Thanks to Rutgers Michigan is now merely the #2 defense in the country to favored fancystat S&P+. The Scarlet Knights' 193 rushing yards were the most Michigan gave up all season. In fact Rutgers gained more rushing yards in a single play than Michigan ceded to Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State or Penn State all game. Normally I don't like to focus on bad plays, nor things that are unlikely to recur, but Rutgers is so bad at everything than 80-yard run to tie the game didn't even remotely move the needle of concern for a rote washout. It was also the only time there was any threat of Rutgers scoring. And it's a cool play. And people wanted to know what happened. So let's unpack it as best we can.
1. Zipper Motion
The play is a simple zone stretch run with a "Zipper" motion from the slot receiver that forced Michigan's safeties to switch their roles pre-snap and switch again post-snap. Zipper is jet motion that reverses the way it came, and a staple of motion-reliant offenses like the one Matt Canada runs in Maryland, and this derivative.
Zipper motion is really just taking Jet to the next level. Jet motion often reveals a defense's coverage, forces defenders to change the assignments on the fly right before the snap, and creates an enhanced threat of an already speedy player with a head of steam to account for. It also puts them out of alignment, and used correctly can break your offensive players free from whomever the defense wanted to match on them. It's sort of like banging the top of a jar before trying to open it—by crossing the defense you're loosening everything up. By crossing a defense again you're giving that top another bang. The tradeoff is you have to vary your motions or else you're tipping when you're going to snap the ball. Also your motion guy can't have his hips downfield so you're losing a precious moment that he could be threatening a vertical route or blocking. It's not a bad trade, and that's why just about every offense uses motion.
A defense that's screwed down well should be well prepared to handle any Jet motion. Michigan's defense has several methods that they can rotate through on a game- and per-play basis. When they get slot motion in man to man they can have the safeties swap jobs ("Switch") or have the slot defender follow the motion. If they're in a Cover 2 look they'll often just leave everyone where they are or reveal the coverage if they've been disguising it. They can also convert their coverage call, or roll the Viper into it. In general if you get a reaction from the top group it's probably man coverage (or Cover 3) and if you get the bottom reaction you've probably revealed a zone (Cover 2).
Michigan's favorite is Switch, and even though it's a Cover 2 presnap look the original jet motion reveals Kinnel and Hawkins switching their jobs, and when the slot zippers back the other way the safeties are flipping back.
On this play the coverage doesn't matter so much as making the safeties run every which way before the handoff. It's one more thing in their heads, and makes it harder for them to be in the ideal position at the snap because they're on the run. It's annoying because their run assignments are going to change based on where they end up on the play, and because Hawkins isn't nearly as experienced at this.
The safety swapping isn't the main event and only possibly a contributor. I think the zipper motion with their best player, #2 Raheem Blackshear, created the sense among Michigan's defenders that Rutgers intended to get the defense moving one way and Blackshear running the opposite way. Brian argued on the pod this week that no coaches teach their players to overreact to a guy and that's true, but it's college football and Blackshear is the majority of the Rutgers offense; it's understandable that Kinnel would find himself floating one way, seeing Blackshear going the other, and think the play is going to come down to whether Tyree can shut down the edge.
The motion is one of two things Rutgers did to make this play crack open—Pacheko being much faster than Hawkins was the other. Michigan's reaction, however, was bust-tacular.
[After THE JUMP: Laying blame for the thing that didn't matter but was loud anyway]
2. The Tale of the Overzealous Linebacker
Or alternatively: where are you going Devin Gil?
Gil is the linebacker on the bottom who ran himself to the frontside and got sealed there by the Rutgers right tackle. Now, this is a stretch or outside zone play, where the offense is trying to create gaps and the defense's job is stay in them. Technically Gil is doing that, but his technique is wrong given the flow of the play. The replay provides a pretty good look at the snap:
And at the handoff:
Gil's gap is the backside "B" gap, between the RT and the RG. Everybody else is filling theirs. From right: Gary has the edge, Hudson is tracking with the fullback's shoulder, Marshall is controlling the shoulder of the LG, Bush is about to take out the center near the line of scrimmage, Mone is tracking with the RG to make sure the "A" gap isn't going to be worthwhile, and Gil has the backside B with Winovich covering the edge. It's Winovich's gap.
But remember the point of zone running is to get defenders to over- or under-commit. If you're too into your gap you're overpursuing, and that's exactly the sort of thing the offense is looking for. Everyone else in the picture above is on his guy's shoulder, forcing the line to keep blocking, keep shuffling, until eventually the back hits the edge and everything collapses on him. By going past his blocker, Gil has opened up the cutback lane behind him. The RT can seal Gil where he is, and that creates a chunk of space for the back that the next guy down the line might not be in position to do anything with.
Just watch how everyone else plays his gap versus how Devin Gil (#36) played his gap:
Gil is all the way over to the next lane. He's not even watching for the right tackle. If he does, the back has to bounce a lot further outside, and that is precious speed and momentum that his buddies could use to rally.
3. The Return of Freshman Winovich
If you're about to bag on Gil for one play a little perspective: the other side of that massive gap was Michigan's best player. Winovich almost certainly lost track of the ball since after the handoff he stopped flowing with the edge of the line, and set up a couple of yards upfield and several more yards outside to contain Blackshear. If the run action came Chase's way he's responsible for the edge of the defense. Since the run went the other way, Chase's job is backside contain.
Without a blocker, Chase should see the handoff. Giving himself some space outside is fine but he should be bouncing back to the edge of the run here, when the running back has the ball and has already taken two steps with it:
Instead Chase doesn't realize he's got to contain the cutback until two beats later, here:
That's four steps away from the play in pursuit of Blackshear, who's not his job. If Chase stays out on the edge like he should, even with Gil getting blown out, Winovich has at least a diving attempt that probably trips Pacheko up and limits this to a [stumbling Pacheko]-yard gain.
Chasing Blackshear while Pacheko is cutting past Winovich with the ball is just getting faked out.
Winovich did show incredibly speed to be part of the convoy trying to bring Pacheko down later.
4. No Safety Help
The galling thing about this play is if Michigan's safeties can get Pacheko down anywhere before the endzone, Michigan has a great chance to prevent points. Rutgers got 3.3 yards per play when you pull out this one. The hugeness of the gap is one reason the safeties weren't able to assist. A bigger bounce because Gil's doing his job and Hawkins probably gets there. A better edge by Winovich and Pacheko is delayed and Hawkins probably gets there. Not getting caught down in the opposite slot on zipper motion and Hawkins is deep and reading the play and probably gets there.
And if Hawkins isn't slow and taking a bad angle he should get there. This is chase scene is concerning:
First of all Hawkins has to initiate and execute the switch-back much faster. It's the guy over the slot in motion whose responsibility it is to notify his buddy of the exchange. Hawkins doesn't have his arm out until AFTER the handoff.
So that's already bad. He also then cuts off his drop on the hash instead of the middle of the field. That is wrong.
Hawkins then gets the angle wrong. He's already in deep trouble and needs to get on his horse to have a chance of escorting Pacheko to a mitigating place. This angle is aggressive.
Again, Hawkins ought to be thinking conservatively here. If this gets 30 yards, Rutgers still isn't in scoring range and chances are they get no further. He's got some help down there too once Watson is activated against this play. Instead he's trying to make contact at the first down marker. When they get there he's still nowhere close to a tackle attempt and has to change direction. Changing direction takes away speed.
And gets you run by.
That angle was a callback to the bad old Mike Williams/Cam Gordon days. It's the reason Hawkins was so far behind by the time they got to midfield that Pacheko could cut back to the middle of the field, away from Watson and the sideline (credit to Winovich for booking but I'm not counting a DE in the race).
5. What About Kinnel?
There was indeed an opportunity, mostly because Hawkins took so long to call for the switch, for Kinnel to Superman this. It looks like it on film because when Pacheko has the ball and cuts back Kinnel is literally in the lane Pacheko is going to take.
I could be wrong here but if Michigan's defense is working how it's supposed to, in the frame above you would have seen Kinnel already further down and ready for Blackshear to come out the backside, and Hawkins would be well into this frame, ideally between the camera and the running back.
Certainly there's a world in which Tyree sees who has the ball and ignores Blackshear. And it's likely that Winovich's movement even convinced Kinnel that Blackshear had the ball. Either way, given how Michigan usually plays defense and how they were defending this play, I believe anything you got from Kinnel would be bonus; his assignment was Blackshear, and that's assignment enough.
Since this was Rutgers there were zero other events that seemed likely to generate a score, and zero interesting things that Michigan was going to put on tape, and so here we are focusing on the one bad play. The biggest thing to take away was that this play was an incredible anomaly and in Chase's case, definitively uncharacteristic. This was by far the best shot Rutgers could take. It was also lucky. It landed. I've got a 20-month-old son and while my wife loves to tell people about the time he put me on the ground, that's not quite indicative of how things will go for at least the next…
…let's say fifteen years.
This play didn't expose anything unsound about Michigan's defense, or demonstrate a weakness that's likely to be relevant the rest of this year. Outside of Piscataway the highlight will get more airtime in fun-facting the awful running days of the Big Ten contenders against Michigan.
The one thing that bothers me is the non-starter. Hawkins—a true sophomore who moved to Rover from Viper this year—was not very sharp on this play, and did not have the athleticism to make up for it. It's fine because Metellus is expected to play next week and Hawkins is a New Jersey product getting a start against a bad team, and the Rutgersness of the opponent excuses a certain lack of focus.
On the other hand we've only seen Hawkins get a few bits of extended playing time, and this on top of the SMU bust and blerping the winning margin to Notre Dame is starting to trigger the bad old safety feels. Michigan does have to replace Kinnel next year, and though they're bringing in their best safety prospect since Tripp Welbourne next year, I'm sensing a sudden spike in looking forward to Daxton Hill's spring game. It's just one bad play, and I'm anxious to see how the UFR unfolds, and at this point writing off Brad Hawkins would be absolutely insane. But you know how we kind of tread gingerly when it comes to Michigan's passing game because Pep Hamilton is already well in the crosshairs of the segment of the fanbase that always wants to be bitching about something? I'm building a defensive defense for Hawkins too.
Also I'm board for James Ross to start at WLB against Ohio State. Chase…don't do that again Chase.
[Disclaimer: No 1-year-olds were left unsupervised during the production of this article.]