This article was originally published in Hail to the Victors 2007. The 2008 edition contains a followup piece contrasting the Michigan stretch with the West Virginia zone read.
It's guaranteed to get a passing mention in every Michigan preview out there... but what is it, exactly?
EVERYTHING WENT WRONG in 2005, the Year of Infinite Pain. Beset by injury, poor play at critical positions, and ill fortune, Michigan stumbled to a 7-5 record in their worst season since Jim Harbaugh's broken leg sent the 1984 Wolverines into a 6-6 tailspin. In the aftermath, changes were instituted everywhere. Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann was replaced by Ron English. Offensive coordinator Terry Malone left for the Saints. Steve Szabo was brought in as Michigan's linebackers coach. Ron Lee became the cornerbacks coach. However, the biggest change came not in the names coaching but in Michigan's philosophy on the offensive side of the ball. New/old offensive coordinator Mike Debord, the Grover Cleveland of Michigan athletics, had a departure in mind.
When practice reports started diffusing out of Michigan's spring sessions, it became clear just how drastic the departure was going to be. Michigan's linemen were all asked to drop 20 to 30 pounds. [And that worked so very well. -ed] Famed Broncos offensive line coach emeritus Alex Gibbs was brought in to consult. The isolation plays that had been a staple of the Michigan offense since time immemorial were shelved. Linemen started moving in unison like extremely large, unattractive ballet dancers. Guards would no longer pull. Holes would no longer be designated before the play. And a newly healthy Mike Hart would be tasked with finding a crease, any crease, instead of attacking a designated hole. The zone had come to Michigan.
But just what is this zone thing? It appears to describe any and every successful running attack out there, from the Denver Broncos to the Atlanta Falcons to the Minnesota Golden Gophers to, yes, Michigan, but the surging popularity of the term threatens to wash away its meaning much like what happened to the "West Coast Offense," a term now applied to any unit less cro-magnon than Marty Schottenheimer's. How can Michigan, which didn't pull a lineman the entirety of 2006, and Minnesota, famous for pulling centers, guards, and even the occasional tackle, run the same offense? And what kind of meaning could it have if they do?
Take a simple dive play where the running back is supposed to run it right up the gut. A traditional blocking scheme could go one of two ways: block everyone man up or have the center block down on the defensive tackle while the guard pulls around to block the middle linebacker. But there are problems with this. Usually a defensive tackle is lined over a gap, which makes him a difficult block for the guard man up. (We'll see an example of this issue in a few pages.) When the down block is attempted defensive tackles are smart and quick enough to crash into the backfield at high levels of play. Often a defensive tackle will stunt or pinch into the designated hole, fouling the running play by forcing a tailback to run up his lineman's back even if the defensive tackle doesn't make the tackle himself.
A zone block allows (or forces, depending on your point of view) the offensive linemen to react to the defense after the snap. In traditional schemes, a slanting or stunting defensive tackle is either going to run himself into the play or out of it and you just have to hope it's the latter. This would be analogous to running a combination route designed to defeat zone coverage even when the opponent is clearly in man. You're putting yourself at the mercy of the opponent's decisions. Zone blocking removes this problem by getting double-teams on critical members of the defensive line, then releasing those blocks in a certain fashion that depends on what the defense does. The end result is a flexible, resilient set of interior blocks.
Usually, it's a defensive tackle on the receiving end of a zone block. The offensive linemen go through this process:
Engage. Both linemen take a step to the side the play is going and meet the defender. At this point the most important thing to do is get close enough to your blocking partner to remove any possibility the defender will split the double. If this happens, there is a high probability the play is going for no gain or a loss. Then the linemen must drive the defender backwards, or at the very least prevent him from getting penetration.
Seal. The two offensive linemen now read the motion of the defender and determine what they're going to do. Since the two linemen have cut off the area between them, the defensive tackle has to attempt to go one way or the other around the block. This is usually set before the play. He'll be slanting inside or trying to maintain the point of attack. It should be fairly obvious which direction he's going; once it is, one blocker will become the primary. It's the secondary blocker's responsibility to shove the defender into a manageable position for the primary.
Peel. At this point the defender should be moving away from the line of scrimmage and walled off by the primary blocker. The secondary blocker disengages from the lineman and moves to the second level, where he blocks anyone he comes in contact with.
Ideally, this system gets you the benefits of a double on the defensive tackle without sacrificing the ability to get second-level defenders blocked.
Zone blocking is a fairly basic concept any team can employ on a variety of different running plays. Zone running is something this article would like to distinguish from it. Zone blocking is often trumpeted as a team moving towards a Denver Broncos style of running that will relentlessly churn out yards no matter the back. Then when the season rolls around nothing seems different.
Michigan made a much more drastic change by making one particular play the bulk of its run offense. Zone running comes in two flavors, inside and outside. The "outside zone" is often referred to as a "zone stretch" or just a "stretch" play. The sizable majority of Michigan's running plays last year were zone stretch plays of some description. This is a vast change, akin to calling pitch sweeps or draws on 80 percent of your running plays.
What is the zone stretch? A run play that's uncommonly tough to predict, one generally resilient against stunts, slants, and shifts. It can deal with extra players in the box by without having to actually block them. It radically improved Michigan's run game in one offseason. But, yes, there is a catch.
We'll take a look at three different zone plays in the next few pages, focusing on a failed zone block and a successful one before zeroing in on one particular flaw the stretch, even a well-run one, has against defenses prepared to stop it.
The most important thing on the stretch is to get all the "first level" defenders blocked. Normally these are defensive linemen, who can shoot into the backfield and force the running back to waste time before he gets to the line of scrimmage, but a blitzing linebacker makes himself a first level defender. And sometimes defensive linemen aren't considered first level, usually backside defensive ends who are suffered to run free so that the tackle lined up over him can instead block a second level defender. Our first play features a first level defender suffered to run amok.
It's Michigan's opening drive of the Notre Dame game. Michigan already leads 7-0 after Prescott Burgess's interception return touchdown. On first down, the Wolverines run a zone stretch to the left side of the line for four yards. Facing second and six, they line up in a three-wide ace set (for those who haven't wasted significant swaths of their lives playing EA NCAA Football, an ace set features one tailback lined up behind a quarterback under center as opposed to an I-formation, which has a fullback lined up in front of the tailback). They're going to run another zone left. Notre Dame sticks with seven guys in the box. Please see Figure 1 for the presnap alignment.
On a zone stretch the line moves in unison to one side or the other, blocking whoever they find in their area. But a rote adherence to this concept can leave first-level defenders unblocked. On this play, defensive tackle Derek Landri is shaded to the playside, lined up over the gap between the center and the guard. Asking a center to snap the ball and then get his helmet across a player who is already a step ahead of him is asking for a defensive tackle in the backfield. With the defensive end and outside linebacker shaded to the outside themselves, left guard Adam Kraus has no one in his zone. He could help out on Landri, but he doesn't, instead stepping left into his vacant zone and immediately going out to the second level to block the middle linebacker. Figure 2 shows the actions of all participants immediately after the snap.
Bihl's left alone to block Landri; this works about as well as you might expect. Landri shoots into the backfield, right into the path of Hart. Hart being Hart, he dodges the charging lineman, but the play's timing has been disrupted. The unblocked Abiamiri wraps Hart up for no gain. Figure 3 shows the play's result. It's not a good one. Michigan is stopped for no gain.
The frustrating part of this play for an offensive coordinator is that it was blocked wonderfully aside from the slip up on Landri. By the time Hart was being tackled, Trevor Laws, Notre Dame's other tackle, had been driven five yards downfield by the Riley-Mitchell double team. Riley then completed his zone block by peeling off and hit the outside linebacker. Kraus took out the middle linebacker... if he had just managed to get Landri sealed before he did so Hart would have had a major crease, as you can see in Figure 3.
On the ensuing third and medium, Chinedum Ndkuwe intercepts Henne and returns the ball inside the five, giving Notre Dame their one brief moment of hope in the midst of a wholesale beatdown.
Our next play shows the power of a successfully executed zone block. Later in the first quarter, Michigan leads 13-7 and has a first and ten from the Notre Dame 27. Mario Manningham has just found himself "oh, wide open" for a 70 yard touchdown; Obi Oluigbo forces a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Michigan looks to take control of the game.
On first down, Chad Henne dumps it down to Oluigbo for nine yards. On second and one from the eighteen, Michigan lines up in an ace set with two tight ends lined up to the short side of the field. Notre Dame responds by shifting their linebackers to the strong side and moving Zbikowski up to the edge of the box. They should have a numerical advantage here on this short yardage play. Michigan will zone stretch to the strong side of the formation. The alignment is nearly a mirror image of the first play: the Notre Dame defensive tackle (this time Trevor Laws, who is a plugger but not the sort to knife into the backfield like Landri) is shaded to the strong side of Bihl. Landri is on the backside, lined up directly over Adam Kraus. This time, Kraus will cut Landri while Bihl and Mitchell execute a zone block on Laws. Long will angle upfield. The backside defensive end is again left unmolested. Figure 4 shows the presnap alignment and initial actions of all players.
Let's take a moment to focus in on that zone block against Laws. Figure 5 has a breakdown of the process. Both players engage the defender, who is stepping right along with the offensive linemen in anticipation of the stretch. Since Laws is flowing down the line of scrimmage the decision is made to pass him off to Mitchell. Bihl shoves his man into place, pops out on the middle linebacker, and creates a seam for Hart.
This is a textbook zone block. If Laws had pinched inside it would have been Mitchell shoving him so that Bihl could get a seal on him and releasing into the middle linebacker. Hart has to read this block and pick the appropriate side of the DT. He does this, cutting back to the left behind Bihl. Long gets his second level block on Travis Thomas, Kraus chops Landri's legs out from under him, and the red sea parts. Figure 6 shows the successful execution of the play.
Weakside defensive end Ronald Talley futilely waves an arm at the passing Hart. The linebackers are washed out. By the time Hart meets opposition it comes in the form of an arm-tackling cornerback and safety Zbikowski running away from the line of scrimmage. They manage to take him down after ten yards and a Michigan first down. Hart would score a few plays later to give Michigan a 20-7 lead.
Hopefully these two examples help clarify the requirements for effective zone blocking:
Intelligent linemen. On the first play a mental mistake from Kraus put Bihl in an untenable position. Each lineman must understand his responsibilities as they shift based on the pre- and post-snap alignment of the defense. The zone block that opened up Hart's lane on the second play is something the two linemen working on the defensive tackle must coordinate as the play develops.
Agile linemen. The blocking on a zone stretch play usually consists of escorting linemen where they want to go and relying on a double or a mistake to open up a seam. Overpowering your man one-on-one and driving him into the ground hardly ever happens. How could it? Instead of firing off the ball, linemen start running nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage. Sometimes you'll see a defensive tackle end up way downfield, like on the first play, but he's usually being doubled. The zone isn't about power. It's about getting to the right area on the field as quickly as possible and walling off the defense. You have to get to a spot and and hold your block; if you're peeling off a double team you have to get out on a second-level defender who's already reacting to the play.
A running back with vision and cutting ability. Just as the zone-blocking offensive linemen are improvising within limits on the fly, so is the running back. Without a designated hole, the tailback must read the blocks as the play develops and ruthlessly attack when any seam opens up. Hart's the perfect back for this sort of offense. Meanwhile, Kevin Grady has struggled identifying where he should cut and has mostly been deployed on outside pitch plays that require less vision.
You can also see what Mike DeBord means when he says that the zone sometimes allows you to "run away" from an eighth guy in the box. He means it literally: on both these plays the backside defensive end is completely ignored by the tackle he's lined up over. In both cases this allows Michigan to get that tackle out on a linebacker.
By any metric, the zone worked. Michigan ground most of their opponents into dust. Yards per game jumped from 161 to 175 (maybe that doesn't sound like much, but keep in mind that games were approximately 10% shorter last year because of the late, unlamented Rule 3-2-5e). The rush offense's ranking went from #44 to #21. Yards per carry leapt from 4.3 to 4.9. Mike Hart found the first success of his career against Ohio State and was held under 90 yards just once, when the offensive line elected to not participate in the Rose Bowl. The zone was good to Michigan.
But it wasn't all sunshine. One of the lone bright spots during the Year of Infinite Pain was the team's short-yardage third down conversion percentage, which was well above the national average even during Michigan's worst season in 20 years. Michigan was 20 of 23 on third and one, an 87% success rate. The national average was about 69%. Michigan converted 64% of its third downs that were three yards or shorter; an average team would have converted 61%.
Michigan's emphasis on out-executing their opponents instead of out-thinking them has always and will always work best when the odds are heavily stacked in their favor, like on third and short. Michigan's iso-heavy style in 2005 may have been But when you radically revamp your rush offense to feature a slow-developing outside run play and try to run it out of a three wide set on third and short, things don't go so well. Michigan dropped to 11 of 19 on third and one, a 58% conversion rate nearly 30 points lower than their 2005 number. Their overall conversion rate on third and three or less dropped to 51%, well below the 60% a hypothetically average team would have converted (some small differences in average distance between years changed the average conversion rate) .
The bottom dropped out of Michigan's short-yardage conversion rate despite the marked improvement in all other facets of the run game. This happened because Michigan's aforementioned radical conversion, though successful, was too radical. A zone stretch run into a stacked defensive front intent on penetrating into the backfield is asking for the punt team to hit the field.
A DEPRESSING EXAMPLE
Take this play from last year's Ohio State game. It's early in the second quarter and the teams find themselves tied at seven. A second and 13 wide receiver screen to Manningham sets up a third and one from the Michigan 23. Michigan lines up in its usual three-wide ace set. Ohio State responds with something, well, thoroughly weird. Figure 7 shows the presnap alignment of both teams.
This is all haywire from how you usually defend the zone. Normally you will have a linebacker pulled up close to the line of scrimmage, but on the strongside. Here it's the weakside backer. On the strongside, John Kerr is lined up right next to James Laurinaitis, seemingly unprepared to stop anything that gets outside the defensive end. And the placement of the defensive tackles shoulder-to-shoulder with the defensive ends spread out in their usual place outside the offensive tackle is seemingly crazy on third and one. A team could just slam its way to the first down by exploiting the cavernous gap between the defensive end and tackle. What is Ohio State up to?
On the snap it's revealed: blitz blitz blitz. The weakside linebacker tears into the backfield. The curiously-positioned Kerr blitzes right into Alex Mitchell. And the safety loops around to the outside looking to clean up. Figure 8 shows the action at the snap.
There is nowhere for Hart to go. Cut back behind the tackle? Not one but two unblocked players. Shoot between the weakside guard and the center? The reason the weakside DT was rolled up so close to the center was so that he, much like Landri on our first play, has the advantage over a guard poorly positioned to stop him. Attack the outside? The safety is coming to meet you behind the line of scrimmage. So the only thing left to do is what Hart did: follow the nominally designated hole (this is a zone, after all) on the front side and try to cut to one side of Mitchell. This defensive formation and playcall is specifically designed to stop the zone stretch on short yardage.
Moreover, it's specifically designed to bait Chad Henne, who is always given the option to check into another play, into reading the defense and going ahead with the doomed stretch. The cavernous gaps on the line. The linebacker seemingly misaligned on the weakside. All you need is a yard and you can see said yard materialize if Alex Mitchell can just take one or two steps forward. But, as Admiral Ackbar might say, it's a trap! Figure 9 shows the play's demise.
Kerr uses his momentum to stalemate Mitchell at the line of scrimmage. This is a victory for him as it allows him to read where Hart is going and shuck the OL, who he has control of, when the time comes. By this time Vernon Gholston has driven the TE, Massey, far enough back that the corner is not an option. The safety reads this and comes inside. Long disengages from his Gholston double to get a block on him, allowing Gholston and Kerr to converge on Hart in the backfield. Hart being Hart, he spins out of the double tackle attempt, but it's too late once his momentum stops going towards the line of scrimmage. The totally unblocked James Laurinaitis is suffered to flow down the line of scrimmage and tackle Hart for a loss, causing an enraptured Brent Musberger to wax poetic about another remarkable play from the Buckeye middle linebacker when the gruntwork was done by Jim Tressel, Vernon Gholston, and John Kerr. Michigan would punt; Ohio State would strike for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead they would never relinquish; Michigan fans would become further acquainted with Mr. Tequila.
The Michigan run game will probably improve even from its lofty perch of a year ago. Mike Hart, Jake Long, Adam Kraus, and Alex Mitchell return a year better and more experienced. And though Michigan's opponents now have a full season of tape on the new run game and are themselves a year more experienced defending it, conference foes were already acquainted with the style to begin with: since Iowa's been running mostly zone stretches since the days of Fred Russell.
The two new starters on the offensive line have higher ceilings than the men they replace. Mark Bihl was a pleasant surprise in last year but didn't receive any postseason recognition or NFL attention. Though Rueben Riley battled his way to an okay year, he was similarly overlooked. Most of the time he looked like a guard trying really hard to play tackle. On the other hand, projected replacements Justin Boren and Steve Schilling are on stardom tracks. Boren was the first Michigan offensive lineman in recent memory to not redshirt. Schilling is Michigan's highest rated offensive line recruit in a long time and one who spent his days playing right tackle in a veer option that prized his incredible agility. If you wanted to draw up a player designed to be a right tackle in a zone running game, it would be him. After an adjustment period they should both be very, very good.
The only position that is worrisome is tight end. Presumptive starter Mike Massey is still under 240 pounds and has been an indifferent blocker thus far in his career. The two-tight-end sets Michigan deployed frequently a year ago will be difficult to replicate. Massey's only backups are untested position-switchers and freshmen.
Unfortunately, Michigan seems ill-prepared to reverse the ugly short-yardage trend in 2007. As noted, Michigan is paper thin at tight end and may be even thinner at fullback, where a true freshman and a walk-on battle a converted linebacker to replace Oluigbo. Options in short yardage packages are few and far between and, as demonstrated, the stretch is not an effective play when it makes sense for a defense to sell out against it. Ideally, Michigan would identify this weakness and fix it, either by tweaking the zone game or incorporating some good old fashioned smashmouth iso plays when the situation calls for it. Realistically, performance on third and short is likely to be an issue again. The Michigan coaching staff has a tendency to stubbornly bang their heads against the wall well after it becomes evident that what they're trying isn't quite working.
Still, Michigan seems poised to enter the top twenty rush offenses in the country and average better than five yards a carry in only their second year in the new system. Whatever its flaws, the zone has been a gamble that pays.
Not Maize, but crose enough!
West Virginia is currently in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan would not have made the Sweet Sixteen in a seventeen team tournament that featured M versus
- the 0-29 New Jersey Institute of Technology
- the Glendale School for Headless Boys
- Courtney Sims International Toughness Academy
- Five Separate Mounds of Animal Crackers Ranging from Six-Two to Seven-Foot-Even
- Mary Kate Olsen
- Feral Chicken State University
- the Armenian National Team
- Strippers Killed By Kwame Kilpatrick
- Superintelligent Mutated Algae
- Team Oompa-Loompa
- Bill Simmons, his dad, his infant child, "J-Bug," and "House"
- the Knicks
- Avery Queen, Maurice Searight, Josh Moore, Gavin Groninger, and Jerrett Smith, aaaaand
One team is coached by John Beilein. Correction: John Beilein looks at one team with a visage of perfect exasperation and incredulity. It was recruited and assembled by Tommy Amaker. The other team was recruited and assembled by John Beilein. It is coached by Bob Huggins.
The question for beleaguered Michigan basketball fans: how much of West Virginia's current success can John Beilein take credit for? The answer is somewhere between "all" and "none."
Some context for your consideration:
- Beilein took the Gansey-Pittsnogle crew to a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight with a thin, veteran roster. In 2006 ninety-six percent of the playing time was split between seven players, five of whom graduated after 2006.
- In Beilein's last year the only returning contributors were Frank Young and Darris Nichols, who accounted for 20% of WVU's minutes the year before. That team went 21-9 in the regular season, narrowly missing the NCAA tournament. They then won the NIT.
- There were just two seniors on that team: Young, the leading scorer, and center Rob Summers. Summers played about half of WVU's minutes; he was offensively efficient but very low-usage, a Brent Petway sort who takes a small number of really good shots someone else creates for him. His notable contributions were as an offensive rebounder (13.1 percent of shots, 64th in the country) and shot blocker (199th). His minutes were replaced by sophomore Wellington Smith, who's a hell of a offensive rebounder and shot blocker and a decent, low usage scorer.
- This year's WVU team returned about 75% of its minutes; the only freshman who saw any playing time was Beilein signee John Flowers. The players on the team were assembled entirely by Beilein.
Why is West Virginia better this year?
|Team||O. Efficiency||Adj. O. Eff||O SOS||D. Efficiency||Adj D. Eff||D SOS|
|2006||112.5 (20th)||118.3 (13th)||66th||97.8 (72nd)||94.0 (57th)||75|
|2007||111.3 (26th)||116.3 (20th)||47th||95.1 (32nd)||89.9 (21st)||39|
(A reminder: these are all Kenpom numbers and are as such adjusted for tempo; the "adj" efficiencies above are also adjusted for quality of competition and cannot be questioned in any way ever.)
The numbers indicate that under Huggins an outstanding offense got slightly less outstanding and a pretty good defense got significantly better.
What's completely fascinating is the wholesale makeover the offense made while still maintaining approximately the same level of production. Under Beilein, the offense was a manic exercise in extremes. Under Huggins it's much more conventional. Effective, but conventional:
Raw Efficiency : 112.5 ( 20) 111.3 ( 26)
Adj Efficiency : 118.3 ( 13) 116.3 ( 24)
Effective FG% : 54.7 ( 17) 51.6 (102)
Turnover Pct. : 17.0 ( 10) 16.2 ( 7)
Off. Rebound% : 30.2 (270) 34.4 (107)
Free Throw Rate: 20.1 (306) 25.0 (182)
3-Point FG% : 37.4 ( 62) 36.4 (108)
2-Point FG% : 53.4 ( 22) 50.1 (102)
Free Throw Pct.: 71.3 (108) 68.7 (175)
Block Pct. : 8.6 (133) 6.7 ( 15)
Steal Pct. : 9.2 (111) 8.2 ( 29)
3PA/FGA : 49.0 ( 5) 34.4 (165)
A/FGM : 68.7 ( 3) 58.2 (100)
About the only things that remain constant are an extremely low turnover percentage and , to a lesser extent, three-point and free throw percentages. The rest of it tacks to the center like a presidential candidate after he locks up the nominaiton.
Herein you can see the way a Beilein offense is supposed to work: pass it to the wide open guy, wide open guy shoots. That explains the incredible EFG%, the incredible assist percentage, the incredibly bad free throw rates and offensive rebounding. Huggin's team is pretty good at a lot of things but only great at avoiding turnovers.
Let's look at the six returning players:
Nichols suffered. His usage, eFG%, FTRate, and assist rates all dropped precipitously, as did his shooting. Interestingly, Nichols actually took more threes this year.
The slide could be an effect related to the graduation of Frank Young, WVU's best player in 2007 and the recipient of most of the defensive attention.
Ruoff's usage dipped a bit and his assist rate collapsed, but holy hell: 62% on twos and 40% on threes. Ruoff was the nation's 50th best eFG% shooter and I'm betting half of the guys ahead of him are Brent Petway sorts with usages around 10%. I think we'll see why Ruoff got this bump in a bit.
Butler is the starting small forward and saw himself become more of a slasher and interior player: three point attempts dropped as most everything else remained stable. Note the significant bump in offensive rebounding: Butler was closer to the basket.
Alexander upped his already high usage, held his eFG steady, increased his FTrate enormously, and actually increased his assist rate; three pointers plummeted to 9% of his shots. What this says to me: the WVU offense moved to a heavily Alexander-based isolation-kick game. This killed everyone's assists except Alexander, upped Alexander's usage, and turned Ruoff into Kyle Korver.
Mazzula took so few threes this year that the huge jump in percentage should be dismissed as small sample size.
Smalligan, a Zach Gibson type whose main asset is his outside shooting, got killed and is now a bench guy who hardly sees any time because the offense can't figure out how to use a big man outside the arc.
So what in this is relevant? I think there are two things.
- Beilein really does have an offensive system that outperforms the rest of the planet. Huggins returned four starters and 80% of the minutes from Beilein's NIT champions and implemented a conventional, NBA-style offense with an excellent isolation threat down low in the form of Joe Alexander and a couple of guys with three point percentages around 40 to kick to. The result? A slightly worse offense.
- These kids can play, man. There is a concern out there that Beilein got lucky with the Gansey/Pittsnogle group and will never find that sort of success again. And what did that success consist of? A couple of good runs in the NCAA tournament coupled with fifth-place finishes in the Big East and middling seeds. Lose a game here or there and no one thinks Beilein is anything but an above average coach with a low ceiling.
While the "low ceiling" point hasn't exactly been dispelled by the exploits of a seven seed that finished fifth in the Big East, Beilein recruited every player who's seen the floor for WVU this year and is there any one of them that you wouldn't trade for the Michigan player at his position? These guys are talented enough to run Beilein's system one year and then something entirely different the next and finish with a top 25 offense both years. Beilein finds talent that the recruiting services do not. I don't know why, but think it has something to do with an increased focus on guys who just love basketball and would rather shoot 4000 jumpers than play My Little Pony.
The one evident downside: maybe Beilein just can't coach defense? Huggins took the supposedly unathletic group Beilein left him and radically improved their rankings. I'll take a look at the other side of the ball sometime next week.
A dual-barrel guest post on some theories why we suck so bad at defending the spread. I was at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why Michigan was getting gashed by lowly Appalachian State and not-so-lowly Oregon. These gentlemen take shots at the question.
First, Alan Weymouth:
Well, the scheme in the first game to twist the LBs was not well thought out, or executed. Twists and stunts are designed to confuse the blocking assignment of the offensive line, even just a little hesitation up there can doom a play. But its a gamble by the DC, as it makes you very vulnerable to certain kinds of plays.
Let me pause a bit to say, that stopping a run/pass QB is the toughest job in sports right now. It essentially breaks the game down to a one on one matchup, and makes things much easier from an offensive standpoint. It's hard to find guys who can really execute the scheme though (like Vince Young), and in my opinion, it's a huge gamble for a team. If your QB goes down, you tank, because you most likely don't have another guy like him on your team ready to step in.
The team was poorly prepared to play Appalachian State. It didn't look to me as if we had actually scouted them much at all. So the stuff they showed us offensively, we weren't prepared for. That is why the adjustments and personnel changes made at halftime had the impact they did.
I really can't point to a single unit on the defensive side of the ball, that I think is performing well, but LB play and Secondary play stood out against Appalachian. During the Herrmann era, our front four basically functioned as blockers if you will, to keep offensive linemen off our LBs. Our recruiting at the DL positions suffered, because no one wants to play that way anymore. The DLs want to make plays too. With English, the DLs have a little more freedom to attack their gaps and make plays...but this means your LBs have to play at a new level. They must diagnose plays early, and be responsible for their gaps, and then flow quickly to the ball. We aren't getting any of that done. In addition, our tackling has fallen way, way off. I miss David Harris more than any of the other guys who left last year.
Our overall defensive effort against Oregon was pathetic. We had very few of our players who managed to play with proper technique. DEs running around blocks instead of covering their responsiblities .LBs who won't or can't properly fill to the ball. Safeties and CBs who don't understand their coverage properly, and know where help is and how to use it. Honestly, I can't believe English still has his job.
As an example, our DE play against Oregon was really poor. Crable at DE is not the answer against a D1-A team. He's too light. But our other DEs just don't play with the right technique. When rushing against a guy like Dixon, you push up field until your even with the QB, then you must check the gap inside of you to see if he runs. If you can't disengage from the OT in time, it's easy pickings for a running QB. Our DTs against Oregon couldn't push the pocket back and help. At DT, you have to maintain your rush lane and "push" the pocket backward..if you don't, you open up a large gap in the middle..with apparently noone to fill it. By pushing the pocket backward, you narrow the gap between DT and DE and make it easier to defend.
I'm not a big fan of rushing only four guys against a run/pass QB. In my opinion, you try to force a guy like that to make quick decisions with the ball, and force him into errors. I'd never rush fewer than five. But, that means your secondary has to cover well, and...well...ours doesn't. We saw blown coverages against Appalachian, and we saw more of them against Oregon. Either we've become "Herrmanesque" in the number of coverages our players are expected to learn, or we've got a collection of dunces unparalleled in the history of football playing in our secondary. Those guys don't understand what they are doing. If we have trouble with zone, you usually go to man...but we didn't do any better there either. Simple pick plays caused us all kinds of problems.
Defense shouldn't be this hard. It's really pretty simple. Cover your gaps, get off blocks and move to the football.
Our weak LB recruiting over the last several years is hurting us. C.Graham isn't very good and won't ever be. Mouton will replace him as soon as he's healthy I think. Thompson is okay...but hasn't tackled nearly as well as I hoped. Ezeh must get more snaps. Panter must be a total bust. I'd still try him at some point though.
We won't see a huge improvement on this defense, until the staff gets these guys to play the correct techniques, and find the best 11 to put on the field. To me, it's like they accomplished nothing in camp.
Meanwhile, frequent commenter DanK makes a convincing case that Michigan's issue with the spread can be traced to their decision to run a standard 4-2-5 nickel against these spread option offenses instead of the 3-3-5 that was so frequently successful a year ago. This isn't blockquoted because of killer graphs and charts, but here goes:
That book I told you about [Obscene Diaries of a Michigan Fan -ed] contained some interesting thoughts about the spread offense NW, Purdue and later MSU ran a few years ago. That specifically talked about the even-man front vs the odd-man front on the Dline. From what I recall in the book, we used an even front vs NW in 2000 (L,54-51) and they absolutely shredded us in epic proportions. The most points & yards given up by a M defense in like 50 years, if not ever. Sure, there were other factors like youth on the M defense (especially @ LB, iirc) and maybe NW was truly an NFL-level-talent filled offense that year (not so much). Yea, they could have executed perfectly and yea Herrmann was the coordinator. But 600 yards & 54 pts? The book's thesis then, as is mine now, is that scheme had a vital role in the epic failures of the D in these games (NW then, ASU & UO now). And although I have no evidence, the author recalls games subsequent to NW2000 in which the scheme changed to an odd front vs spread teams (not a 3 man Dline scheme exactly, but more like a 4-2 with the front 4 shifted to an unbalanced 4-man line). The point was that Herrmann (& Carr I assumed) learned something from that NW2000 game. Again, since I don't have film from the Herrmann era and I haven't figured out the whole torrent/seed thing, I can't speak to that 1st hand. I would trust the author simply b/c he seems to have taken good notes from each game he mentions.
However, the following file contains a few slides representative of what I saw in the ASU & UO games this year. It certainly confirms what I & the book's author recall about the NW2000 game: even-man fronts (4-3...well 4-2-5 Nickel is more precise) vs the spread-option offense. clearly, the results were the same: namely, AAAAAARRRRGGGGG!
1) the purpose of the spread (especially the spread-option) is to obviously spread the defensive personnel sideline-to-sideline. BUT, the primary goal is NOT to throw the ball downfield or throw the ball all around the field. The primary goal is to run up the middle, between the tackles. Logically speaking, why design a formation that guides the ballcarrier toward the bulk of the defense (toward the outside in this case)?
2) the even man front (usually the 4-3, but vs the spread it's 4-2 b/c of all the WRs on the field) is fundamentally ill equipped to defend against this attack. I
think this formation is best suited to defend a pro-style offense with the fullback/multiple TEs for reasons I don't want to get into now. I will show in the slides exactly how the even man front fails based on the film i've seen in the ASU & UO games. In spite of the fact that the Dline in the odd man front has fewer linemen (3, not 4), it seems to actually be more equipped to handle the inside run game. Basic reasoning:
a) even-man fronts don't put pressure on the center. the DTs line up in the 1-technique (over the A-gaps between the center & guards). This makes the center's life pretty easy compared to, say, knowing Terrance Taylor was about to SMASH you as soon as you moved. In the odd man front, the DT (NG) lines up over the C and engages him immeadeitely. In this case, the C needs to execute a good shotgun snap and hold his ground. Anything less is failure for him. b/c of the snap itself, at the instant of the snap the DT is the only lineman with an advantage over his counterpart on the Oline.
b) as will be seen in the slides, the DEs in the even man front tend to run themselves so far up-field that they take themselves out of the play.
- 4(even front)-2-5 (Nickel).
- DEs line up wider than tackles (5-technique); have contain responsibility.
- DTs line up at C-G gap or over guards(1-technique or 2-tech); have 2-gap responsibility.
- No man over center == easy job for center; can snap ball & release easily toward MLBs.
- No other defenders within 10-15 yards of ball: thus 'spread.' Key here is to spread the field in order to make it easier to run up the middle, not pass or run E-W (where the rest of the D is positioned).
- Nonetheless, looks like 6-on-5 in favor of the D.
- Ends run themselves out of the play! Now it's 5-on-5!
- No man over center == easy job for center; can snap ball & release easily toward MLBs.
- Guards contain D tackles, I think b/c each DT has 2-gap responsibility, thus they can't overwhelm the guards.
- RT ignores Crable for the MLB: Crable has contain & QB keeper responsibility, so he can't pursue too aggressively.
- Tackle & guard wash out MLBs: the middle is a free 5-8 yards since the secondary is spread out: RB has choice to follow the center or take the huge hole on the left.
c) in the odd-man front there seems to be less opportunity for linemen (interior linemen especially) to release and engage the 2nd line of defenders (namely, the LBs). this is partly due to the C-NG dynamic, but there's more to it, I suspect.
[more slides! -ed]
- 3(odd front)-3-5
- Taylor lines up over C (0-technique); has 2-gap responsibility.
- DEs line up between tackle & guard (3- technique); have 1-gap responsibility.
- OLBs have contain responsibility.
- Man over center == center not happy; must snap ball & prepare to be demolished. I think just holding his ground here is a win for the center. Demand for double team also likely.
- Still, 6-on-5 in favor of the D.
- Ends do NOT run themselves out of the play: still 6-on-5.
- Taylor has 2-gap responsibility? Maybe just 'Taylor SMASH!' Responsibility? Either way, with him over the nose, there's a lot of pressure put on the center to execute a good shotgun snap and engage the guy 3cm from his face.
- I don't see how a successful inside run is executed here, b/c there's less oppurtunity for interior linemen to advance to the 2nd level (to wash out the LBs). This is basically b/c no one has the opportunity to run themselves out of the play, and only the NG has 2 gap responsibility.
- A double on Taylor allows a DE into the heart of the backfield (same if a guard immediately releases to the 2nd level).
- Assuming Taylor's goal is to SMASH!, major disruption in the backfield is likely w/o a double team.
- Assuming Taylor's goal is to control 2 gaps (no double needed), the MLB (and OLB) is free to flow to the ballcarrier. If there are no doubles at all, the tackles are free to washout the OLBs, allowing for a potential break in containment. BUT:
- If Crable (or the other OLB) can get contain, the MLB is still free to flow to the ballcarrier. Plus, that safety has had more time to move up toward the LoS in run support since the RB has had to dance away from the point of attack & find another lane toward the outside.
- Recall: the purpose of the spread IMHO, is to create more room to run up the middle, NOT to allow the ballcarrier to run outside (this is where half the defense lies). I mean, why spread the defense sideline-to-sideline just to have the ballcarrier run that way?
- Isn't it better to have the RB run E-W instead of N-S? Especially when the formation is designed to run up the middle?
3) the key to any defense is it's ability to stop the run, specifically and most especially up the middle. IMHO, everything else defensively is built on that single basis. It forces teams into 2nd & 3rd & longs, predictable passing situations. General discomfort. These of course lead to Turnovers & changes of possession. Certainly, if one can stop the run without creeping a safety up or all out run-blitzing, your D should be in good shape to allow your team to regain possession.
4) The LBs in the odd-man scheme should tend to crowd the line and not drop back too far into a deep zone on a pass. First, we'd rather have these QBs pass into 7-8 man coverage. Second, most pass plays in this offense are quick slants or hitches, not deep routes over the middle or the long sideline up & out where the QB needs a rocket to complete the pass safely. Third, the LBs need to be aware of the ISQD or scramble.
About the slides: the 1st 2 (pre-snap & post-snap) are representative of the formations when UO (or ASU, iirc) were in a 4-wide 2-back set (QB + RB). It's the Option run where almost every time, it was a handoff up the middle (especially in the UO game). We just got gashed. A few times UO motioned a 3rd guy into the backfield to disguise the direction in
which the QB could take the ball (or to show the possibility of a traditional triple option). Results were the same: 2 OLs released to engage the 2 MLBs waaaaay to easily. DEs running up-field out of the play. The 2nd 2 slides show what I imagine would be the most logical way for a odd-man front to handle this offense. I haven't accounted for the passing options, but as I said, it's not the offense's preference to throw the ball and I figure no matter what D formation you're in, you need to cover the WRs pretty tight in zone, man or otherwise.
I do want to say that this theory is by no means foolproof. Hey, I'm no football coach, hell I never even played organized football. But I have read a few books and heard a few coaches talk (sometimes they let something slip that is more than fluff). This certainly doesn't guaruntee a win over UO. It probably doesn't do much to stop the perfect passes Dixon threw for long TDs, or the statue of liberty plays, taken on their own. But I do think the game would have at least been competitive. I mean, who knows, if they get 1-3 YPC up the middle instead of 5-8, maybe that's more 3rd & longs, more predicitable passing situations, more discomfort for UO: a kind of football butterfly effect. It might have led us to a win over ASU, but just about any single thing, if done differently, would have led to a win there (literally EVERY individual event in that game led to the worst case possibility for M). But I do think that this scheme gives us the best chance to win. Especially when you consider that it really just means playing Crable standing up off the line (no change in personnel needed- the last thing we need is more LBs on the field who couldn't beat out C Graham for PT).
I also can't explain why, if LC & Herrmann did indeed employ this tactic vs the spread 3-4-5 years ago in the aftermath of NW2000, they aren't using it now. Maybe LC is delegating too much to English, who really doesn't know about this idea. I do know that, after 9/1/07, anything is possible. It's not just the score of that game, but the decisions the defensive staff made: stunting Dlinemen every 3 plays in the 1st half against the spread-option, dropping Taylor off the line as a spy for the QB in that last drive. To me, it's these very specific, very illogical decisions made by the defensive staff that has led to the failures so far this season. Not so much the offensive predictability or play-calling or team speed. I think the coaches literally did not put the defense in the best position to be successful.
Well, I hope you find this interesting, if not comforting. I know that after the ASU game, I needed concrete reasons for how & why M could have lost that game. Good or bad, it led me to think that the coaching staff is not making the best decisions from a defensive formation perspective. For me, there's comfort in knowing how it happened. Plus, it gives me more hope that we can beat teams who don't run the spread-option.
So there you have it. I should point out that Michigan may not have the personnel to run this odd man front. Taylor can probably swing the NT and Johnson one of the DE spots, but where does Tim Jamison play? Not as a defensive end except on passing downs. And who is the second DE? John Ferrara? Who rotates in when folks get tired? Etc. Also, Michigan often went with an even front a year ago against spread option teams and crushed that all the same. (In no game did Michigan deploy the 3-3-5 exclusively or even situationally; generally Michigan would come out in it for one drive and then go back to the nickel, swapping off irregularly throughout the day.)
But... the arguments made *do* sound convincing, and I think a major problem with our run defense against both Oregon and Appalachian State was the inability of our DTs to control two gaps. The holes were usually between one of our DTs and our DEs running themselves upfield. Our linebackers hardly ever had the luxury of flowing to the ball without dealing with a blocker, usually one who got out to the second level in a hurry.
Right, I promised a look at Crable's culpability or lack thereof in the field goal. Here's the setup:
Questions, and a sincere one to anyone who's blocked for a field goal before: should Banks have taken the man Crable let go? Is the double team on this DE here necessary? Is the guy on the interior here any threat? Does your opinion change considering this guy plays I-AA? Why does this always happen to us?
My answers: yes, no, no, N/A because I of what I think on the first three questions, one of us must have killed Jesus. I blame Leopold and Loeb.
I figured this would happen. In the comments to "Destroy Harbaugh" there first came a pebble:
No mention of the 38% stat, I see. Because lets be honest, it doesn't matter what major you are if you don't actually graduate.
And then another...
Etc. These claims invariably come from Notre Dame fans. What can I say? Their obsession with Michigan knows no bounds. They even harass innocent bloggers who don't even cover their team.
This is the sort of criticism that only the truly deranged could come up with. While Michigan has spent most of the past decade fighting a protracted court battle against anti-affirmative-action groups, eventually winning and sort of losing at the same time, and has vowed to do everything in its power to keep the undergraduate population representative in the wake of Proposal 2's passage last fall. Michigan's administration had a deep-seated and continuing freakout over losing the ability to consider an applicant's race when it comes to admissions. In January they said race would still be a part of the application but that admissions officers could be trusted to ignore that information. The university stepped up its outreach and recruitment efforts so much that applications actually went up five percent:
According to preliminary admissions data, a total of 2,460 underrepresented minorities had applied to the University by the beginning of February - a 5 percent increase from the same point last year.
The increase in applicants may have been due to the fact that Proposal 2 was looming. Students at Cass Technical High School in Detroit said that before the initiative passed, University admissions officers encouraged them to apply as early as possible because it would be harder to get in if Proposal 2 was approved.
"Admissions officers came to our school and told us to apply early," said Cass Tech senior Dwayne Riley, who has already enrolled at the University for next year.
Admissions officers visited Cass Tech - a major feeder school for underrepresented minorities who attend the University - frequently throughout the fall.
Ashley Grant, also a senior at Cass, said the University's image may have even improved since Proposal 2 passed.
"I definitely don't think Proposal 2 hurt Michigan's image," said Grant, who is still waiting to find out whether she's been admitted to the University. "If anything, I think it made the school look a lot better because it was trying to do everything in its power to admit as many students of color as possible."
Meanwhile, Notre Dame admits virtually no black students. A minuscule 3.6% of the undergraduate population is black, and the only reason it's that high is because of varsity athletics. One third of the black males on campus have letter jackets. A third! Without varsity athletes there would be 102 black undergraduate males at Notre Dame, 2.4% of the male student body. If you had a scavenger hunt on the Notre Dame campus, "black undergraduate male" would be tough. I don't mean to imply any racism on the part of the administration or school itself; far more likely is that an expensive Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana doesn't appeal to black students very much. (Its appeal to others remains a mystery.) As a private Catholic school their admissions policies are their prerogative. But it's clear that Notre Dame doesn't really care to change that perception or the composition of their student body.
So to be subject to a constant fusillade of racial criticism from fans of this school that suffers less than four percent of its student body to be black is amazing and infuriating, because the implication is always that Michigan is a racist institution that doesn't care about graduating people who aren't white. One school bends over backwards to help black students be the first in their family to go to college; the other virtually ignores them unless they can help out their sports teams... and it's Michigan that's criticized?
But it is leveled time and again, so it may as well be addressed.
1. 38% is a fictional number. I don't know where it came from or if it was a low ebb or what, but at the very least it's not current. The most recent NCAA data:
Three numbers, none of which are 38%, though one
is uncomfortably close to it. Which do we use? Well, 99-00 is just one class and the 4-class and GSR rates encompass a large number of athletes so we should prefer them. And the difference between 4-class and GSR or "Graduation Success Rate" is that the GSR removes "permissible exceptions" like religious missions or, um, death as well as players who transfer out of the program in good academic standing. It's more accurate, as it doesn't punish Michigan for losing a guy like Cobrani Mixon. That number: 50%. Obviously this is not ideal, but let's at least talk about a real number.
2. It is hard to graduate black men.
I'm not going to speculate on the reasons for this, but Michigan -- a school that we've seen wants to do everything in their power to get black kids on campus, and presumably graduate them -- only gave degrees to 61% of the black males it admitted over the four-year span in which our 50% number applies. This is a nationwide phenomenon:
Troubling, but not a symptom of wanton disregard from the university.
So it's not surprising that a group of black males with lower GPA and test scores than the general population, which already graduates at a lower rate than any other group, have an even tougher time getting out of college with a degree. Especially what with that full time job on the side. Of course, is that degree as valuable to varsity athletes?
3. Graduation is not a priority for many of Michigan's black athletes.
Some leave early: Woodson, Terrell, Branch, Shantee Orr, etc. Others, like Lamarr Woodley and David Harris, stay four years but are clearly going high in the NFL draft. They may not graduate because they choose to spend their final semester preparing for their chosen (and extremely lucrative) career instead of picking up a cosmetic diploma. This is clearly a larger effect for black players than white players. Despite an approximately 50-50 split between white and black players on Michigan's team, two-thirds of the draftees in the past ten years have been black.
And because whites are disproportionately concentrated on the offensive and defensive lines, tight end, linebacker, and quarterback -- all positions that tend to see redshirts a plenty -- they get a critical fifth year in the program much more often than black players do. An excellent comment (<-- also where the above referenced draft stat comes from) from Jim Carty's blog breaks down the details:
Of those drafted, % who were in school 5 years (really 4 and 1/2 since the guys preparing for the draft do not go to school second semester of their 5th year):
Black: 29% (9/31)
White: 87.5% (14/16)
Michigan's graduation rate for black males in school for four years hovers around 42%. (The 61% is the five-year graduation rate, from appearances.) Again I would like to stress that this is an outlier in no way whatsoever; this is a nationwide phenomenon.
This is only a subset of the total number of athletes, but it's a significant subset. Mike DeSimone shows 200 players signed in the previous decade, four of whom never got to campus and shouldn't be counted. Approximately half of them were black; approximately 31% percent of Michigan's black players ended up in the NFL over the past decade. This is a significant drag on their graduation rates, as a 1996 paper by Lawrence DeBrock, Wallace Hendricks, and Roger Koenker demonstrates. In it, they do a sophisticated statistical analysis of a set of variables. Their findings: when controlling for other factors, average GPA and SAT scores were not indicators of likely graduation or not, but four of the five professional success metrics were highly negatively correlated with graduation rates for an obvious reason: the acquisition of a degree is not as economically significant.
In each of our structural equations, our measure of the value of a degree from the institution had a strong positive impact on the graduation rate of scholarship athletes. This result was robust for all specifications, sports, and genders. In addition, we found evidence that the alternative economic opportunity of professional sports plays a significant role in the decision of scholarship athletes to stay in school. In both of the sports that had professional leagues, the opportunity to play in these leagues had a significant impact on graduation rates. In the case of women's basketball, where no such opportunities exist, those athletes who we predict would normally leave school early for this career are more likely to stay in school.
Alternative labor market opportunities are very real for this segment of the student body. These opportunities have significant impacts on graduation rates in football as well as men's basketball. The athlete's choice of a college is certainly driven by how the particular school will influence future financial returns; this is the same for nonathletes. The difference is that for athletes, this income stream is not as contingent on graduation as it is for other students. The strong implication is that movements to mandate graduation rates are misguided.
The market forces that lead some schools to have lower graduation rates among the student-athletes will continue to cause many students to rationally leave school early. Just as it is impossible to attempt to impose cross-institution equalization of graduation rates for the overall population of students, restrictions on graduation rates of scholarship athletes across campuses would be equally inefficient. While there is some informational content to raw graduation rates, it is considerably smaller than either the U.S. Congress or the media seem to believe.
Ironically, graduation rates are depressed because Michigan's elite football players are no fools: they have little use for a degree, at least not within the narrow five year band in which graduation rates are declared and discarded.
To paraphrase Kanye West, does Michigan care about black people?
You can't just add 50% and 31% to get a healthy 81% of Michigan's black players who end up either with a degree or in the NFL, as there's undoubtedly some overlap... but it probably isn't much given early departures, the prevalence of four-and-out NFL draftees, and the powerful economic disincentive provided by the potential of an NFL career -- Michigan will always be there, but your NFL combine comes but once a lifetime. Even if the overlap is quite large, Michigan's athlete success rate climbs above its non-athlete success rate. Peg it at around 50% of NFL players and Michigan athletes are at 65%, above the 61% of your typical student. That's estimating conservatively. Add in previous studies indicating that athletes are generally better off than non-athletes after graduation even without the pro sports option and it's clear that Michigan has little to apologize for. The goal here is not necessarily to rubber stamp some diploma. It's to provide these players a foundation from which they can live their life. Michigan does that by all accounts save one man who's got an obvious ulterior motive.
Is there room for improvem
Yes. Michigan makes an awful lot of money off these guys and owes them more than a typical student, who provides only tuition. Unless Michigan starts handing out degrees like candy the graduation rate is not likely to exceed 70-ish percent even in optimal cases. Ideally, everyone in the program is either degree-bearing or in the NFL minus a certain number of washouts that will happen naturally. Without a radical change in the philosophy of the university, 65% is a point the U should aim for an attempt to reach in the next few years.
What about Notre Dame?
This is about Notre Dame since it is always Notre Dame fans that bring this up, probably because they're about the only school that's appreciably better at handing kids degrees than Michigan is amongst national powers. Oh, and since they haven't won a bowl game in nearly 15 years. Or been among the top 25 programs in the last decade. Or finished with fewer than the three losses they deride Lloyd Carr for accumulating since 1993. When you can't talk about results on the field, talk about results off of it.
Anyway, according to the latest numbers ND has a GSR of 90%. Great! Good for you. But please realize that once you get into Notre Dame it is nearly impossible to not get a degree. One of eight Michigan undergraduates fails to graduate; that number at Notre Dame is one in 20. You can explain this gap any number of different ways, from the culture -- or lack thereof -- at Notre Dame to an Ivy League-like refusal to not pass people. I don't know which it is, but don't try to tell me that a school that recruits Tony Rice and Robert Blanton (810 SAT!) and the like but still graduates virtually everyone is particularly strict. Call this the Aaron Taylor Theory: if Aaron Taylor holds a degree from your university, chances are a sizable number of six-year-olds could also manage said feat.
Postscript. I'm tired of talking about this, but there is no one in the media who's willing to look at this any deeper than the surface level. Those that try, like Jim Carty, have put their muckraker hats on and are just digging for dirt without any consideration of complicated things like economics or common sense. Carty's perpetual assertion that it's way sketchy to have 60% of your declared majors in a particular program -- not an actual major -- which spans the entirely of LS&A but totally un-sketchy to have 60% of your declared players in only four majors, like Stanford does, is Carty at his worst. He did this "why won't Michigan answer my questions" junk after the Year of Infinite Pain, too. It's a common rhetorical device: assume Michigan's desire to avoid someone clearly looking to paint the university in a poor light is a virtual admission of guilt.
It's clear why Michigan is not going to talk about the subject: the last time they did they got an ill-considered Pat Forde article down their throat and Carty complaining about "silence." Since the media can't be trusted to do anything except rub their nonexistent goatees and try to impress chicks with their deep concern for Serious Issues instead of actually taking a point of view that's something other than willfully naive, they have no incentive to actually talk. In the end, the answer to "why won't Michigan talk to Jim Carty?" is "because he's Jim Carty."
Now: on to actual football. I have said my piece. I would appreciate it if commenters would link this whenever some daft Notre Dame fan runs into the comments and accuses Michigan of being the Josef Mengele of universities; nothing more on this topic will be published. Probably.
New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for one thing: the 1-3-1 zone. And three pointers. New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for two things: the 1-3-1 zone and three-pointers. And backdoor layups. I'll start again.
New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for three things: the 1-3-1 zone, three pointers, backdoor layups and an almost fanatical devotion to the colors blue and yellow. Amongst the many things new Michigan head coach John Beilein is known for are the 1-3-1 zone, three-pointers, backdoor layups, and an almost fanatical devotion to the colors blue and yellow.
This is where the youtube link goes.
Anyway. Beilein's bizarre 1-3-1 zone is virtually unheard of in big time college basketball. It's a favorite pregame topic of coaches and reporters in the same way Purdue's pass-wacky spread offense was before every team in the country started running it. And it's coming to a team near you.
As you might expect, it deploys one player at the top of the key, three players lined up across the court a few feet closer to the basket, and one unfortunate soul who is tasked with "running the baseline," a hellish duty that requires a quick, hopefully lanky defender to sprint from one end of the floor to the other whenever the ball is reversed (which is frequently against the sort of trapping 1-3-1 Beilein operates), closing out potential three-point shooters in the corner and hoping the defense recovers smartly enough to help him when he funnels potential drivers away from the baseline. The center (#5) plays in the middle of the floor, attempting to cut off passing lanes and harass entry feeds. West Virginia actually tends to employ a guard at the 4-spot. The guy up top is another guard and then the #2 and #3 guys are wings, small forwards, or general what-have you. (West Virginia, either by choice or necessity, plays small at virtually all times.) The guy on the baseline is guy is the linchpin of the defense and if you've only got one you'd better hope he's Rip Hamilton. As Ken Lindsay laconically notes:
Even if you are fortunate enough to have such a player possessing these qualities, the defense will become more ineffective as the game progresses. Weariness takes its toll.
West Virginia's version is trap-heavy. In a 1-3-1, the defense usually rotates to face the ballhandlers whenever he moves away from the dead center of the floor on the perimeter, but from appearances in the NIT final this often results in a point guard sitting approximately next to #2 on the first figure with no fewer than three defenders poised to collapse on him should he try to drive the ball to the hoop. C Jamie Smalligan would come out to the edge of the paint as two guards shaded themselves outside, inviting the ballhandler to drive himself into trouble. I've seen versions of this diagram with the baseline guy shaded to the strongside, shaded to the weakside, and directly under the hoop. IIRC WVU usually opts for the post-packing strongside, which makes entry passes improbable. The Mountaineers will rely on the size of the center and the speed of the four guy to cover the inevitable skip passes. A step late and it's an easy basket. A team that's not well coached will get obliterated.
The trapping forces a ton of turnovers. This year opponents turned it over on nearly 24% of their possessions, good for 39th overall. The year before they were 26th with a 24.5% opponent turnover rate. For unfortunate comparison, this is like playing Michigan every game of the year. In fact, West Virginia opponents are even more generous than Courtney Sims, Jerrett Smith and the rest of the no-I-insist-you-take-it All Stars. I believe this has a hidden effect on WVU's always-awesome offensive numbers, as the frequent turnovers lead to fast break opportunities. I wonder if anyone's looked at offensive efficiency in the immediate aftermath of an on-court turnover (WVU gets a lot of these; the past three years they've been top fifty in steal percentage); I bet they would find it has a measurable salutary effect.
The traditional way to beat a zone -- rain threes on it -- appears less effective against the 1-3-1 than most. West Virginia was seventh(!) in 3FG defense this year at 30.3%, and opponents didn't get off an inordinate number of them: 33.7% of opponent shots, good for a middle-of-the-pack 151st. This isn't nearly as consistent as the turnovers, though. Last year's Sweet 16 outfit was still above average at 34%, but the two years before that were ugly. However, in no year did teams get off an inordinate number of threes. WVU has hovered around the national average.
And the 1-3-1 has an eerily Bo Ryan-esque ability to avoid giving up free throws:
|Opp FT Rate||27.8||31.9||20.8||28.8|
Over the last four years the worst Beilein team has been distinctly above average in this category.
The 1-3-1 is a high-risk, high-reward defense. The trapping can lead to turnovers and fast break opportunities, but an effectively broken trap usually leads to a wide open shot or a layup. Though the three-point field goal percentage is ambiguous leaning-to-good, the two-point percentage is... uh... not:
I have no idea what the deal was with 2004, but whatever it was it did not carry over to the last three years. When opponents get off a two-point shot, it's usually a good one.
And when they manage to miss one of their two pointers they're fairly likely to get the ball back anyway. Anyone who caught themself begging Brent Petway to box out just once in his damn life this year is advised to avert their eyes:
|Opp Off Reb%||36.4||34.4||36.9||35.2|
Holy hopping hasenfeffer! That is Scottie Pippen-level ugly. Dear, departed Wonk would no doubt term it Edvard Munch-level horrific. If those numbers were a daytime talk show host, they'd be Rosie O'Donnell. If they were a hairstyle, they'd be Gene Keady's combover. If they were a student body, they'd be Notre Dame. I think what we're trying to say here is that the defensive rebounding numbers put up by Beilein's West Virginia teams are not very good. Yes. I think t
hat's the point.
It works okay once you adjust for the strength of WVU's opponents:
|Adj Defensive Eff||84th||86th||53rd||56th|
Those numbers are consistently good but not great without considering the hidden effect of all those turnovers.
I'm of the opinion that Beilein prefers the 1-3-1 zone because it covers up for the athletic deficiencies he's been forced to operate with his entire career. There's only one guy who really benefits from being a gazelle-type athlete, and that's the guy charged with the Sisyphean task of running the baseline. Everyone else has to be smart, aware, and well-coached. It also helps him run a small lineup on the other end of the floor without getting hammered for it on defense, as the zone defends the post mostly with quick hands, quick doubles, and the elimination of entry angles. That should help cover up for Michigan's decidedly lacking post depth next year. We have Udoh, Sims, and Rutgers transfer Zach Gibson. All are legitimate posts but spindly and lacking power. They won't have to do a ton of one-on-one post defending, so any potential foul trouble should be mitigated.
The best news about the guard positions is that the 1-3-1 should minimize the shortcomings of Jerrett Smith and Reed Baker, allowing their three-point marksmanship to hit the floor without Michigan turning into a layup line on the other end... or at least no more of a layup line than the 1-3-1 usually is. Assuming Kelvin Grady matriculates, his quick feet and hands would be welcome in the #1 role, as the ability to spring quick traps and double the post is a key part of the defense.
Unfortunately, the guy who seems best suited to play Pheidippides along the baseline is Jevohn Shepard and, unless Tommy Amaker is an even worse coach than everyone in the world thinks, he's not a fit for the offense since he can't shoot or handle or pass. But boy can he run! If Beilein can get him to function in the offense he's the best option, but that's doubtful. Other options: Manny Harris is 6'5" and supposedly cat quick. Kendrick Price may get unearthed from the end of the bench in the new offensive system and he's a SF/PF tweener who may have the combination of size and speed necessary to play the role.
NOTES FROM ELSEWHERE
There's a manual on the 1-3-1 trap from FIBA detailing the Italian women's team and their deployment of the scheme. Lots of graphs and tips and such, plus awesome broken English:
1. The most important advantage is that this defense is unique in "influencing" the movement of the offense, forcing them to play an unconventional offense, a style of play that is risky and moves them out of their usual offensive spots.
2. It can quickly change the direction of the game and offer decisive breaks for the defense.
3. It's a spectacular defense, that creates excitement with its aggressive traps.
4. It "pumps up" the defense, when wellmade stops and steals occur and "shakes" the defense, when players are lazy and not playing aggressive basketball.
5. It creates great problems for the offense to move the ball, forcing them to use lob and bounce passes, slow passes that can easily be stolen.
6. It creates extreme pressure on the offensive perimeter players.
7. It will often create a "paralyzing" effect on the opponents, causing them to make bad passes and force their shots.
This is a very risky defense (wide spaces to cover, traps), and a little mistake will allow the offense to easily beat you. There is no balance when blocking-out on defense and on the help-side rebounding. It requires a lot of energy, so this zone cannot be used throughout the game. In addition, it's a very technical defense and requires players with specific skills in
order to play it well.
â–¼ This defense requires players, who are able to sacrifice themselves and, from my experience, I find that women will often guarantee that this happens most of the time.
â–¼ Players must totally believe that what they are doing is the best for the team. A coach must be able to sell this defense to the team in order to make it work.
â–¼ Players have to be quick and have excellent athletics skills.
â–¼ Very important aspect: players must be skilled in aggressive man-to-man defensive tactics.
â–¼ You will need months of practice and plenty of patience to build this defense so it can be regularly applied.
(the quick and excellent athletics skills seems a strange assertion. Beilein's deployed it for 29 years with non-quick, non-athletic players .)
SportsGamer.com shows you how to set up the 1-3-1 in College Hoops 2k7, showing some action in a West Virginia-Pitt game. check out the video embedded along the right side of the screen.
A bunch of zone-beating plays on this page; play #4 specifically attacks the 1-3-1 for an alley-oop.
A former college player talks about attacking various zones:
The weak spots in the 1-3-1 are the baseline and right under basket. I will often tell coaches that once a 1-3-1 or a 1-2-2 is recognized to bring up a second player to the top. This creates the first match-up problem. One defender can't guard two players. In any good defense the wings will bluff and recover until the other defenders get in their designated spots. That's why coaches will continually yell to move the ball against a zone. The defense is shifting so much that if you move the ball quick enough a gap will open up and an easy shot will follow. Nothing kills on offense more than standing still. Add to that, standing still with the ball.
Fascinating article from American Basketball Quarterly, a coaches' trade rag, all about beating the 1-3-1. Terry Waldrop of Texas Weslyean:
"We've been real fortunate the past two years â€“ we've had real good shooters so we haven't had to deal with the 1-3-1 a lot," Waldrop said. "Three years ago people would zone us when we got off the bus. The real key is reversing the basketball pretty quickly and hitting those gaps with penetration. Then we're looking to shoot a 3-pointer out of it. As soon as we see a 1-3-1, we're looking for the 3. I'd like to shoot a 3 or a lay-up every time against it. What hurts you against the 1-3-1 is the 18-foot 2-pointer.
"You've got to be able to attack it and you better be able to shoot it. It's the worst defense in the world when it comes to making you complacent. You'll just kind of sit there with the ball over your head waiting for something to happen if you're not careful so you have to be in an attack mode."
There's a lot more. Highly recommended. Note this passage at the beginning of the article:
Still, there is no perfect defensive scheme. Every defense has a weakness (although that's often difficult to tell when West Virginia is playing its vaunted 1-3-1 zone) and the key is to find it, prepare for it and manipulate it to your team's advantage.
It's vaunted! We're going to have something vaunted other than an ability to dribble off our own feet!