How does a mediocre running team do this:
…to one of the best run defenses in the country? Let's discuss.
Entering this game Florida was fifth in rush D to S&P+, giving up just 4.4 YPC with sacks removed, which means they turned their opponents' running games into basically Florida's freshman-infested running game. In our diagram for Ace's FFFF we gave 7/11 defensive starters a "dangerman" star, and three(!) got the shield that's reserved for the top players at their position in the country. Among them was end Jonathan Bullard, perhaps the best run-defending player in the nation, and strong safety Marcus Maye.
And yet Michigan, whose running game was barely better than Florida's this year, ran on that: 225 yards on 46 carries. Brian mentioned in the game column that a lot of this came from a reinvigorated De'Veon Smith, and from my rewatch I bet you the UFR will bear that out. There was also a little RPS, some great plays by individual offensive linemen (Mason Cole and Graham Glasgow had very good games), and some Harbaugh games.
Part I: Florida throws paper
The run above, which came mid-way through the 2nd quarter, must be taken in context. Smith by this point was already well up in +'s running Michigan's base stuff, and Rudock was well on his way to an excellent day.
Florida's pass defense is just as good as their run D, and in passing downs they're lethal. So it's worth it to them to try some surprising/a little unsound things on 1st and 2nd down to keep Michigan's offense behind schedule, and bring up those long situations. Against Michigan in particular it appeared Florida's gameplan was to take away inside runs, trusting the Wolverine backs not to find any holes that left elsewhere.
Let's first go back to an earlier thing Florida did that should have earned a TFL:
This is the one where the broadcast crew infamously put up the ND and OSU scores mid-play. What Florida called (I think) is below:
It's an under but the 5-tech is actually in a 7-tech.
Michigan tried to run "Power" into this, pulling Kalis, blocking down on the DL and using the fullback as lead blocker. Florida is ready, as the NT shoots up the back of Glasgow before Braden can get an angle on him; Braden blocks air, and Kalis runs into the nose in the middle of his pull:
Smith did a very good job to dance around that NT, then to bounce outside the unblocked MLB whom Kalis was heading toward, turning minus two yards into four.
The lesson: Florida was messing with Michigan's power running attack by sending rushers into the A gaps, leaving the 'B' gaps open, but only as a funnel directly to the linebackers. Yes, you'd like Braden to get a better block. Yes, that was a great play by the NT to get into the path of Kalis. But this was Florida's plan against Michigan's base thing, and they got the base thing. RPS'd.
[After the jump we RPS right back]
Part II: Michigan throws scissors
We're back to Drake's long run at the top of this post. Here's another angle:
Florida indeed has a blitz on, but it's not very blitzy: there's four rushers and two outside linebacker-ish dudes with man coverage on tight ends if the tight ends go in a pattern; the guy who drew Butt has help in the rolled up cornerback. Both guards are uncovered—this is an "okie" front.
The result is something very like what they got in the first play we went over: instant pressure in both A gaps, and a funnel to the frontside B gap.
(Florida aligns the secondary and the SAM/WDE strength to the field and the front to the offense, if you're wondering why "strong" and "weak" look mixed up. I labeled based on the personnel, not what they're technically lined up as)
I showed the guys rushing because it betrays Florida's intention: they're sending guys into both A gaps at the snap and rolling down a safety behind them, effectively stacking 9 guys into the box against those inside runs that are Michigan's bread and butter. Even if the MLB blitz is picked up, any run to the frontside will meet a lot of bodies. Anything to the backside has to deal with a nose tackle coming up that A gap as well.
And then the going gets weird.
Remember the last time Michigan was blocking down like on a power run? This time the OL release that same direction, but it's a side-step like they're running outside zone (aka zone stretch). If they were this play would be dead, since a well-timed MLB blitz before the center can reach him can really cause havoc with a play that's meant to be long in developing.
But this ain't OZ; it's a counter off OZ. You get the defense all shuffling one way to stay in their gaps like good little zone defenders, then the handoff comes right as the lead blocking goes backside and WHAPs the edge guy who thought he was gonna be unblocked. If you catch the defense sliding into their gap assignments, they discover too late that they've just been stepping away from the direction of the play.
Let's see that unfold. The alignment at the snap:
And then one step later:
Remember the point is to let those guys get into those zone gaps, then seal them there. If they go for it you've dealt with the line and now it's a hat for a hat on the backside, the result balanced on the relative abilities of fullbacks versus linebackers.
The only flaws: 1) the MLB timed his blitz really well, and 2) that same dang NT—Brantley, who's deserving of that star—has watched the backfield action unfold rather than reading Braden's step and is setting up to get to the real playside of his block.
Glasgow has the first handled as best he can; he was planning on releasing on that MLB in the first place, and saw him come up before the snap, and knows all he has to do is keep that guy away from places he doesn't belong. Maybe it's the year they had under Nussmeier doing zone, but Glasgow does the zone thing: use that guy's momentum against him, shove him as hard as you can past the play, and hope he can't recover until it's too late.
As for the other, it's a problem:
Braden wants that guy out of that gap. You can see the head of Sione Houma behind Braden's situation, about to pop the linebacker staring at him. Also at the top of the screen Poggi has nailed his kickout block.
In another day and age, all this—Glasgow's expert handling of a hot A gap blitz, Poggi's thing, and catching all these other rushers heading to their own doom—might be wasted by an RB who abandons his blocking or can't see a hole, or maybe Braden's NT absorbing the lead block of Houma, leaving that linebacker free to go wherever the ball does.
But in this age:
Houma gets his guy (the middle of the three amigos there) and stands him up behind the line of scrimmage. And Cole is driving his dude into that pile. And Braden…
…does the thing he IS good at, which is being a huge, pancake-making lug when he gets into a guy. And Mason Cole does the thing he is good at despite being just a true sophomore, which is to use his hands to get inside, keep his hat playside, drive his man downfield to create the necessary space, then disengage once it's too late for that defender to do anything but pantomime a hold.
Run away, Drake Johnson. You are free!
Things: The execution part is what differentiates rock-paper-scissors from football, and here it played quite a role on both sides. Kalis maybe should have seen that MLB coming and the DE lined up over Magnusson's opposite shoulder and put two and two together. Florida's MLB and NT both went beyond the call of their duties, while that SAM got pwned. An inch or two less from Mason Cole and his DE has a beefy arm on not-very-beefy Drake Johnson.
When we look at what's materially different between what Harbaugh does and what Hoke-Borges were doing, the differences are not vast. They both called this play. But Borges would set this up with four useless outside zone runs while Harbaugh flashed an outside zone step once and trusted all the training the defense's have done against Rich Rod-like offenses to kick in and make them wrong.
What we saw a lot more of from Harbaugh's rushing offense is that execution, yes, but also guys put in positions where they can succeed. Florida wouldn't have gone Okie if Michigan loved to run behind its guards—the alignments and playcalls against them made things easier on the weaker points of the offense while the hard things were left to the strong points. Butt hanging out on the total backside of this play is a threat that sells the misdirection and occupies ANOTHER defender to protect against his passing threat. Poggi gets to do what he's best at—a kickout block of a guy smaller than him—and Houma gets to charge ahead like the dangerous run/block being he is.
It's all those little good things going on all over this offense that made all the difference between getting beat up by mediocre teams and matching wits, brawn, and skill with the elites.