Monday, September 16, 2013

Status check

Melanie Maxwell |

So year two of graduate school is dramatically more taxing than year one. I had a few posts from the Notre Dame game that I intended on posting this week, but following Saturday's debacle and some complications in my personal life, the status of this here blog is in question. Don't expect much content around these parts this week; rewatching the Akron game strikes me as gratuitous masochism (my apologies to Brian at MGoBlog for being expected to write UFRs on this game).

In the coming weeks, I'd like to get my schedule a little more hammered out and begin writing here again. Updates are forthcoming.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Preview: Notre Dame 2013

#14 Notre Dame vs. #17 Michigan
Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Kickoff 8:00 pm EST
Forecast: Low-70s, 30% chance of rain 

Last Week
Temple 6 - #14 Notre Dame 28. Notre Dame welcomed the Temple Wet Owls to South Bend last week and won in marginally convincing fashion. Temple left 7 points on the field, missing two field goals and having an extra point blocked. Meanwhile, the Irish put up 14 points in the first five minutes of the game, and were only able to punch it in twice for the rest of the game. Worse still, those first two touchdown drives relied on huge plays (45, 32, 51, 32), of which the team only managed one more (a 66-yard pass for the team's third touchdown). Notre Dame's inability to put together sustained drives could have been anticipated after the loss of starting QB Everett Golson, but against a team like Temple, the offense should still be able to move the ball.

The vaunted Irish defensive line failed to impress as they were expected to; the Owls managed 4.5 YPC on 29 rushes. ND did keep junior QB Connor Reilly to a 50% completion rate and only 5.0 YPA. Then again, this marked Reilly's first game action, so a rough outing was expected.

Offense vs. Notre Dame
John T. Greilick | Detroit News
No matchup will be more important than how Michigan's offensive line manages Notre Dame's defensive front. The names to know are Louis Nix III (aka Irish Chocolate, apparently) and Stephon Tuitt. Nix anchors the defense, acting as a black hole in the middle of the defensive line. At 350+ pounds, Nix presents problems for the inexperienced interior of the offensive line. MGoBlog postures that Michigan introduced the zone stretch into the offense in order to attack Notre Dame's defensive ends rather than trying to push Nix off the line.

Flanking Nix at defensive end will be Tuitt, a havoc-sower for all teams that don't feature Taylor Lewan. Tuitt finished 2012 with a team-leading 12 sacks, and still stands at over 300 pounds, making him difficult to attack in the run game (unlike, say, Frank Clark). Michigan remains uniquely prepared to handle Tuitt with two senior offensive tackles, including the best left tackle in the country. The third lineman in Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense is sophomore Sheldon Day, a nondescript defensive end who should be a non-factor in this game.

Notre Dame's only other defender of note is senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo, who finished the 2012 season with 7.5 sacks, 21 solo tackles, and 27 assists. Shembo is pitch perfect for Diaco's aggressive, blitzing defense, and will challenge Michigan's running backs to block him on blitzes (of which, Fitz Toussaint did poorly in week one).

Concerns about moving the ball against Notre Dame have been tempered following a subpar performance against Temple. But as we've become all too aware, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio can look awful all season and still drag Michigan through the mud. Non-Gardner runs will be touch and go throughout the game. Nix and Tuitt are going to beat Michigan's offensive line a few times. Dispersing those negative plays across multiple drives and recovering quickly from them will be important if Michigan will produce multiple, sustained drives.

Because Notre Dame's defense relies heavily on blitzes, Gardner's scrambling could pay dividends. His ability to get out of the pocket may slow the Irish front seven, allowing Michigan to run from their base offense more easily.

In the secondary, Notre Dame is unexceptional. If nothing else, the Irish defensive backs have experience, boasting two seniors, a junior, and a sophomore. Most of the turnovers that the secondary produces are a function of Notre Dame's front seven getting pressure. Once again, blitz pickups from Michigan's backs will allow Garnder the space and time to find receivers downfield. As we've already seen this year, getting traffic in Gardner's face can end in turnovers.

The man behind the curtain, as always, is Al Borges. Michigan's offense against Central Michigan was vanilla. During fall camp, we saw plenty of footage of Michigan running the inverted veer and other spread concepts which were largely absent in the opener. I fully expect Michigan's offense to have a little more pizzaz against Notre Dame. What that entails, I'm not sure, but a few more zone reads are likely, as are play action off of those.

Defense vs. Notre Dame

Good news everyone! Tommy Rees is back. In spite of his perpetual derpitude, Rees set his career record for passing yardage against Temple and has been serviceable+ against Michigan in his career. But on the quarterback fear index, Rees ranks just above a half-slurped Go-Gurt. With Everett Golson getting booted from the team, this season was always going to be a reclamation project on offense. But it might be worse than originally thought, in spite of a solid performance against Temple. Rees' long passes last week came on a wide-open post route with no safety help, a bubble screen, a wide-open corner route with no safety help, and a wide-open seam route to a rumbling tight end. He has not developed into junior Chad Henne. This is just Tommy Rees.

Golson wasn't the only loss from last year's offense. Cierre Wood graduated and junior Theo Riddick entered the draft early, stripping Notre Dame of their top two rushers from a season ago. In week one, Notre Dame's running backs were not great. Nominal starter, junior George Atkinson, squeaked out only 34 yards on 8 carries--one of which was a 14-yarder. Junior Amir Carlisle had the highest YPC (68 yards on 8 carries; 9.7 YPC) but that number is bolstered by his 45-yarder that was handed to him after Temple's linebackers blitzed with no regard for running lanes.

On the outsides, Notre Dame's wide receivers do not intimidate. Gone are the Michael Floyds and Golden Tates of recent years. TJ Jones returns for his senior year after averaging 13 yards per catch last year. Against Temple, Jones had six receptions for 138 yards. He is your prototypical slot receiver and will be the recipient of many screen passes. He has good speed and will need to be tackled in the open field often; how Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon handle Jones could go a long way to determining how this game goes. But other than Jones, the Irish receivers do not intimidate.

Michigan's ability to get pressure on passing downs with only four men against Central showed promise for this matchup. Notre Dame is going to spread the field on almost all downs, so to avoid big plays, Michigan will need safety valves for when man coverage invariable goes wrong. If Michigan's front four can generate a pass rush, that will help alleviate a lot of the stress on Michigan's safeties.

How does Michigan win? Notre Dame's defense didn't overwhelm Temple, which bodes well for Michigan's chances. Michigan's offensive line looks improved from week one and the team averages 5.5 YPC. Notre Dame's blitzes are occasionally effective, but more often than not, Gardner is able to scramble out of danger and either pass or throw for significant yardage. Defensively, Michigan's front four completely dominates the Notre Dame offensive line and the Irish can never get their running game started. One or two big passing plays from Tommy Rees are all that keep Notre Dame alive, but Michigan dominates the game throughout.

How does Notre Dame win? Nix and Tuitt look more like they did last year than in week one. Michigan's young offensive line struggles to block Notre Dame's pressure and the team averages only 3.8 YPC. The Irish blitzes also disrupt Garder who makes bad decisions and bad throws, tossing multiple interceptions. When Notre Dame has the ball, Michigan's young secondary struggles to contain Brian Kelly's spread attack and Tommy Rees avoids mistakes while throwing three touchdowns. Michigan's front four can't generate a pass rush and has to dedicate linebackers and safeties to the pass rush, opening things up on the back end.

Arbitrary chances that Michigan wins? 78.492%

Final Prediction. Week one matchups are only a single data point, but they can be illuminating. For example, we know that Michigan State's offense is going to be unwatchable this season. Michigan and Notre Dame's respective games leave very little doubt about which team is better right now. Notre Dame's offense struggled against a lowly Temple squad in ways that didn't look to be week one jitters. With an offense that appears to be boom or bust, the Irish are going to struggle to score against a Michigan team that has been stout against the big play for two years now. Rees will complete a 3rd and 18-ish that will infuriate Michigan fans, but Notre Dame's big plays work only toward self preservation. Tuitt winds up being a non-factor in the game, but Nix cuts a number of Michigan drives short by setting up third and long situations. Michigan's run game as a whole doesn't look devastating, but Gardner shakes off the game one interceptions and accounts for 350 yards. Notre Dame 17 - Michigan 27

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wide nine defensive front

At this point, even the most casual observer can see when Frank Clark goes tearing around the edge with no consideration of passing lanes. But while rewatching the CMU game, I noticed a play in which Mario Ojemudia and Brennen Beyer did the same, only in this instance, Greg Mattison called for the reckless rush from his defensive ends.

With CMU facing a third and ten in the second quarter, Mattison called for a formation that was all the buzz in the NFL two years ago: the wide nine. The formation is named because of the alignment of the defensive ends, who are playing "nine tech", or aligned outside of the tight ends. Even if there aren't tight ends (like on this play), the DEs still play at the nine tech. This is a pure pass-rushing formation.

Prior to the snap, the inside receiver from CMU's bunch formation motions into the backfield. Ojemudia and Beyer remain at the nine tech, but Beyer actually slides a few steps inside. My guess is that he lined up outside of the motion man in the original formation and moved after the offensive shift.

At the snap, Ojemudia rockets off the line and sheds the right tackle (highlighted; bottom). Beyer engages with the left tackle (highlighted; top) but will quickly shed him to get into the backfield. Neither player is considering their run fill responsibilities, opening huge holes between the offensive tackles and guards.

CMU is running a strongside lead iso, and because of the defensive front, Michigan has completely vacated the strongside B gap. You can see Ojemudia and Beyer now both closing in on the backfield, but neither has the momentum to get to the running back. Meanwhile, CMU's lead blocker has attempted to block one of Michigan's DTs who was already falling to the ground.

Central's fullback (#49) is now falling behind the ball carrier (#6). Without the lead blocker, CMU's running back is staring down Joe Bolden.

Bolden freezes and allows Central's running back to bounce outside.

Michigan has reinforcements rallying to the ball, including Ojemudia who you can see chasing the play. As a side note, how nice is it to see seven Michigan defenders in this screen?

The play ends here-ish.


Mattison can somewhat safely call for the wide nine in this scenario. With a chance to get Central off of the field, giving up 5-8 yards on a scramble or, as is the case here, designed run, won't hurt Michigan. But don't expect to see this strategy employed against Braxton Miller or Kain Colter. This play is designed to have the defensive ends disregard their run responsibilities in favor of getting into the backfield. The five-wide underneath zone defenders act as the safety valve if the offense checks into a play that will attack the relentless pass rush. However, had the CMU fullback blocked Bolden, Delonte Hollowell would have been forced to come downhill and make a tackle in the middle of the field, so this is still a risky proposition.

This play forces me to reconsider at least some of Frank Clark's irresponsible pass rush. Mattison values getting to the quarterback with only four pass rushers enough to install the wide nine. But Clark's history does not reveal many of these situations. Chances are good that Clark takes this aspect of the defense as a green light to so consistently ignore his run fits.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How Blake Countess saved a certain touchdown

Central Michigan didn't have many opportunities to put points on the board, but one innovative playcall nearly cost Michigan seven points until Blake Countess read what was developing and made a leaping PBU. No caveats about competition apply here. Countess' field vision and instincts are on full display here and hint at a special year to come.

It's early in the first quarter, and Michigan shows its base 4-3 under formation. The pre-snap alignment shows that Michigan will play single-high safety, man coverage. Josh Furman (lined up on the hash at at the first down line) will cover Central's slot receiver, and Countess is split out wide on CMU's outside receiver.

At the snap, Michigan's middle and weakside linebackers blitz. Central Michigan shows a zone read, leaving the weakside defensive end (Keith Heitzman) unblocked.

Heitzman crashes on the handoff, but doesn't overcommit, about which more next. Furman and Countess begin to head downfield as the CMU slot receiver bows out for a flare screen. This is a triple option look that Michigan deployed often with Rich Rodriguez. Often, after a mesh point in the backfield, Denard had the option to sling the ball outside to his slot receiver. However, the Chippewas tweak the receiver route slightly.

Heitzman realizes that CMU quarterback Alex Niznak pulled the ball on the read. He plants his foot and gives chase to string out the QB run. The ability to string out this play while also forcing the QB pull is not easy to do. This is a promising reaction from a player not expected to make a huge impact this season.

At this point, Furman dismisses his coverage assignment (highlighted). Cam Gordon is scraping over the top of the play to attack the QB run, and even Countess is crashing from the corner to defend the run.

What Furman doesn't realize is that CMU's slot receiver has turned the flare screen into a wheel route and is running upfield undefended (legs highlighted). Countess, being picked by the outside receiver, recognizes that Niznak is pulling up to throw.

As Niznak releases the ball, Countess has actually broken on the pass, recognizing the open defender. On first look, I thought Niznak threw a duck, but if you watch closely, you can see Countess actually tip the ball.

The ball falls harmlessly to the turf. Huzzah.


First, it should be noted that two of CMU's linemen were five yards downfield before the pass was thrown. If it was completed, a flag should have been thrown for illegal man downfield. But the real takeaway is Countess' play recognition and reaction. Not only did he realize that there was a triple option in play here, but he recovered for Furman who had blown his coverage. I was disappointed with the secondary in zone coverage, but don't remember Countess being the culprit on (m)any of those plays.

I've been high on Countess since he came to Michigan, and his junior season debut held nothing but upside. With unproven safeties, having elite cornerbacks will be crucial to relieving pressure and diminishing big plays. Next week, Countess will see more action, which will give us a better indication with how he'll fare this season. But this was a promising start.

Monday, September 2, 2013

No Surprises

Central Michigan 9 - Michigan 59
Courtney Sacco |

Michigan had an uneventful offseason, at least with regards to recent history. There were no questions about the starting quarterback, no concerns over walk-ons, and the incoming recruiting class was viewed as depth chart fodder rather than necessary reinforcements. Such is the arrival of Brady Hoke. So Michigan trounces Central Michigan in the season opener without any notable injuries or hiccups, and we all shrug. Well, most people shrug and I get panicky about the offensive line.

The box score says domination: 242 rushing yards on 47 carries (5.1 YPC), 221 passing yards on 21 attempts (10.5 YPA), 10 of 15 on third down conversions, and CMU averaged only 3.7 yards per play. But, like Holly Anderson's piece on Jadaveon Clowney's uninspiring 2013 debut says, "You already know that Week 1 college football games aren't all that useful in the discerning sports fan's quest to consume actual, compelling football … It's fun to be able to take one data point and draw a line to anywhere."

Per usual, my data points tends toward fear. My confidence in Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke, and the defensive unit could not be higher. Two seasons of transforming the scraps Rich Rodriguez left on the defensive side of the ball belies any doubt in this coaching staff defensively. Saturday served as confirmation of this belief: short the team's most impactful starter (Jake Ryan), the defense smothered CMU on short fields surrendered because of turnovers and never allowed a drive to exceed 59 yards (that one ending in a 33-yard field goal).

The concern comes from the other side of the ball, in spite of the team posting 59 points on 12 possessions; one punt and three interceptions were the only drives that Michigan came up empty. The game started inauspiciously as Devin Gardner threw a Denardian interception: he determined where to throw the ball before the play had started. His second giveaway was similar: he saw single coverage on the outside with Jeremy Gallon and decided to throw it regardless that Gallon was blanketed. While on the subject, that Gallon couldn't get on top of a CMU cornerback on a fly route does not bode well for his presence as the team's primary deep threat.

Those turnovers were disappointing but not the primary cause for concern: the offensive line's continued inability to get push on under-center runs. Michigan's running game remains either inconsistent or ineffectual. After one game with a new crop of interior lineman, speculating either with certainty is fruitless, but following last year's debacle, optimism (at least around these parts; shock!) is slim. There are caveats for the stumbling running game. Some of it appears schematic: Michigan ran into an overloaded defense several times when Gardner should have checked into a weakside run at the line of scrimmage. That could change as the season progresses. But other issues, such as Gallon's inability to get over the top of CMU's defense, allowing the opposing safeties to creep into the box, may be longer lasting. Or, this could have been the first game-time action from a new crop of interior line starters that just hasn't gelled together yet. But where's the fun in that? Largely irrelevant data point --> Doom.

There were clear positives--pass blocking, Derrick Green, the return of Toussaint, CMU's 2.3 YPA rushing on 29 carries, and Devin Funchess to name a few--but those were expected (perhaps known) before the season. The real insights from this game come from the mistakes, which I'm confident did not escape Hoke, Borges, and Mattison, and should be rectified, or at least patched up, in short order.

  • My friend and I had a bet on what pass Shane Morris would throw his first interception. He said the third pass, I said the fifth. I won. A relatively uneventful debut from Morris, but it's obvious both where his upside stands and what his current flaws are.
  • Toussaint turned in a decent game but was still not the dominating back that we saw in 2011. He had few holes to work with, but made the most of what he was given. If the interior line can't get itself together, Toussaint's season will look more like 2012 than 2011. Also of note, his pass blocking was atrocious in this game.
  • Michigan's defense acquitted itself well as a whole, but the zone passing defense proved problematic (perhaps expected because both starting safeties were out). CMU's greatest offensive success came by throwing intermediate routes that the underneath defenders didn't sink on and the safeties weren't reading quickly enough. Northwestern looms large.
  • Frank Clark. Man. Lane integrity. Please. Otherwise, keep being fast.
  • Jibreel Black was a non-factor in the running game and made a few penetrating moves in the pass game. I don't know how his skillset will matchup against teams with heftier front lines, but for now, concerns about his size as the starting 3-tech are squashed.
  • It may be prudent for Michigan not to put a punt returner on the field. Just rush 11 guys at the punter and don't worry about getting any return yards. The returner isn't getting anything meaningful on rugby punts anyway and the team avoids Dennis Norfleet fumbling the ball on the 10 yard line.
  • I believe (perhaps hope) that Borges kept most of his tricks in the bag in week one. With Notre Dame coming to town next week, having a whole package of plays they haven't seen yet could pay dividends.

Next Week
Michigan gets Notre Dame under the lights. You know what happened last year, but against Temple, the Irish did not overwhelm. Temple > CMU, but Michigan's Week 1 > ND's Week 1. With Tommy Rees back under center for the Irish, and the loss of Notre Dame's top-two rushers from last year, Michigan's defense should smother Notre Dame, enabling the offense to slog through the game picking up points when they can.