It's the last minute of the 3rd quarter. Michigan has dominated in just about every phase of the game. They're winning the turnover battle. They're quadrupling in yardage. They're converting 3rd down. They even have a huge advantage in special teams—despite a nearly disastrous blocked kick—because of DPJ's punt returns. And yet it's only 14-0. Michigan's at the PSU 7 with 2nd and 6 on a 13-play drive that's just murdered most of the third frame. A field goal and it's probably over. A touchdown and you know it's over. Nothing…well, Penn State knows a thing or two about losing games that Bill C's numbers say they won handily.
Michigan's in a 3-tight end shotgun. The day so far has seen a lot of split zone and zone reads with a crossing TE to the backside of similar formations, and Penn State's having none of it, getting into an Under formation with the backside reinforced and no safeties deep. Michigan likes to run, huh? Well We Are Penn State. We're Unrivaled. We brought the BLUE band and they're hanging out by the sideline over there. James Franklin's Pennsylvania boys. And Michigan's about to see what they're made of, especially if the Wolverines try the middle.
Penn State's inviting Michigan to try that gap between the Bushell-Beatty's right shoulder, where the strongside end is lined up, and two gaps over where the DT has shifted to Ruiz's right shoulder. Remember back to the Neck Sharpies after Northwestern, how your defensive linemen are your fortresses and the weak spots are the gaps between them? Look at PSU's front and where they want Michigan to go:
I don't remember the Sun Tzu quote for this. If your enemy shows you a weakness, use it? Or is it never do what your enemy wants you to do? Or is it when facing an irrational man never rationality? I'm sure it's something.
[After the Jump: The Art of War.]
So yeah, Penn State is inviting Michigan to run into that frontside B gap. The plan here is a "pinch blitz." Basically the line all slant toward the middle, stuffing up all of the interior running lanes and throwing off whatever blocks were planned.
The ball is snapped.
The center and right tackle are pulling. Ah yes, Michigan's base-ish play. Down G. With an extra tight end to the strongside but Down G nevertheless. The pinch blitz ought to take care of that. It's not easy to see in the still but when you draw it up it's pretty clear. Just look at what's happening to the guy Ruiz was over and Onwenu is supposed to downblock. Then see where that strongside defensive end went.
Those downblocks have no chance against guys slanting inside of them. Onwenu is about to be sideways to a guy with a free run up the middle. Ruiz is going to run into the guy Eubanks was supposed to handle. But then, this isn't attacking inside, so if Michigan can survive a couple of guys flinging upfield past their downblocks the play might still get numbers outside.
Ruiz lets the DE in—nothing he can do about that. JBB gets out to kick the cornerback, who's got to set the edge against the big fella and forms up to not have that be a blowout. If Higdon can get around the DE there could be a lane. Except, well, except Penn State has an extra guy in the box, don't they? The free safety blitzed off the edge but Penn State has their MLB on the 5-yard line, reading the play, and just one Ruiz to block that guy plus the strong safety hanging out at the hash.
That's what you get for running into a stacked box, right? That's what you get for playing with 10 guys and having a quarterback just to hand off.
Wait, DID he hand off? Ummm…
So yeah this was a Run-Pass Option off of Michigan's first-half-of-the-season base run play. Watch it in its glory. Revel in its slow motion-itude.
Gfycat called this "HastyGivingCats"
So let's break this thing down.
I went with the long, drawn out introduction because I wanted to drive home a point about RPOs: these are run plays, just like a zone read is a run play. Like a zone read, an RPO finds a way to make the quarterback a guy the defense has to defend, while also having to respect the threat of a receiver in his route. It's not play-action. There isn't a progression. The quarterback is merely optioning a defender, and like any other option, the easier the defender makes that read the more open the play becomes and the faster it can hit.
This play—which the Eagles ran in this year's Super Bowl—read the middle linebacker.* With Penn State's safety hanging off the edge, the LBs obviously are going to be responsible for coverage on the tight end, and that MLB is almost certainly in zone. The quarterback reads the LB's reaction to the run action:
If—as PSU's LBs are wont to do—the MLB fires down against the run, Gentry has a major leverage advantage over the other linebacker, who's supposed to get help inside on any pass. If the LB had stayed back to defend a pass, Patterson's read is to give the ball to the running back.
In that scenario the LB isn't going to be on time to stop the run. With his front pinching that way it probably wouldn't matter if he was, but as far as the offense is concerned if they can consistently make that linebacker hang back in his zone drop when all he wants to do is get to the run gap, the offense has just won the battle over the key, unblocked defender. It's option ball: rather than just handing off and watching the play, the option makes the quarterback relevant to how the defense plays.
Except given the risk-reward, if you're a defense facing a team known for RPO'ing, you know you have to leave guys back in coverage. Which means either they get players who can sit back in a zone drop and still fire into a run gap (hi, Michigan LBs) or live with the damage. Teams are good at that, and Penn State certainly knows how to defend a key part of their offense, but Michigan kept RPOs shelved all season. I'm sure Brian will give this an RPS+3 despite the pinch.
What Was With the Extra Puller on Down G?
I'm more convinced, given that it became part of this play, that Michigan's Down G look is like the old Packers Sweep: they change up who pulls and blocks down based on the way the defense aligns. Earlier in the season when Michigan faced a bunch of 3-4 teams they were playing Down G against those odd fronts with a covered nose by blocking the backside like outside zone and pulling the guard. Michigan also kept a fullback back there to play games, either shooting through the gap as a lead blocker, then shooting backside to Wham block a DT.
The "Under" front provides a bit of a different danger because these blocks are not going to go well:
You're asking the center to reach block a guy lined up playside of him, and when a strongside end sets up on the tackle's outside shoulder (5-tech) like that, it's really hard to get him dislodged from that gap unless he goes willingly. But you've still got a couple of frontside defenders who can block down on dudes. So Michigan has them do so, and replaces the fullback's original block with one of a short pull by the center around his guard's downblock.
And since the fullback is now hunting the MLB, you can put him in a better position to do so:
It's the same play, but run differently depending on how the defense aligns their fronts. Being able to make your good plays reactive to the defense is the key to having them remain effective. Michigan continues to install more things off the Down G package to force defenses to play the play Michigan is good at like they would any other.
Adding a run-pass option was inevitable. Saving it until last week was smart, given PSU is the last tough opponent before Ohio State, and they play a lot of 4-3 under defense, and the Revenge Tour had a lot of PSU 2017 touchdown celebrations left to imitate this late in the game, it was the perfect time to bring it out. Michigan's future opponents now know they can't just fire the backside linebacker into the places we want to run.
And Penn State found out what they're made of.