Substitution/Formation Notes: With regard to substitutions, the big one is Ambry Thomas taking over as the primary kick returner. We saw this in the second half against Purdue and, after this game and Chris Partridge’s comments this week, it seems like it’s going to hold for the foreseeable future.
MSU did some interesting things in response to the punt return team’s ability to bring pressure; it warrants further discussion after the charts.
[After THE JUMP: the ball itself is a focal point of the yardage-tracking charts, which will surprise exactly zero of you who sat outside for this game]
Added a column here in response to what Purdue’s special teams coach said about James Foug after playing Michigan. Now you can see where the coverage team was when a kick returner received the ball. It only happened once in this game, but you have to like the odds of stopping a guy short of where a touchback would have put them when the coverage team is already a yard beyond that upon reception.
|Hits the back left corner, about a yard away from going out of the end zone.|
|The Foug Play works again. Coverage team is just barely inside the 25 when Welch secures the ball but inside all the same. Welch tries to take the ball laterally and work up the far sideline; Thomas and St. Juste get off their blocks and string this out to the sideline with Mason in backside pursuit after vaulting a guy to get in on the play. State holds, and this backs them up to their own seven-yard line.|
|Less hangtime than usual but Foug hits it so hard it carries the returner backward from the edge to the middle of the end zone. At this point Welch can either make a really bad choice and carry it out or kneel. He looked to return first but settled for the touchback.|
|Booted to the middle of the end zone. Thomas kneels at the edge of the interior of the "C" in "Michigan" as he should.|
|Thomas fields the kick in the end zone and decides to carry it out. Really wonky camera angle makes it hard to tell but it looks like he's assuming Hawkins is going to block the guy in front of him, which would allow Thomas to cut off of him. Hawkins whiffs badly (-3yds) and the run is immediately blown up.|
|Thomas fields this at the 5 and has until around the 15 to survey things. Poggi takes a sideways angle and misses his block, but Thomas (+16yds) is able to high-step his way out of the tackle and take the ball up the sideline. If Poggi connects, there's a lane up the middle that Thomas could take. Whether he outruns the two highest State defenders in the area is questionable, but if he does this picks up even more yardage; Partridge said they thought they had one KOR that could have been taken all the way back, and it has to be this one.|
|Bush tears through the middle and almost blocks it. They don't use a three-man shield either; attacking the long snapper works, as he misses a block on Glasgow, which forces the lone man back to step right to ward him off. This gives Bush free access to the punter. It looks like Hartbarger twists to avoid Bush, which results in a short punt. DPJ calls the clear-out because there's no other option. He's 13 yards away from where it lands and there are two gunners bearing down, erasing the option of fielding it off the bounce.|
|DPJ calls the clear-out, and this hits with backspin. Michigan picks up four yards because of it (Ball +4yds).|
|State's dropping a guy two or three yards further back off the line now. DPJ calls the clear-out. Ball (+4yds) appears to be attempting to make amends for the roll on that first punt.|
|State now has one guy dropping four yards off the line of scrimmage on the right edge and two protectors in the middle six yards behind the line. Michigan shows an overload to the left with Bush and Wangler rushing to the line to fill two gaps. This causes a false start. Michigan brings the same pressure to the left side on the subsequent snap and gets Wangler through. Excellent job getting pressure on the punter, and Hartbarger again short-legs this one.|
|The thing about this is what are you supposed to do when the ball goes sideways? Bounces at the 45 and fielded by Peoples at the 38, he goes forward a yard before going back two. It's the right call to field it lest you lose a ton of yards off the bounce; it does seem that he had an unusually difficult time changing directions after he planted and looked to his left.|
|DPJ fields this on the run. He has room to work to his right but Metellus overruns his block around the 37. DPJ gets hit low by that man and is taken down by another coming over the top. Not docking Metellus any yards here because I think the guy who tackled high would have gotten DPJ regardless.|
|Michigan's in a safe punt here, but man is it safe. There's little chance State could fake and pick up the two yards they needed, but there are also six white jerseys in front of DPJ as he fields the punt. He puts a foot in the ground and pushes toward the sideline. Wrapped up immediately, so the negative yardage on the return seems a bit unfair.|
|Does his job, I suppose|
|Wet ball works to Michigan's advantage for the first (and only) time this game. Almost downed at the one, but slides into the end zone. I'm fairly surprised that Peoples-Jones didn't try to come up and field this but guessing he wasn't comfortable with the trajectory and decided clearing guys out was the safest bet.|
|Hartbarger practically has to levitate to get the snap, then he's got pressure coming from both sides. He's lucky to get the ball away at all, and when he does he pulls it all the way across his body to the left sideline. It's a low punt but all told about as good as it gets considering the circumstances.|
|Both teams have their personnel bunched tight at the line. Michigan brings everyone and State does a nice job blocking that. There's no pressure on Hartbarger, and he saves his best for last.|
|Right Hash||1||1:25||Robbins||45||M10||O45||Dwnd (Ball -12)||O33||n/a|
|A bit short but the ball (+12yds) takes a Michigan-friendly bounce.|
|Robbins bombs this one and manages to keep it tight to the sideline without going out. Nelson touches it, but the ball bounces out of bounds before anything can be done with the suddenly live ball.|
|Robbins gets the requisite hangtime for a fair catch. Ball actually knocks the returner back a little upon reception. Thomas is literally right in face, so no choice but to FC.|
|Oh good lord what a punt. Announcers say it was wind-aided and that may be the case, but it's still a sight to behold. The tackling that follows less so. Ball carries fairly significantly to the right and Nelson has to catch on the move. Thomas dives and misses, then Wangler (-4yds) takes a step too far to the sideline and gets himself out of position to make the tackle. Watson misses as well, then McCray finally drags Nelson down.|
|Nelson sets, calls for the fair catch, realizes the punt's about to get way behind him, reaches out to snag it for some reason, and sees the ball go off his fingertips. Naturally the ball then bounces up and into his stomach at the 5, at which point Ambry Thomas shoves him. Impressive for Thomas to get off his blocker on the outside and closes fast enough to shove Nelson to the turf, and worth noting that Wangler and Glasgow were right behind in case he was unable to do so.|
|Middle||4||7:49||Robbins||38||M25||O37||Dwnd (Ball -14)||O23||n/a|
|Robbins gets good hangtime relative to the distance this travels, but the distance is not far at all. Nelson sees that this is dropping short and doesn't hesitate to call for the clear out. It ends up taking a big Michigan bounce (Ball +14yds).|
|Middle||4||4:05||Robbins||41||M28||O31||Dwnd (Ball -4)||O27||n/a|
|Another short one that takes an advantageous Michigan bounce. State was getting absolutely no pressure on Robbins and, unlike the last punt, this wasn't a high snap. The ball starts to bounce backwards and Watson does well to get a hand on it and stop it from losing the few yards of field position Michigan gained off the hop.|
The ball had a rollercoaster of game but I’d like to applaud it on its clear understanding of and rapid action toward regressing to the mean.
I’m sorry, what?
Send in THE CHARTS!
Okay, copy-pasting away. I was conservative when estimating Bush and Wangler’s impact on the near blocks… I think. I felt like they needed to be credited with yards since Hartbarger twisted to avoid them and that seemed to alter the trajectory, but it’s impossible to know how much.
|The ball||3||8||22||-14||-14 (1gm)|
|The ball||30||30||30 (1gm)|
The ball giveth and the ball taketh away.
Indeed. I don’t know that regression to the mean occurs across two different units but I get what you’re saying. Good night for bounces if you’re the defense, not so great for the offense. Now that we’re tracking the yardage gained or lost by bounces, we’ll be able to see if there’s actually regression to the mean within the individual units.
Why does the ball do nothing to help? WHO IS PAYING THE BALL? You really think it’s just coincidence that those things are carried in a bag?
I understand the general frustration with lack of turnover luck, but that didn’t really hold on special teams. Yes, the one live ball that was up for grabs bounced right back to the returner, but Thomas did a nice job to close and shove him down at the two-yard line. Making State’s offense go 98 yards against Michigan’s defense is quite likely to end with Michigan getting the ball back.
Proximity to the end zone, though.
Three people just started spontaneously crying.
This is incredibly awkward please change the topic seriously now change it—
Let’s talk about Ol’ Doom Squirrel and punt blocks.
One of the things Brian noted before the game was that there was a good chance MSU punter Jake Hartbarger was going to leave Michigan’s offense with a lot of long fields to work with.
Turns out it didn’t matter!
Not the post for that. Turns out, in fact, that he didn’t leave Michigan with a number of long fields thanks to the punt return team’s ability to bring pressure. State started out in a typical NFL-style punt formation with one personal protector back.
Doesn’t work well when Ol’ Doom Squirrel gets loose. Bush and Glasgow both attack the long snapper. Glasgow gets past him, which draws the attention of the protector and leaves a massive lane up the middle for Bush to rush the punter. Hartbarger, to his credit, manages to get the punt off.
Even so, MSU’s special teams coaches had seen enough and adjusted quickly. One punt later, this is how they were lining up.
They dropped the slot back a couple yards and added another personal protector. Michigan showed that they were going to overload the left, State false-started, Michigan again showed an overload, and then they did this:
Michigan’s done a good job of mixing picking their spots this season. It appears that they’ve primarily been in their safe punt this year (and not only when it’s 4th and short), but they showed some creativity in this game; they started off bringing pressure, then overloaded one side and actually brought pressure from there, then started to double the gunners, then back to safe.
But what about the actual returner?
Peoples-Jones was pretty good again this week. The yardage number isn’t eye-popping, but he had limited opportunities thanks to a combination of the pressure applied by the coverage team, punts that may have been directional kicks but also might have been longish shanks, and some whiffed blocks.
This is his night in a nutshell: anything that was going to be caught was going to be caught moving on an angle or a hop, and at that point you’re as likely to be at the mercy of momentum as you are to break one. There was one short punt I thought he might have been able to charge and receive, but it falls in enough of a gray area that I didn’t dock him any yardage for that.
What about the other other returner?
Thomas is getting his feet wet and might be starting to come into his own.
Thomas’s first return of the night was an ill-advised decision to take the ball out of the end zone. The negative yardage on Hawkins’s chart comes from this play; Thomas still would have a hard time getting to the 25 even if Hawkins blocks his man.
Thomas then showed why he’s the new kickoff returner on the next play.
That’s the first time this season that I can recall a KOR eluding a tackler and it’s the difference between starting at the 16 and starting at the 34. Working with a low sample size here, but I don’t really know how he avoided that hit and that’s exactly what Michigan needed from that spot. Decision-making is obviously something that will need to continue to improve, but if you’re going to put up with growing pains you might as well be putting up with them for someone with a high ceiling.
Thomas also had a good night as a gunner, as he shows in the clip below. He’s fast, he changes directions well, and he’s aggressive. You could easily see competitiveness and speed from him in high school, so he seems like a natural fit as a gunner.
What does it mean for Indiana and beyond?
Keep an eye on Thomas. He had two bad decisions in a row dating back to the Purdue game, then he broke Michigan’s one good kick return of the season off. High variance, low sample size, high ceiling: all point to “ask again later.”
Like Thomas, Robbins was up and down. Young players are young.
Michigan was able to create pressure when necessary on punt return. This could come into play should Indiana find themselves in fourth and long, and it’s born out of the preternatural speed of guys like Bush and Glasgow and Hurst—and a willingness to throw guys like that on special teams.
Wild thing/your name has a familiar ring/did you used to kick here? Nordin hasn’t had many opportunities since setting the world on fire early in the season. The few kicks he has had the last few weeks have all been dead on, though. Could come into play heavily considering Indiana’s defensive competence and Michigan’s offensive… you know, stuff and things.
Foug: still deadly. This isn’t an Indiana-specific thing so much as an every week thing.