[Ed: commenter wile_e8 makes a great suggestion: check out the earlier ND Check Yo' Self Picture Page for everything Michigan wasn't doing against MSU.]
One of the main issues with Michigan's offense was an inability to adjust to Michigan State's constant double-A-gap blitzing. BWS has an example where it ate up a Smith run; this post has two more focused on the precise timing MSU used to shoot into the backfield untouched on multiple plays.
Two plays in this one. The first is actually a 25-yard run on Michigan's first drive on which Vincent Smith breaks a tackle when the WLB gets too far upfield. It would be a disturbing omen.
It's second and one; Michigan is in a three-wide shotgun set and MSU in the 4-3 they'd run all day. Don't bother screaming that the bubble is open.
All right, so Molk starts to put his head down; when it comes back up he snaps immediately.
Molk's head starts down…
And by the time it's completely down Allen is nearing the LOS.
Bullough is next; the blitz seems like it is designed to have Allen pick off Molk while Bullough gets a free run:
But Molk snaps the thing so quickly that he doesn't even get his head up before the play. Instead of blocking Allen he goes to double the playside DT. He does not see the blitz at all:
Allen is through untouched.
Schofield actually does a nice job to adjust and kick out Bullough, giving Smith a crease when he breaks the tackle.
So that's a problem. Michigan endures another half-dozen of these throughout the game, gets the ball back down seven with under five minutes left, and comes out empty.
Molk head down, Molk head up…
…instant snap with two LBs running straight up the middle of the field. This time Molk does block Allen; Schofield does not slide over to get Bullough, which would put someone else through but someone else not running up the middle at the snap.
Denard throws a slant; Smith runs a hitch. Ballgame.
Video of that:
The timing of the snap is the same, the result different.
So what's going on here?
While some of the timing issues may have been playclock related, neither of these are. Michigan snaps the ball with around ten seconds left on the first play and while there is no playclock listed on the second it was the first play of a drive and I don't remember being upset about getting the play in. This is just… like… voluntary.
Once or twice Michigan did go to longer counts and got the opponent to jump, but one of those was a hard count from under center. The fact that they could get the jumps meant MSU was timing the snap; the fact they could continue into the fourth quarter meant Michigan was using the long counts too infrequently. Michigan
- consistently tipped their snap count
- never motioned for the snap to reveal what the defense planned
- didn't even bother to pause after Molk got his head up so he could evaluate the guys coming hell-bent up the middle of the field
- did not check out of plays
- did not execute what looks like a hot read here
This is not a toughness issue. Air cannot block people even if you're the Clint Eastwood State Fightin' John Waynes. It's an inability for Michigan to deal with a simple, grandiosely unsound defense that leaves simple throws in the middle of the field wide open*.
All of this is coaching at some level, but we can separate out getting execution out of your players from strategy. On the interception Michigan had an answer that they did not execute, which can reasonably be chalked up to transition/mindflub/one of those things. Michigan QBs passing up wide open guys on that second quarter drive is execution, not strategy. Those are costs of installing a new system, especially one with a lot of post-snap reads for the WRs, something I don't think Rodriguez ever did. On some level that's understandable.
However, they failed to adjust their strategy to help the offensive line out. MSU is running full speed at the line on the snap; varying the count would make those well-timed blitzes poorly timed, allowing Michigan to slide the protection and letting Denard know what he's in for pre-snap… or forcing MSU out of the play. Michigan State timing these snaps so precisely puts immediate pressure on Robinson, robbing him of a half-second he needs to maybe see Koger on the other side of the field or the actual route Smith is running. It gives Smith more time to read the play and understand his hot route. Even if you want the double LB blitz on the INT because you think you have it beat, waiting that beat lets everyone on the offense know it's there without letting MSU check. At the very least make your standard count long enough for Molk to look at the situation in front of him before he doubles on a guy who's going outside because of a blitz.
I find this incredibly frustrating. This was an inexplicable Rodriguez-era problem canning him was supposed to solve. Instead it got worse. Hoke tried to explain away the snap issues…
Did you notice that they were jumping your snap count? “I think everyone has an idea of snap counts from guns, because there’s a mechanic that every team has. We have a silent count, and we have a double silent count. I don’t think that’s all the way correct.”
…but clearly there is something there that is bloody obvious to the opposition that has destroyed Michigan's offense against MSU on their last two trips to East Lansing. (Michigan moved the ball fairly well in last year's matchup only to be undone by turnovers.) The next time Michigan visits they'll presumably be in more of a MANBALL offense with Gardner better equipped to go under center and a line that probably reads Lewan-Bryant-Miller-Kalis-Magnuson, so we may have seen the last of this.
*[I was just reading that Smart Football post he linked about matching short passes with runs, which would have been perfect here. A-gap blitz? Immediate toss to slot/TE. Still need to block up the middle to get the QB some time.]