There's a kind of football coach who revels in the engineering of it. These coaches love to understand how a play works down to the barest detail, then design something new from it that works because of all these other reasons. Inevitably most of these tinkerers are victims of their own success. Mouse Davis ended his career the wide receivers coach of Hawaii. Hal Mumme is currently the OC of Jackson State. And Joe Moorhead is the latest in a long line of football coaches whose families severely regret not pulling up a Google Map street view of Starkville, Mississippi before agreeing to live there.
The neat gadgets and new ways to toy with read options are all still in the playbook, as are the RPOs, the play-action off RPO, the screens, every running play ever conceived with a zone read added to it, a thing that might be a fake screen to the backup quarterback tied to an inverted QB belly dive, and the quarterback they built to operate all of it. What it's missing is the architect. Also the bombs.
The film: I used the bye week to get ahead and watched the Indiana game, again because they run the closest thing to Michigan's base defense and Michigan's level of blitzitude. I also had the MSU game that I'd already charted for the Spartans previews.
Personnel: My diagram:
The new offensive lineman is C Miichal Menet, a top-30 2017 guy who pushed RG Connor McGovern out to guard. LT Ryan Bates was a PFF star last year and he's decent but not a great pass protector. RG Steven Gonzalez is a big leaner and was a few more bad plays from a cyan. Keeping him from hit was RT Will Fries, who was bad for a freshman last year and seems to have gotten worse. These guys all got worked against MSU's good defensive linemen but Fries struggled against everybody.
The receivers have struggled as a group despite some individual stars. Slot KJ Hamler is great but very much a slot. WR Juwan Johnson is way too fast for a guy his size but also has been a big part of PSU's league-leading drop rate. He's spelled by WR Cam Sullivan-Brown, a redshirt freshman who flashes both tantalizing potential and obscenely bad routes (WR at the bottom of the screen). The other receiver position rotates more slot guys. WR DeAndre Thompkins is spending his last year out of position and losing snaps to WR Brandon Polk, who's even smaller and droppier. The tight ends are alright—like Michigan they're receiver types. True freshman TE Pat Freiermuth has future star potential, runs excellent routes, and already stole the job from TE Nick Bowers, who still gets half the snaps.
The backfield is stocked for the foreseeable future with 5-star running backs. RB Miles Sanders isn't Barkley but he was a top-25 recruit, is a receiving threat out of the backfield, and can put on a show:
He was a bit of a fumbler last year and that popped up against last week against Iowa. Since QB Trace McSorley carries half the running load RB Ricky Slade, a scattier version of Sanders, doesn't get a lot of run.
[the rest of the breakdown, after THE JUMP]
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. They are 100% shotgun, often with the RB a half step in front of the QB, and rarely deviate from their regular 11 (one TE, one RB, 3 WRs) personnel except to replace a smaller receiver with a second tight end.
|NORMAL DOWNS||Avg WRs||Flex TE||Pass||P.A.||RPO||Run|
|PASSING DOWNS||Avg WRs||Flex TE||Pass||P.A.||RPO||Run|
|TOTAL||Avg WRs||Flex TE||Pass||P.A.||RPO||Run|
When they need to go 4-wide they flexed a TE into the slot—this happened a lot more often against Indiana than the Spartans. The IU game also featured three snaps with two quarterbacks (McSorley and backup Tommy Stevens) on the field together. They call this the "LION" package. Stevens took a snap once. The other difference was against Indiana Penn State used a lot of trips formations. They kept it very vanilla versus MSU: 3-wide, two targets to each side.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A mix. They like to use every run concept known to man with a zone read or RPO. The most common single play is inside zone read, and the next is a QB draw. They also like that step-pitch option you remember from the first play last season, and inverted veer with a tight end pulling around from the backside as well as the guard. If this all sounds like a running game that emphasizes the quarterback you win a cookie.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Hurry up, with some dawdling. They're a no-huddle-to-the-line team that does a lot of check-with-me to the sidelines. McSorley does a lot of his own checks at the line too. They're 21st in Adjusted Pace to Bill C, well faster than average. But facing Penn State is more of a marathon that a sprint; plays are designed to hit big or go nowhere, and games are extended by a greater than normal number of incomplete passes and runs out of bounds.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): I gave Lewerke an 8 last week and McSorley's better so I have to give him a 9. Like Lewerke (no diggity) you can't leave a DT on the edge to bag Trace up.
Where Lewerke excels however is turning on the jets when you're not ready for it. McSorley is a superior athlete, and knows how to screw with a guy's hips like a running back would:
Zook Factor: The Zook scale does not go far enough. Did Ron Zook ever cost his team its last drive in a 2-point loss to Ohio State so he could burn two timeouts calling his most-used play on 4th and 5? Against IU they picked up a lucky running into the kicker penalty when Indiana nearly blocked one, chose to re-kick, and then ran a punt fake where they had Gilliken go directly at the spot IU just overloaded and nearly got a block.
He also punted from the IU 34 (it went in the endzone), 4th and 3 from the MSU 47 (it went in the endzone) and used his last timeout to ice his own kicker with 7 seconds left from the Iowa 27 instead of taking a shot at the endzone.
Dangerman: You knew Trace McSorley was going to feature here. He's far off the Heisman campaign track he started the year with. He's still The Offense. We can also cover him in the next section and use this space to whine that Michigan didn't add "Speedy Eaglet," aka slot receiver K.J. Hamler to the 2017 class. And don't tell me DPJ-Black-Martin-Hawkins-Collins was enough because none of them are super-athletic slot types and Michigan's already got a jet mite in the 2019 class and will have Mike Sainristil on campus for this game.
Alas, the homegrown one is at Penn State, leading the team with 497 yards, 5 TDs, and 10 YPT on 50 targets. Those events tend to come in chunks.
James Proche of SMU is most Eaglet-like object we've seen this year and he ate Michigan's old slant coverage alive. It'll be interesting to see if the new trap game comes out enough to force PSU to make Hamler more of a drive target. The caveat to Eaglet is he's going catching about half of what's thrown his way. He is not an OSU slot receiver and not Jeremy Gallon—the window to hit is not big.
Hamler is also the returner and good. Please just kick it out of the endzone kthx.
As of a few weeks ago PFF was giving McSorley a 90.9 grade and naming him the top QB in the league. It's hard to argue after watching him, since he is carrying this team without a lot of help. They also noted his touchdowns under pressure are tops in the country again, and that is very easy to believe. Even when not running by the playcall, McSorley is not a guy who's going to sit in the pocket and survey. After two games I started calling this "The McSorley:"
Pocket: fine. But that's not McSorley's style. He wants to get moving, then throw on the run. He's good at it, though on this play just standing in and delivering probably would have avoided the overthrow. Or maybe the receiver wouldn't have been so open if Trace McSorley wasn't running around to that side of the field.
McSorley adds to the effectiveness of the offense as a whole by making his own checks at the line. And because he makes such good reads and has been in the system a long time they can give him things that would take years of repping, like this triple-option they brought back for a TD against Indiana:
It's an arc, except the arc guy isn't out there to lead block—a threat of a dumpoff pass to him options off the last defender. And McSorley sells it all, from the belly step to optioning off the crashing DE and getting the last safety to commit.
We covered most of it by covering Trace McSorley. When he's having a ballgame—like he did against Ohio State—his offense is capable of putting up points like last year's. Most of his trouble is he can't trust the rest of the people around him to play at the same level. Here's the canonical 2018 Penn State offense play:
McSorley breaks the pocket, throws a perfect ball on the run that hits his receiver in the hands, and it's dropped. Story of the year.
The Penn State offense was built from scratch by a premier spread dude to feature McSorley as a runner, and his leg game is enhanced by two features non-leg features. Number 1 is he is the best zone reader Michigan will face. Watch this mesh:
MSU's slant gets a DT (Mike Panasiuk) inside the RT on an arc read. Panasiuk isn't the guy being read (and should realize this when that TE crosses his face) but McSorley starts holding him with an extended mesh anyway—in no space—and gets the Sparty to let the RB slip by for a gain on a play State had RPO'd. In two games featuring every kind of quarterback read I caught just two bad ones, and the first was such a surprise I clipped it.
X receiver (bottom of the screen)'s post is open.
The other piece is Penn State has the rarest of luxuries: a capable backup in Tommy Stevens who didn't transfer as soon as he learned he wouldn't start. Stevens is another dual-threat and knows the system, and was competent against Iowa last week when McSorley left for a drive (McSorley came back and ran in a long TD so he's fine). Penn State is confident enough in Stevens that McSorley can ball out. In the two games I charted McSorley keeps or called runs were half of their running game, and that running game is just 32% of the offense. In the passing game McSorley is his own top target—he doesn't like being in the pocket
Coaching might be a problem for this offense. I want to highlight a sequence in the 4th quarter that Penn State fans assure me is all too representative of events this year. Penn State gets the ball at their 37 with 4:30 left, up 33-21. They've been having success on the ground all day.
- On 1st down they line up and McSorley gets a check to a “Flood”, a long-developing zone beater. They get man, which is IU's bread and butter, the protection starts to get iffy, and McSorley throws it on the turf near the middle read's feet.
- 2nd down McSorley again gets a check from the sideline, this time to a flare screen; it gets zero yards.
- Now 3rd down the backup QB gives McSorley the play, McSorley waves his arms at Franklin: No No No! They call a timeout (saving 22 seconds on the clock)
Through the timeout the broadcasters are showing a trash tornado and imploring Franklin to run the ball and get on the bus. Franklin spends the timeout talking to the refs. So 3rd down, another check from sideline, this time to a slot fade that the slot receiver isn't even looking for. The drive ends with 0 yards and used 16 seconds plus a PSU timeout. IU would score on their next drive then recover an onside kick with 48 seconds and a timeout left. It took some epic John O'Neill crew dookery in order to finally end it.
This was one week after the Michigan State game when Penn State got the ball back with a lead and 1:45 plus three MSU timeouts remaining. Their three plays:
- Inverted veer with the TE backside pull that they used as a base run all game (3 yards, timeout)
- Split zone without the RPO element. If it was an RPO nobody is checking the slot receiver and this is a 1st down in MSU territory if caught. Instead it loses a yard. Timeout.
- A QB draw on 3rd and 8 that surprises nobody; McSorley gets corralled after 5 yards and gets 3 from dancing except he goes out of bounds.
State’s game-winning drive would start with a timeout and 1:28 left because on a crucial drive Penn State did the spread equivalent of running face-first into stacked boxes three times.
This is both good and bad news. Coaching is easier to fix than talent, and Penn State has plenty of it. On the other hand so does Michigan. I expect the safeties to get picked on a little bit by Speedy Eaglet, and the linebackers are facing another critical exam in Option Defense 302. On the other hand all of the training that went into stopping Ohio State in the JT Barrett Era is back to mattering. James Franklin tweeted “Michigan” as many times this week as Twitter’s character limits allow, but I believe Don Brown when he says last year was messing with his sleep, and Penn State Post-Moorhead is not Moorhead.