[UM Bentley Library]
It was 1986 and Michigan’s senior quarterback Jim Harbaugh was 30 minutes away from having to eat his brash prediction. That’s when Bo’s top assistant Jerry Hanlon told his troops how they’d attack the Buckeyes in the second half: MOAR tight ends. By John Kryk’s count, Michigan came out in some kind of balanced (a tight end on either side) formation just 3/38 plays in the first half, when Ohio State mostly shut down the Wolverine offense. In the second half that went to 25/38. Their plan was to see where Ohio State’s great linebacker, Chris Spielman, would line up, and go the other way. Here’s how Cam Cameron—yes the same guy who got Les Miles fired at LSU—explained their reasoning at the time in Kryk’s HTTV article:
“Real simple,” Cameron says. “We were just trying to balance up Ohio State’s defensive front. Really, it gave us a double strength formation. It gave us a strong-side running attack either right or left. Once you balance the defense, now you can run strategically away from the safety, and you just get stronger at the point of attack. They had shifted their defense to our tight end, and any time a team did that to us we were going to balance them off with two tight ends.”
The tradeoff was going with just one wide receiver, at which point either your running game is going to win its matchups or lose the game, because passing is severely nerfed. What made that a win for Michigan wasn’t this macro strategy, however, but the subtle blocking tweaks that Bo—ever the offensive line coach—and Hanlon had instilled in their linemen.
~~~~~~30 YEARS LATER~~~~~~
Penn State is, by some margin, the worst-coached team on Michigan’s schedule this year. I’m nobody’s idea of a football coach, so when I was picking up on things Michigan was doing in the middle of a series and Penn State wasn’t reacting, either I’m just guessing really luckily or it’s a REALLY bad sign for the sideline.
Wilton Speight said this in the postgame presser:
“Yeah, I think there was one drive—I think it was the third or fourth quarter—where we called the same play like eight times in a row. We would just flip it back and forth, and I started laughing looking at the play call because they’d do the same signal, same number in every time. The linemen were getting so excited because I’d call the same play. I think we were getting like nine or 10 a pop, so when that happens it’s demoralizing, probably, for a defense. I’ve never played defense, but I can imagine that would suck to go through that every single play having someone just run you over. That builds our confidence and probably makes them lose confidence.”
Calling the same play and relying on minutiae is a bit old fashioned, but not completely out of style, especially if your opponent has already thrown in the towel. This drive occurred after Penn State punted on 4th and 1 while down four scores with about a quarter and a half left to play. Michigan picked up a big chunk on their rollout draw and Speight turfed a throw to Perry when Mason Cole uncharacteristically got bowled back into the pocket. Then this sequence happened.
Bo would have loved it. And Michigan’s upcoming opponent Wisconsin would instantly recognize it. Let’s jump and see what Michigan was doing.
[After the JUMP: balanced formation and inside zone]
For one this sequence was not the same exact play.
- Inside zone lead. Balanced TEs formation IZ lead with a WR crack. PSU’s 5-tech ducks inside, Mags gets a late seal.
- Inside zone lead. Mags is more ready and lets this guy flow right out of the hole.
- Crack Sweep-weakside. Newsome misses his block.
- Power. 5-tech takes C gap instead. Braden missed the gap.
- Crack Sweep-strongside. Motion into same set, sweep that seals that 5-tech with the TE and reach blocks the center who's diving into the backside A gap. (Smith is a bit impatint, Kalis gets beat by edge setting CB)
- Inside zone lead. 5T again caved inside by Mags
- Iso. Evans freezes WLB and hits inside the iso block (Poggi gets away with a facemask). Touchdown.
It was the same suite I think. Harbaugh’s offenses in the past gave the quarterback a suite of three options he can then choose from based on how the defense aligns. A single play may be part of multiple trios, or the base call of multiple trios. I think what Speight meant is that an IZ option, and probably a trio that was IZ/crack sweep/some sort of play-action kept coming in from the sideline.
Play 1: Inside Zone
The base play in this group is one we’ve discussed a ton on this site, most thoroughly when Doug Nussmeier arrived to make it Michigan’s offense du jour. It’s the base running play of Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa’s offenses.
The basic premise of zone blocking is you block whoever shows up in your area. Usually that is by alignment, and with inside zone it’s usually whoever is lined up over you.
yellow is uncovered. click bigginates.
Depending on how a lineman is shaded, you might have the releasing guy combo a DL first before heading downfield. Then the running back picks a hole out of whatever materializes.
Inside zone lead means there’s a fullback heading through the hole as a lead blocker. A lot of zone teams would rather eschew the fullback for a slot receiver and drag a defender away from the play entirely. Harbaugh, and the OCs of the three teams I mentioned, like to keep a fullback involved because it opens up all sorts of mean attacks.
The one that stars the sequence however is pretty vanilla. Penn State lined up in an Over front with the nose over a guard. Then they slanted the DL one gap over, essentially turning their 4-3 over into an under (with the tackles flipped but not the DEs):
This nearly put the 5-tech right in the way of the play. But Erik Magnuson deftly used that guy’s momentum against him and sealed the DE behind Smith’s cut.
We’re watching Magnuson’s block:
That’s deft. Ideally if the DE is crashing in you should help him down the line, not into the backfield. When he’d lost that, Mags didn’t block the guy in the back—he ran around to the 5-tech’s shoulder and pushed him past the play.
Play 2: Inside Zone
Now they have a blueprint. On the next play Michigan again aligns with two tight ends again. Penn State gives them the base 4-3 under. The strongside TE, right guard, and left tackle are uncovered.
And at the snap again Penn State slants a gap over:
Michigan is running the same play pretty much, with a subtle change: it’s to the other side, with the fullback just cutting off the backside.
Penn State’s slant does take away what’s technically the front side, but Michigan’s blockers are ready for it. Again, watch the battle between Magnuson and the 5-tech:
Mags got the 5-tech jumping inside to that same B gap again and rode him. The NT also put himself on the wrong side of Cole, but was fighting back to playside and upfield to cut off Isaac from taking the now-vacated frontside (left) A gap. But Cole is too strong and it’s too late to stop a short conversion. Isaac cuts behind Magnuson for the first down.
Play 3: Crack Sweep
The next play isn’t inside zone. It’s a thing that punishes a defense overreacting to inside zone, a crack sweep like they ran against Hawaii. Penn State is finally catching on and putting eight in the box to counter this 2TE-1WR-2RB heavy stuff. But they can’t guess which side it’s going to. Michigan lines up like an offset I with two TEs to one side, then motions one TE (Poggi) to balance the formation again.
That flips the defense—now they’re in an over. They’re also stacking the box though so they should have the dudes to stop a run now. But the balanced-ish set still doesn’t give away which side, and there’s a loss waiting to happen if they choose incorrectly.
Penn State is overreacting to inside zone by having their DL shoot upfield into those interior gaps, and get punished by trapping themselves inside on an outside run. A couple of blocks whiff and it doesn’t gain a lot, but the Nittany Lions have been admonished for not playing it straight and gave up 5 yards. Back to vanilla.
Play 4: Power
Michigan’s personnel has changed but it’s equal beef. Again they’re in a balanced TE set:
And again Penn State is showing their characteristic 4-3 under, with a safety and corner each down on the tight ends to make them each half in the box. This time their NT dives into the backside (offense’s left) A-gap but the 5-tech is shooting upfield, outside Mags instead of inside of him. The 5-tech didn’t slant—he’s still going to the C gap he lined up in. It’s the same wrinkle—Penn State is selling out with beef on the boundary side to leave the LBs free to flow to the obvious gap on the field side. Again the blocking battle has an answer.
Braden would pull to the outside, which is wrong given the blocking but does holding both the SAM and strong safety outside long enough for Evans to cut back inside, where the NT’s slant again made him wrong. Also Hill had to use up his block to help get that crucial 5-tech sealed, since that guy was threatening to fight through the block of Sean McKeon. The WLB has a free shot but misses the tackle. The SAM has to make a tackle from behind after Evans emerges from the melee. Eight (seven plus 0.5 x 2) in the box plus not great play from Michigan and STILL this moves the ball close to a first down. Being Penn State sucks.
Play 5: Crack Sweep lol
For once it looks like they’re going to line up with a strength declared:
They motion both TEs to the other side. Fine. Strength is on THAT side.
Wait, no, sorry, one TE is motioning to the other side again.
Michigan’s back in a balanced formation; Penn State hasn’t moved. Let’s remember what Penn State’s been doing: they’ve in a 4-3 under, have been diving tackles into the A gaps to disrupt inside running, and playing games with the 5-tech, first slanting him into the B gap, and when that wasn’t working, having him shoot into the C. When PSU doesn’t adjust to the second motion they’re in trouble.
It’s similar to the sweep they ran to the other side but there’s an extra receiver instead of a fullback. Let’s watch what their 5-tech does:
He’s going into the C gap, and getting vertical. That makes it easy for Khalid Hill to seal him inside while the other wall of that gap, Magnuson, pulls around. Now he’s not in the C gap, and Michigan’s offensive tackle is swinging outside to kick the 3rd string SAM.
And what about the nose? Well he tried to attack the frontside A gap this time, lining up further outside, and pushing upfield off the snap. But Mason Cole reached his ass.
And as for the linebackers who aren’t about to get kicked to the curb by a tackle, Braden released and picked off the slow-reacting WLB (he’s not good) and Darboh cracked the MLB. Outside of that Crawford came down to crack the strong safety. Michigan now has a Kalis and Deveon Smith versus a cornerback…
…who makes the play. :|
Play 6: Inside Zone Lead
We’re back to the base play again. The 5-tech dives into the B gap this time and Mags seals him there.
Cole and Kalis combo the nose so Cole can get down to the MLB. Butt has the WLB sealed outside but the strong safety came way too far up and outside, so Poggi can’t find anyone to block and just sorta runs into Butt’s block. The potential for Poggi and Butt to create a wide gap makes the safety use himself up in that hole; Cole’s pop on the MLB means Higdon can squirt through off Mags’s back and get to the first down marker.
Play 7: Iso
This is almost academic.
Braden and Cole double the NT, Poggi plows into the MLB at the line of scrimmage, and it’s safety versus Chris Evans for the last bit of ground before the border. Evans takes a stutter step to the left side of Poggi’s block to freeze the safety there, and cuts inside go get over the goal line.
[“PSU Tale of the Tape: Defense at Michigan,” by Andrew Callahan/Lions247]
Lessons: This isn’t something that will work every dang down from now on, but it’s definitely great to see Michigan can line up against an overmatched opponent and just beat those guys straight up. PSU’s linebackers were bad-bad, but the DL are all 3- or 4-4-star guys who’ve had time to grow in the program, i.e. on par with most of the DL Michigan will face. The balanced line makes it hard for the defense to cheat too much to one side or the other (else they’ll get a sweep and that Kalis/Smith vs a cornerback matchup for all the yards). They could sell out against the run by being more aggressive with their safeties, but that’s Jake Butt on the edge, man.
The star of this drive was Magnuson, whose blocks made twitter and probably caused much of his massive PFF (+4) score. He was owning that 5-tech with mostly zone stuff, but a bit of mauling too:
— Aaron Taylor (@AaronTaylorCFB) September 27, 2016
It wasn’t exactly calling the same play 8 times in a row—more like six inside fastballs with two breaking balls to keep ‘em honest. In 1986 this would qualify as a good ol’ fashioned Bo drive, where the formation just holds the opponent in vanilla land and the victories come in the fundamental minutiae of blocking, running, and tackling. In 2016, given all the complexity a modern offense has at its disposal, and all we’ve been through, it was a work of art.