Offensive Wrinkle: I-backfield

Submitted by Magnus on September 7th, 2008 at 11:58 AM

 Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan offense showed us Michigan fans a new offensive wrinkle against Miami (OH) this week.  The use of the "I" formation comes as a surprise from a coach who runs a vast majority of his plays out of the shotgun spread.  But in the transition from Lloyd Carr's run-oriented offense to the spread, Michigan's personnel suggests that some more tradition offensive sets might be advantageous.

The advantage of the "I" formation comes in several ways.

1. The "I" formation is an unbalanced set that forces the defense to choose strength.  The quarterback lines up under center, the fullback lines up directly behind the QB, and the tailback lines up behind the fullback.  Most defenses will call strength toward the tight end; if there is no tight end, they will call strength to the two-receiver side.  If your standard 4-3 defense shifts to the strong side, an offense can gain a numbers advantage to the weak side by sending the fullback and tailback to that side.

2. The "I" formation provides a lead blocker in the running game.  Unlike most plays in the spread offense, an I-back can follow his lead blocker on wham plays.  On a wham (aka "iso") the offensive linemen turn their men away from the hole and the fullback leads through the hole on a linebacker.  If the linebacker attacks the block head on, the I-back can cut in either direction.  If the linebacker attacks with one shoulder, which he should, the running back should be able to read the block and cut in the other direction.

3. The "I" formation gets a running back closer to the line.  This can be helpful on quick-hitting running plays, like traps or dives.  Since there's no lead blocker for the fullback and since he's usually not a nifty runner, it's best to use these quick hitters when you know the defense isn't paying attention to the fullback.

4. The "I" formation allows the running back to run downhill and use cutback lanes.  Running "downhill" means that the back is running toward the defenders and not away from them.  Sweep plays allow the defense to chase the ball carrier, which can work against slow defense, but not often against fast ones.  Whams, traps, counters, dives, etc. get the running back headed upfield and put pressure on the defensive players to stay disciplined, fill cutback lanes, and break down to tackle the ballcarrier.

5. The "I" formation also gives the offense a chance to run play action passes and keep one or two backs in the backfield to help with pass protection.

Michigan's offense used the "I" formation well in the game against Miami.  With Mark Moundros lined up at fullback and Sam McGuffie behind him, the team ran an iso (which McGuffie broke outside for a big gain) and a couple toss sweeps to the outside (which McGuffie also broke outside for decent gains).  On top of that, Threet handed off to Mark Moundros on a fullback dive that gained seven yards.

Without the ideal quarterback for the spread option, Rodriguez will need to adjust the offense to his personnel.  The use of the "I" formation is a step in that direction.  Michigan has a plethora of tight ends, a good blocking fullback, and starting linemen that were recruited to play in a pro-style run offense.  As the linemen become more athletic and the quarterbacks get better at running the read option, the use of the I formation may be used less and less in future years.  In the meantime, it will be beneficial to use this set.  But as far as I recall, Michigan ran exclusively in the "I" formation.  In future weeks Michigan will need to run plays other than whams and toss sweeps out of the "I."  Otherwise, upcoming opponents will be able to key on the run.



September 7th, 2008 at 12:33 PM ^

Related to the formations, I am a bit curious on who have been the best running backs thus far. It seems like Shaw and McGuffie have performed the best, but have they been given better plays or been luckier in the blocking? Which type of runner is best for the I vs. pure spread... It seems like McGuffie and Shaw are better for the spread (although McGuffie had the nice I formation run). Maybe Minor/Grady are better in the I (with power runs inside?)

Will we see 5 RBs throughout the year (or will Brown become a 3rd QB option...)


September 7th, 2008 at 12:42 PM ^

As far as pure numbers go, Minor and Shaw have been the best. Minor's only had a few carries, but he had a 21-yarder against Utah and this 15-yard TD against Miami.

Minor is more of a downhill runner. He can hit the hole quickly and doesn't try to bounce things to the outside all the time. He also has the strength to break tackles and fall forward. You're right that Minor and Grady are better for the I formation.

I actually think McGuffie is the worst for the I-formation, simply because he's not tough enough yet to run the ball inside. He hasn't broken many tackles and wants to bounce things to the perimeter. He's okay on those toss sweeps because he can cut sharply to get upfield.

But Shaw and McGuffie are made for the spread, and Grady and Minor are made for the "I." I personally think Minor is the best overall RB at this point, because he can break tackles, run away from people, and pass block. He's the best all around guy. But he doesn't seem to have the necessary cutting ability to run laterally and then cut upfield with regular success, even though his TD yesterday came on an outside run.


September 7th, 2008 at 1:13 PM ^

I suspect a wrinkle we will see against Notre Dame is a running back lining up at quarterback with some regularity and running the spread. I have this feeling RR thought about using it against Miami but didn't have to. Next week we will see it about 10 snaps- just my thought


September 7th, 2008 at 1:50 PM ^

I could be mistaken, but didn't use Rodriguez use the I-form in some short yardage situations last year as well? Looking back at the UFR WVU vs Rutgers, they ran from variations of I-form (different WR sets) 8 times on various downs and yardage. Supporting Magnus's points:

3&1 Iso Slaton
2&5 Inside Zone Slaton
2&8 FB Dive Schmidt
1&15 PA Waggle
1&G on 5, PA Rollout
3&G on 1, Off Tackle Slaton
1&10 Inside Zone Slaton
1&G on 6, Off Tackle Slaton

As far as the RB as QB, that has primarily been a C.Brown ordeal, who was out with injury to the shoulder. I would expect to see it back once he returns.


September 7th, 2008 at 2:29 PM ^

.....just seal off the corner and let McGuffie get to the corner. Thought Moundros played well in those rolls, even got a nice six yard run for a first down in our first quarter "explosion."

I hope keep playing as many RBs as possible. Fresh legs and thats how we used to run that position way back when. That said, we need more on field time for Minor, Brown and Grady. I dont want to see them get buried on the depth chart.


September 7th, 2008 at 5:24 PM ^

Fred Jackson said they "can't play six guys."  I definitely think Minor needs to be utilized more than he was yesterday.  But I agree that you can't rotate in 5 or 6 guys because then it's hard for guys to get in a rhythm.  I think the zone blocking is different than man blocking and isos because so much of it depends on picking a hole and making a cut, so you have to gauge the speed of your linemen, the defensive linemen, the linebackers, etc.  When you run isos and there's a specific hole, you can send anyone in there and say, "Hit this up there in the 4-hole" or whatever.  So somebody's going to have to be the odd man out in the spread.  If they run more "I", though, I can see a situation where they'd have McGuffie, Grady, and Minor running from the "I" and McGuffie, Shaw, and maybe Brown running from the spread.


September 7th, 2008 at 7:04 PM ^

I have a feeling that RR is only using the I-formation because he has to at this point. When he uses it, its a definite run, and its pretty hard to spread the field in an I-form. My guess is that it will be used as he transitions to the new offense, and in a couple years we'll never/rarely see it.


September 7th, 2008 at 7:38 PM ^

with 2 TE's and a Fullback.

We can't afford these third and nine's we keep getting with all of our current east-west running. We need some kind of true running game, even a mediocre one, to take some pressure off of the QB's we have. They cannot pick up constant third and long's, and that is not going to change anytime soon. 

The last thing Rich needs after the messy divorce with WVU, the $2.5M buyout paid by Michigan, the Braylon #1 thing, the perception that he doesn't "get" the OSU rivalry, etc., is to be the guy that breaks the 30+ year Bowl streak and the 40+ years without a losing season streak.  

Get to six wins, then we can go back to Spread School. 

We lived with Llloyd-ball for a decade, we can live with it for a few more games until the freshmen and first year starters get their sea legs.


September 7th, 2008 at 9:26 PM ^

If my read of the 2005 WVU playbook is correct, there are more than a few "I-Formation" sets that run it smash mouth with a lead fullback blocker. Looks like they will use whatever works.


September 7th, 2008 at 10:03 PM ^

Just remembered something about RR's tenure at WVA. In his second and third years, RR's teams took top ranked (or at least in the top-3) Miami to the wire and beat top-10 Va Tech in back to back years. Why do I bring this up? Because they weren't even close to running the spread and shed a la Pat White. Nope. They were playing power football and running the I. At tailback, they featured Kay Jay Harris during this timeline, but it was Wilson (Otis Wilson, the old Bear LB, it was his kid) who broke out as a star in those games. And, they physically overtook the Hokies in those games. Beamer famously called out his team for not stepping up to the physical challenge after the second one. It will be ineresting to see how often he uses it this year and in what combo of players.


September 7th, 2008 at 11:12 PM ^

I think it hsows that Coach Rodriguez will do what he needs to do to win, even while he installs his offence, develops players and recruits for the future.  In spite of being 1-1, I have a pretty good feeling about not just future seasons, but the rest of this season.  He really does coach guys, teaches them, and that bodes well.  If ND plays us the way they played SDSU, we have a good chance to win and carry a little momentum into the Wisconsin game.