I realize there was a drive and a half afterwards, but for all purposes this was the end of The Game:
In the aftermath there’s been some Michigan fans saying that this wasn’t something the coaches should have put on O’Korn to do—that it was too complicated for a guy who’s already not good at reacting to what’s in front of him.
I don’t think that’s accurate. Option routes in general are complicated because they put more on receivers, but for the quarterback it’s less complicated than a West Coast tree. He’s still seeing the coverage and making a read, it’s just that he gets to stare at the same receiver the whole time instead of finding each guy where he’s supposed to be. Now, the Run and Shoot, or its cousin the Air Raid: those are complicated for quarterbacks because he’s got to read multiple option routes. That’s not what Michigan was asking O’Korn to do on this play.
I’ll explain. Two bad things happened for Michigan to create this disaster:
1. OHIO STATE DISGUISED THEIR COVERAGE
First, let’s go over what the announcing team said about it, since Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt did a good job of explaining what happened afterwards:
Ohio State switching coverage post-snap is half the story. They’re talking about the fact that Ohio State showed Cover 2 pre-snap and then ran a Cover 3 zone blitz, with the line slanting, the SAM blitzing, the weakside end dropping into the flat, and the WLB tasked with dropping into a deep 1/3rd zone.
[After THE JUMP what O’Korn saw]
But O’Korn never saw the shift. He read Cover 2 pre-snap, figured Gentry was going to run himself into the weakside safety’s zone, and that he’d get the strong safety, Webb, caught between the two receivers’ routes (off-screen). Here’s O’Korn’s pre-snap read:
Now they snap it, O’Korn turns around to fake the hand-off, and when he comes out of the fake this is what he sees:
O’Korn is just watching Crawford on this route (more on that in the other half of what happened) and probably feels that his protection isn’t going to last—Kugler has already been discarded by the NT (Robert Landers), and Bosa is splitting Cole and Bredeson. He’s got about a second to make his read and get the ball out.
Let’s pretend for a moment that this is Tom Brady instead of John O’Korn. Brady definitely would notice when he came out of his step-back that the safety’s behavior (letting Crawford go by him while making a zone call to his cornerback mate) is definitely not Cover 2. Brady’s eyes slide automatically to the other safety, who has his back to Gentry and is running to the middle of the field.
Where’s the guy covering the zone that Gentry’s running toward? He’s boned is where he is:
The play-action delayed the WLB, #17 Jerome Baker, who sucked up on the run…
…and let Gentry get behind him.
But only if Michigan was running a West Coast passing tree. Normally that’s a good enough bet. Wilton Speight is very West Coast quarterback, and Michigan brought in modern WCO guru Pep Hamilton this year—I believe—to run an offense predicated on West Coast passing from all sorts of formations with their base I-form personnel on the field. This is what Michigan wanted to be coming into the season.
Watch Speight’s head progress through reads with each bounce. This is clinical.
Speight wasn’t the same guy this year once the right side was breaking down all the time, but once Speight went out O’Korn definitely wasn’t the kind of guy you build a West Coast offense around. Penn State was hard to pull much from but we suspected at that point that O’Korn was throwing option routes—IE they were having him do the things he did at Houston. It was his best game.
What was Peters? They wanted him to be a power run-based West Coast guy.
LB #17 is stretched between McKeon and DPJ—Peters threw it two beats late.
Neither of these were the passing gameplan for Ohio State. The OSU gameplan was about (frippery and) giving O’Korn one thing to read.
2. O’KORN READ THE WRONG SAFETY
O’Korn isn’t Tom Brady, or even Wilton Speight or Brandon Peters. O’Korn tends to lock onto one guy. And his coaches knew it. O’Korn spent his first three seasons at Houston under Tony Levine, an Air Raid guy who’s now the offensive coordinator for Jeff Brohm at Purdue. Here’s an O’Korn game at Houston that HAIL put on the Tubes. Note what happens whenever O’Korn gets to a second read:
This is the book on O’Korn: he reads his first guy, and if it’s not there he gets discombobulated then runs around some. Occasionally he breaks the pocket and makes something crazy happen. More often he’s Christian Hackenberg.
Part of the reason for this is O’Korn’s makeup, I guess. But most of it was the Air Raid offense doesn’t play by West Coast rules. They don’t expect you to make it to your fourth read (at least not usually). Usually you’re making a pre-snap read to decide which guy you’re throwing to, then reading how they cover him, with the receiver reading the same coverage.
The Air Raid’s passing tree is based on the old Run ’n Shoot system.
Follow the link if you’re not familiar. For those who want to keep going, the key to the Run and Shoot are “Sight Reads” or “Option Routes” or “Route Conversions”—the concept evolved several places so the terminology is all over the map. By spacing out the receivers thusly, Mouse Davis and the other Run and Shoot guys could call the same play every time and let the defense pick its poison—until the defense learned to zone blitz it into submission (this was the birth of the 3-3-5 stack, but that’s another story).
The Air Raid, a less systematic successor to the Run and Shoot, took the best passing structures from the West Coast offense and added options that were usually sit routes:
Note the difference between this Air Raid staple from Leach’s offense, and the Run and Shoot: this is a West Coast Offense favorite—four verts—with sit routes.
The idea is to watch one receiver and how the DB is playing him, for example if the the cover guy is off, the quarterback and receiver know that the receiver is going to break off his route and sit down in a hole in the zone underneath. The Run and Shoot is an entire system of these—you progress from one tree to the next, never minding what the actual coverage call is because every battle is an individual one. The Air Raid backs off that: you do have to read post-snap coverages because you’re not running every play from a four-wide spread and isolating the same one or two guys every play.
Non-Air Raid offenses can also borrow the Air Raid route conversions: many, many offenses just build a few option routes into what they were doing. For example Doug Nussmeier’s passing game has their #1 receiver often look back at 7 yards, and the quarterback knows if he gets a blitz from that side he can throw that as a hot read.
Harbaugh’s contribution to sight reads evolved at Stanford and then blossomed at San Francisco. The Alex Smith Harbaugh inherited was no Tom Brady, and was overwhelmed trying to run a West Coast offense against the superheroes in the NFL. So Harbaugh simplified the reads for him by using play-action from a power running game, which freed up underneath for his slot receivers and tight ends to run option routes. Smith then used the NFL lockout that year to practice these option routes with his receivers, and the result was a renaissance season.
Harbaugh did the same with Rudock and Butt in 2015, with the other routes planned to clear room for Butt to work against a linebacker or safety, and Butt given an option. Rudock and Butt would read the defender, and Rudock would only come off it if both reads were covered. Later in the year I suspect they were building option routes in for Chesson, though it was never confirmed.
Thanks to O’Korn biffing it and Crawford making the right route conversion, we know O’Korn was reading not Read 1, Read 2, Read 3, but watching how they covered Crawford:
What I think happened last week is Harbaugh and Drevno and Pep knew they couldn’t get a West Coast game out of their third-string quarterback, and decided to let O’Korn do his Houston thing. If you’re going to lock onto one receiver anyway, fine, just find the safety covering him, and throw it where he ain’t. Note DPJ’s and Gentry’s routes here attack vertically then break away from Crawford. Play-action holds the linebacker level, the other two routes occupy defenders so that only one is isolated against Crawford, and then O’Korn just has to read Crawford and the guy isolated on him.
So Michigan is not running anything like a full-on Run n Shoot here—I don’t think O’Korn even looked at DPJ’s route, which would be the #1 read in a Run and Shoot—or even an Air Raid. Instead they’re using play-action to keep the linebackers tied down. In the context of the playcall, it was the MLB (#32 Tuf Borland) that Michigan is holding near the line of scrimmage, since that guy could drop underneath the cut-off point of Crawford’s route. Because of Ohio State’s scissors roll however, that did Michigan an even bigger favor by also sucking up the WLB when that guy had a deep outside third to cover.
The tradeoff for holding the linebackers in the box was O’Korn wasn’t looking when the free safety took off for the deep middle:
The FS is hightailing it to his zone, O’Korn is still facing Higdon
O’Korn comes up, checks his protection, then finds Crawford, the ONE GUY he’s got to read. What O’Korn didn’t see was the safety in coverage on Crawford. John thinks it’s Webb, #7, the on the far left.
Crawford however knows it’s the free safety. Watch his route:
When the strong safety (Webb) got out of the way Crawford knew to look for the guy actually covering him and adjusted. Because the receiver read the safety correctly, and because the MLB was late getting depth due tot he play-action, Crawford is open: regardless of the coverage, the scheme worked. But O’Korn never came off his pre-snap read, and threw it as if Ohio State had just busted massively. Also Robert Landers is about to plow into him.
So that’s why there’s nobody to even contest the ball and Jordan Fuller gets to field a punt.
THAT SOUNDS COMPLICATED!
It’s not the least complicated. If you really want to make things easy on your quarterback there are ways, and Harbaugh’s offense was using all of them:
- Run-pass options. Michigan did run these against OSU.
- MESH and pick routes. This was the Purdue gameplan—they’re also a gimmick you can’t hang your hat on unless you’ve got Wisconsin-/MSU-level OPI avoidance.
- Rollout/cut the field in half. Another gimmick: Minnesota tried a lot of this to shield Demry Croft, and had under 100 yards in the 4th quarter.
- Establish play-action off an unbeatable running game: This worked against Rutgers/Minn/Maryland but Ohio State’s run defense was too strong to do the same. Also this WORKED on the play in question.
- Screens: Work best against blitz-happy defenses, and most defenses only get blitzy when a quarterback is picking them apart—OSU doesn’t have to rush >4 to get immediate pressure. Also work better against defenses that don’t have athletic LBs, and OSU’s LBs are some of the best pure athletes at the position in the country.
- Scheme guys open. That 4th down play O’Korn missed where Evans took a sharp cut on his circle route was a brilliant play call set up by the offense. So was this play.
In the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t actually that complicated—it’s not a Kindergarten read, but we’re still in the realm of things high school quarterbacks do all the time. Michigan gave O’Korn this:
And told him to find #1 and the guy in coverage on #1, then throw it where the guy in coverage doesn’t have leverage. O’Korn’s pre-snap read determined it was this:
And between the snap and when O’Korn came out of his break, Ohio State turned it into this.
That added one layer of complication, sure. It also left a 6’8” guy who runs a 4.6 wide open for a 60-yard pass that most QBs make. Except Michigan had dumbed down the offense so O’Korn didn’t have to worry about the WLB—he just had to see ONE safety was running toward the middle of the field and convert that to knowledge that his receiver would be open underneath that. O’Korn just didn’t see it. Ballgame.