Fee Fi Foe Film: Western Michigan Offense 2018 Comment Count

Seth September 6th, 2018 at 2:12 PM

Wassink is highly fun for a pocket guy [Bryan Fuller]

[Author Note: Prior to his leave of absence Ace and I agreed I could take over his weekly film breakdown of the upcoming opponents feature with the jejune name so he could refocus on basketball. So now it's mine and no more author notes.]

The film: This was not an ideal game for this. Syracuse's defense plays soft, bend-and-usually-break Tampa 2 and gets most of its pressure from the DTs. Also WMU went down 34-7 before the 2nd quarter was half-way over, then exploded in the 3rd quarter, getting back within 6 points. Then WMU quarterback Jon Wassink threw an interception to begin the 4th quarter, Syracuse scored again, and the rest was fireworks in garbage time.

That's a little more useful than it might otherwise be, however, because Western Michigan still has that P.J. Fleck bomb-it mentality, which was on full display for the comeback. Wassink was a little back-footed to start the game but by the final drive he was flinging dimes into Hornibrook windows.

Personnel: My diagram that's sure to start arguments about Michigan's stars and shields despite those being unchanged from last year:


So many Broncos were hurt last year if OSHA wasn't the NCAA of regulatory agencies they would have been all over Tim Lester's program. Among the reanimated zombies are QB John Wassink, and X receiver Drake Harris, meaning I get to bring out my X-Files poster one last time. The running backs are not returning starters--WMU graduated the school's all-time leading rusher Jarvion Franklin--but they're experienced: RB Levante Bellamy is the tiny-ass playmaker on the team. RB Jamauri Bogan has averaged 5.7 YPC and notched 27 TDs in 459 carries since 2015, and is best described as Mike Hart but Slow. Freshman RB Chase Brown has been siphoning snaps and is hard to bring down.

i want to believe

The defining feature of the Broncos offense is—prepare to sigh—the best offensive line in the MAC, especially C John Keenoy and RG Luke Juriga, both of whom are likely to be drafted eventually, though Juriga plays a bit light in the run game. Syracuse didn't have much pass rush but RS sophomore LT Jaylen Moore, who replaces third-rounder Chukwuma Okorafor, is the same kind of athletic tight end convert Frey might have turned up. He'd probably start for half of the Big Ten; that's not saying much. The other side is a half-by-half rotation between RS soph RT Mark Brooks, who is tackle-shaped, guard-stiff, and "crafty" (IE dude gets away with more blatant holding and cheap shots than anyone not named Allen in East Lansing)  and a multi-year starter, RT Zach Novoselsky, who got exposed a few times but did play most of that second half when WMU was trying to bomb its way back into a blowout.

The tight ends are a pair of extremes. Starting H-Back Odell Miller is more of a 270-pound fullback and lines up in the backfield. "Y" (inline) TE Giovanni Ricci is a recent wide receiver convert who's still shaped like a receiver, and blocks like one, but can't catch: he dropped all three targets that hit him on the hands and picked himself instead of his coverage a Mesh route that was thrown where he should have been.

Outside, Harris is the same guy you saw at Michigan—fades in his direction tended to fall out of his reach. The rest of their receivers are Maryland-ish, IE tiny but effective. Z receiver D'Wayne Eskridge had a career day against Syracuse's stiff, soft, Cover 2 secondary—they like to put him in the twins slot on two-TE drives where he's a dangerous slot fade merchant, but he runs good routes underneath too. Lavert Hill is going to be a whole new kind of test. Slot receiver Jayden Reed is a true freshman but already possesses a sweet nickname—"Bird"—and passed 2017 starter Keishawn Watson to such a degree that Watson, who had 374 yards and 7 TDs last year, didn't get on the field last week.

[After THE JUMP: I want to believe]


Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid: This is a PJ Fleck spread from the same tree as Urban Meyer's, with a lot of the same plays. They will line up in a pistol, then 9 times out of 10 Wassink will motion the RB to a shotgun and someone will motion while the QB claps a lot.

Also an example of what I mean about Juriga playing light.

They mostly stick to two personnel groups: two tight ends or a slot and a TE. The above is two TEs and the three-wide look is the same base setup as Urban Meyer's, with the TE more of an H-Back and the slot receiver able to motion into a second RB spot. If they go to a 4-wide look it's with Ricci as a Flex.


This was a successful smoke screen

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Basketball on grass, though power's in the playbook. They didn't get to run as much in this game because they spent 80% of it in comeback mode but of the 21 run plays I charted we got:

  • 7 zone reads
  • 3 split zones
  • 3 inside zones
  • 3 power runs
  • 2 outside zones, and
  • 1 each of Inverted Veer, Speed Option, and a draw (on a "let's kill the half" play)

The split zones are not quite SZ—more like Georgia's "power" play where the H-back acts like a puller and can opt to ignore the end even if he's crashing. Like split zone however the QB uses the threat of a zone read to keep that DE from crashing too quickly. It's the best use of Keenoy and Juriga, who get to use their athleticism and technique to create a huge hole for a big 2i-tech nose tackle to close down.

Also: "Mike Hart but slow"

Hurry it up or grind it out? Like the Army dress uniforms they match (and again like Urban's offenses) they're a Hurry Up and Wait team. Though they don't huddle, you can get a few subs in and out because they're slow to line up. Then there's a good 10 seconds of clapping and shifting before they snap it with about 12 seconds to go.

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Wassink will try to use his legs—see: the 1/3rd of their run game that was zone reads—and they'll often have him roll around with no play-action to get more time to chuck it, but he's solidly on the Pro-Style end of the spectrum. Think Rudock. 3.

Zook Factor: Lester punted on 4th and 2 and 4th and 1 from around his 40 in the 1st quarter. This was before he realized the game was going to end 55-42, but after Syracuse built a multi-score lead. The head scratcher was at the end of the half, down 34-7, with two timeouts and Syracuse on its own 34, and 50 seconds left. Rather than use a timeout Lester let the Orange run the clock down to 1 and punt with 11 seconds left. He did go for it later on 4th and 4 in the redzone, but when you're down by 27 and your kicker's already missed a chip shot you'd have to be James Franklin not to.

Dangerman: AIEEEEEE! Beware the little men. RB LeVante Bellamy (who's also their returner) is a slippery little bastard.

He is their playmaker. They design things to get him the ball in space. If he sees the open field, he's gone.

The other bedbug is 5'9"/170 receiver D'Wayne Eskridge, who's a very good route runner and will stretch your safeties. He's all the more terrifying because Wassink can hit him in stride:

And because focusing on him can create more space for the actual slot receiver. Those Michigan fans who are still working through slot fade issues should avert their eyes:

Again, Syracuse runs a soft Tampa 2 with tall, stiff cornerbacks. If Lavert Hill can stick on this guy all day and Michigan has indeed solved the slot fade problem that plagued them last year it'll go a long way toward shutting down the best part of WMU's offense. They've handled guys like Bellamy in the past by forcing him back inside, but if Michigan's DT play was indicative of a huge dropoff rather than ND's very good interior OL the occasional gash can turn into a big bad thing really quick.


The question I have with Wassink, who gets a lot of NFL mention because he's a pocket passer over the 6'2" threshold and throws bombs, is where do I stop charting? As I mentioned, he started off back-footing and conservative. Then, down three scores with 5 minutes remaining, he charted four DOs and a CA on his final drive, pinpointing balls into the tiniest windows. Also Syracuse's pass defense is terrible. Anyway:

Wassink Good   Neutral   Bad   Ovr
Syracuse   8 11(3) 2   2(2) 3   1 2 5 5x   61% -

As befits a guy recruited by P.J. Fleck, Wassink comes off as a gunner. The stat that PFF shared on twitter a couple of times last offseason was Wassink's poise when he has a clean pocket, with the highest passer rating (110.3) when not under pressure. As you might expect from a recently injured QB Wassink was seeing ghosts in the first half and sometimes tries to force a ball into bad places—see: five bad reads. As he grew more confident however he started slinging. These are both from that last drive:

The dude who can do that and drop perfect fades to mice can beat anybody (see: Alex Hornibrook of Wisconsin). But Wassink is not that dude. He tends to get locked onto his primary read, and if that's covered he'll alter the throw to burn the down rather than wait around in the pocket. This is a Bad Read because he misses two checkdowns that could have gotten the first down, but as bad reads go there's not much danger to flinging it out of bounds near a tall receiver.

The other kind of bad read however is rife for picks. Twice he threw slants into coverage that bounced off a cornerback's hands, and one comeback route was baited, intercepted, and called back because a little arm around the waist was enough to draw a flag. His two actual picks in this game were a low pass that flipped up off his receiver's fingers and into a safety's hands, and another flew short because Wassink threw it while a DT was wrapped around his waist. The end result is weird: under pressure he forces things, not under pressure he gets conservative. He's never cool. He's fun to watch though, especially because he's got that Matt Stafford quality of throwing dimes when he's not set:

Twice in a row Ricci dropped a perfect pass that Wassink had pulled out of his ass


Western Michigan should have had their Wiley Coyote Moment Before You Fall Off a Cliff season last year but the injury plague and the fact that Fleck's big 2016 recruiting class is just coming into their own now means they might have some of the magic left. The offense is down the school's all-time leading rusher, an NFL left tackle, and a reliable catchy-blocky tight end. All but the last are mitigated by up-and-coming players I thought were pretty good despite the Syracusian competition in Week 1.

It's certainly still a PJ Fleck-ish offense, though the guy running it is not from Fleck's tree. Tim Lester is an interesting coach. He was WMU's quarterback at the same time Tom Brady was ours, then embarked upon a mostly indoor pro career. He coached a small school, was around at Syracuse when RPOs were invented, then had one year at Purdue under Hazell.

Formations Run Pass PA RPO
Gun 12 37 7 5
Pistol 5 - - 1

Does he mean to pass this much, or was this because they were down early? Ask again later? Last year they ran 71% of the time on 1st down according to Bill C, the 18th most runny team in the country. The Urban Meyer sets reinforce that. However last year could have been an aberration: Wassink was hurt, the receivers were meh at best, and they had the best running back in program history plus two very good backups. I'm guessing they mean to get back to average, and by average I mean what Purdue does these days.

Down Run Pass PA RPO
1st 8 17 6 4
2nd 7 9 - 2
3rd & 4th 2 11 1 -

If you just take the 1st quarter they were more like 50/50. Also I didn't count the two 3rd and short runs as RPOs but they did have a bubble (pre-snap) read. The RPOs I did count were all the same play: a skinny post behind the WLB.

The screen game was almost all swings to the flat, particularly a play I called "Durham Screen" after the play I love to run on NCAA 14. From the snap it looks like the Post/Wheel+

Syracuse was all over it the second time they ran it, and also ready for the counter, where the three receivers turn into a flood. The staple of their short range passing game is that old Air Raid standby, the Mesh, again with a halfback swing to keep a flat defender pinned out wide. They're not so good at the Mesh part right now but getting Bellamy in space on the edge is an often profitable enterprise:

And then there are the bombs that I showed in the dangerman section. Their staple downfield play is a thing out of the Arena League. They run four verts if they get a Cover 2 or Quarters look and twists against Cover 1 or 3.

So yeah, slot fades. If it's fixed, and the DTs don't get out of position, and Hill can erase their top receiver, Michigan should be able to pressure Wassink enough to kick WMU off the field. I think Michigan is a nightmare matchup for this team: WMU is Ohio State with MAC talent. And what's the one offense that Michigan's defense was built to stop above any other?


Indiana Blue

September 6th, 2018 at 2:31 PM ^

Great ... can hardly wait for those "under routes" to piss me off as I watch from Section 11.  And I would bet heavily that Western is practicing slot fades all week.

Go Blue!


September 6th, 2018 at 2:40 PM ^

Amazing write up Seth!  I learn so much when you do these cut-ups and educate us on the in and outs that other teams are trying to accomplish.

It's honestly night and day compared to what Ace used to put together, which would be a couple clips and then telling us MSU is terrible, etc..  Looking forward to your write-ups all year!

The Man Down T…

September 6th, 2018 at 3:05 PM ^

I hope they deep ball the hell out of this game.  That way our safeties and deep cover people get practice.  Not worried at all about losing so I'd rather they attack our weaknesses to get them some reinforcement experience to those who need the practice.  


September 6th, 2018 at 3:56 PM ^

FWIW, there is no true Tampa 2 defense since it's basically a Cover 3 with MLB covering the deep middle. They run a pure Cover 2 with Cover 3 mixed in. College spread offense has pretty much render it to useless because they have various way to beat it vertically and in the middle. Tampa 2 is designed to combat against WCO that were all the range in the NFL at the time.

Lovie Smith doesn't run Tampa 2 anymore. He runs more Cover 3 and Cover 2 than a true Tampa 2. It takes a perfect MLB like Urlacher who has the range and the power to defend against the run.