Even before Brady Hoke started answering questions like this…
Q: How will Denard Robinson fit in this offense?
A: This is Michigan!
Q: What do you think about the goings-on in Columbus?
A: Though we have great respect for the Akron State Golden Bobcats, this remains Michigan.
Q: What kind of off—
A: THIS IS MICHIGAN TREMENDOUS
A: TREMENDOUS VAN OUSTANDING RIVER
/teaches journalist about Mad Magicians
…he expressed a certain disdain for fancy things like zone running, which is neither fancy or new or soft and has been used by teams from the Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos to, you know, Michigan under Lloyd Carr. He swore up and down to everyone who attended the coaches' clinic that "A-gap power"—three yards and a cloud of dust, think Jehuu Caulcrick—would be Michigan's signature play. He has expressed a certain approach to offense that sends spread friendly folk like yrs truly and Braves & Birds into twitchy fits. His stated approach is neolithic.
So… like… WTF?
SAN DIEGO STATE 1st DOWN RUN/PASS BREAKDOWN, 2010
|09/04/10||Nicholls St.||Grass||W 47-0||10||12||1||23|
|09/11/10||@ New Mexico St.||Grass||W 41-21||8||13||3||24|
|09/18/10||@ 18 Missouri||Turf||L 24-27||5||10||2||17|
|09/25/10||Utah St.||Grass||W 41-7||9||9||0||18|
|10/09/10||@ Brigham Young||Grass||L 21-24||3||9||0||12|
|10/16/10||Air Force||Grass||W 27-25||8||8||0||16|
|10/23/10||@ New Mexico||Grass||W 30-20||8||12||2||22|
|10/30/10||@ Wyoming||Turf||W 48-38||2||15||3||20|
|11/06/10||Colorado St.||Grass||W 24-19||8||10||1||19|
|11/13/10||@ 2 TCU||Grass||L 35-40||1||6||0||7|
|12/23/10||+ Navy||Grass||W 35-14||14||12||1||27|
San Diego State passed on 63% of its first downs. In tight games* SDSU passed on 79% of first downs. This was not a catchup effect. Missouri led by more than one score for all of 41 seconds; against Utah SDSU ran out to a 27-10 lead before bleeding it away down the stretch. This has something to do with Ryan Lindley and some all-conference receivers but SDSU was very slightly run biased in 2010 (51%), managing a respectable 4.8 YPC. In 2010, especially when it counted, San Diego State passed to set up the run.
Where the hell is A-gap power? Why the hell did The Mountain West Connection write this about Hoke's candidacy for the job?
Hoke would bring in another non-traditonal Big 10 offense to Ann Arbor. It would be a spread offense, but instead of having an offense where there is a dual threat quarterback he plays three, four and five wide receiver sets.
Where's the manball?
*[Missouri, BYU, Air Force, TCU, and Utah. CSU excluded because the narrow scoreline was due to a touchdown with 2:43 left.]
Is the manball in previous teams?
Hoke's previous SDSU team threw even more but was not very good. They were especially un-good at running, so numbers from that season reflect necessity instead of philosophy. And Hoke only had two years in San Diego, so maybe he wasn't able to mold his team into the A-gap power six fullback monstrosity he yearns for.
How about the apex of his Ball State career?
BALL STATE 1st DOWN RUN/PASS BREAKDOWN, 2008
|09/13/08||@ Akron||Turf||W 41-24||14||13||3||30|
|09/20/08||@ Indiana||Turf||W 42-20||12||9||3||24|
|09/27/08||Kent St.||Turf||W 41-20||8||17||1||26|
|10/04/08||@ Toledo||Turf||W 31-0||11||13||0||24|
|10/11/08||@ Western Ky.||Turf||W 24-7||9||9||3||21|
|10/25/08||Eastern Mich.||Turf||W 38-16||8||11||2||21|
|11/05/08||Northern Ill.||Turf||W 45-14||7||14||4||25|
|11/11/08||@ Miami (Ohio)||Turf||W 31-16||9||12||0||21|
|11/19/08||@ Central Mich.||Turf||W 31-24||13||8||2||23|
|11/25/08||Western Mich.||Turf||W 45-22||8||11||0||19|
|12/05/08||+ Buffalo||Turf||L 24-42||10||19||1||30|
|01/06/09||+ Tulsa||Turf||L 13-45||3||6||0||9|
Hoke's first downs under Stan Parrish were also pass-biased. Again, Nate Davis had something to do with that but Ball State was significantly more run-biased than 2010 SDSU: 520 rushes to 405 passes, with those rushes picking up 5 yards a pop. A team that ran 56% of the time threw on 55% of first downs.
HOWEVA, that's not a huge difference from late-era Carr behavior. I know this surprises you. I clicked the link three times just to make sure it wasn't having fun, but in 2007 Michigan passed on 54% of first downs despite playing Ryan Mallett for significant chunks of the season. They also ran on 56% of all plays. That may be an artifact of Michigan not being able to run very well (4 YPC; insert infamous stretch against OSU here). In 2006, a monstrously run-biased outfit (62% at 4.3 YPC while the passing game was averaging 7.7) was 50-50 on first down.
Is the manball in the offensive structure?
Meanwhile, Chris Brown has the most interesting single factoid in Wolverines Kickoff 2011. It's about SDSU's bowl game, the one after which Ken Niumatalolo said "that's as good of an offense as we've seen." In that game, the Aztecs ran more zone-blocked plays than gap-blocked plays en route to a rout. Here's an inside zone:
A few plays later the Aztecs would bust out their first power of the night. Notably, it was a "constraint" play—one designed to keep the defense honest. They lined up in a pro set and handed it to the fullback for the second time all year. On third and two they manballed up. Result:
Starting running back Ronnie Hillman averaged 8.1 YPC without any distorting 80-yarders (long of 37) and finished the day with 228 yards. San Diego State's defense did not appear to have a stroke while watching this.
So how does that jive with this?
When asked recently about the influence of Oregon’s offense, Hoke subtly revealed his disdain for the tactical shift Michigan experienced under Rodriguez. He is convinced that modern spread option offenses can be counterproductive to the core values of smashmouth football and are, therefore, to be avoided.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, when you’re zone blocking all the time -- when you’re playing basketball on grass -- you practice against that all spring, you practice against it all fall and then you’re going to play a two-back team that wants to knock you off the football,” Hoke said. “I don’t think you’re prepared.
It… like… doesn't. Unless Hoke just wants to have some power around so his defense doesn't turn into a bunch of lily-livered ninnyhammers and doesn't actually care how much it gets deployed in actual games. This would be good for the next couple years when what Hoke wants and what Hoke has will be severely mismatched.
Is the manball curling up in the fetal position with a narrow lead?
Unfortunately for manball-is-just-talk theorists, that above-mentioned close-ish Colorado State game featured an event familiar to Michigan fans. After Colorado State scored with about three minutes left to draw within five, SDSU ran three times for two yards and gave the ball back to the Rams having run only 53 seconds off the clock. They ran on 2nd 7 and 3rd and 9. Very MANBALL.
The way the Aztecs lost the Missouri game is also terribly familiar. They picked off Blaine Gabbert with 1:47 left, ran 25 seconds off the clock, and punted on 4th and 8 from the Missouri 35. It took the Tigers two plays to score the winning touchdown. To be fair, freshman Ronnie Hillman caused coaching blood vessels to explode when he ran out of bounds on the first play of the drive and the Aztecs did throw on third down. To be ruthless, that throw was a screen or something equivalently conservative (it lost a yard) and once it was completed the situation was 4th and 8 for the win or a 20-yard punt. Hoke chose the punt. He chose poorly.
Against Air Force the Aztecs faced a 4th and goal from the two with about nine minutes left. They led by eight. Hoke called for the field goal team. That's not indefensible*; it is conservative. Hoke watched his kicker Broekgibbons it anyway.
On the other hand, in the Utah game San Diego State kept firing after leaping out to a big lead (obviously). There's no evidence they ever put the scoring offense away except in a couple of end-game scenarios.
*[It's probably the right call. Going from 8 to 11 forces the opponent to score two TDs to win instead of one and a two-point conversion. Getting the touchdown gives you a tie in the unlikely event an option team with 12 points so far gets two touchdowns and a conversion in the final nine minutes. A failure does leave the opponent on its own two.
As it happened, Air Force did score two touchdowns in the final nine minutes. Unfortunately for the Falcons, sandwiched between them was a one-play SDSU touchdown drive and they lost anyway.]
The things that are said contradict each other
Hoke says he wants the team to act in a certain way—toughness toughness toughness—while simultaneously saying he will not futz with Al Borges. Al Borges has shown a predilection for lots of vertical passing and apparently does not care one way or the other about gap vs zone blocking. Hoke says he dislikes zone running and uses it plenty. He's recruiting large men to squash men who are not quite as large but has maybe 1.5 tight ends and Denard Robinson right now.
What Hoke wants is clear, and what he has is not what he wants. The record implies that he'll be relatively flexible. Michigan will still see a drop in yardage/fancy metric performance because they're spending time revamping instead of refining, but if under center isn't working they'll ditch it. Hell, against Navy SDSU's first drive formations looked like this:
- Shotgun 3-wide
- Shotgun 3-wide
- Shotgun 3-wide
- Shotgun 3-wide
- Shotgun 3-wide
- Shotgun 3-wide
They even ran a zone read. It went for a yard, but by God they ran it. When push comes to shove I think Michigan will go with what works, whatever that is.