Funes the Manballious

Submitted by Seth on December 1st, 2011 at 7:51 AM



"Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details."

---Jorge Luis Borges, Funes, the Memorious

The above reference is to a short story my 11th grade English teacher (Hi Mrs. Bruton!) would be very proud I remembered. In it a fictional JL Borges speaks of conversations with a young autistic savant named Funes. Funes is so mathematical he invented his own way of counting. Then he dies of congestion of the lungs. So it goes.

The other pic is from an early M presser with Al Borges when he was asked how he would use Denard. There were contiguous details: You gotta use him. We'll think up some ways to utilize those legs. We're going to run our offense. The voice was sharp, mocking.

And through the season the thoughts of the young Borges were realized:


The Fritz.


Denard Jet.

They were ways, but not the way.

We have all moved on from the last three years. We have t-shirts and memes and a competent defense and a win over Ohio and a new spiteful way of referring to our rival. Yet until Shane Morris is zipping DOs to myriad tight ends in the flat there is going to be a Godwin's Law*-ishness about discussing the offense that best fits the offensive personnel at Michigan because we fired the guys who invented it.


* Technically it's a corollary.


First a note that advanced users can skip: I'm using formation because each formation comes with a set of strengths and weaknesses selected by the guy calling the plays. Once the ball is snapped all hell breaks loose and it's way harder to judge decisions or coaching. Of the relevant formations, the I-form is great for running because you get two backs (one usually a lead blocker) immediately moving toward the line of scrimmage and your play's chosen point of attack, but not great for passing because either you're committing two eligible receivers and precious QB time to a run fake, or you're immediately showing pass when the RBs are bailing out of the QB's drop line. The Ace is basically I-form but you swap the FB for a WR or TE. It's a compromise formation, slightly better for passing, not great at either.

Formation Plays YPA
Shotgun 259 7.2
I-Form 58 4.2
Ace 36 11.4*
Denard Jet 12 3.3
Fritz 7 9.3
Pro-Set 2 2.0
The shotgun is the best for passing because the QB starts having completed his drop sequence, but bad for running because the RB is starting way in the backfield with no momentum. Unless you can run from it, lining up in the gun is an invitation for defenses to key on the pass.

The shotgun's fundamental running flaws can be somewhat mitigated by: 1) Zone Blocking, which lets the runner scan for creases like a QB instead of hitting a certain spot ASAP, 2) Backs who can see and accelerate quickly into those gaps, 3) A run-threat QB who can keep the defense from teeing off the tailback, 4) Spreading receivers out so that their defenders are too far away to help the inside running game, and 5) Optioning and the threat thereof, e.g. Rich Rodriguez's zone read.

These are kind of very specialized things to get, and you need like three or four of them just to get shotgun running on par with the natural advantages of I-form running. If you can run out of an I against eight in the box you are indefeatable; if you can run out of a shotgun AND your running QB can pass you are indefeatable. So it's not like the way is the only way. The reason your friendly bloggers are always yelping "shotgun! shotgun!" is because by the above rationale, a team with Molk, Toussaint, and Denard, and which used to have Rodriguez himself coaching them, should be pretty awesome at running from the shotgun, which is still the best passing formation.) /tutorial.


*Yes, 11.4 YPA from the Ace. Some of the biggest plays were broken this year from that formation, along with a healthy diet of throwback screens to Gallon good for 20 yards a pop (that play also worked just as well out of the I and the Fritz, going to Smith). However you can see this was mostly a change-of-pace formation, and not a base offense. You can mentally put it with Denard Jet if you like. I believe it would not have been as effective if opponents weren't preparing for Denard in the Gun runs.


Because nobody but a small nest of holdouts is going to say "we really should get a spread guy up in here," the great hope around the Arbor-y parts this year was that Young Borges the Savant would run what worked. Did Older Borges gain this perspective that Young Borges sought? This we must answer the MGoBlog way:

Chart of formation tendencies (pass & run)

Excised: Plays when the score differential >16, 4th quarters, plays inside the M or opponent's 3 yard line.

Opponent Run% Plays Gun I-Form Ace DR Jet Fritz Pro
Western Michigan 55.6% 27 70.4% 22.2% 7.4% - - -
Notre Dame 42.9% 28 75.0% 25.0% - - - -
Eastern Michigan 68.4% 38 84.2% 7.9% 7.9% - - -
San Diego State 62.1% 29 82.8% 13.8% 3.4% - - -
Minnesota 54.5% 22 68.2% 4.5% 9.1% - 18.2% -
Northwestern 55.9% 59 76.3% 10.2% 6.8% 6.8% - -
Michigan State 39.2% 51 88.2% 11.8% - - - -
Purdue 60.0% 50 48.0% 22.0% 18.0% 4.0% 8.0% -
Iowa 56.0% 50 46.0% 28.0% 18.0% 8.0% - -
Illinois 70.0% 50 80.0% 14.0% 6.0% - - -
Nebraska 64.3% 56 83.9% 7.1% 5.4% - - 3.6%
Ohio State 70.2% 47 85.1% 4.3% 6.4% 4.3% - -
Grand Total 58.8% 507 74.0% 14.0% 7.7% 2.4% 1.6% 0.4%

The games where Michigan was 25% I-form were, as predicted, at the beginning of the season. The Fritz took its place against Minnesota and then it was all shotgun ru…

hokelol[9]Okay so it was inexplicably becoming a team that passes 60% of the time in a trash tornado against MSU and then two game-plans which look absolutely identical. Because Purdue's defensive ends were pliant this worked brilliantly against Purdue as Borges called mannish plays to the end. The thing is for some odd reason he didn't stop I-forming the Purdue game away until it was the 4th quarter of the Iowa game.

Here's a weird thing though: when I run the same numbers for '09 and '10, Rich Rod was way I-Form against Iowa as well. 20% I-form in fact, when he was 96% gun all other games combined. He did it both years, and only for Iowa. Is there some Lloyd-Ferentz pact to run substantially more I-forms versus each other every year?

Anyway it went away. Illinois looks like an intermediary step but 7 of the 8 plays from the I were during that interminable 14-point lead after the defense had established itself as 2006-ian. Following that game it almost disappeared from 1st downs (chart in excessive charting area post-jump*). It's the same story just more dramatic. Red Zone is more so, as the I-form was largely abandoned in the red zone during relevant plays of the last three games of the season:


So it is at this point where Funes the Manballious makes his impression on the young Borges, or vice versa, and the rational meets the abstract, and the result is sublime.

Denard Scores

Gregory Shamus|Getty

Notes and Errata:


1st Down formation tendencies: (same excises)

Opponent Plays Shotgun I-Form Ace DR Jet Fritz Pro
Western Michigan 13 69.2% 30.8% - - - -
Notre Dame 12 66.7% 33.3% - - - -
Eastern Michigan 20 80.0% 10.0% 10.0% - - -
San Diego State 15 80.0% 20% - - - -
Minnesota 13 76.9% - 7.7% - 15.4% -
@Northwestern 27 70.4% 14.8% 7.4% 7.4% - -
@Michigan State 20 85.0% 15.0% - - - -
Purdue 23 39.1% 30.4% 30.4% - - -
@Iowa 20 35.0% 40.0% 10.0% 15.0% - -
@Illinois 20 75.0% 10.0% 15.0% - - -
Nebraska 25 80.0% 8.0% 4.0% - - 8.0%
Ohio State 20 85.0% - 5.0% 10.0% - -
Season Total 228 69.7% 17.1% 8.3% 3.1% 0.9% 0.9%

This is the same story from above but more dramatic as 33% of the offense is whittled down to nothing by OSU week. Again, the dramatic shift after Iowa.




December 1st, 2011 at 8:16 AM ^

I always felt like we hadn't seen all of the offense during his tenure, but specifically against Iowa.  In that three year period, it just felt like we were holding the reigns on the horses while playing them.  This year was more frustrating because Iowa was so bad...

"Is there some Lloyd-Ferentz pact to run substantially more I-forms versus each other every year?"

This is the only possible solution!

El Jeffe

December 1st, 2011 at 8:37 AM ^

Maybe it's just the confirmation bias talking (or the early morning liquor), but it retrospect don't the MSU and Iowa games just seem really bizarre? Like why on earth would you throw that much in a trash tornado or run that much from the I against a team who is geared to stop the run and leaves two deep safeties to protect against play action AT ALL TIMES WORLD WITHOUT END AMEN?

I suspected it was the mad genius in Borges who was all "mwaahahahahah!!! They'll NEVARRR expect me to do the thing that is so counterintuitive!!!"

I felt like there were traces of that from time to time even within games, where he would think the element of surprise was better than just giving it to #16 and letting God sort it out.

It seems to me that the problem with having an offense of plays instead of a base offense is that it's hard to run constraint plays since there's no tendency to break. I thought Borges hit almost no wrong notes in the last three games, which means maybe he's figured out a little how to catch the defense off guard without running plays that are less "so crazy they just might work!!!" and more just "so crazy."


December 1st, 2011 at 9:21 AM ^

While I agree I hated the gameplans for MSU and Iowa, I'll give you some counter arguments.  

MSU was run blitzing like mad and the safeties were up close so the natural tendency is to exploit that with the pass.  Which was open several times.   It's a tough call for Borges.  The play will be wide open, but can we get it there with the wind or I pound it up the middle with 9 guys in the box.

El Jeffe

December 1st, 2011 at 9:58 AM ^

I know. Here was the entirety of my thought process during that game:

"Bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble."



December 1st, 2011 at 10:57 AM ^

The wind was basically giving MSU a dime formation for free -- 9 in the box, with the wind basically acting like every route was bracketed.  They'd have to be fools to not exploit it so of course they did.

Now call me bitter, but I have something to say about this -- MSU didn't shut down Denard; the wind did.  I don't think Michigan would lose to MSU in a rematch.  Michigan's run offense is enabled by a group of underrated receivers that demand the secondary's attention if there isn't a trash tornado.

The only offenses that could've worked in that trash tornado are West Coast, power I and triple option.  As we all know, Michigan lacks the personnel to do any of those.


December 1st, 2011 at 12:40 PM ^

We actually have great personnel for triple-option. I think Brian was calling for it all year. The thing is it's a play like the Zone Read that requires a ton of practice. It's very much worth it to put in that practice if this will be your base play but suggesting Michigan whip it out against Michigan State is like saying it would be great if that lawyer had a medical degree while trying that medical case.

Nebraska does have the proverbial M.D. in zone option offense from the shotgun, and lo and behold they blew out Michigan State on another windy day.

Michigan's closest thing to a base play is still the ZR, which is an inside running play. Like most inside running plays, if you have two linebackers blitzing up the middle on the snap it's kind of hard to get anything with them.

My complaint wasn't so much "Y U NO PASS?!?" but "Y U NO PASS SHORT?" because we actually do have a lot of good stuff in the offense for quick & short passes. They had their safeties coming up and the CBs playing tight but a good release and good route when two LBs are blitzing still gives you either RB-types 1-on-1 after screens (liek the bubble) or multiple WRs running through large zones.


December 1st, 2011 at 5:30 PM ^

"The thing is [the triple option is] a play like the Zone Read that requires a ton of practice. It's very much worth it to put in that practice if this will be your base play but suggesting Michigan whip it out against Michigan State is like saying it would be great if that lawyer had a medical degree while trying that medical case."

Uh, yeah, that's what I should have said.  We don't have the players for WCO or power I, but we didn't run the triple option because we were, like, 1000 practice reps short of pulling it off.  I mean, heck, 10 weeks in and Denard was still having problems reading the DE, so. . . yeah.

As for "Y U NO PASS SHORT", I mentioned this shortly after the game.  That's WCO philosophy; use the short pass to loosen up the run defense.  We have the receivers to run WCO, and the O-line is fine, but not the QB.  You can win with an inferior O-line with WCO, but at the speed they were blitzing (our O-line was getting dominated that day), you need a special QB like Tom Brady who can calmly step back from a DT in his face and blindly fire a bullseye at an invisible target where the receiver gets there a half second later.  (Cousins isn't a true WCO QB either so he didn't have good day either, but I think he was effective enough to open up the running game, which is what the WCO is designed to do anyway.)  Denard's tried this with disastrous results all season; if he tried to go all WCO on 'State he would've had 4 picks by halftime.


December 1st, 2011 at 11:14 AM ^

A few more decently thrown balls could have punished MSU's aggressive defense, as you suggest - the second TD was, in fact, on a well thrown slant with no safety help.  But again, hard to throw the ball in a trash tornado.

The Squid

December 1st, 2011 at 9:46 AM ^


Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.


December 1st, 2011 at 11:16 AM ^

My God, what's the point of commenting if you're just regurgitating what Brian has said ad nauseum.

To address "your" point:

I find this reasoning counter-intuitive. When Borges runs into a 9-man front it's "WHY COME HE DID THAT", when he throws against it, it's "BUTBUTBUT TRASH TORNADO".

It seems like reductive hindsight. Congrats - you've diagnosed that plays that didn't work didn't work.

El Jeffe

December 1st, 2011 at 3:01 PM ^

Assuming you were replying to my post, a rejoinder in six parts:

  1. It is possible for more than one person to have the same idea.
  2. My larger point was that Borges seemed so nimble and flexible in the last 3 games, so wha'ppen against MSU and Iowa?
  3. Reread the first sentence of my post. Note the use of the terms "confirmation bias" and "retrospect." You seem to be criticizing me for something I was aware I was doing.
  4. I'm no football supergenius, but I think there might be more plays available than (1) run into a 9-man front, and (2) throw deep into a 40-mph wind.
  5. It's ad nauseam.
  6. If you weren't replying to my post (it lines up that way, but sometimes it's hard to tell), then all is forgiven.

El Jeffe

December 2nd, 2011 at 10:24 AM ^

So if I only seem to have the same opinion on everything, then it's likely that I don't, right? And if I only often use the same lexicon as Brian, then sometimes I don't, right? And none of this is really bad, it's just "funny," as in "suspicious," right?

In summary then, your original argument could have been stated this way:

"I contend that, although two people can have the same opinion, El Jeffe agrees with Brian's opinion and uses the same lexicon to express that opinion with what I consider to be a suspiciously high relative frequency. I hereby register my displeasure at this."

You know, by cutting out the sanctimonious and supercilious undertones of what you actually wrote, it allows me to understand your argument better. I don't agree with you, but I do see that it's an important issue on which reasonable people can hold different viewpoints.


December 1st, 2011 at 8:55 AM ^

I know that our coordinators are very smart... but I wonder how much value they put in statistics. We've seen with the baseball community a big emphasis (thanks to Moneyball) on advanced metrics. On numbers telling the story. Do you guys think Borges is a numbers guy? A football only guy? Both? I can't explain MSU, but I think with Iowa, Borges saw the I form work against Purdue and he said "I guess we can run power now" and tried it until he saw we can only do that against teams with 220lb DEs. I think this year was really a feeling out period on both sides of the fusion cusine, and I think the bowl game and next year will be when the offense really jells (assuming we have an acceptable center...)


December 1st, 2011 at 9:31 AM ^

My understanding is that coaches are usually very stat oriented. They just use different stats more centered around formation and down and distance etc. For whatever reason, they tend not to talk about that so much. On his radio show, I once heard Tressel defend a specific run call and formation with a long list of very precise stats based on down and distance.

Clearly, Borges did not just randomly decide Michigan could 'run power now.' No highly successful person would make such a huge decision so capriciously. I suspect that when coaches make mistakes it is not out of ignorance but more out of stubborness. But there is a fine line between perserverance and stubborness.

I have no idea why Borges did what he did against Iowa but I find it informative that RichRod also chose that team to run I form against. There must be something there we just aren't seeing.

I suspect that against MSU, Borges remembered what happened against ND and figured a run heavy gameplan against MSU's run defense would not be successful. Then it was really windy. Then the stubborness kicked in.

I think we run the risk of missing the big picture--this season was better than anyone had any reason to expect (possibly the best season since 99 or even 97) by focusing on the 2 games Michigan lost. It's good in the sense that our expectations are back to where they used to be but bad in the sense that we don't fully appreciate the great job the coaches clearly did.


December 1st, 2011 at 8:58 AM ^

No matter how difficult it is to accept, I have even come to respect the athleticism (not the humans) of MSU's defense.  It was obvious early on that their front 7 were extremely effective. Moreover, they knew that our QB, who already had trouble throwing the deep ball, would find it near impossible in the tornado of trash.  So they gave us the deep ball, much as you would in a mud / rain fest where the QB can hardly grip the ball.

I found this even more obvious against Iowa (also a windy game, but the lack of trash made it slightly easier to throw).  If a team wants to stack 8-9 in the box and leave the WRs 1 on 1, that doesn't leave much choice but for the offensive play caller.  Part of that could have been Borges' 30 years of instincts saying, "no safeties.....deep ball....yes please."  I think Denard has grown as a passer since then, and barring any wind storms / slop fests, he will pick these teams apart next year.

Smash Lampjaw

December 1st, 2011 at 9:03 AM ^

I was intrigued by a poster's suggestion some weeks back. Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, and I missed the /s, but it seemed to meet the sniff test at midseason, that in order to benefit the defense our offense matched that of our upcoming opponents in practice. As a result, we ran the plays in games that we had practiced that week. I wonder to what extent that theory held up through the rest of the season. Is it a coincidence that Denard broke out the scramble against Nebraska and Ohio?


December 1st, 2011 at 9:48 AM ^

Ah, remember remember the 5th of November, the Manball Treason and Plot:

Basically it said:

"Against interior zone loving Iowa, Michigan ran I-form ISOs almost like a base play. Against Purdue it was outside running (although the Wolverines could do whatever they wanted really). The offense versus MSU was slants and TE flares set against the occasional (QB) power off tackle, exactly what Dantonio does with Cousins and Baker. With Northwestern he lined up in all sorts of formations and ran zone to pass, calling everything but Kitchen Sink Z Right while Denard did his best impression of Dan Persa. SD State uses the tunnel screen and I-form and got this started



…in the UFR. Minnesota…I don't know, they don't have an offense so we made one up."

And then I suggested maybe it's a big picture issue (in which case we are Funes -- this is probably the case) wherein the offense was preparing each week the bits of its massive playbook that were most like the opponents' offense of that week, a "mimic offense" charged in secret with a sacred duty to help improve the defense. I like this theory a lot because it suggests very high-level thinking and competency by the coaching staff, and thus contributes to my building Single Unifying Theory of Michigan Football that Hoke is a football genius who plays up the loveable, pokeable thing to throw folks off the scent.


December 1st, 2011 at 10:51 AM ^

I mistakenly attributed this hypothesis to Brian and asked him about it after the impressive win against Illinois/Nebraska but didn't see a I know why-it was you and he thought it was crazy! I can definitely imagine this playing out and if there its some element of truth to this, then i'm even less worried about urban bringing his offense to Ohio.

Btw, I really enjoy your writing. It dominates my "see spot run" sentences. /end brown-nosing.


December 1st, 2011 at 9:25 AM ^

Ever since our new OC was installed, I've been trying to work in a reference to Jorge Luis Borges.  Like the coach, the writer was brilliant, cerebral and sometimes a touch too fanciful.

coastal blue

December 1st, 2011 at 11:33 AM ^

Offensive Every Snaps video...and it is just bizarre in comparison to the last three games. It feels like a completely different team at times. 

We started 7 drives at our 35 or better including 3 in MSU territory and only came away with 7 points on those drives. 

Every pass play seems to result in Denard's initial read being 20+ yards down the field. 

If you take out the sacks, Denard ran the ball fairly well that game. Would have liked to have seen his pass attempts and running attempts trade five. 

Too much Devin. 

Not enough Fitz. If he was hurt, that is really what cost us the game.

Frustrating to watch.  


December 1st, 2011 at 11:43 AM ^

I still do not understand why they never ran the Fritz "Diamond' Package after Purdue.  It seemed almost undefensible (new word).  Like a quadruple option.  Does anyone have any theory as to why it was not used again?



December 1st, 2011 at 2:14 PM ^

Thank you for the formation "tutorial"... it was very easy to read and understand, and it really enhanced my comprehension of the ongoing shotgun/I-form discussion.