Neck Sharpies: Power Practice Comment Count

Seth September 18th, 2018 at 2:52 PM

"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.



September 18th, 2018 at 3:15 PM ^

These write ups are so excellent. This made me think of that video from the Stanford-Virginia Tech Orange Bowl where Harbaugh was mic'd. He kept yelling "back door! back door!" If memory serves, sure enough the tailback hits that backside gap and is off to the races for a long TD. I just tried to track down the video and couldn't find it, but I'm pretty sure that was the deal.


September 19th, 2018 at 10:06 AM ^

You know, I remember that video too.  So I went looking for it.  Kind of interesting what I found.

The ESPN game summary from that Orange Bowl lists only one long Stanford TD run (the only other rushing TD was a 1-yd carry by Marecic).  So that would have to be this play.

But it's pretty clear this play did not go through the "back door."  Stanford lined up a TE to that side, motioned a second guy over there pre-snap, and then pulled a guard to that side.  The RB attacked the playside gap and burst through into daylight.  Also there was nothing available on the backside of the play, as some huge DT (#56) was there unblocked.

FWIW, I also recalled the "mic'd up" video showing a run that started from deeper in Stanford territory, whereas this TD run started near midfield.

The, in trying to find that TD play, I also noticed this play, also a power on which VT absolutely crushed the playside but appeared to leave quite a bit of room available on the backside.  Presumably the coaches noticed this and may have looked to exploit it later in the half.

Sure enough, two series later, Stanford runs this counter, on which the play flows to the right at the snap but is pretty clearly designed to attack the backside.  Note this run (i) it started deep in Stanford territory, and (ii) JH would have known from the play design that the likely gap would appear on the backside. Therefore, I think this was actually the run on which JH yelled "backdoor!"

The play only gets about three yards.  But  perhaps by running this play, Stanford forced Bud Foster to respect the backside, leading to the long TD run moments later?

Anyway, back to work work.



September 18th, 2018 at 3:17 PM ^

Re: the last line. True.

But on the other hand, maybe if your team is more suited to being a wizard instead of a ninja, then you should be practicing wizard things instead of ninja things.


September 19th, 2018 at 10:16 AM ^

Yeah, but you could only multi-class if you were a demi-human, and in order to dual-class you had to basically start over at first level in your new class and could only use your original class abilities after you reached a higher level in the new class than you had been in the first class (e.g., if you started as a cleric and dual-classed to a fighter at third level you couldn't use your cleric skills until you reached fourth level as a fighter).  

The Victors

September 18th, 2018 at 3:24 PM ^

Great stuff, Seth!

When I saw this in real time, I thought Evans should've cut wide left, outrun the linebackers to the edge, and likely get into the end zone.  Obviously, he's thinking about just getting upfield and getting the 2 yards, but the field side had A LOT of space.


September 18th, 2018 at 3:25 PM ^

These write-ups are the reason I love this blog. Thank you for the details that make me smarter than the average fan and help me appreciate the beauty of this team.

Number 7

September 18th, 2018 at 3:27 PM ^

I am naive about football, but it seems crazy to me that the ball 1) sits 2 yards away from the line of gain, 2) is, upon being snapped, run backwards so that it is 7 yards behind the line of gain, which allows 3) and 4) all those holes in the line that were initially open to be closed by clever, gap reading opponent linebackers.  

Did I just make the case for the Dive play in short-yardage situations, and what is the advantage of something with a longer set-up?

El Jeffe

September 18th, 2018 at 3:29 PM ^

I did get the strong sense that Harbaugh was going to run some things even though he could have known there was very little chance they would work due to the formation and tendencies of SMU.

This causes BAWWWW grumbles, to be sure, but it is a way to rep this base play and its devilish variants against a team that isn't your own team (i.e., in practice).

On balance, I'm okay with this. I would rather we stumble early in games against inferior competition so that we get it right for the, uh, ferior competition to come. 


September 18th, 2018 at 3:30 PM ^

I agree with your assessment. For most of the first half, the teams seemed to be in mutual agreement that the ball was going to stay on the ground unless it was 3rd and long. Michigan was content to practice with the difficulty slider toward hard, and SMU was more than willing to oblige by flinging everyone at the LOS right at the snap. Then when they needed points, play action was hilariously open and we pulled away rather easily in the 2nd half, before shutting it down again to kill clock.


September 18th, 2018 at 3:31 PM ^

Drew Hallett (behind paywall) did an interesting analysis today.  Basically, with 4 minutes left in the 2nd Q, Harbaugh had enough of SMU's sell out to stop the run.  Play action to DPJ & his 1st TD. One can only guess Harbaugh stayed persistent to then as a training exercise for the O line, TE's and fullback.


September 18th, 2018 at 3:33 PM ^

That was available all day. Why not run it all day? Because that's not how you become a ninja.

What percentage of the BAWWWWWWW crowd doesn't understand this?  Because I don't think any of them understand this.


September 18th, 2018 at 4:18 PM ^

I have yet to see any ninja skills against a real team going back years, maybe its time to admit maybe they're not really ninjas? I know a few 5 year olds that I could convince I am a ninja but against actual adults with training not so much. Michigan already lost to one adult and will be playing more soon.


September 18th, 2018 at 7:12 PM ^

It's not a case of not understanding. It's more of a feeling of resignation. This was being repped because this is Michigan under JH. Bang into that brick wall because that's what you do.

(warning: intentional run-on)

So always do that, until OH SHIT it's halftime and we're down 17-0 and crap now we better pass and OH SHIT it's not working because we haven't repped that enough because of brick wall banging and that team is actually good and shit we should have assumed we needed to pass but oh well at least MANBAW.

(intentional run-on over)

The difficulty slider is always on HARD because we are not trying to do EASY enough. The Michigan way.



September 19th, 2018 at 8:35 AM ^

I think the point that you’re missing is that at some point in the game you’ve got to be able to run the clock. You can’t leave your defense on the field the whole game, no matter how good it is. Otherwise, you end up in a RichRod-style shootout where you score in a minute while the other team grinds down your defense. It’s exciting and excruciating at the same time, but in the end you lose the game because the opposition controls the clock.

You practice this against a defense that still believes it can win in Michigan Stadium — you don’t wait until you’ve got the game under control.


September 18th, 2018 at 3:38 PM ^

Power vs over... I get the premise, but gapping the entire frontside seems preferable. Kick out or log with Fb and roll to the Sam with the backside guard.

Anyway, my hope is that we are looking at running power from a 3 wide look more often (using a Y as the FB lead blocker).  That would give us more threat of pass and also get the safeties off our ass.  


September 18th, 2018 at 3:48 PM ^

So my main issue with this: Is there any good reason they can't bring out the samurai swords early, build a decent lead, and then practice smashing the board? The way they went about things left them open to getting into an actual competitive game against a vastly inferior opponent with another bad bounce or two. Given that one of the things we love about college football is that chaos can happen at any time, it would be nice to eliminate that possibility as soon as possible before practicing for future opponents. 


September 18th, 2018 at 4:09 PM ^

If you have shown them that you will beat them with passing if they keep bringing their linebackers, then the ability to practice against them when the linebackers are in full pursuit will be lost.  It may get you more points while still getting you less of the needed practice.  Coach wants us to be able to run the play no matter how well it is defensed, not for us to be able to run the play only when the linebackers are holding back out of fear of play action.


September 18th, 2018 at 4:21 PM ^

"The way they went about things left them open to getting into an actual competitive game"

That's the point though. Otherwise you're running against back-ups or people that don't give a shit anymore, running probably more vanilla defenses. We pulled out the swords just before halftime and then went to doing what you suggested again right after that. But before that happened, the offense got a quarter and a half of practicing things against a tough situation and motivated opponents trying their best. 


September 18th, 2018 at 3:54 PM ^

Nicely done, Seth!  And thanks for these - they're appreciated, and oh so apropos! 

BTW, Adm Nelson did a great job in maneuvering his way into crossing the 'T' of the French fleet.  That means he was the crossed part of the 'T', and had all of his ships guns to bear against the French, who were head on and could only fire their forward most cannon.

It was Adm David Farragut who proclaimed "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" during the battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War.

(/naval history nerd)


September 18th, 2018 at 4:00 PM ^

Seth, these articles are great. Keep them coming. One question for you: you're saying, I think, that the game plan against SMU involved a lot of practicing power, i.e., the exact play you diagram in detail get's run over and over for the purpose of getting it right. The counter to power, when the QB reads the defense and it tells him that the box is loaded and the LBs are going to crash down into that gap power is trying to create, is to check out of power and run a PA like the one that you show beautifully executed to DPJ.

I think most of us become frustrated by what appears to be Harbaugh practicing these plays over and over, repeatedly running into 8-10 guys in the box, instead of focusing on keeping the chains moving, developing rhythm and flow on offense and establishing an offensive identity that the players can thrive off of. 

Is Harbaugh's approach a good one? Is it detrimental in any way to the player's mindsets even though they probably know, having been told, that running power correctly is a part of today's (v. SMU) game plan and we'll do this as a priority. I suppose we'd all like the priority to be blowing out the opponent, winning with character and cruelty, and I'd add a bit more wizardry. 


September 18th, 2018 at 8:29 PM ^

Notice that there were four ways Michigan could have made this play work quite well. If onwenu and gentry made their blocks on those linebackers Michigan at least gets the first down.

Power is the kind of play that can punch holes in any front and the more aggressive you play against a team that runs it well, the bigger you get gashed when they beat you with it. Nobody had a problem with the game plans against Minnesota or Maryland or Rutgers last year when Michigan did the same thing.

But that's not really the point. The point is that power is many plays in one. The better you get at adjusting it on the Fly to whatever the defense does the more you can rely on it and the more room you will have to do everything else you want to do. 

Ron Utah

September 18th, 2018 at 4:04 PM ^

Great post.  I agree with all of it.  Harbaugh is clearly trying to train the lads.  The only question is whether or not he an accomplish it before we face a team that can punish our failure more thoroughly than SMU.

Two missed assignments here.  Tough to overcome that.


September 18th, 2018 at 4:08 PM ^

These articles are why MGoBlog is such a constant presence in my life. This, UFR, and other similar picture laden teaching of concepts are exactly what I’m so interested in after every game. There is so much more value to the conversations about expectations from these posts than just the hot take or cliche crowd. 



September 18th, 2018 at 4:19 PM ^

I was thinking the same thing when I was watching the game. This has to be on purpose. No one would keep running into a wall on purpose.

Plus it limits what's on tape.


September 18th, 2018 at 5:52 PM ^

This jibes with the sideline reporter who claimed that the OL players were complaining about the over-aggressive play from SMU linebackers blowing up the blocking schemes.  Ed Warriner's response to the players was, paraphrased, "you need to learn how to deal with that."