So it's August, and football withdrawal is reaching a frenzy. As productive as the limited media access to Fall Camp will be for the players, it leaves us in an echo chamber to. . . well, I'm hearing predictions of 10-win seasons and maybe even better.
As I've said elsewhere on MGoBlog, I'm tempering my expectations of results. The coaching staff clearly knows their stuff, but they're making a lot of changes and to an extent that compromises some short-term gains. Consider it a young team in spirit, with the inevitable goofs and gaffes that will lose us some games until they figure it out. And yet, it's also time to be really excited. Because starting next month, no team is safe. Ask Pete Carroll.
With that in mind, I'm back to pick on Borges again (sorry Al), but in a more positive light -- looking ahead to the upcoming season. No, this isn't a preview of San Jose State, but a comparison to highlight what is to me the most undercovered and yet profound shift in program philosophy. In anticipation of what Michigan 2015 will look like, I revisited Stanford's 2007 upset of #1 USC.
"There was never a sense of, like, oh, it's the fourth quarter; oh, there's 85,000 people here; oh, this is the #1 team in the country; oh, we can drive down and beat 'em. All I'm thinking is, we've gotta make this drive down, we gotta go score. . ."
To be clear, the Stanford offense did NOT have a good game. 5-17 on third downs, 11/30 passing with a pick, and 2.2ypc rushing usually means you go home with your head down. And while there's been no shortage of words written or spoken about the improbable comeback, for as bad as the offense did that day, something struck me about the last drive. I find myself compulsively re-watching from 1:20:00 of this clip, not because it's exciting, but to compare it with a very different program philosphy:
"If you don't understand read progressions, footwork, timing and all that, you get paralysis through analysis. So there's carryover is what I'm saying. I don't care how much offense you decide to run, they're still running the same defenses, so unless you can talk the other guys into running the same defense every time, which I've never been able to do, it's always going to be somewhat difficult for the quarterback no matter how much you scale back the offense."
-Al Borges on backup QB Shane Morris
Hold that thought. Late in the fourth quarter, down a TD, Pritchard was facing 4th and 20. Harbaugh's calling in the play. And then this happens:
"I just remember being across the field, and [Harbaugh] yelling something to me. And I don't remember being able to hear it. . . I knew there could only be a couple of things, so I went back to the huddle, and I was like, 'OK, here's what we're going to do.'"
-Tavita Pritchard, Stanford backup QB
Let that sink in: In Stanford's do-or-die play of the game, their unheralded backup QB didn't have Harbaugh to tell him what to do. It was just him, in the middle of a deafening Coliseum, 41-point underdog against the #1 team in the country, effectively alone. This is basically the worst-case scenario for a Borges QB (worst-case scenario in general, really), but this is what a Harbaugh QB does in that situation:
"[Pritchard] comes back. . . 'Guys, I couldn't hear him; I don't got the play, but. . . we're gonna run double go.' . . . Man, we don't even got the play??"
"I remember keeping in an extra blocker. . . I was gonna make sure I could get this thing off."
"Tavita eventually put it together with the information that he had, and was able to call the play."
Sherman caught Pritchard's pass just beyond the first-down marker.
Maybe Pritchard is just the sort of cocky bastard (I mean that in a good way) to relish the situation, but he has to know he has the autonomy when he needs it. That comes from the head coach, which makes it an unfathomable outcome for a Hoke/Borges offense. Harbaugh is widely considered an innovative game-caller, but what I'm most geeked about is a program that will put the players in a position to dictate the game as needed -- not through talent, but through understanding of the game.
Stanford wasn't done, nor was USC. 1st-and-goal quickly became 4th-and-goal, Stanford's gains in the series rolled back by a substitution penalty. Well, we've been there before. What's the call, Al?
"We were pretty much going to stick with the plan. There was not going to be a lot of audibling in this game. . . we had designed the plan to block up to handle most of what they did, so we did not want to turn this into a chess game on the line of scrimmage."
Needless to say, Stanford went in the exact opposite direction. With everything on the line against the #1 team in the country, the players changed the play again.
"Mark Bradford, me and Evan Moore, we're trying to fit it in the hole, but [USC] kept their three best defenders over there for three plays. "Mark is like, 'Man, I'm gonna switch to the other side,' because Ryan Whalen, a walk-on, was on the other side. We don't even look on the other side; we're just trying to fit it in the hole. So. . . we're like, 'All right.' You know. . . why not? This hasn't been working, so he switched to the other side."
USC defended Bradford one-on-one in the corner, and he pulled in the game-winning TD.
If you're looking for the single biggest change from Hoke to Harbaugh, it's not the scheme, or the MANBALL, or the crazy plays or toughness or four-hour practices or a goddamn headset. Well, that's all part of it, but it's going to be guys who look like they're lost to guys who know what the hell they're doing. No, Al, it's not a chess match on the line of scrimmage because football players aren't pawns. They're people with brains, and those brains can be a huge on-field advantage. I liken the shift from guys who memorize sheets of music to musicians. I'm not looking forward to Harbaugh micromanaging the offense; I'm hoping that he'll do the exact opposite and field a team that opposing DCs won't be able to keep up with.
NSD is over and it's basketball season, so of course I'm going to post a very belated and unprofessional football "analysis". But hey, the basketball team is rebuilding and spring practice is still weeks away so here goes.
I pored over Seth's "Run Fits" column partly because of the Harbaugh hype and partly because I wanted -- confession of selfishness here -- vindication of my indictment of Borges. If I'm right in comparing Borges' "27 for 27" to Black Adder's portrayal of Field Marshal Haig (clip since taken down), then Harbaugh should be the opposite, MANBAUGH be damned. I definitely enjoyed the read and agree with every bit of Seth's analysis, but I kind of saw things a bit differently. Harbaugh has this reputation for being an XXXTREME MANBALL coach, and the reason is far from inexplicable. Just a glance at his formations screams old-school, smash-mouth, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust SPARTAAAA:
Thing is, these offenses are notorious for being predictable in an era of S&C parity. So why does it work? Granted you can just re-read Seth's tactical breakdown, but I wanted to examine this offense from a more strategic perspective, so I took another look at Stanford's 2011 Orange Bowl. First, the opening five drives:
Naked bootleg LEFT* for 11 yards
Tailback flat route for 6 yards
I-form run stuffed behind LoS
I-form pass blitzed, Luck rolls right and turfs it
I-form play-action blown up, Luck runs OOB
I-form quick pass to TE complete for 6
Pistol, go route caught OOB
Fake punt stuffed
I-form run left for 4
Pistol PA screen pass for 1
Pistol, out route + YAC for 20
I-form DOOM** left for 60-yard TD.
I-form run stuffed
I-form run left stuffed
1-back under center pass derped, safety
I-form run left for 5
I-form run right for 3
1-back under center pass to TE for 4
I-form off-tackle DOOM left for 26
I-form off-tackle left for 4
Wildcat right stuffed
Pistol 4-wide, 25-yard pass TD to TE
*Luck is right-handed, so I think VT was caught flat-footed.
**Seth explain this in detail but it's so much fun I'll say it again: Stanford shifted into an unbalanced formation, motioned the TE and then pulled the RG, launching well over a half ton of meat at VT's back seven.
Here's the rub: A stereotypical "MANBALL" team with a right-handed QB typically has a run-blocking RT and pass-blocking LT, sending the TE, FB, RB and a puller to the right side of the formation to create a meat avalanche. Stanford handed off three times in the first three drives, and while they were technically strongside runs, none of them went right. How is this an "XXXTREME MANBALL" team? The answer is, it isn't. Hoke is MANBALL. DeBord is MANBALL. This is what I refer to as SunTzuBall:
"Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend."
I'm not a coach, but if I was one, this would be my philosophy. Don't settle for predictable. Don't even take what the defense gives you. Make them think, "Ogod I don't know what's coming." (Edit: Got a bit flippant here.) Every OC says they want that, but some are better at poker than others.
This was NOT a bunch of brutes mindlessly slamming into each other, or even coached to "execute" mindlessly slamming into each other. Harbaugh's offense looks like MANBALL but is actually balanced. I don't think Harbaugh does anything to dissuade the perception; he wants people to think they're cavemen. His assistants will blather on about being a "physical" team and show that I-form heavy all day until your safeties are 6 yards off the LoS, but he's not going to give you what you want. If he runs the ball 10 straight times, it's not because he's willing it to work; it's because you're doing the damage to yourself:
"For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left."
The keys here are misdirection and mismatches. Borges tried to create misdirection but was downright infantile at it; Nuss used constraints but didn't exploit mismatches. In modern offenses overall, the "spread" is such a generic term that it hardly means anything anymore, but to pick on one aspect, the slotback is a mismatch against linebackers and safeties. It's tough for defenders who bulk up against the run to keep pace with a shifty slotbug in space. Combined with the zone read and the O-line splits, the essence of a spread is that heavy guys aren't quick. As Seth points out, MANBALL is the opposite: multiple TEs and a FB put the secondary in a bind because the defense doesn't have enough meat to go around. The defense compensates with speed, getting to the point of attack before the play can develop, but this means they have to act fast and make decisions faster. That's easy when the OC kindly gives you what you want, but MANBAUGH is none of that nonsense.
Here's Some Rope, Now Hang Yourself
With that in mind, let's look at a particular play in the second half of the Orange Bowl (jump to 1:33:38). Up 19-12 late in the 3rd quarter, Stanford is pinned on their own 3-yard line and shows their classic I-form. Unlike in the first half, the TE motions to the right side. The situation calls for a conservative play and the formation is MANBALL to end all MANBALL. VT's defense had been torched several times, but also scored on a safety and otherwise kept Stanford in check. So they're wary of strongside runs, but they're not scared of Stanford imposing their will, toughness, physicality, blah blah blah any of that stupid crap we've heard for the last four years. Nope, they're champing at the bit to swarm whatever gap that FB is going. Marecic is going to eat helmet. The ghost of the still-living Borges is blushing with pride. Only problem?
It's the wrong read. In the mic'd up clip at 1:21, Harbaugh's yelling "backdoor". Harbaugh knows VT is overplaying (also mentioned in MGoPodcast 6.15, 9:00-11:00), but I don't think Taylor is even reading this -- they're deliberately running a bait-and-switch. On the snap, the FB runs strongside and VT follows. Marecic is working his way outside and can't find a gap. Even the RB's track is initially to the right, but (I think) this is a feint because after the mesh he immediately cuts around Luck -- no bounce -- and past the edge blocker (LT?) who casually escorts his defender into the mosh pit to create a gap even the legendary Yoh Momma could fit through:
The result is a 56-yard run. The next play Stanford again shows a heavy formation, then tosses the first of three long TD passes to the TE. VT does not have enough defenders to stop everything Stanford's throwing at them, and it's game over.
"If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us."
Space Coyote will probably be the first to point out that fundamentally, these are all plays available to a conventional "pro-style" offense, and I don't dispute that. The killshot was just a backdoor cut. We can also digress into an argument about execution, and I do have my thoughts on that as well (might post them later). But to stay on point, I don't consider Harbaugh's plays "exotic". The ball still goes in any direction available to a venerable pro-style offense. The important aspect is that, contrary to his MANBALL reputation, he doesn't "impose his will" or use some plays only as constraints to "keep defenses honest", but do him a favor and go right on telling people that. His strategy is physically less stubborn and mentally more vicious. He doesn't pound his head against brick walls or even take what you give him. He gets inside your nightmares, and if MANBALL is your bogeyman then he'll happily wear that mask.
Jamie Moyer is a retired MLB pitcher who reignited his career in his mid-30s by inverting his approach. A formerly washed-up power pitcher, his repertoire wasn't different from his peers -- fastball, curve, changeup. But whereas most "power" pitchers try to blow by hitters with a fastball to set up off-speed "out" pitches, Moyer realized he was terrible at that. So used his changeup to set up his fastball en route to sub-4 ERAs in 7 of 8 of the most home-run happy seasons in MLB history, culminating with a 3.27 ERA and 21-7 record in 2003. That is an elite season, and he did it in the boomstick American League, and he did it at age 40 with an 85mph fastball.
As I've said here and there, "3 yards and a cloud of dust" was not a conservative offense; it was an aggressive approach during a bygone era based on the premise that overwhelming talent can turn a predictable run into a sure thing. There was no need to do anything else. Today, it's the "washed up" power pitcher. Except in rare cases, you can't get away with it. You can't dare everyone with fastballs down the middle any more than you can run into a stacked box over and over again. Stanford didn't. They didn't overpower anyone with their roster of 2- and 3-star recruits. It's not imposing will, toughness, blah blah. Their "MANBALL" was the football equivalent of an 85mph heater thrown from a 40-year-old arm with veteran sagacity and exquisite precision. Harbaugh is the Jamie Moyer of the pro-style offense. That fastball may be 85mph, but you won't be able to hit it because he's smarter than you.
So this is making the rounds today, and while you'll probably be sick of hearing it by the end of the week, I've got my own reasons for sharing.
So, Kacy Catanzaro completed the American Ninja Warrior finals course. And while the news is all about how she overcame her diminutive stature (with some haters saying the course was "easy" because her body is so light) or GRRL POWER (how "historical" is it when a competition has only been in place since 2009?), what I saw was the most beautiful clinic on body control.
The approach was as intelligent as it was incredible. Not that the course was any easier for the guys -- they all ran the same course and it's designed to make your weight work against you -- but the most amazing sequences were when her lack of length demanded a dramatically different approach probably not expected by the course designers. When she couldn't reach, she built up momentum or coiled up and leaped. When she lacked upper body strength, she generated power from her legs and core. Above all else, she showed an excellent combination of agility and precision. That's gymnastics for you, but this was a lot more fun to watch because by not needing to look pretty or elegant she brought her full ability to bear.
She ain't playing any contact sports weighing in at 100 pounds, but seriously, I'd show this to any asipring athlete, male or female. The lesson here is that when you're trying an amazing feat of athleticism, whether it's jump from pole to pole or catch a pass thrown low and three feet out-of-bounds, the situation restricts your options. What's left, however difficult, is what you have to do, but finding out what that is and how to do it is just as important as having the requisite athleticism.
I can imagine Jeremy Gallon getting a huge kick out of this for some reason. . .
So I guess the "Fire Borges" calls are reaching fever pitch, and I came across a diary where someone said they were going to bring a "Fire Borges" sign to the game.
C'mon, we're better than that, aren't we?
No, really. The typical fan is going to hold up a sign like that because 13 points vs. Nebraska durrr. Don't we all claim to know more about football than the average armchair quarterback? There's been some contention between the RRAWWARGG crowd and the argument-by-authority crowd, and setting aside who's right, why not turn this into something interesting, even enlightening? Not to mention, we can also either make a point or prove our ignorance. Either way, time to put our money where our mouth is.
My proposal is simple. Next home game (or as many as necessary), bring a two-sided sign (or two signs, whatever) with "RUN" on one side and "PASS" on the other. When the offense lines up, look at the formation and show the crowd & cameras your prediction. It'd be cool if even a dozen of these showed up and called the plays with consistency. Why do it?
1) Well, it's more cerebral than a goddamn "Fire X" sign. Yeesh, a moron can do that.
2) The theory here is that the offense is predictable beyond belief. 1st down, tackle over, Norfleet, Funchess wide. . . the opposing defense is given reads a 7th grader can make. Well, if we're right, let's show everyone we're right. If we're NOT, then the shame's on us and we can all shut up.
3) It's harmless. We are technically not supposed to know what's coming because Borges is experienced and we're stupid laymen, so these are technically guesses. May not be much in the way of team spirit but solving a problem isn't always about good feelings. I want to see the players win, not yet another 2nd and 12.
4) The defense should have their own predictions. If we're off base and they pay ANY attention to us at all, they're unspeakably stupid and we're doing the home team a favor.
And if it's not getting any attention. . . well, you can put the sign on your lap and wack off behind it or something.
I dunno, maybe it's a stupid idea. But if we're itching to unleash some sound and fury, I'd rather make a point than a show.
P.S. I say "we" but in the interest of disclosure, I can't join in the effort because I live in New England. Otherwise this is something I'd probably have started doing after the PSU game.
NOTE: A large part of this is motivated out of frustration, but there's a teachable moment here -- Borges called almost as many tailback runs for <3 yards (16) as the number of inane moves (18) used in the punchline of a comedy sketch. If there's a productive purpose, it's to call to attention just how stubborn the playcalling was last night. I mean, how bad does this have to get before laymen are allowed to question his judgement?
The comedy transcript is for "Black Adder IV, Episode 1: Captain Cook"
The even funnier bits are taken from ESPN's play-by-play from yesterday's game.
Melchett: Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.
(lemme guess. . .)
2nd and 1 at MICH 29 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the Mich 29
3rd and 1 at MICH 29 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the Mich 29
2nd and 1 at MICH 48 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the Mich 33
Blackadder: Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?
Darling: How can you possibly know that Blackadder? It's classified information.
(gee, lemme think. . .)
2nd and Goal at PSU 5 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for a loss of 2 yards to the PnSt 7
1st and 10 at PSU 16 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the PnSt 16
2nd and 10 at MICH 46 Derrick Green rush for a loss of 2 yards to the Mich 44
Blackadder: It's the same plan that we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.
1st and 10 at PSU 41 Derrick Green rush for no gain to the PnSt 41
2nd and 10 at PSU 41 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 3 yards to the PnSt 38
Melchett: Exactly! And that is what so brilliant about it! We will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do this time! There is however one small problem.
1st and 10 at PSU 28 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 1 yard to the PnSt 27
2nd and 9 at PSU 27 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the PnSt 27
3rd and 14 at PSU 32 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for a loss of 3 yards to the PnSt 35
Blackadder: That everyone always gets slaughtered the first ten seconds.
("you gotta give credit to the other team")
1st and 10 at PSU 25 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 1 yard to the PnSt 24
2nd and 9 at PSU 24 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 1 yard to the PnSt 23
Melchett: That's right! And Field Marshal Haig is worried that this may be depressing the men a tadge. So, he's looking to find a way to cheer them up.
(except, you know, doing what works.)
1st and 10 at PSU 25 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 3 yards to the PnSt 22
1st and 10 at PSU 25 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the PnSt 25
3rd and 1 at PSU 16 Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for no gain to the PnSt 16
Blackadder: Well, his resignation and suicide would seem the obvious solution.
(I wouldn't go as far as suicide, but point taken. But then again, what would we know about field strategy? Field Marshal Haig FTW!)
"Will": A One-Down Play (w/ apologies to "Airplane!")
QUARTER 1, DOWN 1
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the game, folks. The Michigan defense starts their work at the 22. Looks like the offense is in an unusual formation, trips plus tight end all on one side of the field. Split end goes into motion. . . to the strong side! Five guys on one side? I don't know if they're trying to confuse Mattison, but they're sure confusing me!
JORDAN KOVACS: Coverage Blue-18. . . Wait, it's not trips, guys! It's quints!
QUINTON WASHINGTON: Huh?
KENNY DEMENS: Denny, Will covers the slot, not the wideout!
WILL CAMPBELL: What?
DESMOND MORGAN: I'm on him! Coverage, Black-32!
JIBREEL BLACK: What?
JORDAN KOVACS: They can't all be on the line. They're forming a second row!
CRAIG ROH: Huh?
JAKE RYAN: Split your zone with Denny, Kenny!
KENNY DEMENS: Will do!
WILL CAMPBELL: What?
JAKE RYAN: Jordan, JT will cover the flanker, but can he stay with him?
WILL CAMPBELL: What?
KENNY DEMENS: Huh?
JORDAN KOVACS: Who?