I know this game left a lot to be desired but there was one play in the IU game that went entirely to script, and also demonstrated a few things about Michigan's offense as it spurts and blorps its way toward being really good.
After all the field goals early in this game, it felt great to get an easy touchdown. It was also a route combination I've been hoping to see a lot more of from Michigan this year from their multi-TE sets. It's been a staple of Harbaugh's passing games going back at least to Stanford. And the guy who designs the playbooks for Madden noticed it immediately:
Here's a diagram of the play from a traditional I formation look. pic.twitter.com/31eKHMNHol
— Anthony White (@AWhite_73) November 17, 2018
The primary concept of Harbaugh's offense is creating more gaps. Often this means bringing somebody from the backfield to insert somewhere, whether that be a fullback, a tight end from the other side, or a lineman who pulls. The other way to do that is extend the line of scrimmage:
Against Indiana, Michigan was running a lot of early pin and pull-type plays where they loaded up with tight ends and used a pulling guard as the kickout, starting with the first play of the game, a "counter" from their trips-TE look:
And then this almost touchdown a few plays later:
This is mansome stuff. Michigan is cracking the MLB with their best blocking tight end, blocking down on IU's weaker (normally backside) linemen with both offensive tackles, kicking out a safety on the edge with whatever Onwenu weighs times however much Onwenu is accelerating, and pulling an uncovered lineman (Ruiz) from the backside to boot.
Let's completely ignore the tackle-over thing here because the Hoosiers did. Indiana had a kind of weird response to the "open" side (ie the side with nobody split out wide). Usually when offenses line up in twin TE formations like this the defense's response is to leave their designated safety/hybrid SAM cover guy over the inside TE and put the cornerback down off the edge so the safety (including hybrid types) can keep doing his usual job from his usual spot. The cornerback should be able to handle a tight end in coverage, and if he's a bit undersized for an edge role, his assignment makes that not so hard: SET THE EDGE.
IU preferred to leave a cornerback high and have the safety set the edge. I think that was a personnel decision. Their strong safeties have been pretty bad in run coverage this year, and late in the season the split between junior Khalil Bryant and redshirt freshman Bryant Fitzgerald flipped to Fitzgerald starting and playing a solid majority. Boundary cornerback Andre Brown, on the other hand, has been starting since 2015 (he medshirted in 2016). He's not a great run defender, but he's an alright tackler in space, and probably less likely to biff something than the freshman. So they swap jobs, with Fitzgerald (or Bryant) responsible for setting the edge, and Brown, usually the cornerback, playing safety.
As you can see above, Michigan punished that like they would a cornerback, kicking out the weaker run defender with the largest guy on the team, and bringing another lineman to bear on the cornerback. So next play (yes literally the next play—Michigan lined up and ran it again) Indiana tried a different strategy:
For the drawing I'm going to use color-coding since in limited space it gets hard to see who's blocking whom. Try to guess which of Michigan's players here has the wrong color:
What Indiana did was call their favorite blitz—"America"—which is just a simple SAM (strongside LB) blitz while the line slants from an over to an under. They also changed up who's got the edge: the weakside DE—not one of their defensive backs—is set up like the SAM would be in an under front, and uses his girth and DL-ness, stepping up merely to the line of scrimmage and taking Onwenu's kickout. That sets a much tighter edge (green circle):
That creates another problem that Tru didn't have on the last play at the teal-circled matchup, where Bredeson's cut block—already coming from a disadvantageous position—goes really poorly against a guy set up inside and also slanting inside. If this NT isn't literally the slowest player in the Big Ten (it's the Syracuse transfer) he's going to close this down. At the very least Higdon is going to need every inch Onwenu's kickout can give him.
The other issue is this fuchsia double-team:
The DT who slanted inside of JBB's downblock is now trying to go right where the run is going, and should still get sealed inside by Runyan, though a guy that large moving laterally playside is hard to stop. JBB however is no longer in a position to do anything about that guy. See the guy in yellow? That's the middle linebacker. Last time Gentry managed to come across and kick that guy, but that's not happening again. Since he's not Runyan's guy now, he's JBB's.
Everybody else will be accounted for. The cornerback hanging out near the 10 isn't a linebacker so he isn't comfortable shooting the gap to pick off Ruiz in the lane—he'll end up having to scoot to the edge late and get kicked by Ruiz downfield. The WLB standing on the hash mark is going to McKeon. The end man on the line of scrimmage is that WDE who's about to meet Onwenu. This all goes to IU not being that good, and Michigan getting a matchup win by having Runyan instead of a tight end to seal the playside: this play could still work. But not if JBB doesn't get to the MLB. He doesn't, that guy tackles after a gain of two, and a few plays later the first of many promising drives ends with a field goal.
This time neither Jon Runyan nor Juwann Bushell-Beatty (Steuber is in) is out on that right side, but after a half of this side getting pushed around by bigger, stronger guys until they win an RPS roll (or Michigan misses a wide open Gentry) in the red zone, Indiana is playing a little triggered. Look at those line splits in the middle, begging for something inside instead of another meat hammer to the face. Look at those linebackers, shaded to the two-tight end side so no large people can get down and playside on them. Look at the strong safety back to his edge, and the DE to his side aligned off Gentry's outside shoulder now, and the cornerback at just six yard so Tru will meet an unblocked guy that much sooner.
Look at what the strong safety is looking at when he's got Eubanks:
Look how it's drawn up if you must:
Scissors isn't expecting to get a guy THAT wide open, but against Cover 2 looks it's expect to screw those safeties. The deep safety on the side side is going to be occupied with DPJ's corner route, and the linebacker level should be held low with the crosser. You've then presumably got two tight ends supposedly running right at a Cover 2 safety with his side's cornerback in tow, and the second the safety realizes the goofy-stepping #1 (outside) receiver is about to run toward the goalpost, the other tight end crosses his path, maybe even makes a little accidental contact, and now there's an empty middle of the field to throw to.
A good Cover 2 defense should have that safety getting over the inside route but IU's weird personnel swap has a cornerback out there, and the corner is sitting outside on top of Eubank's route. If this is a seam to Gentry here (like the play that set up the end of the half debacle) it's probably a touchdown. Because it's scissors it's Eubanks who's the beneficiary of the cornerback's dorf.
Meanwhile the safety (#31 Fitzgerald) in the cornerback's usual spot gets caught looking at the backfield for a second even though the offensive line pass set, and then he stood to cut off a flat route by Eubanks. In a working Cover 2 that defender should be able to do that, then sink into Gentry's route. As his cornerback friend who volunteered to do his job for him is about to get split (and picked) by Gentry and Eubanks, #31 gets to look stupid for 40 yards. Unless you count the ref momentarily shuffling like he means to block Gentry's route, there is nobody for the middle of the field. It's a bust; this play didn't have to be that clever—it just had to be on the same field as Indiana.
(By the way, against one-high defenses like Michigan's the primary read on Scissors would be the inside TE (Gentry)'s corner route, because you're likely to get outside leverage to run away from a safety in man defense, and the guy in the middle won't be able to get over in time.)
How Is It Relevant to the Only Thing That's Relevant?
Since Ben Baldwin wrote his piece on Play-Action passing it's become de rigueur to scoff at the notion that running success sets up play-action. Baldwin's piece compared how much NFL teams run to how successful they are on play-action passes and found no correlation (he also found that play-action passes were more successful than set passes). The article is not without controversy, as you can imagine from something by a mathy non-athlete that challenges a core tenet of football orthodoxy and favorite crutch for lazy announcers. He might have only found that NFL teams built to run don't have the resources for an equally strong passing game, while those that pass a lot are good at passing.
I don't think you can use this play as an example of how running success sets up play-action anyway because the play wasn't even play-action except for a bit of draw action as Tru went by. The back's positioning at the snap isn't even set up to run to the side where the action was (though motioning the RB to the other side of the QB to flip the strength of the formation was certainly part of Michigan's gameplan).
Anyway it only questions the most simplistic understanding of running to set up the pass. Only Mike DeBord (and whoever made NCAA 2006) thinks you have to get pummeled on the ropes for 10 games to set up a counter play. The true wisdom behind the adage is you can set up the pass by making the defense play unsound against something you're good at because you're good at other things too.
This play shows how Michigan's running strength sets up its passing game to its pass-able tight ends. It goes back not to the first play of the game, but the moment before the first play of the game.
This is what Michigan's been working towards all season. Gaps from sea to shining sea. A tight end with a tight end behind him and another tight end next to that guy. The opponent matching Michigan's 3-TE personnel with five linemen, removing a key pass defender for an extra lineman even though those tight ends can all probably outrun most of the Indiana secondary. Scissors is just one passing concepts that takes advantage of the fact Michigan can attack deep downfield with goal line personnel. Running the play you're going to counter a zillion times to set up the counter might get you a good play one in a zillion times. Lining up your cornerback as a pretend safety just six yards off Nick Eubanks because you're afraid of tight end blocks, on the other hand, is just asking to get stepped on like a doormat.
This shows you what can happen when all those tight ends are thrown against a secondary that recently replaced its strong safety and can't get its outside linebackers to find their gaps. Do we know anybody like that? I'll watch some film and let you know later this week.