Four Plays – UM @ Penn State 2013 (Surprise!)
This series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular 2013 opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays (assuming first-sting personnel in a base defensive alignment). This is the fourth installment of the series; previous: Notre Dame, Connecticut, Minnesota.
There wasn’t any way I expected I’d have time to do another of these diaries in time for the Penn State game, but a number of things came together to make it much less difficult for me this week. See, it’s usually tough to find a whole lot of good material on the specific plays I’m looking at. But I started off looking at the mesh play M ran against UConn a few weeks ago, and in studying that came across a terrific Space Coyote piece discussing not only the mesh passing concepts but also noting that Penn State’s running game basically consists of three plays: inside zone, outside zone, and the draw. That gave me an easy PSU running play to go with M’s mesh. Next, I saw that Black Shoe Diaries had gone and diagrammed every single Penn State pass play from their game against Kent State, so I had plenty to choose from in the PSU air attack. Then Michigan made the incredible Lewan-Williams flip, which resulted in two outstanding front-page items on mgoblog for me to digest (read those ASAP if you haven’t already).
All these great sources made it easy for me to put this together, plus I settled a big case this week and thus had some extra time, and admittedly I may have had a bit more motivation after that most excellent front-page bump last week (seriously—that felt awesome). So, in a way this is kind of the least I could do.
Anyway, Michigan returns to Happy Valley for the first time since the 2010 debacle. This year, they face a proud Nittany Lion team led by their indefatigable head coach, Bill O’Brien. But after a surprising 8-4 campaign a year ago, Penn State’s ship has already begun taking on serious water this season. Already Penn State has fallen to the Central Florida Knights and the Indiana Hoosiers, and Michigan looks to compound their misery this weekend.
Schematically, Penn State runs a 4-3 over base defense and a passing spread offense uncannily similar to Notre Dame’s (except with a likeable, seemingly down-to-earth guy coaching them instead of a petulant purple Nazi). But they’re short on talent and even shorter on depth and experience, so Michigan should find itself on the favorable end of many individual matchups on Saturday.
When Michigan has the ball…
Passing offenses have long used shallow crossing routes to attack man-to-man coverage because there’s no better way to shake a receiver loose than by forcing his defender to wade through traffic in the middle of the field. One of the most successful versions of this scheme is an old LaVell Edwards BYU play called “mesh,” which is designed to free the X receiver by rubbing his defender off against the Y receiver, the Y receiver’s defender, the MLB, and maybe even the umpire. Hal Mumme and Mike Leach improved mesh in their Air Raid offense, by assigning the Z receiver to read the coverage after the snap and run either a post or a corner pattern depending on whether the defense vacates the deep middle (the Z receiver always ran a post in Edwards’ design).
Shown here against a Cover 2 defense with man underneath, the X receiver will “mesh” underneath the Y receiver at a depth of 4-6 yards downfield. Meanwhile, the Z receiver will identify Cover 2 from his post-snap read; because Cover 2 has a hole in the deep middle, this means the Z receiver should run the post—a route that will likely draw the safety to him just as the X receiver emerges from the mesh point.
LT Taylor Lewan: pass protect vs. WDE Deion Barnes
LG Christian Bryant: pass protect vs. NT DaQuan Jones
C Graham Glasgow: pass protect vs. NT DaQuan Jones
RG Kyle Kalis: pass protect vs. DT Kyle Baublitz
RT Michael Schofield: pass protect vs. SDE C.J. Olaniyan
TE Devin Funchess (I know, I know): run flat route (covered by OLB Mike Hull)
YWR Drew Dileo: run crossing route at 4-6 yard depth, cross over XWR (covered by NB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong)
XWR Jeremy Gallon: run crossing route at 4-6 yard depth, cross under FL Drew Dileo (covered by CB Jordan Lucas)
ZWR Jehu Chesson: run post (8) route (covered by CB Trevor Williams)
TB Fitzgerald Toussaint: pass protect, then release to flat (covered by MLB Glenn Carson)
QB Devin Gardner: pre-snap, use motion to determine whether underneath coverage is man or zone; recognize man coverage underneath; receive snap, read deep-to-shallow on Z (post), to X (cross), to tailback (flat).
Michigan’s passing game showed definite improvement against Minnesota, with Gardner avoiding the turnover bug and Devin Funchess emerging as a dangerous outside threat. But the turnover fest isn’t quite old enough to laugh about yet, while mesh is a slow-developing play that will give Penn State’s defensive line as good a chance as they’ll ever have to get pressure. While Taylor Lewan should handle Deion Barnes, Penn State has to like their chances of getting penetration up the middle with DaQuan Jones going against new starter Christian Bryant. In the secondary, Penn State is shaky at corner but has two veteran safeties with Adrian Amos (free) and Malcolm Willis (box).
26 Power O (Unbalanced Line)
According to the UFR, Michigan ran Power O eleven times against Minnesota, all but one of them from the “tackle over” formations with Lewan lined up outside Schofield. The keys to Power O, as you’ve undoubtedly heard before, are (i) double-team at the point-of-attack, (ii) kick-out block on the EMLOS (end man on the line-of-scrimmage), and (iii) pulling backside guard who leads tailback through the hole. Swapping Lewan for the TE lets Michigan’s best blocker either participate in that double-team or make the kick-out block (while the TE has the much easier task of down-blocking and sealing the backside DE), but at the cost of practically announcing the play-call to the defense. Penn State is obviously going to prepare for this; expect to see Borges run this play in his opening script to diagnose John Butler’s adjustment.
LT* A.J Williams: down-block WDE Deion Barnes
LG Christian Bryant: pull across formation, lead through 6-hole, block first defender (likely MLB Glenn Carson)
C Graham Glasgow: down-block NT DaQuan Jones
RG Kyle Kalis: drive-block DT Kyle Baublitz (double-team with RT)
RT Michael Schofield: down-block DT Kyle Baublitz (double-team with RG)
TE* Taylor Lewan: kick-out SDE C.J. Olaniyan
FB Joe Kerridge: lead block on SLB Mike Hull
RB – Fitzgerald Toussaint: execute initial counter step (toward back side), then follow LG through 6-hole, cut off LG’s block.
Advantage: Penn State
Michigan can expect consistent performance from Lewan and Schofield on this play, and Toussaint’s play has been much better over the past few weeks. But Penn State is stout in the middle with DaQuan Jones, has a veteran linebacker unit, and (unlike Minnesota) has formidable defenders at both defensive end positions. Olaniyan, a guy Michigan wanted, is an established veteran who specializes in run support, Barnes is a speedy edge defender coming off an impressive All-B1G freshman team campaign, and Anthony Zettel (another guy Michigan wanted) gives them a third quality option off the bench. Perhaps most importantly, Penn State will absolutely know this is coming and Michigan really hasn’t shown they’ve got a constraint play to keep the defense honest against it (indeed, I have my doubts as to whether Borges even subscribes to the constraint theory)—and the options may frankly be limited if Williams can’t handle Barnes in pass pro. I’ve always believed in Borges and remain optimistic—but for now I have to call this play in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
When Penn State has the ball…
Pistol Inside Zone
You know the deal: covered linemen block the guys covering them, uncovered linemen work to the second level (maybe helping chip a DL along the way), the tailback picks a hole and then cuts north.
WDE Brennen Beyer: Engage TE Kyle Carter and constrict backside C gap, backside pursuit, “fence” ballcarrier inside
3T Jibreel Black: Defeat drive-block of LG Miles Dieffenbach, penetrate through backside B-gap, hopefully drawing double from LT Donovan Smith (thus keeping Smith from reaching James Ross)
NT Quinton Washington: Defeat single-block of C Ty Howle, defend frontside A-gap, draw double-team from RG John Urschel (who Bacon says is a genius, FWIW)
SDE Keith Heitzman: engage RT Gary Gillam, keep outside arm free, defend frontside C gap
SLB Cam Gordon (or J.M.F.R.): Defeat reach block of TE Jesse James, set edge point 2 yards deep, 2 yards outside and force run back inside
MLB Desmond Morgan: Defend frontside B gap, attack ballcarrier through alley
WLB James Ross: Defendant backside A gap, pursue ballcarrier from backside, allow no cutback lane
I can’t see Penn State being any more successful at this than Notre Dame was; the Irish have at least as good a line and much more dangerous tailbacks. With Pipkins out of the lineup, I could maybe see Penn State trying to exploit Ash or another backup they think might be vulnerable, but mostly I imagine BOB is planning on throwing about 55 passes this week. Or 70.
Empty Set Go-Option Routes
If you’re like me, when you close your eyes and think of the New England Patriots, the image that comes to mind is one involving Tom Brady in shotgun with five WRs and no backs. Well, Christian Hackenberg has a long way to go if he wants to be the next Tom Brady, but BOB’s at least got him looking the part. Here’s an empty set play that Penn State ran to good effect against Kent State; go routes to either side of the formation clear out the flats, making room for the slot receivers to get open on (what I presume are) option routes underneath:
Empty formations are vulnerable to pressure, especially against non-mobile quarterbacks—and here the Kent State defense simply outnumbered the offensive line by bringing six rushers. This didn’t work for them, however, because Kent State’s sixth rusher was the DB aligned over Allen Robinson. Hackenberg simply threw back in the direction of the blitz and found Robinson (who was never going to be covered by a safety aligning on the opposite hash) on a quick out for an easy first down.
An empty formation stretches a defense horizontally to the maximum extent possible, limits the defense’s ability to disguise coverage, and can force a defense into Hobsonian personnel choices that create inevitable mismatches. Michigan faced empty formations numerous times against Notre Dame, and never brought in more than five DBs—though ND never aligned with more than four WR (always keeping at least one TE on the field). Certainly Mattison is not going to put his LBs in man-to-man coverage against WRs on the edge and he’s also unlikely to unnecessarily risk big plays over the top. So unless Michigan is prepared to roll out a dime (i.e., six DB) look this week—unlikely as either Morgan, Ross, or a DL would have to come off the field—we can expect to see Michigan primarily play zone coverage underneath.
Whereas outs or crossing patterns were effective against Kent State’s man-under coverage, the slot receivers will likely run curls against a zone—trying to find and sit down in the holes between defenders.
To defend the play, Michigan’s man-to-man underneath defenders should align inside their receivers and play a “trail technique” to force any throws to the outside or to safety help over the top (Edit: doh. S'pose to be zone. Deep as the deepest, wide as the widest, yo).
WDE Brennan Beyer: rush passer vs. LT Donovan Smith
DT Chris Wormley: rush passer vs. LG Miles Dieffenbach
DT Jibreel Black: rush passer vs. C Ty Howle and RG John Urschel
SDE Frank Clark: rush passer vs. RT Gary Gillam
WLB James Ross: cover short zone from hashes to numbers on boundary (over YWR Matt Zanellato)
MLB Desmond Morgan: cover middle short zone between hash marks
NCB Blake Countess: cover short zone from hashes to numbers on field side (align over FL1 Brandon Felder, pick up ZWR Allen Robinson)
BCB Raymon Taylor: cover short zone from numbers to sideline on boundary (over XWR Eugene Lewis)
FCB Courtney Avery: cover short zone from numbers to sideline on field side (over FL2 Alex Kenney)
SS: Thomas Gordon: play deep (>15 yards) half to field side (I think)
FS Jerod Wilson: play deep half to boundary side
Michigan goes deeper at DB than Penn State goes at WR, but Allen Robinson working the middle of the field against M’s linebackers and safeties is a definite concern. Michigan’s pass rush hasn’t been great this season, but may get a shot in the arm from the return of JMFR—and facing a true freshman QB it’s also a good bet Mattison will blitz a fair amount this week. The empty formation does limit the ability to disguise those things, and that helps give Hackenberg a chance—but until he proves he can hold his own in mind games with Mattison and consistently get the ball out, the edge must go to the D.
Based on the foregoing, Michigan will win obvs. It looks like the most votes for my next diary were for the Northwestern game, and I have some extra incentive to do that game since I’m actually going to make that one in person, so it all works out. Thanks for reading!
PS-- So, Gameday is in Seattle this weekend for the UW game against Oregon, and ESPN happens to be using the building on UW's campus where my wife works to do their interviews and stuff. I told my wife to say hi to Desmond for me if she ran into him, not really thinking she would. But then she sent me this pic of she and him from earlier today: