This should be on the front page
The scheme that beats MSU
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.
5 Wide these buttheads. Out of the formation above, that tight end splits out or a receiver is out there instead, and Fitz motions out of the backfield. Press GO and see what happens.
Spread the field and get guys out of the box. 4 wide would at least help get a guy out, one would think, and if not a maybe a throw to a receiver with a block could get yards.
Slightly TIC (tongue in cheek) but...maybe not.
I'd like to see what Baylor or Oregon could do against this Sparty defense; I don't mean any wishes that our offense would reflect those by that statement, just that I respect that Defense that much more now and seriously wonder how they'd attack the high flying offenses we have today (even Ohio in the BTCG will be an interesting chess match).
I would (for real) like to hear one of the experts explain why that wouldn't be worth trying.
Is actually better equiped to stop a running spread than it is any other offense.
That said, I've always found it's greatest weakness to be a passing spread where you can line up 3x1. But I also believe you work on something the whole year, you have an identity, and you don't throw it out and be something completely different for one game a season, particularly when you don't really have the personnel to do so. So, in that sense, Michigan used elements within their offense to best attack MSU.
While watching the game with friends, several kept asking why we didn't try a passing spread. My response was that you can't run a different kind of offense than the type you are traditionally trying to run for just one game. There's this growing pain of switching from one scheme to another and this hopefully is the worst year.
I like this idea also, but we don't really have four receivers for that system, and that leaves five on the line with just Fitz in the backfield.
In an ideal world, we could run that. I'm afraid we'd have been even worse off if we'd attempted that on Saturday.
A big part of our problem was that Fitz couldn't block on Saturday, and having only five on the LOS would have forced him into duty even more.
FWIW, my best idea was shotgun three wide with two backs (on either side of DG) in to block; in hindsight the problem with that concept was that we'd have had two guys who couldn't block in the backfield. That said, it's not like the line was doing such a great job.
It really took away many of the advantages offered by it. Still Borges went to quite a bit of trips sets, he utilized a lot of stack sets, things of that nature, to similarly take advantage of some of the advantages of that scheme within his own scheme.
Agree with what I saw you write somewhere else in that Dileo's addition would have been a benefit (duh) for the offense and may have helped the fluidity out in a few instances.
Ok.... So 5 wide with... who? (Back to the RR Recruiting)
Gallon, Funchess, Jackson, Chessum .... Reynolds................Butt? Norfleet?
You need more then 7 WR/TEs who can function to run an effective 5 Wr. Only three of the listed above do not have the words "Serious liability" written on their forehead.
But this is the second time you've posted an forum topic here when I've been in the process of writing the same exact article (the blocking one was the other).
Great stuff Ron, and I'm happy I didn't finish my blog post before seeing this.
Feel free to add any insight; you're much smarter than I am in the football world.
on the possibilities against this defense. I would really like to see an offense beat them, although I have mixed emotions given who they are still playing on their schedule.
FWIW, I think OSU will beat them in the championship game (assuming that is the match up). Blitzing Braxton Miller is a dangerous proposition in its own right, and he's been throwing the ball downfield really well of late.
OSU can run the read option efficiently, block better than U-M, and they have good weapons on the outside. It will be a tough match-up for MSU.
Perhaps of greater concern in that game is that MSU will have to score; Indiana managed some yards and points vs. MSU, but the Spartans were able to score more. If OSU gets to 28 points, MSU will have a tough time winning that one.
That said, there's no way you can count MSU out of that game. If Braxton has an off day or makes a couple of mistakes, Sparty might get the win.
That match up is all but certain at this point.
They will play that match up significantly differently. MSU blitzed far more against Michigan than they have all year, because it was clear that Michigan was deficient on the interior. OSU is far from that. They'll play their base a bit more and probably send more people from the outside when they do run blitz (the gray area OLB or things of that nature) to disrupt reads.
Michigan State's defense is legit because they are skilled enough to be aggressive and get away with it. If you're aggressive and not skilled, you over-commit and get burned. If you're skilled but not aggressive, you get dink-n'-dunked all day. Most defenses are imperfect so they prefer the latter, including Michigan. The amazing feat MSU pulled off is to do the former and get away with it.
Mattison is walking a fine line with his young crew, trying to prevent the big plays with conservative play-calling but recruiting aggressive players and trying to avoid coaching that aggressiveness out of them, because he also knows to have an elite defense you need to be aggressive AND skilled. The skill will get there; avoiding damage along the way is the challenge.
Point is, there's no such thing as a magical alignment. In fact, not only is there nothing special about this alignment, it's a very dangerous one that most teams would be crazy to run. The vulnerability to the long ball is too much of a liability. Most coaches would react in horror if they were asked to emulate this quarters defense, with hyper-aggressive safeties all but rolled into the box. The safeties can be aggressive because the corners press, the corners press because the LBs blitz, the LBs blitz because the safeties aren't far behind. Hate 'em or hate 'em, this is an elite defense because it has almost no weaknesses and all the parts fit together. If the LBs couldn't generate pressure from the blitz, for example, then Gardner would've been hitting Gallon and Funchess all day for huge gains.
That's the luxury of having experience everywhere. Mind you, as frustrating as this was to watch, no other team has scored a TD on STAEE since Indiana, which has arguably the best offense in the country.
Imagine Indiana's offense with Michigan State's defense. . . it's weird how the B1G might have the best offense AND best defense in the nation, split among two overall mediocre teams.
Well said, but no points for brevity.
I'm really not sure Indiana's offense compares favorably to Oregon, Baylor, A&M, or even LSU. They are 6th in FEI, and I would take those other teams' offense first.
It seemed shorter in my head. I blame my editor, for not existing.
I think it is reasonable to assume that MSU's defense would be good in any conference. The problem is figuring out how good as the sample space is the Big10 itself. Indiana is called the best offense in the country but in a game against the only serious out of conference team they had 14 points after 3 quarters. Could it be possible Indiana's offense is not as good as we think or MSU's defense as we think because they play in such an awful conference?
What would MSU's defense do against a Pac10 schedule or Indy in the SEC? Those units might not look so special. I am wondering if a coordinator is getting the most out of a set of players and put them in a position to succeed because they are playing to there strengths. We see this often in the MAC where a really good coach, "coaches" up his players and there is instant success. Examples are Brian Kelly at CMU and Urban Meyer at Bowling Green. Its not like they needed a 5 year plan. They took dirt and turned it into gold. The problem was if CMU or Bowling Green then met a real team, they would most likely get clobbered. Despite all the scheme and overachieving, a motivated and coherent team of 4/5 stars will crush a motivated coherent team of 2/3 stars. Alabama paper breaks Indy Scissors just as Oregon rock crushes MSU paper.
So the punch line is the Big10 just MAC+? The description of half the teams seems to be tire fire. Since the Big10 has such big fan bases we know they will go to bowl games and we will find out as it is possible OSU and MSU will both go to BCS bowls and the rest of the tire fire will be matched up with the SEC.
Then we will find out how good MSU's defense and Indy offense is. My guess is they will come down to earth.
I just see it as greater parity. Not just in terms of talent, but development and intel. Back in the day, a school got on the map by playing on TV, recruited nationwide with a huge travel budget and could hire extra assistants to break down film. Well, nowadays everything's on the Internet. A single ten-buck intern with a passion for football can set up a website, contact any HS recruit and edit game film like whoah. What only the big schools could afford with $10 million budgets even ten years ago is dirt-cheap today. Also with modern technology and medical knowledge, any school can take a two-star recruit and build up their speed & strength to the point that they'd dominate most college players of a decade ago. It's not like player development is a new thing, but the information & expertise is more available today than it has ever been.
There are a few schools that are on another level entirely, namely Alabama, but beyond that I'm trying to find out what a "good" conference is. Pac-12 seems mediocre, B1G sucks, ACC sucks. . . not even the SEC impresses me beyond Alabama. I maintained they were thoroughly overrated last season and was vindicated during bowl season when multiple top-ten SEC teams got exposed. Most of the conference is riding Alabama's coattails.
Thing is, they can't ALL suck. Where's the good conference? Answer: All of them, or none. The gap between the big and small conferences has narrowed considerably. It's not that the B1G is BAD, it's that people just THINK it's bad because the B1G's expectation is to clobber the MAC and that's not a gimme anymore. And it's not just the MAC -- look at the increasing frequency at which smaller FBS and even some FCS schools have managed to scare or even beat bigger schools. Look at the recent success of Utah or Boise State. Alabama being some bizarre exception, no one's really scared of anyone else anymore.
We may have sold ourselves down the river in this game by doing exactly what they would have wished us to do. Leave it on Gardner.
2 TE sets with everyone just crashing in simple man-up/TE overload or slant to FB blocking schemes with RB's(preferrably Rawls/Green for this duty) just smashing into assigned holes with utmost contempt and rage might have been the better option against them.
It would have been tough going for sure, but grinding out 1 to 4 yd gains and playing field position against them whilst waiting for THEM to get impatient and make a mistake might be a winner(or less of a loser??). I can't help but think that this would be Saban's or Miles strategy against this D. Lets just have a 60 minute fistfight with these guys on both sides of the ball and see who's still standing at the end.
I know, we're young and inexperienced and they're a well oiled defensive machine and all, but asking those young blockers to think too much whilst in the battle of their young careers just reeks of pending doom to me. I'd rather have them just DO the simplest things and let them each find their inner beast and rely on their survival instincts to, well, survive.
GReat comment, totally agree, atleast worth the shot. Other question too, isn't this where you get Hoke or an offensive coach a headset? AB see's Sparty's line-up (Picture page above) and DG looks to the sideline, coach relays to DG run speed option right. I think that play would have worked against this.
I would do whatever Indiana did, because they far and away had the most success. Al Borges obviously watches no game film.
Or maybe he realizes that it's not very feasible to install a totally new offense in a couple of weeks.
Michigan doesn't have the personnel or ability to adjust to a spread based, uptempo attack?