Waaaaay back in the nonconference portion of the season Michigan was getting repeatedly gashed by slants. The problem hit a crescendo against SMU, and their excellent little slot bug James Proche.
SMU threw six slants for 44 yards on 4 completions; only on the last did a safety make a play on the ball, and there’s a big reason for that we’ll get into further down. As the season’s progressed, however, Michigan’s gotten much better not just at defending slants but convincing opposing offenses not to even bother with them by running trap coverages. Why were we bad at them before? Is that a hole in our base defense? What’s a trap coverage? Let’s discuss.
Defending Slants and Fades with Man Coverage
The reason Michigan was bad at slants was they were bad/unlucky last year at fades, and made a conscious decision to be align in a way that made fades harder and slants easier.
Michigan likes to run a lot of Cover 1: man to man defense with single high safety. They also like to blitz their linebackers and play them aggressively against the run. The coverage has help inside on deep plays but no help outside, and small help underneath. Offenses learned long ago that you can put a Cover 1 slot defender in a bind by threatening him short/inside (a slant) and deep/outside (a fade). Both routes start by running directly at this guy, trying to get him to flip his hips to defend whichever of the two you’re not running.
I challenge anyone to find a greater irony in football than the fact that the spread 'n shred offense was rejected at Michigan by Rich Rodriguez and restored under Jim Harbaugh. Rich Rod scrapped it in 2010 because Denard wasn't good at option reads. Hoke avoided it because he had other plans. Harbaugh is on everybody's short list of best coaches in the country for Hoke's plans.
But here we are, running not just zone reads and split zone as a check, but the checks to the checks. Last week I got into the arc keeper, a counter off split zone that can hit for big yardage. But Michigan was also making heavy use of "Belly", a Rodriguez favorite from 2008-'09 that looks like a zone read but is actually doubling the backside DT and planning for the cutback. And it did its job.
Let's break out our 10-year-old playbooks and see how it works.
The Standard Defense of Zone Read
Since this is really a counter to a base play it's best to first understand the base play: the Zone Read option. You're familiar with zone read, but probably more so with the option part. For this exercise you need to pay more attention to how it's blocked.
After the backside end is dealt with by the option, the play becomes, well, whatever off-tackle run play you want to use. You can run inside zone, outside zone, even Power-O or Down G with it. In the above example it's inside zone, and when running the zone read game out of a pistol formation this is by far the most common run play.
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Gimmicky Top 5 things we want Carl Grapentine to say, wsg Carl Grapentine. We discuss the challenges of pronouncing of names and words as a PA announcer, and then make all of your cell phones awesome!
2. Wisconsin Recap
starts at 27:27
This may be the high watermark of the season for UFR grading of the blocking. Wisconsin’s defensive ends really were atrocious after all. Still, there were very few missed blitz pickups, very few missed blocks. Lots of new stuff too. Patterson was a little jumpy, perhaps hasn’t yet adjusted to new and improved pass protection. Still having zone issues. Aubrey Solomon was able to stop the bleeding at the defensive line in the second half. Wisconsin’s OLine is still elite. Slants were mostly shut down.
3. MSU Defense
starts at 52:40
The defensive backs are not 2013 caliber but the front seven is still very good. The #1 team against the run, though they’ve definitely had a soft strength of schedule. This will be the toughest test yet for Cesar Ruiz against MSU DT Raequan Williams. Secondary is soft but they don’t give up a lot of big plays.
4. MSU Offense
starts at 1:08:03
MSU does not have a good run offense. LJ Scott is hurt and the other guys are guys. Spartans had success on the ground early in the 2016 game with their early script and expect that again. Will have some tricks ready this time. They will try to get it to Felton Davis often, though it didn’t work much last year. Brian Lewerke is having problems protecting the football. Michigan State has a lot of injuries. Seth starts to rant about ghosts.
Featured tonight: Tally Hall
“Across 110th Street”
If you or a friend made some good tunes and don't have a label out scrubbing for them we'd be happy to feature you.
SPONSOR NOTE: Reminder that Matt is hanging out at the Charity Tailgate at 327 East Hoover (if you were at the preseason MGoEvents this year and last it's the same place). There are food trucks, beer, televisions, a giant colorful bus, and it's right next to Revelli so the band will march past. Check it out.
FORMATION NOTES: Michigan's most gun-heavy game of the year with just 18 under-center snaps vs 43 from the gun or pistol. Unlike previous games Michigan was perfectly happy to run from the gun on short yardage. There wasn't a whole lot of weird stuff by formation. Michigan had a couple of quads packages, one from a bunch and the other more spread out.
Wisconsin stuck in their base 3-4 defense for virtually the whole game, with the exception of passing downs.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: Mostly the usual. OL the starting five the whole way. At QB McCaffrey and Milton both got a a few snaps. Two of those came during the competitive portion of the contest. Evans returned and got backup snaps behind Higdon. Wilson was all but absent until about halfway through the fourth. Christian Turner used up game #2 with a few late carries.
Collins and DPJ backed by Martin and Bell at WR, as per usual. Very little Grant Perry—ten snaps and change—as Michigan played a ton of 2TE sets. McKeon and Gentry were both on the field for large chunks of the game; Eubanks got a few snaps.
The thing that stood out most was the lack of Ben Mason, who didn't have a role on those 2TE shotgun snaps but also ceded some playing time to Wangler.
SPONSOR NOTE: Reminder that Matt is hanging out at the Charity Tailgate at 327 East Hoover (if you were at the preseason MGoEvents this year and last it's the same place). It's right next to the train tracks on Hoover. The band goes right by it on their way to the stadium, which is cool. Say hi.
FORMATION NOTES: Michigan was content to roll out the base defense against Wisconsin despite the radical change in approach the Badgers are from Michigan's previous spread-oriented opponents. Hudson was omnipresent. There was one tweak on passing downs, with Michigan replacing Gil/Ross with Josh Uche to present a five-man front:
Uche lurking to the bottom of the line; Bush kneeling near the umpire
Note also that Michigan has their three cornerbacks on the field and just one safety. This still comes out as 4-2-5 in my 'package' column but should be something else and will be if it continues.
Just one 3-3-5 snap on a run down in this game, a six yard run.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: Winovich and Paye were almost omnipresent; Hutchinson did get a dozen snaps spotting them, mostly late. Kemp, Marshall, Mone, and Solomon got about equal time at the DT spots, with Dwumfour a bit further behind. Michigan tried to confine him to passing downs.
Bush and Hudson omnipresent; Gil and Ross split their snaps about down the middle. Uche played in the package above; Furbush and Glasgow made cameos.
Secondary is what you'd expect save for Kinnel missing some snaps with what looked like cramps. Hawkins got that time.
[After THE JUMP: a lot of running and almost no passing.]
10/13/2018 – Michigan 38, Wisconsin 13 – 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten
Like anyone still standing after a 2-15 run against Ohio State, I have withered into a cynical-ass bastard more tree than man. We are the Michigan ents. The Ments. But even though this heart was long ago replaced by lignin, by God I felt it beat when Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson popped up on the video board before the game. They talked about night games at Michigan Stadium in general. They also talked about one very specific game. I had feelings.
I did not know I had just been handed the most critical bit of the gameplan. Wisconsin did not, either. Wisconsin apparently did not know quarterbacks were, like, allowed to keep the ball. I feel like they should have known this. Even if they were completely unaware of the last 20 years of college football, surely their review of Michigan's game tape would tip them of that yes, occasionally the quarterback guy runs with the ball, and faster than you'd think.
Patterson pulled twice more, once for a redzone touchdown and once for another chunk run. The last saw Wisconsin actually respect the idea of a pull, somewhat, but Patterson was able to outpace a wrong-footed Badger defensive end anyway.
Then the backups came in and things went from intriguing to bizarre and hilarious. Dylan McCaffrey is slashing inside a block and outrunning an All-American linebacker to the endzone! Okay!
TJ Edwards is sad in the background [Eric Upchurch]
Joe Milton, who had approximately zero rushing yards in high school, is switching fields and outrunning the whole Badger defense to the other sideline! I thought this was Diet Coke, not Meth Coke! Who put meth in my Coke? Did you also give some to Paul Chryst? Ah that's fine then, good move.
Michigan's season-long con took in both the Badgers and your author; now revealed, it resets season expectations. Harbaugh noted the impact it had on Wisconsin's run defense when they suddenly had to play 11 v 11:
Coach, you had two quarterbacks that were a big part of things as far as running the ball. Was that element added to this game?
“Yeah, it was big. Shea (Patterson) really got things going in the first quarter with the long run. And the touchdown run he had, he was — allowed us to stretch their defense, get all their gaps, make them cover — make them account for as many gaps as we could. So that was a gameplan well-executed.”
Michigan spent most of their short yardage snaps in this game in a two-tight-end shotgun look that had everyone in Michigan Stadium agonizing about the absence of Ben Mason, but aside from one bad decision from Higdon to press outside Michigan converted every time. Frequently this was accomplished by a running back cutting back behind Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who was paving his man, as a Wisconsin defender gave Patterson his newfound due.
Maybe I'd been primed by the pregame video, but I thought about Michigan's approach in Denard's other Notre Dame masterpiece, the one on the road: after a slant to Roundtree set Michigan up at the two on Michigan's winning drive, shotgun, QB zone stretch, easy cutback, TD.
Patterson's not Denard Robinson but he's certainly fast enough to demand someone account for him. When that gets combined with a mauling right side of the line and a rapidly developing whole, you get something. You get 320 rushing yards. You get nearly 240 of those in the second half. You get fourth quarter drives on which Wisconsin knows you're going to kill the clock and can't stop you on six straight runs; the clock only stops getting stabbed to death 40 seconds at a time because you accidentally score a touchdown.
With the mesh point suddenly a real thing, possibilities open up. Ends can't charge willy-nilly at the quarterback. You can make those token play actions into defense-crippling ones with the extra time that buys you—something that Ohio State just struggled to defend this weekend. The corner that Michigan could turn to become a juggernaut offense is there, shockingly in sight.
Known Friends and Trusted Agents Of The Week
JBB is almost out of this shot, which is good [Fuller]
you're the man now, dog
#1(t) Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. Seriously. Not ironically. Not even in a throw-these-guys-a-bone sense. Patterson was iffy, Higdon fumbled, the defense didn't have a guy contributing except in scattered bursts: JBB and Runyan were the Michigan players most consistently helping Michigan down-to-down.
I don't think either gave up a pressure. JBB paved guys on a series of plays that cut to his side of the line; he was also the source of some of those zone stretch cutback runs. Meanwhile Michigan was usually running to Runyan's side of the line.
DOD was low with Wisconsin in desperation mode at DE, but I be like dang all the same. Both guys get three points because they're made up and don't matter and also this portion of the writeup is indeed me throwing them a bone.
#2 David Long. Both Long and Hill were avoided all night until the late Wisconsin TD drive when Hornibrook went after Hill's excellent coverage. Long didn't suffer those Mr. Tight Windows slings and arrows and was able to sell him twice on man coverage that turned out to be a trap—more below—that turned into a PBU and an interception.
#3 Karan Higdon. Did fumble. Did miss a hole or two. Also went over 100 yards and made some nice zone cuts; his ability was a major reason Michigan won a game in which they had four second half passing yards.
Honorable mention: The Spirit of Denard. Paul Chryst.
We can do this because people support us. You should support them too so they’ll want to do it again next year! The show is presented by UGP & The Bo Store, and if it wasn’t for Rishi and Ryan we would be saying all of this to our confused offspring.
Denard blessed the Michigan quarterbacks so they ran for 138 yards and 2 TDs. Shea's keepers. Bless Ed Warinner. Bless your heart, Shea's vision in this game. Where was Bench Mason? A few too many "We did A, next comes B." Other goofy stuff: Joe Milton package, McCaffrey as a WR. Second half they finally learned to throw. JBB didn't allow any pressure, was grinding.
Starts at 24:20
Got pushed around by Wisconsin's big boys, managed to hang in there, though that was in part thanks to SIX(!!) carries by Jonathan Taylor. What does Chase Winovich have to do to generate a holding call? Yes this is the chart thing everyone's been talking about. Critical INT thanks to trap coverage. Hornibrook had one completion for over two quarters. Watson almost got the same INT as last week. M had a hard time with those jet sweeps. Got Randy Rivers moving around, which nerfs his accuracy.
3. What Are You Doing Turtle?
Starts at 43:22
So many bad decisions. Everything after the give-up punt is sad scoring. In the first half he forgot running the clock down was a thing. First play of the sad touchdown drive Hornibrook was almost injured. Wisconsin couldn't keep themselves off of Cheeseman. Shutting down Wisconsin was well worth 30 yards of penalties. Somebody held up a #ThankYouAce sign.
4. Around the Big Ten with Jamie Mac
Starts at 57:55
NOTE: This segment had a recording issue (Brian and David were almost completely muted) so the quality isn't up to our usual standards. I spent many hours on Sunday repairing it because we have an exciting Big Ten West race going on. March of the B1G West QBs: David Blough hammers Illinois. Thorson's arm almost went off throwing to Flynn Nagel. Frost has aged 10 years per loss. Indiana can't stop tight ends and played Iowa. Rutgers forgot to field a kickoff. McSorley's average weekend. Ohio State's screen-a-thon.