SPONSOR NOTE. Man, it feels good to get something out of the way, like a Rutgers linebacker, or a Rutgers defensive end, or a Rutgers defensive back, or that mortgage refi you've been thinking about. HomeSure Lending can get that out of the way for you, and then it's smooth sailing until the endzone, or at least a safety.
FORMATION NOTES. Hello, manball. Michigan's approach in this game was downright neolithic, featuring 32 snaps with one or zero WRs. Feel the Harbaugh goodness as Michigan goes with a goal line set on first and ten on their own 34 (the "WR" is Gentry and he will motion to a TE spot presnap):
Michigan did suffer to allow two wide receivers on the field 22 times; three WRs managed to get out there on 14 snaps.
Note that Michigan's formations were slightly less neolithic than the personnel: Michigan was happy to spread their TEs out as WRs for a half-dozen or so 2 WR snaps.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES. OL was the usual until Onwenu got dinged late. Runyan got 7-8 plays in his place. Peters replaced O'Korn about halfway through the second. TE was the usual: mostly Gentry and McKeon with Wheatley emerging into a more prominent role but still third; Bunting snaps were scanty. Michigan did use a version of Spanellis wearing 97 as a bonus OL on a number of snaps.
WR was mostly nobody, but when it wasn't nobody it was Schoenle or DPJ on one-WR plays. Perry was always in when there were multiple WRs. Collins got a little run and a catch. Crawford was out after being spotted in a boot this week.
RB was a Higdon-Isaac-Evans-Walker production, in order of declining carries. Samuels burned his redshirt for good in the last few plays. I try to not get peeved about RB redshirts.
[After THE JUMP: hundreds of pounds of ground cable subscriber]
Things that happen against Rutgers’s defense can’t be taken too seriously. They’re playing a former Brady Hoke cornerback as a SAM in a 4-3 under, which means he’s taking on fullbacks and pulling guards. Their other edge guy is Kemoko Turay, an athletic dude who’s still rather unfamiliar with the game of football, and who’s functioning now as a WDE/OLB hybrid. Their WLB is by some distance the worst player I’ve scouted this year. One of their safeties is 5’9” and was their leading receiver last year and just joined the defense three weeks ago. The other safety is worse.
But their three interior DL are pretty stout. This made the Rutgers game uniquely suited to Michigan’s power running game. You know Power, Michigan’s base play under Jim Harbaugh, Brady Hoke, Lloyd Carr, and Fielding H. Yost. God’s play. Power.
Power and its close cousin Counter Trey are a lot like Inside Zone in that as a base play there are a ton of ways to run it depending on what the defense is showing and who appears where.
The concept is simple enough: 1) Block down on as many line defenders as you can to seal them inside, 2) Pry open a gap between them and the playside edge protector, and 3) Swing around a backside blocker into the point of attack to hit the first guy he sees. Win those downblocks and kick out the edge and now it’s just a race to see if your meat and the ball can get through that gap before the defense can plug it.
On “Power” the swing man is usually your backside guard, while a fullback or H-back is the “trapper” or pry-bar trying to blow the edge open. On “Counter Trey” those guys swap jobs. Note the backfield action is like a run to the right side, and that the pulling guard is wiping out the edge:
Counter Trey. (The guy Ben Mason blocked into the endzone is an awful, awful player, but still: braaaaawwwwrrrr!)
[Hit THE JUMP for what Rutgers did, and how Michigan didn’t have to respond because an answer was built into the play did I tell you this is God’s play?]
I used to be really good at slaps, that game where your opponent puts their hands over yours and you try to whack them before they can pull away. My best trick was I’d make my elbow twitch on one side then *WHAP* the other side. I’d get so many in a row with this that my siblings stopped wanting to play.
Tom Allen probably doesn’t want to play slaps with Harbaugh anymore.
This was a beautiful play. I thought so. Brian thought so. Jon Duerr thought so. James Light thought so. Harbaugh apparently liked it enough to call it three times in a five-play drive. We all guessed Michigan would have preferred not to put it on tape before the Penn State game but since it is let’s dive into it.
It’s early in the 4th quarter. Michigan is up just 13-10 over Indiana and gets the ball back on their 16 yard line after Indiana punts on 4th and 1. The first play is a split zone off the same look with which they’d successfully run a TE motion crack sweep, and it goes for 8 yards when Onwenu and Bredeson beat their respective DTs (Bredeson’s guy got up crying for a hold that was probably legit and is never called).
Then out comes this:
It’s a trap play, which itself isn’t very weird. On a trap the backside guard (Bredeson, #74) pulls and the frontside starts blocking down just like on a power play. But instead of having the DE kicked out by a tackle or tight end, they leave the edge guy for a moment and the puller then plows into him. The erstwhile kicker meanwhile is heading downfield hunting linebackers and safeties. The running back then charges through the hole, with a lead blocking fullback if that’s your style.
In this instance Hill didn’t even bother to block Tegray Scales, the WLB, because he’s stumbling over his buddy—Scales managed to right himself and make the tackle, else Higdon is following Hill into the secondary. That’s on Hill for going for a big gain and given the situation (2nd and 2) I’m fine with taking a shot when the worst result is still a first down. Anyway that’s not the interesting part.
The interesting parts are the path that Hill took, and the way they blocked the playside tackle. There are a lot of arrows in a tight space so let me show you who’s blocking whom with colors:
Let’s examine the two really cool wrinkles in detail.
1. Are we still in love with Harbaugh's offense? It was a bit inert last year.
The last couple years this post has led off with a high-level look at the things Jim Harbaugh has done to keep his dinosaur-lookin-ass offense on the cutting edge. These have mostly focused on Harbaugh's little run tweaks that keep the opposition unbalanced: traps, offset draws, gap plays with zone principles, various ways to clobber people on the edge, and formations, formations, and more formations.
In UFR I try to have a reasonably low-level listing of all the plays Michigan runs. A typical game could have 15, 18, or even 20 runs different enough for me to name them separate things—and I'm sure there are subtleties I'm missing. Harbaugh's offense is a world away from any I've charted before. Everyone tweaks; everyone presents a moving target. (Except Late Carr-era Mike Debord.) The sheer blizzard of stuff Harbaugh throws out, with the offense adding new stuff almost weekly, is fun and effective.
But it wasn't the flashy tweaks and run schemes Harbaugh's resurrecting from the Fritz Crisler days that really stood out a year ago. It was Michigan's prep. When Athlon pinged Big Ten coaches for anonymous takes on their compatriots, the Harbaugh mania stood out:
"The team is starting to reflect Jim — you could see it more last year."
"They want to outwork you. That was the whole satellite camp thing last offseason. He wanted to send a message to the SEC and other schools that he will outwork you to make up for any advantage you might have over Michigan."
"They’re scouting opponents better than anyone in our league. They’re at Alabama’s level of prep and analysis, and as they’ve started to fit talent you’re seeing the effects. It’s hard to surprise them."
This was clearest in the Michigan State game. As mentioned in the section on Mason Cole, Michigan comprehensively defeated the double A gap twist blitz that had annihilated Michigan for going on a decade. They didn't just defuse it, they ripped it:
The biggest tactical takeaway wasn't the existence of something but rather its absence: MSU's double A gap twist blitz. You may remember that blitz from Spittle Flecked Rich Rod Rant and Spittle Flecked Al Borges Rant way back when, because Michigan ate it over and over and over again for TFLs and stuffs and sacks. No longer. They still run it. It's not working.
Michigan's opening first down was a double A blitz that got Bullough through, but to do so he had to go so fast that he overran the play:
Michigan got the other guy; Cole probably biffs on Bullough but he doesn't compound the mistake by turning upfield. It's his block that makes the room for the Smith cutback, and then it's Godzilla versus the fishing village time. ...
This was even happening when Speight was your shotgun quarterback. Smith's six yard TD late in the second quarter was another double A blitz that Michigan had the answer for:
By this point it seemed clear that shotgun snaps got double A blitzed a lot, so Michigan might even have gone with the gun here specifically because they wanted the gut of the D to be linebackers instead of DTs. McDowell rips outside and finds air. ...
The trademark MSU defensive playcall was comprehensively beaten. Finally. All of these plays feature the extreme aggression of the MSU linebackers being used against them, something that Michigan hasn't been able to do in forever. Can't block 'em? Run right by 'em.
Michigan won't let that stuff happen to them for a decade straight anymore. So they've got that going for them.
Harbaugh continues to morph his offense, adapting it to the players at hand. Sometimes this backfires when his players can't imbibe the firehose he puts in front of them—see the departed OL. There's a reason that Harbaugh's offense developed so quickly and cromulently at Stanford, where his only asset early was a bunch of nerd brains. This year Michigan's OL makes most of the shift to the Harbaugh generation. The exceptions are Cole, an OL nerd brain if there ever was one, and Kugler, the son of an OL coach in his fifth year.
This might be the year Michigan can really start making some hay by out-smarting the opposition. To date they've given some of that back with blizzards of missed assignments. Now they've got a shot at really paying off on that diversity. So, yes. Harbauffense for real.
[After THE JUMP: Pep effect, and running a dang stretch]
[QUICK HURRICANE HARVEY NOTE: Major ongoing natural disasters are usually beyond our scope, but Houston has become an all-hands-on-deck situation. MGoStaff writer Alex Cook is still holed up in his apartment and has assured us he is safe. Close friend of the site Jane Coaston has family there. Over 3,000 readers are in it too.
The charities out there to deal with such things are blowing through everything they’ve got. If you’d like to help, some good charities are All Hands (they train & equip volunteers), the American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse (Christian, International), Food banks (that’s a list from the Houston Press), Americares (provide medicine and basic supplies), SBP (ongoing recovery volunteering) the Houston SPCA (animal rescue—bc evacuation centers don’t let people bring their pets), and NECHAMA (Jewish flood response organization I volunteered with when Dearborn and Oak Park were inundated a few years ago).
If you’d like to go down there and help the Red Cross and others above are taking on-the-ground volunteers. I can’t think of a better way to justify making that Dallas game after all.]
They say football is a game of inches. But in football physics space and time amount to the same thing. The inches between a tackle and a broken one, or momentum vs time for the defense to rally, are the real difference-makers. All of that scheming, development, recruiting, and training is about finding those inch-seconds. And we’ve been telling you all offseason that we think the way Michigan plans to do that is to play with some gigantic dudes who will push you off the ball, and spread ‘em out.
This segment has a sponsor! Reader/business attorney/blogger Richard Hoeg loves football because he says it is the most litigious of all sports. I can’t say that’s why I like football, but I really like that this is why my lawyer likes football.
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I think something happened here.
Depending on whom you’re talking to, today’s concept is a concept, an offense, a philosophy, or a way of life, though all who use it will agree anyone who defines it differently than they do doesn’t know what they’re talking about.* Though nobody on Michigan’s schedule commits to it fully, bits of it populate every passing offense today, and big chunks have been reintroduced to Michigan’s schedule with Kevin Wilson going to Ohio State, and Minnesota and Purdue hiring P.J. Fleck and Jeff Brohm, respectively.
It’s the Run & Shoot, the Libertarianism of football philosophies, and like its third-rail metaphor the first thing you need to know about it is that few people can talk about it without getting pissed off. Observe this salty convert to the Church of Shoot:
“Going somewhere where they don’t have route conversions into certain coverages was just absurd,” said Jacobs, who played nine NFL seasons. “They’re just running routes in the defense, getting people killed. Size and strength is what they had, and that’s why they won. Let’s be real. They had great assistant coaches, but Jim didn’t know what he was doing. Jim had no idea. Jim is throwing slants into Cover-2 safeties, getting people hurt. That guy knew nothing, man.
That was the Brandon Jacobs line that got him into one of this offseason’s more unexpected Harbaugh news cycles, with Michigan fans, Harbaugh fans, and anyone who knows their ass from a go-route on one side, nobody of consequence on the other, and some NFL types trying to stoke something out of it anyway.
Despite said efforts what controversy came of it quickly petered out, not because the sides came together, but because the disagreement was ultimately too wonky for the kinds of audiences an apparent Harbaugh-former player beef would attract. As soon as Kevin Gilbride’s name came up, knee-depth football fans gave up and left it for the deep geeks to figure out.
Depending who you ask there are either two or three or sixteen thousand different blocking schemes offenses use to puncture run lanes into a defense. If we cut out a few exceptions, and a lot of variants, you can boil them down to two basic philosophic schools: Zone and Gap.
(And man, and hybrid, and zone can be split between outside/inside but shut up).
Harbaugh, as you might have heard, is one of if not the ur gap coach in football, as is his top lieutenant Tim Drevno. New tackles/tight ends coach Greg Frey, as we’ve mentioned twice this week, is not just in the zone camp but is one of the chief practitioners of its outside zone wing.
What’s the difference, and why does it matter? I’ll show.
HOW GAP BLOCKING WORKS
“When badly outnumbered he managed, by swift marching and maneuvering, to throw the mass of his army against portion of the enemy's, thus being stronger at the decisive point.” –description of Napoleon battle tactic
This is the football’s fastball: I’m coming towards the plate so fast and so hard that by the time you know where it’s going you can’t catch up. To use a war metaphor, gap philosophy is about picking a spot in your opponent’s defenses, puncturing a hole, and sending as much material into it as possible as quickly as possible before the defenders can match it.
The above formation is unbalanced, which did its job in getting the defense to leave a cornerback and safety to a side with zero receiving threats (Mags is ineligible by number). The fullback has a kickout block on the SAM linebacker. Kalis pulls, Asiasi picks off a linebacker, and Deveon Smith gets a 300-pound escort through the gap between Wheatley and the back of Khalid Hill. That gap is the gap they planned to attack, and the most likely one to become available.
That it won’t always be available is what makes gap blocking go from very simple to highly complicated. The great power teams know how to adjust on the fly to defenders diving into the important gap, for example on this play if the SAM is coming inside hard Hill might arc outside on the fly, seal the SAM inside, and hope Smith and Kalis adjust to earn a big run. Or what if that Mike linebacker blitzes the gap inside of Wheatley? Or the whole dang defensive line slants playside? In general the OL will do their best to not let that happen and adjust (e.g. Asiasi might have to assist Wheatley, or the puller might kick out an unblocked end discovered at the point of attack).
I think you get the gist. Gap blocking has everybody working to widen the chosen gap and get bodies attacking that gap as soon as possible. Emphasis is on overpowering—as you see here this play works mostly because Ty Wheatley Jr. latched onto the playside defensive end, and rode him downfield.
Michigan has 8 1/2 in the box, and yet Iowa is able to get 8 yards on 1st down. Even more galling is they did it with a nifty trick that hadn’t been seen much of in the Big Ten until Harbaugh brought it back last year. It’s the wham. And it had no right to go this well.
A wham is a first level block by the fullback or TE, freeing up an offensive lineman to release to the next level. It’s a type of Trap, which is a when you leave an interior defensive lineman unblocked before hitting him from another angle. But when you think of a “trap” it’s usually pulling an offensive lineman to blindside the DL you left unblocked to roar into the backfield.
A wham is less about catching the defense overreacting and more about winning a one-on-one matchup they didn’t expect, in this case between a fullback or H-back and an interior DL. The block is a kick-down, and happens within a second of the snap. If executed, you’ve erased the defense’s most important run defender with your fullback’s block, and your center (who’s often your best run blocker) gets a free release into the linebackers.
Wham block in red
Often a wham block starts with that fullback or tight end in motion. This keeps him out of view of the DT he’ll end up blocking until it’s almost too late, and can give him more of a head start, since the fullback is bound to be giving up some weight on the DT, and will have to make up for it with momentum.
BlueGraySky put together a great video compilation of Notre Dame’s wham blocks from a decade ago:
If you’re mad about watching Domers, know that Michigan’s ‘06 defense appears twice and does a pretty good job against it.
[After the JUMP: What they win, what they risk, and how it goes]
One of these teams will leave with a Big Ten win and The Situation. Noon. Probably on television. Check BeIN Sports 2. No? Does QVC have an overflow channel? Well, I'm sure you'll find it. They televise everything these days. I saw Magic: The Gathering once.
EAST LANSING — East Lansing has determined what it says Michigan State University is costing city residents.
Right down to the vomit removal.
Fire department calls, police overtime and downtown cleanup after student nightlife are among the issues that cost the city about $3.75 million last year, according to a recent study paid for by the city.
I say just leave the vomit—it's not like anyone can tell that you cleaned it up. And the RCMB agrees!
I remember back in the late 80s when I transferred to MSU. I went to WMU for a year and then transferred. K'zoo was a complete dump. Nothing to do. Other than Lafayette Square, it wasn't happening. I couldn't wait to leave K'zoo and I also couldn't wait to leave GR after the summer was over to get back to East Lansing for the fall terms to begin. Now? K'zoo and GR are so much better than East Lansing. And even they aren't the greatest. But it tells you just how far East Lansing has fallen.
I moved back to Lansing from 2009 to 2013. I could not wait to move away from there again in 2013. It was a mistake to move back to Lansing. Lansing is dismal but almost better than East Lansing now. East Lansing is a complete shell of itself. Just terrible. It lacked any of the vitality it once held. It was is of depressing to see.
That's part of a wildly entertaining five-page thread full of Spartans dumping venom on East Lansing's taxes, generic chain restaurants, city leadership, vacant storefronts, and DUI conviction rate. (That latter might not be East Lansing's fault, guys.) Highly recommended. The Spartans' profession appears to be self-owning.
Everybody at Michigan. (laughs) I’ll tell you what, Harbaugh, he just brings out the best in all his players. Shoot, every one of those guys has elevated their draft stock.
Amara Darboh, Mason Cole, Channing Stribling, Jabrill Peppers, Ben Gedeon, Delano Hill, De'Veon Smith, Chris Wormley, and Jake Butt all come in for praise. I'm slightly dubious about Cole's NFL potential given the struggles he's had against 3-4 nose tackles this year but hey man whatever. Michigan is set to have a dozen guys drafted, and you'd better believe that'll perk up recruits' ears. That goes double when scouts are praising Harbaugh's development as the direct cause of said draftees.
Best part of this: no Maurice Hurst. Let's keep that on the low for another year, yes please.
The Wolverines' beefy, pro-style offense snapped the ball 34 times in the first half and averaged 11.8 yards per play. They did it with a litany of creative wrinkles cloaked in the feel-good nostalgia of two-tight end sets and fullback dives. They are like a phonograph that can stream your iTunes through Bluetooth.
Stodgy is what Michigan will see this weekend in Iowa City. Michigan's got a new thing every week.
Don Brown, football dude. This is a week old but I must have missed it. The WaPo on Don Brown:
Yes, Brown and Michigan: “It’s a perfect place for him,” said Compton, whose father was Brown’s high school coach and Brown’s wife’s high school biology teacher. “He looks good in the colors. It’s perfect. Perfect! He likes that weather. It’s a natural fit for him.”
In that passage lies another thing about Brown, 61: Three former players go beyond the normal, fond recollections of former players. They effuse, and say old teammates do likewise. Somehow, this seems like big toughness mixed with big, big love. ...
Ihedigbo said: “That demeanor. That presence. He truly cares about you. It’s one of those things where you feel like you’re in it together. It’s not just trying to get the most out of you.”
Michigan has exceeded even the towering expectations placed on them by optimistic folks (hi!) preseason, and looks set for a showdown against Ohio State that could change the shape of the Big Ten for years to come. Still cannot get over what a great hire Brown was.
In the 1970’s, Bo would talk on the phone with Hanlon who was upstairs in the press box. After asking, “What do you want, Jerry?” Bo sent in the plays with offensive guards that rotated in and out of the game. It looked and sounded like this:
In the 1980’s, rotating wide receivers became the method of communication. The clip below can be summed up thusly, “Oh geez, Mo, let me handle this! AC, you tell Wangs to throw you the damn ball! Now THAT is how you do it, Gary!”
After a few delay of game penalties in critical situations, a change needed to be made.
Rotating guards bringing the playcall in! That is absolutely insane from a modern perspective. Also don't miss the Bo smirk at the end of the first video. Probably thinking about this going down in the huddle:
BRANDSTATTER: and he says to get your ass in there RB: what? BRANDSTATTER: CUT IT IN, he says RB: in what BRANDSTATTER: man... just get your ass in there RB: i will take this under advisement
We were cheering so much when they brought out the train that we missed how cool the play design was that they ran with it. It’s not the most complicated play to break down, but it’s certainly the most fun I’ve had breaking one down.
Other than looking cool, the train formation does actually accomplish something. The defense is trying to figure out who’s got whom, but can’t actually line up and sort out the offense’s look until this weird huddle has broken. It’s hard to catch numbers with all those other dudes in the way. It might not even dawn on the defenders until the snap that all the skill position players are tight ends (or in the case of Hill, a quasi-TE turned fullback). The train doubles as a huddle—Speight walks up the line giving the playcall—but preserves a no-huddle offense’s confusion factor.
If you’re an opponent, you don’t have a lot of time to dissect the various shades of blocky-catchy. And down near the goal line you’re not going to have the luxury of playing cover 2, since any underneath dumpoff is a touchdown. With a weird formation, the simplest thing to do is call a man defense, and everybody line up in their spots.
Then Speight claps his hands to break the huddle, and everybody rushes to his spot.
[After the Jump: Why five tight ends, why mesh, and how the rule that spread teams proved unfair is also unfair for teams that run out lots of TEs and crossing routes]