Mason NEEDS this, Pistons, after all you've put him through
This is our off-season strategy, and I love it
It's easy to forget that the "Hail Mary" is not just a football play, but also a prayer. While Brady Hoke's desired scheme is more Lloyd Carr than Rich Rodriguez, his coaching approach is certainly closer to Art Briles' play-calling than Mike DeBord's.
So what the hell does that mean?
I love--as I believe most do--Hoke's aggressiveness on fourth down. But we've learned quite a bit more about his willingness to go "all in" this off-season, and the result will be a 2014 team that looks drastically different from its predecessor. No less than six position changes that could affect the starting line-up, a new offensive coordinator, and significant scheme change on defense. This is the "Hail Mary" off-season: it is both a long, risky pass, and a prayer.
2013, to me, was The Season of Infinite Pain. It wasn't just the losing, it was the way we lost. The go-backwards offense that decided four downs were just too many combined with a defense that seemed to know exactly when to self-destruct made for a season that was excrutiatingly painful to watch, and I believe that the manner in which we lost (and won) was even more of a factor in our recruiting death spiral than the record itself. In the few games where the offense did click (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio) the defense couldn't keep-up, and the offensive line was never even close to adequate.
I hope we're all still smiling in December
So what did Brady Hoke do about this? He fired his friend and Offensive Coordinator--with whom he'd had lots of success. He made wholesale changes to the positions the defensive staff coaches, and removed himself as a position coach. He will be instituting a new scheme on both sides of the ball--completely new on offense, and moving from a 4-3 Under to a 4-3 Over on defense. Make no mistake about it, this change on defense is almost as significant as moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (but not as significant as going to a 3-3-5). On top of that, Hoke is reshuffling a slew of starters and key back-ups.
Here's what I love about this:
- It's all on Hoke. If this season ends in disaster, the J. Ira and Blah Blah Blah Coach will be the last place for the finger to point. It's mostly his roster, the coaching staff has been rebuilt, player positions have been changed. The answer to the question, "Can Brady Hoke coach?" is now clearly: "See 2014 season."
- The courage to change. I get Brian's negativity about some of the changes. A new OC? A new scheme on defense? Changing the position of your best player on defense (maybe the best player on the team)? It all smacks of desperation. That's scary as hell, and should make you nervous. It makes me nervous. But last year was awful, and here is a coach saying, "You know what? We have to make significant changes. Tweaks aren't going to do it." He's admitting the failure--not just through coachspeak--and making changes that could turn things around.
- Win or lose, this should be better to watch. Devin Gardner called it "a new style of practice." We know that Nussmeier at least practiced the no huddle at Alabama. Whether or not we see U-M stopping for a group chat between every play this season, I would expect the offense to move more quickly and the QBs to have more time at the line. I can damn near guarantee you'll see some of the constraint plays many on this board have been clamoring for, since Nuss' has always used WR screens and extended hand-offs. And we now know that Devin Funchess will be playing "on the outside." Nussmeier has always used a balanced attack that focuses on getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and scoring points. Even if our offense doesn't set records this year, it should be a lot more fun to watch.
- Defense, too. The Tampa Two defenses that were en vogue in the NLF in the early '00's (and longer for the Lions) proved that "bend-but-don't-break" defense could work. Forcing the offense to plod towards the end zone and use all their downs increases the chances of a mistake and forces an offense to be more precise. I have two problems with that: 1) It's much harder to do against a no-huddle offense, since you can't rotate your D-Line as much, which MUST get pressure. 2) It's not as fun to watch. Last season, it often seemed like Mattison's "Keep the ball inside and in front" mantra mostly meant, "If you want a first down passing over the middle, we're happy to give it to you." Compounding that frustration was the snake-bitten (or gypsy-cursed) outside coverage that always seemed to be in the right place at the right time but didn't make the play. Even though we produced 17 INTs and nearly as many turnovers as we did in 2011 (when we recovered a ridiculous 20 fumbles) it never felt like a game-changing or play-making defense, mostly because there were far too many times when we let teams like Akron, Penn State, Indiana, 2nd-half Iowa, Ohio State, and Kansas State move the ball seemingly at will. Too many times, when it mattered most, our defense whiffed. Hoke says NO MORE! The changes that have been made public about positions and scheme strongly suggest we are moving to a high-pressure, in your face defense closer to MSU's style than Monte Kiffin's. I expect more blitzing, more play-making, and more TFLs. Might we get torched more often? Maybe, but I'd rather watch that brand of football, and I think players (and recruits) would rather play that way.
- Musical chairs on defense. Moving Keith Heitzman to TE is a virtual no-lose change: here's a guy who had been passed by younger players at SDE, switching to a position he played in high school where we need toughness and depth. But moving your best defender (and maybe player) to MLB from what was closer to a 3-4 OLB? It's a gamble, and not a small one. The upside is huge: if you go right, Jake Ryan is there; if you go left, JMFR is there. Starting from the middle, he has the potential to be involved in every play. But what if he's not very good at his new job? What if JRIII gets put on his ass by opposing TEs? What if Desmond Morgan is too slow to play the WILL in a 4-3 Over? Hoke took his deepest, most experienced position group on the entire team and changed everything. If it works, it could be beautiful. If it doesn't, he could be fired. But Jake Ryan went from 6.8 tackles/game to 3.7 and, even more alarming, from 1.27 TFLs/game to 0.56. Sure, some of that is the injury, but some of that is opposing teams saying, "We're not letting him beat us." Now? Defensive coordinators will have to fool Ryan to beat him, because we already know he can shed blocks and move sideline-to-sideline. If he can diagnose plays, he's going to kick some serious ass in 2014. And now Mattison is his position coach.
Do these changes make me nervous? Of course. These are huge changes, and change always brings risk. But, to me, these changes seem to directly address the issues--both in terms of success and enjoyment--that made 2013 so damn unwatchable. And win or lose, we'll know what we have in a head coach.
What it all boils down to is this: it's Hoke's fourth season, and very much the fourth quarter in a game he's losing to stay on as Michigan's blah blah blah Head Coach. And he's not calling the safe, conservative I-form off tackle play, or even the single-back play-action post; while it may require some help from the heavens, he's calling the fucking Hail Mary.
We'll just have to pray it works.
My favorite album of all-time...sadly fitting for the 2013 football season
I'm taking a brief break from grading the position groups to
comment vent about the Copper Bowl and the program in general. Brian's post today was alarmingly similar to my feelings (usually he is far more emo than I am) about the game and the program in general.
What Brady Hoke and his supporters (myself included) has always been able to hang his hat on is that his teams play hard. They don't always play well, but they do play hard. Always.
The Copper Bowl was not just a failure to play defense (we allowed 6.56 yds/play and let KSU covert 7 of 11 third downs) or score TDs despite a surprisingly efficient first-half offense (finished the game at 4.92 yds/play...but only had 53 plays), but it was a failure to show-up.
This sums-up our 2013 season
After spending the entire season trying really hard and not getting good results due to a variety of factors (youth, play-calling, missed assignments, etc) the team was in too much pain to try to crack another coconut. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison's defense--for the first time--simply didn't appear to have the will to put up another fight.
Those who believe the guillotine would be too kind of a punishment for Al Borges after this season might not want to admit it, but the offensive gameplan was pretty effective. Shane Morris has an unbelievable arm and can make throws that no Michigan QB since Drew Henson could even think about, but his decision-making isn't there yet, as evidenced by what happened late when he was asked to read the whole field and make throws into 8-man coverages. Borges understood this and designed a screen game that let shane make throws but avoided forcing him to pick which guy to throw to. We moved the ball and even tried a fade to Funchess in the endzone...but couldn't score a TD. The offense appeared to be giving effort for at least a few drives, but couldn't get it done. Then they gave-up too: we didn't even hurry when we were down 24-6 with 8:06 remaining.
For the first time in Brady Hoke's tenure, the team simply didn't appear to try. This is sad, alarming, and needs to be addressed. Obviously, Greg Mattison did not become a bad coach between the Ohio game and this debacle. And Hoke did not lose his powers of motivation. But what is clear is that if you give your full effort over-and-over and get nothing but pain, at some point, your body might just say, "not today."
I am someone who believes in looking at the whole picture. The 2013 season's failures are not on the shoulders of just one person (or even two or three) in my estimation; rather a confluence of many unfortunate factors fused into a nuclear disaster. And while there are many reasons for the meltdown, there must be some accountability for what happened in that bowl game.
All that said, if we put together a 10-win season in 2014 and win one of the MSU/OSU games (or both) we will be right back in the hunt as a B1G contender, and the positive momentum could push closer to our goal or returning to national prominence. On the other hand, if we slog to an eight-win (or worse) total in 2014, we risk becoming solidified as a second-tier team...until we re-build again.
Make no mistake about it: that bowl game showing has very real consequences. For the first time, a Brady Hoke team didn't even show-up. And that means 2014 just became even more important to the future of this program and the job-security of everyone on the staff.
2013 will be remembered as "The Season of Infinite Pain" for me, and for many others, I suspect. High expectations have a way of making even good seasons frustrating; 2013 has been well-below "good." Not only did we fail to compete for a B1G Championship, we had our expectations boosted after a magical performance against Notre Dame, only to be crushed by consecutive weeks of struggling to beat two of the worst programs in college football.
I was going to wait until after the bowl game to write this diary, but this lull is killing me and let's face it--the BWW Bowl isn't going to change much.
This series is something of a follow-up to my diary re-ranking players based on Rivals ratings. Reading the beginning of that diary will help explain the player's rankings (as well as the Rivals ranking system). Additionally, I've added letter grades, which are explained more thoroughly at the end of the post, so that we can get down to business with the first position group in the series:
Season Grade: C+ Overall, it was a less-than-stellar year on the defensive front. My pre-season predictions said the fate of our season rested on the offensive and defensive lines, and I believe that turned out to be the case. The D-Line produced just 13.5 sacks, and only one player on the line had more than 2.5. The "right to rush four" was never earned, and the season suffered because of it.
That said, there were some positive signs. Frank Clark showed marked improvement, and Willie Henry emerged as a viable option to replace either QWash or Black in 2014. Wormley started to emerge in limited snaps, and other young guns like Ojemudia and Charlton showed flashes.
Big things were expected of Frank Clark in 2013
Season Grade: B+ To say Frank Clark made a big jump this year would be an understatement: he had 17 more tackles, 3.5 more TFLs, and 3.0 more sacks than in 2012. More importantly, he played much more consistently and held down his job as the WDE all season. He led the team in TFLs by a whopping 5.0, and many of those came against some strong opposition (2.5 vs. Iowa, 2.5 vs. MSU).
That said, the off-season hype and reports of him besting Taylor Lewan in practice pushed expectations to a probably unreasonable level, and he did not come through. I predicted that we would need at least eight sacks from Frank Clark if our defense was going to get the requisite amount of pressure on opposing passers to make 2013 a successful (B1G Champs) season. Not only did he fall far short of that number, his five sacks all came in three games: UConn, Penn State, and Indiana. In hindsight, we sure needed those sacks against UConn and PSU, but they weren't enough to win the game. His pass-rushing was pretty quiet--even though he deserved a few more QBH's, he only finished the season with seven (which led the team), and had just three in B1G play.
2014 outlook: It says here (again) that without significant production from Frank Clark (or a surprise at WDE), the whole 2014 team's ceiling is limited. It is vital for every 4-3 team to be able to produce consistent pressure from their front four, and the WDE is the guy with the best opportunities in our system. If Clark can't get to eight sacks in '14, we'll once again find ourselves in the middle-of-the-pack (#67 nationally in 2013 with 23.0 total) in sacks. That is not a good place to be.
Jibreel Black will be missed
Season Grade: B Jibreel Black is the kind of player you like more every time you see him play. I believe he was our most consistent performer on the line this year, even plugging-in at NT despite his 278 lb. frame. Black, by far, produced the most pressure from the interior of the line, and probably produced the most consistent pass-rush of anyone on the team.
Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough. He was tied for second (Cam Gordon) on the team with 7.5 TFLs and third (Chris Wormley) with 2.5 sacks. On the defensive line, only Clark and Willie Henry had more tackles. Yes, he was a productive player, but this needs to be the baseline for DTs if we are going to achieve our potential as an elite program. For Jibreel Black, I see a guy who maxed his potential and deserves to be remembered for his worthy contribution. But I also see a guy who stood out more than he should have because of pretty poor production by the D-Line as a unit.
NFL draft outlook: Black is a fringe prospect, IMO, with a minimal chance of being a FA pick-up.
Quinton Washington's 2013 was a bit of a mystery
Season Grade: C+ I call shenanigans. QWash finished the 2012 season strong--he had ten tackles in our last three games and a sack in the Outback Bowl--and appeared poised to be one of the team's most important pieces in 2013. While no confirmed injuries were reported that I am aware of, I believe there were some physcial issues that held him back this year. But that's just speculation.
What is certain is that his season was just mediocre. We needed him to eat blocks and make a few plays each game; he didn't do enough of either, registered zero TFLs on the season and just five solo stops. Expectations probably hovered around 35 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, and 3.0 sacks; he was far short of all of those marks. Sure, part of it was that we frequently had smaller DL packages out there, but if QWash had been playing up to his potential, I don't think Mattison would have kept him on the sideline. He was serviceable while he was in, but that's about the best I can say.
NFL draft outlook: Not happening. He appeared poised to be a late-round pick after last year, but a completely lackluster senior season seems to have erased that possibility.
It's remarkable that we never established a starter at SDE. Keith Heitzman was the presumed and nominal guy, but only started seven times and didn't even play in one of our games. Brennen Beyer is currently listed as the starter at SDE, and he spent most of the season playing SLB with his 250 lb. frame. It is not good that he is our best option at that position. Chris Wormely showed signs that he can play up to his lofty potential, but did not produce consistently. Matt Godin was sometimes on the field.
Willie Henry figures to start at either DT or NT in 2014. Despite playing in only nine games (and missing stat-boosters CMU and Akron) and starting just five, Henry racked-up 28 tackles and 2.5 TFLs. 13 of those tackles came in the final three games. QWash's 2013 fade gives me pause, but I will go ahead and predict a big 2014 for Henry anyway, in the 40 tackle range with about 10 TFLs. Tom Strobel (whom I wrongly predicted would have a breakout 2013) will also figure into the rotation here, and perhaps Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst.
Beyer is the presumed starter at SDE, and, as Brian says, will likely fulfill his Roh 2.0 destiny. He will add 20-30 lbs. in the off-seasn and be solid but not spectacular, just as he has been this year. He will be reviewed again in the LB wrap-up.
Ondre Pipkins will probably be our starting NT if he can get healthy; that is a big "if" for a 300-plus pounder who's had trouble staying in shape when his legs worked properly. If it's not him, please feel free to panic as Richard Ash is currently listed as the #2 option at NT. After that? Ryan Glasgow is the only other guy with the requisite size (and the aforementioned Henry, which requires plugging someone else in at DT) to play the position. Perhaps Hurst will become a NT; Bryan Mone will be a true freshman and is likely to get some snaps.
Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton represent what I believe to be the most talented group of back-ups on the roster, and I expect both to contribute. Charlton may very well be big enough to play SDE and even DT on passing downs, and I hope we find a combination of players that can get pressure on third down without blitzing, which may put Ojemudia at the SDE.
The line will lose its interior starters in Qwash and Black, but both are replaceable. Henry is likely to be an upgrade at either position, and in the other spot...well, we may miss Jibreel Black if someone doesn't step-up. At SDE, I expect Beyer to be an upgrade over the platoon this year. Even if he's not, I'd expect Wormley to be an upgrade.
To be an elite defensive front, we need our line to produce around 20 sacks. That's 50% more than this year's group could manage. While I believe Clark will take another step forward, Beyer will be solid, and I am excited about the future for Henry and Wormley, 2015 is when Hoke's recruiting will have the D-Line up to snuff. I expect a "B/B-" season in 2014...quite a bit better than this year, but not yet elite.
- A+ Consensus All-American. One of the best players in the country regardless of position.
- A Likely Second-tem All-American/First-team All-B1G. A hugely impactful player that affects every snap for which he is on the field and is one of the better players at his position in the country.
- A- Likely All-B1G selection. A play-maker that forces other teams to adjust their gameplan.
- B+ An impact player who is a big factor in the team's success.
- B "The expectation for the position." At Michigan, this means you are doing your job well enough to get us to at least 10 wins and to challege for the B1G title.
- B- Not quite up to par. A player who may start, but an upgrade would be helpful.
- C+ Significant snaps for a C+ player will hold the team back from achieving its goals: 10 wins and a B1G championship.
- C An average college football player on an average team. Picture an average starter at Washington State.
- C- A player that is consistently unproductive and should only be on the field in an emergency situation or for garbage time.
- D+ A player whose performance hurts the team.
- D A player that should not be on the field for any reason at Michigan.
- F Pure disaster.
Please note that these grades are NOT representative of what I believe to be a player's future potential. I am not assuming anyone with a low grade will turn out to be an unproductive player at Michigan.
This might be the worst t-shirt ever
I still remember the first time someone asked to see my ID. I was a junior in college, and walking into a casino. I proudly withdrew my Michigan driver's license and handed it to the bouncer. He looked at me, saw my beaming face, and chuckled. He knew what I didn't: that I would start to hate being asked for ID after it happened approximately twice more; by then I just wanted to get where I was going or buy what I was buying without having to reach into my pocket and pull my ID out of my wallet. Leave me alone, man. I'm old enough.
Of course, these days, I take more pleasure in being carded. It rarely happends, but when it does, I'm pleased to reveal that I have been older than 21 for...a long time.
This diary will examine the experience of our overall roster. I decided I wanted to go beyond the O-Line and look at the whole picture. This concept basically occurred to me when I realized I was no longer completely committed to BRADYHOKE4EVER. I love the guy, and think he can be successful, but our offense is approaching the ineptitude that our defense achieved under RR, and that is indefensible. But I want the facts before I judge.
I'm wading into some dark waters here. Some people are going to see this diary as an effort to indict (again) Rich Rodriguez. Right here it says that's not what I'm doing--in fact, RR is a great coach, and I wish he had succeeded at U-M. Others will see it as an apology for Al Borges; NO. Al Borges deserves no apologies. After Saturday, I am no longer in favor of giving AB another year. Don't get me wrong--I'm not calling for him to be fired, but I'm not against him being put out to pasture. If he's replaced, however, it better be with someone who has a similar philosophy, because, as this diary shows, transitions can SUCK.
Here are the raw numbers for Michigan:
|Yr||# of players||%||Walkons||Scholars||%|
On their own, these numbers seem almost self-evident: RR and The Process left us with a roster that is almost completely useless for Hoke's philosophical brand of football. But how do they compare with other schools, and how do they compare with other schools that have recently undergone a coaching staff transition?
Because I have a life and lots of work to do that I can only justify avoiding for so long, I only studied the data of five other schools (because they were easy to find with the Googles): Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Ohio State, and Florida State. All of these programs have had coaching changes since 2008, and they are all relatively strong programs that compete for conference championships. Here are their breakdowns:
This is just for the scholarship players. While there is some variance across these five programs, there are some stark differences when comparing any of them to the Michigan roster. Only Texas A&M has a higher percentage of first-year players, but their second-year percentage is tiny. Ohio State is the only school to have more than two-fifths of their roster devoted to first and second year players, but at 54%, they are still 6.7 percentage points (12.4%) below Michigan. Here are the averages for the five, including the totals for players in their first two years and players and in their last three years:
|Yrs||Sample Five||2/3 totals|
Not surprisingly, players in their first and second years compose roughly 2/5 of the roster, with players in their third year or later accounting for about 60%. For Michigan, though, these numbers are drastically--and alarmingly--different. Over 60% of our roster is composed of guys who have been with the program for two years or less. Our roster is upside down. Here are the deltas for our roster versus the average:
|Yrs||Delta||% diff||2/3 delta||% diff|
Basically, we have almost 50% more youth and one-third less experience. We will require baby-sitting for another year.
What's even more striking is our dearth of experience on defense: we have just eight scholarship players in their fourth or fifth year in the program. Mattison has turned us into a competent defense despite lacking seasoned veterans, and next year he'll once again have just three fifth-year players.We have, on average, 28.4% more first-year players and 76.5% (!!!) more second-year players. The third year is the least significant difference, where we are about 19% behind the average. In years four and five the difference is vast, but nothing like year two.
Conclusions and Error Sources. We are ridiculously young. Our proportionally gigantic second-year class will be helping to even things out next year, but we'll still be real short on fiftth-year players.
For me, this gives me hope for Hoke. I like Brady; I think he's a genuine, good-hearted man with a teacher's heart. He's a strong recruiter, and he doesn't make the public misstatements that so often tripped-up his predecessor, but he must get this offense turned around or he'll face the same fate. To be honest, I'd rather have a good man as our head coach than a douche who can win games. The trick is finding both, and both you must be if you want to satisfy perhaps the most demanding fanbase in all of college football.
Obviously, youth alone is not enough to tell the story. But it obvious that Hoke inherited a roster that was ill-equipped to handle his demands. I belive that must be a factor when judging his performance.
The obvious error source is the small sample size of the average. That said, Wisconsin has a brand new coach, Ohio and A&M have second-year HCs, and Jimbo started at Florida State in 2010. Only Bo Pelini has more than four years on the job (started in '08). I suspect, if anything, these rosters are more youth-slanted than average, especially when you consider the impact of Ohio State's switch to the spread-no-huddle.
TL;DR - Michigan is extremely inexperienced, and only next year will we have a roster of normal proportions. Greg Mattison has made it work anyway. Hoke has a valid reason for under-performance so far, but starting next year that begins to fade. At this point, even accounting for youth, I can't stand behind Borges anymore.
What does cute baby have in common with our offense vs. MSU? They both suck!
Al Borges is easily the most hated man on the Michigan staff. Darrell Funk may be gaining some ground in that department, but he has a long way to go. Even Brady Hoke--the man who has delivered Michigan's best recruits in over a decade--is facing some heavy criticism.
I get it. Saturday was painful in so many ways. It's hard to watch your QB run play action from under center and get sacked almost before he turns around. It's hard to watch your team's championship hopes vanish in game that wasn't a contest. It's hard to know you can't beat the best, or even the very good.
Every story is made better with a villain. This is our national mode of thinking now--in politics, in business, and in sports. It's just so much easier to blame someone than to actually look at the complexity of an issue.
And to be sure, Al Borges does deserve blame. As does Funk, and, yes, even Hoke. Coaches are responsible for the product on the field. Period. Our product sucked with the fury of a black hole (yes nerds, I know they don't actually "suck") on Saturday, and it's natural to want bastards to pay for that.
But, just for a moment, let's look at how we could have attacked that MSU defense, instead of focusing on our complete inability to do anything resembling offense on Saturday.
This is right off of Brian's picture pages. It is a very typical alignment for MSU, although the field (don't want to argue about strong/free) safety is a bit deeper than usual at ten yards; it's often closer to eight. Michigan is in a pretty standard 3WR Shotgun look. Sometimes, that slot LB is actually a LB, sometimes it's a LB/S hybrid. Doesn't really matter.
How do you attack this defense? Let's examine a few possibilities:
- Quick pass/extended hand-off. Outside press coverage eliminates this possibility for the X and Z (outside receivers). You could look to the H (slot), but that LB or LB/S thingy is definitely close enough to tackle almost immediately. As soon as DG turns his head there and Funchess turns to catch the ball, that LB is in KILL! mode. He knows he has safety help over the top if he's wrong, so there's very little risk form him. He would attempt decapitation. Even if Funchess can shake him, that safety is there--and this assumes the TE blocked the middle LB. So basically, this option sucks.
- Slants/hitches/crosses. We're going to assume this is man coverage, since that's what MSU runs most of the time. First of all, it's terribly difficult to beat press coverage on a three-step drop, especially when the corners are as accomplished as Waynes and Dennard. This is made even more difficult by the fact that their corners are playing "inside technique," meaning they are a half-step inside the WRs, trying to force them to the outside. But let's assume, just for fun, that our guys beat their guys. The WR on the left side is now running right into that slot LB, who is reading the H. A common antidote to this would be to send the H on a flat route, attempting to pull the LB with him. That might actually work. The problem, though, is that MSU's safeties use a technique called "pattern reading." Basically, they are watching the first few steps of those slot/TE types, and reacting. If the slot/TE dudes don't stretch the field, the safety crashes down to try and help in coverage. MSU's safeties will make this ready quickly. A best-case scenario is a perfectly executed slant that gets thumped by the safety after a five or six yard gain. But this is a high-risk play: if the LB reads the QB's eyes and sinks, it could be a pick-six. I didn't mention the hitch, but it's real tough against press man, and the crossing routes are even MORE susceptible to LB INTs, which MSU does well.
- MANBALL. Run the ball, damn it! Well, even if we had a good O-Line, this is tough. A give to the RB means our six blockers are up against their six plus"two halves" in the box. That LB over the slot and the boundary safety are both on the edge of the box, ready to pounce on a running play. Even if we leave a backside guy unblocked, MSU will have numbers in the box very quickly, and our best-case is a three-yard gain (which we actually mustered a few times). BUT, even this will be inconsistent, because sometimes those LBs blitz and that safety crashes even before they know if it's run or pass, and in that case the slower-developing run from the shotgun is dead to rights. This, by the way, is why AB and Hoke want an under center game: your RB can immediately get to the business of running when the ball is snapped, rather than waiting for the snap to get to the QB and for the QB to handle the snap and then hand it off to a guy who is right next to him. From under center, the RB can (and does) start to move at the snap, and gets the ball closer to the LOS and with a some steam. It's not a huge difference, but it is significant and it is why RB runs are often more effective from under center.
- Option run. Yeah. We tried a few of these. You saw what happened. MSU makes quick, aggressive reads on almost every play. They blitz frequently, and they slant, stunt, and twist all the damn time. If even one of these guys gets free--which they almost always did against us--you're looking at a five yard loss. Even in a well-designed play (which Brian covered in the picture pages) the MSU defense collapses fast, gets off blocks, and gobbles-up your RB or QB. They get nine guys in the box (the safeties crash fast) as quickly as any team I've ever seen. Their DE's are also athletic enough to trouble the option on their own. All that said, a finely-tuned and perfectly-blocked option scheme would give them trouble, as it would anyone.
- Deep passing game. Without even the slightest doubt, this is where MSU is susceptible. IF Ohio beats them, it will be with big plays in the passing game, IMO, and perhaps some read/option stuff with probably the best running tandem QB and RB this side of Oregon. But, schematically, there is no doubt that this defense is susceptible to the deep pass, especially off of play action. You can get single coverage on your H (slot), your Y (TE), and your X and Z (outside WRs) against this defense. There are two problems with this: MSU's one-on-one coverage is really good; and MSU's blitzes and pass rush are even better than their coverage. I believe Denicos Allen is the best blizting LB in the country, and Bullough isn't far behind. Your QB needs a 7-step drop for these routes; your line needs to hold-up; and your RB probably needs to block (since that's one of the only ways to shut down the double-A blitz). We had open receivers against MSU. Other teams have also had wide open dudes. But when the QB's face is in the turf--or he's worried about his face being in the turf--it's awfully hard to read the defense and make the perfect throw required to beat the coverage (see Gardner's INT). Max protect should give you the time you need, but you still have to execute against an excellent blitz and stellar coverage, and MSU's safeties do a good job of reading three-man routes and helping their CB's where they can.
- Play action. For the record, I hated the play action calls. Having Gardner turn his back when his line can't block just sucks. But I understand why Borges calls them. MSU does read-and-react, and their LBs and safeties do hold a beat on play action. The run/pass conflict is there. That said, they are often blitzing a LB no matter what, which has the potential to blow-up your play before it gets started. So there's a bit of roulette there. But if you can block it, the opportunities for deep passes will be there, and pop passes to the slot from the shotgun or pistol (which we did) can be effective. That said, it's a slow-developing play that requires more blocking, and MSU is betting that you can't beat them in that department. Yet another reason to run play action is to set-up the run. Yep, you read that correctly. When a defense gets burned on a PA pass, they naturally slow their reaction to the run. This is why you might run a PA pass before you run the base running play. There is yet another reason Borges calls these PA passes and under center runs: he's preparing the team for the future. If we don't run under center until we're good at it, we'll never be good at it. Borges would get (rightfully) bashed for bringing out the 2015 team and expecting them to run under center stuff if they'd never done it before. Like it or not, it's part of our future, and we need experience doing it some, even if we suck at it.
TL;DR - MSU's defense is really good, and very difficult to attack. When you can't block their blitzes, you are left with few or no good options. This is not an excuse for the coaches--they need to get their kids to block. But the two best strategies against this defense require good, sustained blocking, and they are the only way to open up the running game.
We simply aren't good enough to execute against this defense. And that falls on the coaches just as much (if not more) as it falls on the players. Better play-calling couldn't have helped much.
Is Borges TRYING to do this on first down?
Much has been made of Al Borges using first down much like the CFL uses fourth down. I wanted to know exactly what has been happening to us on first down this year. Is the play-calling really that bad, or is AB hamstrung by a turnover-prone QB? How stubborn is the play-calling? Are we a bad passing team on first down?
What's open for debate is whether or not Hoke is mandating the first down MANBALL attempt. What's not open for debate are the results:
Chart? Chart of 1st down rushing attempts. NYP = Negative Yardage Plays
This is the story you know. For me, it was even worse than I thought in one respect (NYP%) and better than I expected in another (YPP). The 3.5 YPP feels high, but that's because nearly one in five times we go backwards. And, 11 more times, we gained nothing. That means that 27.3% of the time--more than one in four plays--we end-up in 2nd and 10 or longer. Those are drive killers.
But that average still feels high...what's brining it up? Glad you asked. Gardner has only had one NYP on his first down attempts, and averages 4.9 YPA when he runs it. When you add in the WR runs with DG, the YPA jumps to 6.6. What this means is that if you remove the 21 attempts by non-RBs on first down, you end-up with 2.9 YPA. That's more like it.
So, 59% of the time, we're running our RBs on first down, and averaging 2.9 YPA. Even that sounds good (isn't that three yards and a cloud of dust?) until you remember that only TWO of the NYPs happened between the QB/WR carries, and there was one bad snap. That leaves 22 NYP out of 110 RB attempts--an even 20%--that we go backwards with our RB on 1st.
Want me to make it hurt more? Okay. Add-in the zero yardage plays, and it's 33/110 (30%) NYP. Yep. We have a 30% chance of ending-up in 2nd and 10 or longer when we run with a RB.
Should we be passing more? I really wasn't sure about this. Can we trust DG to be throwing on first down? There's only one way to know...
THIS! This is much, MUCH better than I thought it would be. In fact, it's TOO good (I'll explain in a moment). We only pass 29.4% of the time on first down, but man, does it work. We average a ridiculous 12.6 yards per play (this includes scrambles), have only 14 incomplete passes (25%), and DG is MUCH less turnover-prone, throwing INTs at a rate of only 3.6%. There have been only three negative plays (sacks or TFLs).
It is obvious that our tendencies set us up for big passing plays on first down. But is it worth it? To end-up in 2nd and 10 or worse 30% of the time we try MANBALL? We end-up at 2nd and 10 (or worse) 34% of the time when we throw (including INTs), so the risk is almost exactly the same. The reward is more than four times better. That's a good investment.
The reason I believe these numbers are too good is that they indicate that our run tendencies on first down are so strong that there is wide open space to be had in the passing game. I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, but now it's quantified into a ridiculous 12.6 YPP.
This is a problem because it means that defenses are staying in stacked fronts against us and betting we simply won't even try to pass. We aren't good at run-blocking, but we're REALLY bad at run-blocking against stacked fronts. Against both Akron and UConn, the running game took off when the defenses backed out of their stacked fronts when they had the lead late.
And what about those two INTs? Both were on go routes way down the field. AB dials-up bombs on first down, which is fine, but I think it's clear there's room for some short-to-intermediate stuff.
Furthermore, if you want your QB to stop turning the ball over, stop putting him in 2nd and 3rd and long--ALL of DG's INTs have come with distances of 5 yards or more to go.
TL;DR - While passing more on first down is likely decrease its effectiveness, it is still FAR better than running with our RBs, and it should open-up some space to be better at that.