Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan offense showed us Michigan fans a new offensive wrinkle against Miami (OH) this week. The use of the "I" formation comes as a surprise from a coach who runs a vast majority of his plays out of the shotgun spread. But in the transition from Lloyd Carr's run-oriented offense to the spread, Michigan's personnel suggests that some more tradition offensive sets might be advantageous.
The advantage of the "I" formation comes in several ways.
1. The "I" formation is an unbalanced set that forces the defense to choose strength. The quarterback lines up under center, the fullback lines up directly behind the QB, and the tailback lines up behind the fullback. Most defenses will call strength toward the tight end; if there is no tight end, they will call strength to the two-receiver side. If your standard 4-3 defense shifts to the strong side, an offense can gain a numbers advantage to the weak side by sending the fullback and tailback to that side.
2. The "I" formation provides a lead blocker in the running game. Unlike most plays in the spread offense, an I-back can follow his lead blocker on wham plays. On a wham (aka "iso") the offensive linemen turn their men away from the hole and the fullback leads through the hole on a linebacker. If the linebacker attacks the block head on, the I-back can cut in either direction. If the linebacker attacks with one shoulder, which he should, the running back should be able to read the block and cut in the other direction.
3. The "I" formation gets a running back closer to the line. This can be helpful on quick-hitting running plays, like traps or dives. Since there's no lead blocker for the fullback and since he's usually not a nifty runner, it's best to use these quick hitters when you know the defense isn't paying attention to the fullback.
4. The "I" formation allows the running back to run downhill and use cutback lanes. Running "downhill" means that the back is running toward the defenders and not away from them. Sweep plays allow the defense to chase the ball carrier, which can work against slow defense, but not often against fast ones. Whams, traps, counters, dives, etc. get the running back headed upfield and put pressure on the defensive players to stay disciplined, fill cutback lanes, and break down to tackle the ballcarrier.
5. The "I" formation also gives the offense a chance to run play action passes and keep one or two backs in the backfield to help with pass protection.
Michigan's offense used the "I" formation well in the game against Miami. With Mark Moundros lined up at fullback and Sam McGuffie behind him, the team ran an iso (which McGuffie broke outside for a big gain) and a couple toss sweeps to the outside (which McGuffie also broke outside for decent gains). On top of that, Threet handed off to Mark Moundros on a fullback dive that gained seven yards.
Without the ideal quarterback for the spread option, Rodriguez will need to adjust the offense to his personnel. The use of the "I" formation is a step in that direction. Michigan has a plethora of tight ends, a good blocking fullback, and starting linemen that were recruited to play in a pro-style run offense. As the linemen become more athletic and the quarterbacks get better at running the read option, the use of the I formation may be used less and less in future years. In the meantime, it will be beneficial to use this set. But as far as I recall, Michigan ran exclusively in the "I" formation. In future weeks Michigan will need to run plays other than whams and toss sweeps out of the "I." Otherwise, upcoming opponents will be able to key on the run.