"Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them." –Horatio Nelson, maybe
This game was spectacularly unexciting from just about any standpoint, though my spot in the corner opposite the action and directly in the sunlight might be in the running for least spectacular fan experience.
On replay I thought most of Michigan's struggles running the ball were they were trying to practice running power into stacked boxes when the linebackers were firing aggressively at power and the safeties were starting at eight yards and stepping forward at the snap, not so different from what Michigan State does. So rather than show some amazing adjustment to the very unsound thing SMU was doing, I thought it might be interesting to pick apart one Power run where Michigan needed to get two yards and failed to do so.
1. The Primary Gap
The setup: It's 3rd and 2 later in the 1st quarter, about the point where Michigan needs to make it 7-0 to prevent what was supposed to be a laugher from turning into a grumbler. Michigan comes out their Heavy (fullback + two tight ends) formation, with both tight ends on the front side.
What happened? Michigan ran power, SMU slanted into it, Evans tried to cut back, and there were two unblocked guys waiting for him there.
What's Power? Power, or Power-O (for off-tackle) is God's play. It's a gap play where you try to pry open the frontside of the defense and then send all a bunch of material into it before the defense can close it down.
You block down on the linemen to the backside of the play, kick out the edge, and—this is the key—pull a blocker from the backside of the formation to thwack whoever appears in the gap. Send any unused frontside blockers into the linebacker level, add fullbackery and other frippery as necessary, and serve. Mostly that's changing up who gets the kickout block versus the playside linebacker (e.g. have the fullback kick and the tight end release on that SLB).
Power is one of the few plays that deserves a spot in the pantheon of base plays that can work against virtually any defense if you're good at it. My main takeaway from this game is Michigan wants to learn power until the offense can punch its way out of a coffin with it, and the coaches' opinion of SMU's defense was they might make a solid practice plank:
[After the JUMP: Michigan breaks its hand]
We broke our hand? Well you have to a few times. Here's one:
There's nothing exceptional to this play, except SMU's slant. Initially Ruiz was supposed to get a downblock on this NT…
…but SMU was slanting the defensive line to playside and firing off their linebackers to their gaps long before they had any idea if it was run or play-action:
Notice #91 (the DT on the hash mark above) now. He started the play "below" (ie not this side) of Ruiz, and the slant got him into the gap Michigan wants to run into. Other than that things are going peachy: DT#10 and the end to that side are kicked and sealed for the moment, and Michigan has Gentry and Onwenu releasing into the two interior linebackers. That unblocked WLB did not fire off like a maniac at the pull action this time. Everything's fine here, except that nose tackle who slanted into the hole. Michigan's power game has a response to that.
2. The Backside Gap
Some teams that run power don't care about a backside crease and will just have their center cut block a slanting DT. Michigan instead likes to provide a cutback lane. I did a whole article on it when Michigan faced a similar slantballs Group of Five team they don't respect. Basically you zone 'em. If they want to slant inside the center and backside tackle so bad, seal their asses there and cut:
Michigan did hit a backside lane like that on a 3rd and 1 earlier this same drive, though not against a slant:
On that one SMU was keying the Power run by having their linebackers scream toward the frontside at the first sign of a pull. Just look at these adorable ponies:
And look what happens when Bredeson flips gaps on the NT:
Let's go back to our failed 3rd and 2 later in the drive.
Indeed Ruiz let the slant happen and tried to seal the NT, and Evans tried to hit the cutback lane. Runyan got slanted into as well, and doesn't have control over the guy he needed to kick, but as long as Runyan's preventing that guy from getting into the backfield or making a tackle attempt this too is fine for the same reason Ruiz's block is fine: Evans can cut around it.
The problem is there's a WLB set up for contain. That guy on power is always a free hitter, but often on these backside cuts he's grasping at air because he's got to react to the pulling guard. We spent last week talking about how Down G is so great because it freezes at WLB backside, since he's looking at zone. On this play his LB buddy made him right. That's #14, the Texas A&M transfer I've circled below. Look at him him point while setting up to take on Onwenu:
That's "keep contain, we got this." It's a good read by the MLB and good teamwork by the OLB to trust his buddy. It's the kind of thing we're going to see against a team like Wisconsin, whose linebacker play routinely negates whatever good thing you're doing on offense.
That's still Evans vs a linebacker in space, a matchup Michigan should be able to get two yards out of. Unfortunately they don't because #14 also slipped out of Onwenu's block and is there to make the stick.
3. Who Needs a Gap?
So I think a couple of people seized on this play as Bredeson's fault because there's a moment here where Bredeson is face to face with the DT who slanted inside on Ruiz and just leaves him alone.
With Onwenu and Gentry getting hats on the MLB and SAM, respectively, it looks like a Bredeson hit on the DT here could pop open that A gap, and Evans could be burrowing in there with only that unblocked WLB to provide resistance. He might. The reason Power is such a good play against everything is this puller. It's one wild card you can pull out to make anything right, the other being the lead fullback. Ideally your puller gets to the gap before the unblocked WLB, gets through there, and seals the WLB off (this is why that backside LB has to play so aggressively). But the puller is hardly locked in to that job. In fact whatever's gone up to that point, at about the time the running back is securing the handoff, the puller should be arriving from the backside and is free to use himself to plug the most necessary leak. In fact most coaches tell him to hit the first unblocked thing he sees, or, you know, someone he doesn't like.
Mason, the other wild card, is of this way of thinking. He sees JBB getting shed by his DE and uses himself to try to slam a gap open:
And indeed it works. See the hat in the above photo and where he is relative to the white line, and see where he is a couple of frames later:
SMU's discount Gary was about to be free of JBB and causing havoc at the point of attack. Mason's block undid all that work he was doing, and deposited him behind the fist down marker. That's a good use of the fullback. And here it probably would have been a good use of Bredeson, though even that might not have been enough to save the play because of what else had gone wrong:
4. So Why Did This Play Die?
The doom here was the middle linebackers were, for this play, simply better than the two blockers who released onto them.
See the last snapshot above and move your eyes to the top of it: Onwenu has been shed by the MLB (#14, the guy standing on the hash mark and 15 yard line). Also the SAM Gentry was supposed to be blocking has almost disappeared. See the white knee pads between #7 and #97 up there? That's the middle linebacker diving into the primary gap. Bredeson will have to use himself on that, and his chances of preventing an ankle tackle are slim. Onwenu's block mildly delayed #14 but because Bredeson chose to bypass Ruiz's guy, Evans had to cut backside, and #14 was waiting for him if he tried to cut inside of the unblocked WLB being all responsible and stuff.
Onwenu's guy has made Onwenu useless.
The SAM did even better against Gentry's block. That's Kyran Mitchell, the star of SMU's defense. If Bredeson had used up his pull on the NT (#91 above), Mitchell's ability to make Gentry's block irrelevant then dive into the intended running lane probably ends this play anyway.
Ultimately, Michigan had a lot of chances for this to go right:
- Catch a break: If SMU's not slanting this time they probably get the blocks and punch ahead for the yards they needed.
- Blast a hole: even with the slant on, Ruiz might be athletic enough to stop the NT from getting into his gap from a disadvantageous position, or Michigan could just choose to not have a backside cut and win that block at all costs. I believe SMU's defense negated this by having the WLB keyed to attack on a pull unless his buddy wards him off. Good, heads-up linebacker play.
- If Onwenu doesn't lose the MLB the backside cut put Evans in space, and the WLB has to respect. Again, credit to SMU's MLB (for this play—Kyran is usually MLB).
- If Bredeson had used himself to double or seal Ruiz's guy AND Gentry hadn't lost the SAM (Kyran) entirely, this play has a chance to meatball its way over the line,
I think the lesson here is Michigan was trying to get good at something that's pretty hard. They're getting there, but they're not quite to the level yet where they can beat good linebacker play like we'll see later in the schedule. If you're going to try however, might as well practice against SMU when you know SMU's linebackers are going to be using every fiber of their being at stopping you from going through just that specific spot.
Why? Because they're just selling out against the thing we're practicing by firing off like mad dogs against anything that looks like a run. If you ever do need to just smash a board, well, it's going to be where you left it, and you've got a bunch of Samurai swords around:
That was available all day. Why not run it all day? Because that's now how you become a ninja.