"Northwestern fans can be both heartened and disheartened by the loss to Minnesota just like how nineteenth-century resurrectionists were heartened when they pried a heart from a freshly-buried corpse and then disheartened it when they sold it to a disreputable anatomist."
Among this year's great disappointments has been the understandable, but nonetheless depressing, regression of 2013 Michigan's two best defensive players. Jake Ryan looks lost at MLB. Blake Countess is now the third or fourth best cornerback on this roster. Both appear to be a direct result of the offseason decision to switch from Michigan's 4-3 under/zone defense to a jam-man, nickel/4-3 over base.
I'm sure Brian is going to cover Jake Ryan with a picture pages, so I thought I'd zoom in on a play that's demonstrative of what's happening with Countess, and how that's hurting the defense. This is the first of Rutgers's many 3rd down conversions. Michigan had a backside blitz on with the front seven and was playing man-high pass D. Rutgers ran a pick route from the trips tight formation:
This is a standard thing you do against man coverage. The Y receiver will run his route directly in the path of the cornerback trying to guard the outside (Z) receiver. It works just a like a perimeter screen in basketball: the pick man and the defender following him create a wall between the target and his defender…
Voila: easy pass…
…which is unfortunate because a certain Rutgers lineman blew his MIKE assignment and Jake Ryan was about to turn Gary Nova into paste. Jeremy Clark then compounded matters by setting up too far inside and turned it into a big play.
To a degree you might RPS this, because Rutgers called a pick route against man coverage, and Nova pointed right at the matchups to show his guys they had what they wanted. But the way Michigan's defense is supposed to work is for man-tight to be a base play, and there is absolutely a way to defend this pass with Michigan's defensive call… [jump] [also if you're at work maybe put your headsets on because you know what's coming]
Todd Howard came to Michigan in 1998, following the national championship season. We both grew up in the same middle class suburb (Southfield) before moving to more affluent ones. But he was a highly recruited scholarship athlete who played cornerback for four years on the Michigan football team, while I was sort-of recruited journalism student who played guitar on a couch at the Michigan Daily.
Todd now coaches defensive backs in his post-Southfield hometown of Bolingbrook. We've developed a recent friendship over M football obsession, and some heated disagreements, plus wives pregnant at the same time. His perspective is one of a guy who came to Michigan and had it made clear upon arrival that no player is bigger than the program. His perspective is also one of a player who played in an era when "getting your bell rung" was common, "shaking off the cobwebs" was routine, and everybody "saw" a few more snaps than they actually played. But he's also a modern high school coach with responsibility for player safety, and a defensive back who believes inside routes should be punishable by death.
He agreed to let me share a thing he wrote on Facebook and some bits from our text message marathon last night.
From the texts:
- Supports Hoke, says he's a good coach and the right coach for Michigan.
- Players always play hurt.
- Doesn't know what's going on in the administration and can't affect it.
- Want people thinking long-term: Michigan will be great again. Supports people speaking out, but turning away disgusts him.
- Every effort should be made to show the players they're supported, including showing up to games and cheering for them and not distracting the coaches further.
The Facebook open letter to fans:
Dear Michigan "Fans"...I really couldn't have said it any better myself. You took success for granted. 8 win seasons became the norm and you got comfortable. You never saw the hard work and late hours put in behind those brick walls of Shembechler. The lack of sleep, barely being able to drag yourself to class, minor addictions to pain killers, while fighting to remain academically eligible. PLAYING through injuries most of you couldn't make it up a flight of stairs with. The coaches preparation every week from sun up to sun UP, sacrificing valuable time with their own families so the BEST team possible could take the field on Saturday.
Now your "favorite" team is going through some adversity and look at you! Look at how you respond. Are you a Michigan FAN because it's convenient? Sure, every one loves a winner...if that's the case take your allegiance down I-96.
It's so easy for you to call for Hoke's job. You've never met him, never had a beer with him, never seen him COACH! Only interviews and cutaways on Saturday. If you think you want to win, multiple that by 100 and MAYBE you'll attain the same passion he has for football and an equivalent compassion for his players.
My brothers and myself are Michigan MEN, not FANS! So to read some of your comments and rants is a little disheartening. Is this how you would've ridiculed us had we not been as successful? Would you not inbox us autograph requests?
When you're team is up, cheer! When you're team is down, cheer LOUDER! When your team wins, congratulate them. When your team loses, sympathize and have pride in the fact they gave everything they could. That's a TRUE fan...but instead you're spoiled. It's a privilege to cheer for Michigan. It's a privilege to sit in the Big House...not an obligation. "The Expectation is for the POSITION!" Back to yours!!!
/adjusts Michigan hat
...as you were. HAIL!
[My rebuttal, after the jump.]
The Jug in Context
On the Halloween Day that Michigan student manager Tommy Roberts walked into a Minneapolis earthenware store, college football's power structure was in flux. Under instructions from Yost, Roberts paid 30 cents (about $9.17 today) for a 5-gallon Red Wing jug, and huffed it back to the stadium. Whether or not the dastardly Gophers were planning on spiking the Wolverines' water supply for that meeting of Western titans, they'd be thwarted.
Suspend, for a moment, all later meaning that would be attached to any programs, persons, or ceramics named above, and focus on what this vignette tells us about the game in 1903. For one, it suggests teams were capable of putting things in each others' drinking water. For another, it doesn't at all seem like Yost was confident his team, which had outscored opponents 550-0 in 1901, 644-12 in 1902, and heretofore 390-0, could simply waltz into Minnesota and win without every caution and attention paid to detail. The Jug game wasn't a friendly between old academic institutions; we were monsters and they wanted us to die.
|Click for big. This page is just one of the hundreds of treasures in Kenny and Jon's book.|
The Big Ten (actually Nine) in those days was colloquially "The West," with all connotations of "Wild- " intentional. This was the upstart league, and to the old guard in the East, the things the Big Nine were building on were abhorrent. Not only were lower academic standards widely tolerated for athletes, but those athletes were also given enticements like free scholarships and food, thereby undermining the authenticity of "collegiate" sports.
Travel was another point of contention: how could students be students if they were taking train rides to California over a month after the season was supposed to have ended? The modern equivalent of the 1901 team's Pasadena adventure would be Team 135 flying to India for Valentine's Day. Except if there was a good chance the players would get killed in the process: the fear of travel was justified because train accidents were common at the time. The same paper that proclaimed Minnesota's 6-6 "victory" announced that Purdue's team was in a train wreck that claimed the lives of 14 players (17 people overall).
Kenny Magee is one of those guys you will meet if you start hanging around the program. The former U-M chief of police, security consultant and magician is known on this site as the proprietor of Ann Arbor Sports Memorabilia, a sports collectible (and magic) shop under Afternoon Delight on Liberty. The store is only a fragment of the greatest Michigan memorabilia collection this side of Bentley. When they opened the Bo Museum last summer, most of it was Kenny's stuff.
When I first met Kenny he had Eric Upchurch and me into his store for an afternoon to shoot images for the cheapest ad I ever sold for this site (resulting gif at right). A few weeks later Kenny called me and said I had to come in again and see his latest find. Now resting beneath the painting of Denard's accidental Heisman pose was an imperfect replica of the Brown Jug, apparently created by Minnesota in the '40s. Dooley (MVictors) did the primary inspection, but I got to add to the lore when I pointed out the fake had displayed the scores of the two 1926 contests incorrectly.
This find was the genesis of Kenny's foray deep into Jug lore. Dooley's comprehensive article on Jug myths, which we ran in HTTV 2013, provided the basis of what became a book on the Jug and the Michigan-Minnesota rivalry. Kenny's co-author Jon Stevens is a guy about my age who's been in and around the program in various capacities exactly that long.
Institutions tend to collect people like this. The thing is so great itself that some people will structure their lives around it. Folks invited inside will keep coming back until they're found something to do there, and they'll do that thing for a lifetime with impossible passion, and their kids will grow up knowing nothing else.
Perhaps the most devastating aftereffect of Dave Brandon's (perhaps soon to be finished) tenure here will be how many of these program people were driven away, and not accidentally. John U. Bacon is both a Michigan professor and the single most credible journalist to cover this team; first relegated to the Drew Sharp dunce seats for publishing Three and Out, Bacon has now been kicked out off the press box entirely. Bruce Madej literally invented the now ubiquitous position of sports information director; he was so effective at communicating Michigan to the fanbase that the program survived 40 years of Bo, Mo, and Lloyd's antagonism to the press without the press hating the program back. Jon Falk was the living embodiment of Michigan's institutional heritage, accessible to every player to ever need a reminder of it, but if you stand in the way of something Adidas wants to do, you can pack your trunk right now. No, that trunk stays.
The Rise and Fall of Empires
The Western Conference (Big Ten) of the early 1900s was the SEC of its day, willing to sublimate all other considerations besides winning, creating new monster programs and birthing new traditions near newly populated industrial centers by wantonly violating the artificial limitations created by the old guard to prevent it. Conversely, the Ivies (which doggedly held out for another 40 years before making their association official) were the era's Big Ten: old powers with immense institutional advantages they were actively squandering by holding out for their version of morality.
Despite the conspicuous 6-6 tie in the midst of a season of blowouts, the 1903 national championship was shared between Michigan and Princeton. You could throw a dart at an East Coast sports columnist and spill as much contempt for the Wolverines as blood, though little of the vitriol remains today. In the next 30 years Michigan and Minnesota built themselves into powerhouse programs while the Ivies drew an arbitrary moral line at considering athletic ability in admissions, and dwindled for it.
The East was still far ahead in monetization, which at the time meant packing more people into stadia. Harvard Stadium, the first modern concrete facility in college football, was in its inaugural season the day Roberts bought the Jug, and Penn began converting their wooden Franklin Field to a permanent structure that season. "The Game" (not That The Game) was affixed in 1900 as the last on the schedule by Yale and Harvard organizers who realized the rivalry could pump interest in the entire season.
Yost realized something fundamental about this sport: they'll take you as seriously as you take yourself. He made it his mission to control or at least influence anything that could touch his football program. He built a stadium expandable to 100,000 seats and his team walked the Earth as if they deserved to play in front of that many. The Yale Bowl opened to a capacity of 70,896 and Princeton's Palmer Stadium seated 45,750 when they opened in 1914, but the Midwest schools at the time were maxing out at 30,000 (Ohio Stadium was built for 72,000 but was typically half-empty).
A Book About the Jug
Kenny's book: Recommended method of purchase is to get it direct from Kenny. His shop's below Afternoon Delight, at 255 East Liberty in Ann Arbor. Or email him. Or find him at a signing, the next being at MDen this week. Also available on Amazon and kindle.
If you're from Michigan you've seen Arcadia books (Old Woodward, history of the Tigers, etc.) before at museum shops, etc. This is one of those: a few pages of backstory for each chapter, and then lots of images, many from Kenny's and Bentley's collections, and many from Minnesota's. There's the newspaper article above, and photo of Conley and his crew in '64 breaking a four-game losing streak, and lots and lots of photos of the great men who've played in this rivalry, from Bronco Nagurski to Ryan Van Bergen.
Reading it in context of this season and this era of college football, it came off like a history of the Roman Empire written in the years after Constantine. Remember when we marched into barely civilized lands, covered ourselves in glory, and shipped the treasures home? Remember when we embraced the new religion and reconstituted as an Eastern-focused superpower? Remember when we didn't spend as much time talking about how awesome Rome was because we were so engaged in making it so?
Now it's Tuesday before a Jug game with as much meaning to the national landscape as a Harvard-Princeton matchup in 1964. The Michigan Stadium I'll visit is itself a highly leveraged brand; the teams facing each other will both operate on dogmatic principles long since cast wayside by programs far more willing to push the established lines of righteousness, be they managing the gameclock or ignoring NCAA's unenforced Title IX rules and outdated ideals of athletes as "just students." And here I am, slowly becoming one of those people whose life is defined by attachment to an institution that revels in its history while missing the most important lesson from it.
Strip off the paint and the scores and the logos and what you have is a clay jug we bought because Yost would burn in hell rather than let an advantage slip by. Fielding wouldn't pass muster at a lineup of "Michigan Men." He was an epic asshole who stood out in a period when assholes were highly tolerated. It's important to me that Michigan stands for more than that. But if Michigan and the Big Ten are to avoid the fate of the Ivy League, they'll have to operate on the same principle that every successful program ever has: First, you win.
Takeaway: offenses were so potent by the 1950s that teams would punt on normal downs to gain field position, and the opponent wouldn’t have a guy ready for this.
Michigan’s outmoded punt formation is a horse we’ve been beating since Hoke’s first year despite it being about as dead as, well, NFL-style punt formations in college football. In light of last week’s punt-o-rama first half I got a question from a reader asking if we’d actually explain what the difference is between them and why one is better than the other.
So yeah, let’s do that, with the foreknowledge that Hoke isn’t going to change no matter what we say or prove; this is so you’ll know what you’re seeing only.
Here’s the punt formation that Michigan uses:
Like all things in football there’s a hundred different names and minor variations on it but the gist has remained the same since a time before the word “pattern” was replaced with “formation.” It follows the same rules as normal downs: seven men on the line of scrimmage, four in the backfield, with the backs plus ends on the line counted as eligible receivers. Since the snapper has to concentrate on that he typically doesn’t figure into the punt protection scheme except as a bonus dude to get in the way or cover a lane. The O-line does the front-line blocking, with a couple of wingbacks to protect against an edge rush and an up-back on the “leg” (…of the punter) side to catch anything that comes through, like an RB in pass pro, reading inside-out.
This protection scheme has worked for two generations and remains pretty safe from all kinds of punt blocking attacks unless a block is blown. It packs guys in the middle and on the outside the blockers mostly just have to keep rushers from getting inside before the punt is off. The two “ends” (wide receivers, really) are gunners, releasing downfield on the snap to attack the returner before the ball arrives and he can set up his blocking.
The NFL still uses this formation because they have to:
During a kick from scrimmage, only the end men, as eligible receivers on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, are permitted to go beyond the line before the ball is kicked.
Exception: An eligible receiver who, at the snap, is aligned or in motion behind the line and more than one yard outside the end man on his side of the line, clearly making him the outside receiver, replaces that end man as the player eligible to go downfield after the snap. All other members of the kicking team must remain at the line of scrimmage until the ball has been kicked.
Translation: only the two outside guys can be gunners; everyone else on the punting team can’t release downfield until ball leaves foot. This was an attempt to cut down on injuries, figuring it’s best to keep as many collisions between high-speed NFL bodies to short range meetings in the backfield.
[After the jump: niche opportunity leads to adaptation]
There were a lot of things that went wrong on Saturday, and some things that went better than you would think from the 31-0 score. Like when David Price lost a 1-hitter this summer, it required consistent failure in high-leverage situations.
Tempo does a few things for an offense. You lose the huddle but keep tired defenders on the field and force them to commit to a vanilla personnel group against everything you run. You also give yourself a chance to survey the defense and adjust. Saturday's problems were much larger than slow tempo, but I couldn't let this…
…happen (the above resulted in a timeout, as the Wolverines only got to the line with 4 seconds on the clock) without seeing if there was a pattern.
The thing that bothered me during the game is it seemed Michigan was damaging themselves by taking a looooong time to get to the line of scrimmage, which not only limited their total opportunities to come back, but apparently forced Gardner to rush his reads in key situations, to awful effect.
So I went through the game and tracked how many seconds were left on the play clock whenever Michigan's offense arrived in their alignment. Data are here if you wanna play with it. The results: here's the success rate of the offense this week by the amount of time on the clock when Michigan got in their formation:
Click biggers making
I used the different colors to show the plays in blue where they're subject to the 40-second clock. The two on the far left forced Michigan to burn timeouts. This does show tendency but not that success came from it except when they were extremely slow. When Michigan couldn't line with more than 9 seconds on the clock the results were two burned timeouts, three negative yardage plays, and five positive ones.
[after the jump: did they speed up after they got down by 21?]
Videos now working.
Megatron—the Decepticon, not the Detroit Lion—is definitely the most interesting robot in the Transformer pantheon. Classic Megatron had the most clearly defined mission—pillage Earth's energy resources to power Cybertron—of any imaginary bad guy leader, but still possessed all the classic bad guy traits: narcissism, obsession with power, mistrust.
That last gave the character a rich irony, since in order to provide his greatest contribution in a fight, Megatron had to transform into a weapon wielded by someone else—usually that was Starscream, Megatron's primary rival for power. Nobody seemed to mind the physics of a transformer equal in size to Optimus Prime—a truck cab—transforming into a handheld blaster.
The thing Carr said when he gave Braylon the number is it's going to make you a target—the defense will always be accounting for #1. But there's no point in having such a powerful bad guy if you don't give him plenty of his own screen time. Somehow, Nussmeier managed to get Funchess open all over the field this week, and I wanted to know how.
Catch 1: Quick WR Screen
How to read these diagrams: Black lines are blocks, blue are routes, red denotes the hot read (as best as I could tell) and dotted lines are pre-snap motion. Click for bigger.
Michigan has just spent an offseason talking about how they're going to be an inside zone team. So Nussmeier chooses the best possible debut: a totally spread "quick screen" to the guy in #1, with an extra block courtesy of putting the U-back, Khalid Hill, in motion. Hill goes flat to kick out whoever appears, Norfleet starts downfield then latches on to the guy over him creating space for Funchess to get the ball and turn downfield.
Why it worked: Like Megatron, Funchess may be big but he's also got the acceleration and wiggle of a much smaller guy, and the screen gets those qualities in space against small defensive backs. Because he's a such a downfield threat the defense has to give him that space at the snap (even MSU did that last year). To stop this the defense needed to react super-fast and/or beat a block.
Such a quick pass also saved the OL from having to make long or difficult blocks, so there was no need to have a perfect protection scheme—the backside routes were both outlets in case the CB on Funchess was jumping the route or something.
How it helps the offense: This play punishes App State's space linebacker (#88 in the videos, denoted as WLB in the diagrams for simplicity's sake) for coming down into the box, something opponents did a ton of to us last year. That guy is responsible for the edge if the offense is running to his side, so forcing him to book it outside on the first play really messes with how that guy can react to things the rest of the day.
Downsides? This is highly coordinated play that had to have taken a lot of practice time to execute. That practice time was only worth it because it directly punishes the defense for playing sound against the rest of the offense.
[The other seven, after the jump]