovacs have also flipped the field.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On the (almost) defining fourth down

I noticed this in real time but just came across it again while rewatching the game. This is the potentially game-defining fourth down play that Northwestern converted (barely). It was 4th and 1, and Northwestern ran out a three-wide set after motioning Venric Mark out of the backfield. Look at how Michigan is aligned:

Michigan is in cover-zero man coverage. They have effectively eight defenders in the box against Northwestern's seven blockers and one ball carrier. I understand the fear of putting the ball in the air here, but Michigan is basically not covering the slot receiver. That's about a 15-foot throw and a guaranteed first down, and potentially a lot more if the slot receiver can make Kovacs miss in space. Obviously Northwestern is happy with the way the play ended, but it was their own stupidity that they almost didn't reach the first down.

The reason I point this out is that if Michigan tries this against Ohio State, they're giving up a lot more than a barely reached first down.

A forgotten classic

#24 Northwestern 31 - Michigan 38 (OT)
Melanie Maxwell |

Saturday's game will never go down as a classic. My freshman year of college, we had Braylon-fest, an improbable comeback against Michigan State. A few years later, Tate Forcier saw cover-zero and scampered 40 yards into the endzone before finding Greg Matthews on a circle route with 11 seconds left. The next two years, Denard Robinson broke Irish hearts in gif-able fashion. But these games are legendary as much because of the helmets that didn't have wings on them as the outcomes themselves.

The ending of Saturday's game was more improbable than any of those prior classics, but it will probably go forgotten. Beating Northwestern should be a certainty, not a cardiac event. Michigan's chances of playing for a Big Ten title this year are probably dead following yet another fortuitous (and incorrect) officiating call that went Nebraska's way. And this wasn't even a miraculous Denard Robinson performance during his senior season. This was a game that was uncomfortably close and probably ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps if I had been in the stadium, my impressions would change. By the time Michigan got the ball back with 18 seconds left, I was resigned to the team's fate: best case scenario was a long bomb followed by a coinflip field goal to tie the game because, let's be honest, Junior Hemingway ain't walking through that tunnel. But then a miraculous apparition appeared. Number 21 had the ball pinned to his shoulder, setting up the most vicious spiked ball in Michigan history. When overtime started, there was just a sense that Michigan would pull the game out. They had too much momentum, but more concretely, in overtime, always side with the team that has the 6'4" robobeast quarterback.

After Michigan scored in overtime and put the pressure on the Wildcat offense, the ensuing possession went about as well as you can hope for against an option team: 7 yard gain, 2 yard gain, 1 yard loss, 0 yard gain; game. Though Northwestern had been gashing the Wolverine defense on the speed option all day, they opted instead for a veer option. Jibreel Black beat a block, forced a cutback, and Kenny Demens treated Tyris Jones like an excited puppy jumping into its owner's arms after a month-long vacation.

This game was another good audition for Devin Gardner, but it highlighted something that appeared the week before. It seems like Al Borges treats Gardner differently, and not just in playcalling. Gardner gets to the line of scrimmage, surveys the field and calls audibles, and uses a hard count to draw the defense offsides. I refuse to believe that Michigan's three-year starter, senior quarterback can't make the same checks or keep the defense on its toes--it's possible, but seems unlikely--so the question becomes, why does Borges treat the two quarterbacks so differently?

Playing almost exclusively under center helps with a lot of these issues. Hard counts can be used under center more easily, but making checks at the line of scrimmage is something that we've seen Gardner do a few times in the last few weeks that Denard hasn't done once in two years. The other advantage of playing Gardner under center so frequently is getting the play in and lining up faster. With Denard in the game, Borges changes formations from I-formation sets featuring two tight ends and a fullback to shotgun looks with three and four wide receivers. That much rotation of personnel has resulted in a lot of wasted first-quarter timeouts when Denard is in the game. With Gardner playing, the offense just seems more complete, a function of Borges more than the anything the quarterbacks are doing.

Regardless of why the difference exists, it's a very real aspect of this offense now. The offense looks better under Gardner, which unfortunately just highlights how improperly Borges has been using Denard the last two years, but there's no need in fretting over that now. Next year looks a lot more encouraging after the last two weeks and Michigan is still technically in the running for the Big Ten Title this year. Go Minnesota. Go Iowa. Ugh.

  • Michigan struggled on defense in this game for a number of different reasons. Jake Ryan and Frank Clark both lost contain frequently which gave Northwestern big gains on the ground. In addition, and I think Mattison figured this out before the fourth quarter, but Michigan was defending the speed option in an unsound manner. The playside linebacker was always playing the quarterback, forcing a pitch to the running back who had nothing but blockers in front of him. I think Mattison assumed his corners and safeties could get off of their blocks on the outside the help contain the rushing attack, but Michigan's corners aren't very good at doing this. By the fourth quarter, Michigan started forcing the runs back inside.
  • Michigan's third-down defensive struggles where a different matter. Mattison couldn't use his okie blitzes because Northwestern spreads the field too far. Instead, he drew up a strong safety blitz that was largely ineffective. I'll draw these up later this week, but Mattison finally figured out what the problem was: he kept bringing Jordan Kovacs on a safety blitz from Colter's frontside, allowing him to recognize the blitz and scramble around. The one time the blitz actually landed, it was because Mattison flipped the field and brought the blitz from Colter's blindside.
  • Kain Colter is slippery. Michigan had him in the backfield a few different times but was unable to bring him down. Will Campbell pushed beyond the line of scrimmage only to see Colter scamper around and one of Michigan's defensive ends dip inside, giving up the edge and a huge rushing lane. This was the least disciplined defensive performance from Michigan we've seen all year, helped along by perhaps the best running quarterback Michigan has played.
  • The interior of Michigan's offensive line is broken. At this point, you don't burn redshirts, but Michigan's offensive line may be the weakest unit on the entire team. This is also why Fitz Toussaint is broken. He won't break 100 yards per game once this season.
  • I'll have to rewatch the game, but the linebacker rotation confused me. Michigan gave a lot of time to James Ross and Joe Bolden. Then again, Ondre Pipkins saw significant snaps again (and was much improved), so it may be that the defensive staff is willing to rolling the dice during the game more frequently in order to get these younger players some meaningful snaps.
  • This was far and away Roy Roundtree's best game as a Wolverine in the last two years, and not just because of his miraculous, game-saving catch. He was getting separation, making shoestring catches, and showed a bit of open-field shiftiness.
  • Michigan's secondary is very not good. I really worry about next week's matchup. Despite the fact that Iowa is terrible, they may have a decent pocket passer. Thomas Gordon has looked a stepped behind whoever he's defending for the last few weeks and JT Floyd didn't do much to alleviate fears that he's still too slow to keep up with Big Ten receivers. 
  • Devin Funchess is tall, and thank god.
Next Week
Michigan takes on Iowa in a game that will be closer than it should be. Were it not for three Purdue turnovers, Iowa would have been summarily beaten. Purdue managed 490 yards, 8.0 YPA through the air, and 4.8 YPC on the ground. In contrast, Iowa had only 264 total yards, 5.3 YPA, and 2.4 YPC, and yet they only lost by 3 points. Michigan should win, but this game will expose the Wolverine secondary in a way that we haven't seen this season.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Preview: Northwestern 2012

#24 Northwestern vs. Michigan
The Big House, Ann Arbor, MI
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: High-50s, 30% chance of rain 

Last game
Last week, Northwestern was on a bye, but the week before that, they played a not-very-close game against Iowa. The Wildcats averaged 7.1 YPC against Iowa and would have beaten them worse had Northwestern not turned the ball over twice. The big change came with the reinstatement of Kain Colter as the starting quarterback for Northwestern. Coulter had been the proverbial change of pace QB for the Wildcats all season, coming in when the team wanted a stronger rushing attack. Nominal starter Trevor Siemian was an inadequate pocket passer: 58.9% completion percentage, 5.71 YPA, 4 TDs, and 1 INT for the season. A change was clearly in order.

Against Iowa, Colter went 6/9 through the air for 80 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT, but he also presented a consistent option rushing attack throughout the game. Colter averaged 6.4 YPC on 26 carries, while starting running back Venric Mark averaged 10.1 YPC on 16 (!!!) carries. Iowa might be bad, but this Northwestern offese is probably scary.

Offense vs. Northwestern

Wondering who is going to start at quarterback is a waste of time because Michigan's offense is effectively the same regardless of who is under center. But to clarify: if Denard is healthy, he will be the starter. A more important question is how can Michigan fix the interior of its offensive line, which spent last week getting beaten off the line and put on skates against Minnesota. This is a problem.

The good news for Michigan is that Northwestern's defensive line is not particularly dynamic. The two defensive tackles are relatively svelte: Brian Arnfelt is 6'5", 300 lbs, and Sean McEvilly is 6'5", 290 lbs. In addition, both defensive ends are 6'4" and no heavier than 265 lbs. Arnfelt and McEvilly combine for 7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks, but only 40 combined total tackles. Defensive end Tyler Scott has managed 7 sacks and 8.5 TFL this season, but he will have the unenviable task of beating Taylor Lewan off the edge.

Where Northwestern makes it hay defensively is in the linebacker corps, where all three starting linebackers are in the top-four leading tacklers on the team. Those linebackers account for 16.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 228 (!!!!!!!) total tackles. Thems a lot of tackles. Oh yeah, and they also have two interceptions, 11 PBUs, and four recovered fumbles. Northwestern may have the best linebacker group in the conference. To show just how important this linebacking group is to Northwestern, aside from strong safety Ibraheim Campbell who has 67 total tackles, the next highest on the team is free safety Jared Carpenter with 37 tackles.

Despite those front-line inefficiencies, Northwestern's defense still stacks up statistically. (As a side note, as is the same with Michigan's lofty rankings, the conference-wide top-50 defense rankings are basically invalid given the Big Ten's ineptitude. That said...) Northwestern is 48th in pass efficiency defense, 23rd in rushing defense, and 35th in scoring defense. They're average in sacks (52nd) and below average at getting into the backfield (82nd). Regardless of these national rankings, though, this is the same team that allowed 41 points to Syracuse, 39 to Penn State, and 29 to Nebraska. This is a good-not-great defense.

The biggest concern for Michigan on this side of the ball is that this game pits weakness against weakness. If Michigan had its offensive line from last year, they would be able to bulldoze an undersized Wildcat defensive line and get to the second level. With the performance of Michigan's interior line this season, that's unlikely, which means Borges will have to rely on either Denard or Gardner to pass against the team's strongest unit.

Defense vs. Northwestern

Against Iowa, Northwestern finally figured out that Kain Coulter was their best player, so he'll be playing quarterback for most/all of the game on Saturday. Coulter isn't much of a passer, but the kid has speed to burn. For the season, Coulter is completing 69.7% of his passes, but for only 5.8 YPA. This is a dink and dunk offense through the air, but a dangerous offense on the ground (they own the 13th ranked rushing offense in the country).

Starting junior running back Venric Mark is averaging 6.5 YPC this season on 166 carries. To complement that attack, Coulter is averaging 5.5 YPC on 114 carries. This may be one of Northwestern's more impressive offenses in recent history. The offensive line features three seniors and two sophomores and will be difficult for Michigan's defensive line to handle.

Through the air, there's not much to be scared of. Despite the fact that they have highly touted recruit Kyle Prater (once a Michigan target), none of the Wildcat wide receivers are very dangerous. Then again, they don't had a quarterback to attack defenses vertically; starting wide receiver Tony Jones averages on 29 yards per game. Regardless of their talent level, this is the kind of passing attack that Michigan's secondary can thrive against. JT Floyd has made a living jumping short routes and Raymon Taylor has proven a sure tackler who is occasionally susceptible to pass interference.

This game will be settled by Michigan's front seven. Playing Nebraska recently will help in the preparation for this Wildcat outfit. They run similar run-first option schemes, but Northwestern has a star at running back where Nebraska was lacking one. Frank Clark made his return last week against Minnesota and promptly showed that he's still undisciplined when maintaining the edge. His ability to fight his instincts will be important. Otherwise, it falls on the shoulders of the usual suspects: Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Jordan Kovacs.

The point is, Northwestern's offense is one dimensional, but that dimension can be really dangerous if a defense gets caught out of position. Floyd and Taylor have been improving at getting off blocks on the edge and Ryan has shown he's one of the best linebackers in the league (and more importantly, in space).

How does Michigan win? Shut down Northwestern's rushing offense. That's easier said than done, but given their performance against Nebraska two weeks ago in the face of 2008 Michigan Offense, I'm confident that Michigan can hold down this defense for the majority of the game. The Wildcats thrive on big plays, which is something Michigan's defense has been great at shutting down. On the other side of the ball, Michigan needs to find a way to move the ball consistently. The Northwestern linebackers are the real deal, so getting consistent yardage on 1st and 2nd down will be key to sustain drives and give the offense a chance to put points on the board.

How does Northwestern win? Neutralizing Michigan's defensive line will be the first step to a Wildcat win. No non-Alabama opponent has been able to do that, but Northwestern has the offensive line that might be able to. The Wildcat offense will also have to exploit some of the youth in Michigan's front seven. Frank Clark is particularly susceptible to misdirection and Desmond Morgan may struggle with the speed of Coulter and Mark. Defensively, the Wildcats need to win the line of scrimmage and get into the backfield quickly. Teams that shut down Michigan's offense always have a way of disrupting their rhythm and forcing third and long.

Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 57.16%

Final prediction: Northwestern will struggle to move the ball in this game. Penn State has the only defense on the Wildcat schedule to date that's any good, and Michigan's defense is almost certainly better than the Nittany Lions'. Northwestern averages 237 rushing yards per game, but Michigan will hold them under 200 and somewhere closer to 4 YPC than 5 YPC. When Michigan has the ball, however, the Northwestern linebackers prove to be as disruptive as they have been all season. Michigan once again loses the battle at the line of scrimmage and Fitz Toussaint fails to break 50 yards rushing. Denard plays but not particularly well; feeling pressure from the media and Gardner's performance last week, Denard throws two bad interceptions in this game but also manages to break a long run. It's a low-scoring game that Michigan wins in a nail biter. Northwestern 17 - Michigan 20

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Frank Clark defending the bubble screen

The implicit difference in philosophy between Al Borges and Greg Mattison has been something I've watched all season, primarily regarding the bubble screen. Though Borges is reticent to throw it, if you watch the alignment of the defense, Mattison almost always accounts for it by aligning the defense with numbers to the outside. There was one play late against Minnesota, however, that showed a new formation that Mattison used to defend the bubble screen.

Michigan has already pulled away late in the fourth quarter, but the starting defensive lineup is still playing. Michigan is in its nickel package, and Minnesota comes out in a four-wide set. As you can see at the top of the screen, the Gophers have three receivers against Michigan's 2.5 defenders (the third is 15 yards from the line of scrimmage). Any offensive coordinator who sees this (and most Michigan fans) would immediately check to a bubble screen. Eight free yards, right?

But when the ball is snapped, rather than rush upfield, Frank Clark immediately looks out to the slot receiver to check if he bows out for the bubble screen.

Before the quarterback can release the ball, Clark is already running toward the slot receiver.

The ball is still int he air and Clark is only 5 yards from the receiver with a full head of steam.

When the receiver finally catches the ball, Clark is in his face. Michigan corners are keeping outside leverage and forcing the ball carrier back inside toward Clark.

Not only does Clark make the TFL, but he also strips the ball carrier in the process, allowing Courtney Avery (currently engaged with MarQueis Gray at the top of the screen) to recover the fumble, which you'll see in the video below.


The Takeaway
The obvious question is whether or not this was a designed playcall or just a great play by Clark. The evidence points toward this being something Mattison drew up to entice an offense to throw the bubble screen. First, you can see how immediately Clark looks out to the flat. It may be a check for Clark on this play: if the slot receiver runs vertically, rush the quarterback; otherwise, attack the receiver catching the bubble screen. The other piece of evidence indicating this was a designed playcall is the blitz by Jake Ryan on the weakside of the field and the slant of the defensive tackles. Michigan is still able to rush four in this scenario and are effectively rotating where the rush is coming from. When Clark runs out to the flat, the D-line slants in that direction and Ryan fills the backside with a blitz. The forced fumble and recovery are just gravy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Michigan's offensive line is really bad

Remember this:

Well this happened against Minnesota:

Minnesota is terrible. So is Michigan's offensive line.