A proposed explanation of the play-calling using a UFR review of the offense going into Improvement Week

A proposed explanation of the play-calling using a UFR review of the offense going into Improvement Week

Submitted by taistreetsmyhero on October 9th, 2017 at 6:13 PM

After the Purdue game, I started to compile the UFRs from this season into a large chart to try and see what the offense has done well and what hasn't worked so far. This unfortunately but very coincidentally turned out to be a very useful tool to give some data on what Michigan may have been trying to build upon going into the Improvement Week and context for the play calling in the MSU game.


  • This is an objective analysis (with some editorializing) to explain the playcalling, not to defend it.
  • I did not collect any data on the types of passes thrown (i.e. long bombs vs. mesh vs. screens, etc.) so I cannot look at the decision against testing the MSU safeties more.
  • I did not look at blocking schemes or individual blocking scores, as this is a higher level review. That does lead to some clear limitations here.
  • There is no data to explain why Michigan did not account for the monsoon. But, my fan theory based off of this review is that Michigan spent the bye week (prior to any forecast for storm) working on plays that are weather-independent, and then were stuck between a rock and a hard place because the main things they had worked to improve would not work well in a monsoon. The rock and the hard place both split the victory, unfortunately.
  • There is no data to explain why Michigan totally abandoned the running game after the first drive. In fact, the data makes it pretty clear that Michigan's passing game had its greatest success when there is a viable PA (which requires running plays to be called, regardless of their own success). But, I will attempt to show why Michigan chose to pass so much on first down. And when you fail to gain yards on first down, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place on 2nd or 3rd & long. We all know who won there...

Three basic observations from the game

  1. Michigan utilized a ton of Shotgun and Ace formations (albeit with some exotic twists and motions.)
  2. Michigan passed a ton on first down.
  3. Michigan utilized a ton of 4 & 5 receiver passing plays.

Explaining the three basic observations

1. Why did Michigan utilize the Shotgun and Ace formation so heavily?

First, let's look at this from the vantage of the Michigan running offense:

O Form Big Ace Shotgun Offset I I-Form
n 43 41 29 17 6
% Form 0.32 0.30 0.21 0.13 0.04
Yards 133 276 151 87 1
YPP 3.09 6.73 5.21 5.12 0.17
Success rate 0.47 0.44 0.55 0.29 0.17
Off-schedule 0.09 0.27 0.45 0.24 0
RPS sum -13 0 0 5 -1
Box 8.45 7.66 6.47 7.41 7.42
Blocking Avg. -0.70 -0.14 1.00 3 0.20
RB sum 1.5 13 10.5 1 -2

Running out of the Ace formation led to the highest yards per play of any formation, with the rate of successful runs being 3rd out of the 5 formation bases utilized.

Running out of the Shotgun formation led to the highest rate of succesful runs, and second highest yards per play. On average, Michigan had the best blocking execution out of the Shotgun than of any other formation by a wide margin.

For whatever reason, the RBs also had the most success making positive plays out of Ace and Shotgun formations.

The caveats with Shotgun is that it had the highest proportion of Off-schedule use (i.e. runs called on 2nd or 3rd & long), as well as the lowest average defenders in the box (which may be explained by the former). However, this can be seen as an advantage for passing plays, as it gives credibility to play fakes on seemingly obvious passing downs.

Now, let's look at the successful plays (at least 4 yards on 1st down, at least 60% of the yards to gain on 2nd down, at least 100% of the yards to gain on 3rd or 4th down), and see how it breaks down from these formations when it comes to Michigan executing its bread-and-butter running plays:

Successful Plays          
O Form Ace Shotgun
Play  Zone Counter Crack sweep Zone Power O
% Form/success 30.43% 100% 50% 34.78% 50%
% Form/play 23.94% 80% 46.67% 23.94% 26.92%
Relative success 1.27 1.25 1.07 1.45 1.86

To explain the rows, on the Zone plays out of Ace formation, 30.43% of successful Zone runs were out of the Ace formation, compared to only 23.94% of all Zone runs being called from the Ace formation. This is a relative proportion (success rate/play call rate) of 1.27.

Overall, this suggests that Michigan believed it had a relatively strong running foundation to build off in the Ace and Shotgun formations.


Second, lets have a similar look at the Michigan passing offense:*

O Form Shotgun Offset I Shotgun Empty Ace I-Form Big
n 58 17 16 15 12 9
% Form 44.96% 13.18% 12.40% 11.63% 9.30% 6.98%
Yards 222 142 203 145 65 50.00
YPP 3.83 8.35 12.69 9.67 5.42 5.56
Success rate 0.29 0.47 0.69 0.8 0.25 0.22
Off-schedule 0.36 0.65 0.00 0.73 0.75 0.89
RPS sum 0 5 6 8 4 -1.00
Blocking Avg. 0.30 1.06 1.73 0.91 0.55 1.00
QB DSR 60.98% 64.29% 85.71% 100% 80.00% 28.57%
Route/YAC sum 5.00 -1 3 0 -4 -1.00


  • I have the plays separated between O'Korn vs. Speight in my chart, as well as red zone vs. between the 20s, but I have combined them all for this review. So again, some obvious limitations apply. See my previous post for a comparison of the performances between the two going into Improvement Week
  • My yards and yards per play includes sacks AND penalty yardage. Same goes for the success rate. This is a results-based analysis, i.e. drawing a 15 yard PI call is a success in my book.

This again shows that Michigan found a relatively high proportion of its success out of the Ace formation. The Shotgun formation, however, is where a lot of the problems with the OL rear their ugly heads. The caveat here is that the shotgun is the go-to formation on standard passing downs, as indicated by the huge discrepancy in off-schedule rate from the Shotgun compared to the other formations. But when you look at the Shotgun empty, there is a great amount of success.

2. Why did Michigan pass so much on first down?

Again refer to the passing chart above. There is a stark difference in success rate out of formations that have a higher proportion of plays on non-standard passing downs (Off-schedule).

Overall, Michigan had a 41.86% success rate on passing plays. That success rate jumps up only slightly to 43.33% on off-schedule downs, but the highest jump is in the Shotgun formation, from 29% as above to 38%.

3. Why did Michigan use so many 4 and 5 route passing plays?

I already made a post alluding to this prior to the game: UFR review shows pass protection in Shotgun Empty formation is stellar.

That breakdown, as shown again above, suggests that the OL has an easier time blocking when there is no RB and/or TE to confuse the assignments (or whiff their own block).

Let's look closer at the Shotgun formation, where much of the blocking woes become most visible:

n 58
% Form 44.96%
Routes* 3.778846154
Pass rushers 4.784313725
Blocker discrepency 1.39
Blocking Avg. 0.3

*Note: I counted a route where the TE or RB blocked prior to the route as 0.5

Michigan had a number's advantage in pass blockers:pass rushers on every play, yet the rate of adequate pass protection:failed pass pro was barely above zero.

However, a break-down by # of routes suggests that that the relative lack of routes and QB is also to blame:

On Shotgun passes with 3 or 3.5 routes:

Shotgun Formation      
Routes Blocker Discrepency Blocking Avg. Success Rate DSR
3-3.5 1.64 1.35 0.18 43.75%
4-5 1.20 -0.29 0.36 65%

The success rate jumps going from 3/3.5 to 4-5 routes, but the blocking averages plummet. The blocking dip could partially be due to the lack of extra blockers (as the blocker discrepency does go down a touch), but, from recall, most of the stunts that killed Michigan came during 4 WR shotgun sets, so extra blockers would not necessarily have helped there.

It's hard to fully explain the jump in success rate, but the jump in DSR could possibly suggest that receivers were getting open more when there were more routes.

Regardless, the data overall shows that Michigan had relatively more success on 4-5 receiver routes.



My take-away from this information is that Michigan had a clear idea of what had previously worked best going into the Improvement Week. But, it felt like a dad joke gone wrong: Drevno & Co. told a funny joke last week, and then they kept repeating it and repeating until they beat the dead horse so silly that Little Brother snapped and cut the bolt on the gun locker and shot everyone dead.

Again, none of this touches on the offensive staff's failure to account for the rainstorm, but I've already stated above that my guess is they had a gameplan (or at least several packages) in place prior to the weather forecast and failed to adjust.

And there's only so much you can do when the OL is a seive, the QB throws an INT turkey, and your players fumble the ball twice before it even starts raining.

But, at the end of the day, the play-caling had a very Borgesian feel in that they took what worked previously totally out of context and created a game-plan that was doomed from the start. The passing plays on off-schedule downs out of standard running formations only succeeded in the pass because of downs dedicated to running the ball made play-action a conceivable threat. It was frustrating to see Michigan abandon the run after falling behind quickly, as it totally threw off the basic premise of the gameplan's vision.


Did conservative offensive play calling or ineffective o-line play cost UM CFP?

Did conservative offensive play calling or ineffective o-line play cost UM CFP?

Submitted by Eastern Wolverine on December 4th, 2016 at 2:44 PM

Did Harbaugh and offensive staff crawl into a late game shell at Iowa and OSU or did UM not have a strong enough o-line to execute critical plays when needed? I get this line was good to very good and several members will play on Sundays. That said, in both losses (even at MSU) it seemed UM couldn't get those tough 3 to 4 yard rushing plays when needed. Defenses knew UM was running and stuffed them. Were these stops due to lackluster play calling or the o-line not being able to impose its will when needed? Thanks for any light shed on the subject.

Execution, Play Calling, and Coming Full-Circle with Borges and Co.

Execution, Play Calling, and Coming Full-Circle with Borges and Co.

Submitted by Space Coyote on September 10th, 2013 at 2:35 PM

In the past, I have been loudly outspoken that many of Borges's bad game plans (read: OSU) have been just as much or more because of poor execution, which has been contrary to the tidal force of this blog and most Michigan fans. I've prefaced this by saying that poor execution is just as much on the coaches as it is on the players, and that by saying "execution was the main problem", I wasn't claiming Borges's gets a free ride.

Well, this last Saturday I tweeted out something to the extent of "Borges's called a hell of a game," and I want to preface that with the fact that the players are just as responsible for that because of their execution as Borges's and the coaching staff are for calling the plays and preparing the team to execute.

The point is, neither is anything without the other. Borges apparently called a wonderful game, but if the players execute like they did against OSU, the play calling looks mediocre at best. Maybe this could go elsewhere in one of the many threads about this topic, but as a fairly outspoken member of the board, I wanted to let this come full circle. No game boils down to an OC called a bad game, and no game comes down to an OC called a great game. This is what happens when the two come together. This is the outcome when neither has to be perfect (because neither playcalling nor execution was perfect), but both were for the most part very good.

EDIT: Title change to not come off as flaming.

What Went Wrong?

What Went Wrong?

Submitted by hart20 on October 15th, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Simply, what went wrong? Was it the playcalling? The execution? The refs? The wind? Dirty plays? The 88% full moon (Waning Gibbous)? What are your thoughts? And before I get negged, the purpose of this post isn't to rag on anyone, I'm genuinely curious about your thoughts. And please, keep it sane. No personal attacks or any thing of the sort.

Personally, I think the defense played as well as it could have. They got the turnovers, they put the offense in positions to make something happen. The offense just couldn't get it done. Why the offense couldn't get it done? I think it had more to do with the play calling than the execution, although the execution wasn't pretty. We were able to move the ball running and then we suddenly switched to a passing offense. It made no sense. MSU was timing the snaps, yet we continued using the same snap counts. And that 4th down play call....deep breath.... I don't care how wide open the receivers would have been if Denard had time to throw. We needed a first down and MSU was giving it to us. We have Denard and an easy first down. WHY DO YOU PASS IT??? If someone has a legitimate answer, please tell me. The execution wasn't pretty at all, but I felt like the players were put into tough spots.


We could've/should've won that game. What went wrong?


Issues of Play Calling on 3rd Downs

Issues of Play Calling on 3rd Downs

Submitted by ToledoGoBlue on September 11th, 2010 at 9:18 PM

Did anybody else have a problem with the play calling by RichRod on 3rd downs all game?  It seemed liked we had numerous 3rd and shorts (4 yards or less) and the staff didn't call D-Rob's number that often.

With D-Rob having his way with defenses so far this season, it would seem obvious to let Denard have a crack at it rather than passing so often.

Game plan and play calling cost us the game...

Game plan and play calling cost us the game...

Submitted by NickUmich on October 3rd, 2009 at 4:16 PM

That was a hell of a game first of all! Tate was a beast out there in the 4th quarter. He really led us on not two but three scoring drives in the 4th quarter if Stoney doesn't cough up that ball. Props to Roundtree, Tay Odoms, and the second half defense too.

But I just have to say, the game plan, play calling and player subs cost us that game more than anything (O-line and dropped balls hurt us badly too).

How do we not run Minor up the middle or off tackle during that game a lot more, especially when Brown isn't getting it done around the end or off tackle? Unless he was really hurt, that was crazy. And would it have killed them to throw a couple HB screens in key situations.

That fake punt was one of the worst calls I have ever seen in my life. Whoever called that play should be fined 10K. We inside our own 20! And MSU was obviously ready for it when they came to the line.

And the substitution of Denard for Tate in the 4th quarter. That is just blasphemy against the 4th quarter God that is Mr. Forcier. I wanted Denard to come in for some time at QB in the 3rd quarter. But we were down 14 when he came in, and were in a mandatory passing situation. I know Tate wasn't moving the team down the field the first three quarters (some of that was because of drops), but we have seen him come alive in the 4th twice already. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That was stupid. Unless Tate was hurt and asked to be taken out, that was a horrible move.

The team showed great heart. It was an awesome game! We didn't deserve to be in it at the end, but almost pulled out. I just wanted to rant a little.

Can't wait til next week. I just hope the coaches have a better game plan.

Addendum: These are just my criticisms of the game. It doesn't mean I think the coaches suck. I think RichRod has been the best coach in the country this year (even including this game).