Like it or hate it, Jim Harbaugh likes to spend the season gradually developing certain concepts to spring surprises on key opponents. This year we have seen Michigan stubbornly continue to run the football from the shotgun and the pistol, frequently using zone blocking. Michigan has periodically used zone read option plays with Shea Patterson; the occasional keep that is wiped out by terrible holding calls aside, Shea has handed off a frustrating amount of the time on these plays.
All of this work paid off in a huge way tonight, most prominently on the second drive of the game. Shea Patterson kept on a zone read option play and ran for 81 yards, setting up Michigan's first touchdown.
The play was beautiful. And it's a Harbaugh classic: The zone read bluff arc, part of his pistol package that he used to great effect with the 49ers and QB Colin Kaepernick.
The key component is the backside FB or TE running across the formation to make a block. He isn't blocking the EMLOS, though; that man is optioned by the QB/RB mesh. Instead, the blocker arcs around this man and blocks the contain man, often a scraping LB or a containing DB. (Here are a couple of old articles about the concept and related stuff for those interested.
Michigan has shown this before; I know of at least one play against Northwestern where Shea handed off with an arc block being executed in front of him. And, importantly, I believe that Michigan has been sending blockers across the formation to block the EMLOS straight up. These plays have frustrated Brian in UFRs because the QB appears to be making a read, but there is no unblocked man to read.
It all set the table for big plays in tonight's game, none bigger than the huge Patterson run in the first quarter.
It is Michigan's second drive of the game, first and ten from the 14 yard line. Michigan is lined up in the pistol formation with 2 tight ends and two receivers split wide right. Chris Evans is in the backfield. Wisconsin is in a base 3-4 with one high safety off screen.
Michigan is going to run a read option play with down blocking from the playside OL and the weakside TE (others may have input here--it's possible that Bredeson is trying to get out to an LB and gets clogged at the LOS, a characteristic of the zone blocking I would normally expect from this kind of play, but the net effect is that the playside DL is blown out by two double teams). Interestingly, the RG and RT will drop into pass blocking stances as the wide receivers run a quick bubble screen action on the right side, a look characteristic of RPOs.
The key play will be executed by Sean Mckeon, lined up in the H-Back position on the right side. At the snap he will run to the left to block for the run action.
You can see in the image very professional diagrams of Wisconsin's defensive reaction to the zone read. The OLB will crash and attempt to tackle the RB. The WLB #43 will scrape outside to cover an upfield QB run; the DB lined up on the outside of the formation is responsible for contain.
At the snap, the OL is caving the Wisconsin DL. The EMLOS is already in the backfield, and Shea is looking right at him. Sean Mckeon approaches like a silent freight train.
The OLB instinctively looks to duck past Mckeon and make a play on Evans, who is his responsibility. Meanwhile, behind him the WLB is scraping down to play the QB run and the contain DB is charging in to play contain.
But Mckeon is not blocking the OLB. He is arcing around to block the player filling the OLB's spot. In this case, the WLB is playing tight to the line, to ensure that the QB cannot run upfield inside of him; the DB is responsible for contain, and he is not expecting to see several hundred pounds of fast-moving beef charging in his direction.
Shea reads the crashing OLB, keeps the ball, and begins to run outside.
By the time Shea has accelerated outside of the tackle box, Wisconsin is in deep trouble.
Mckeon's arc block has walled off the contain man. Shea turns the corner and sees nothing but green plastic grass in front of him. Next stop: first and goal.
- This is now a regular part of Michigan's offense. Other teams have to prepare for it, and Michigan can still run it for good yardage.
- Those adjustments are ok. After Harbaugh eviscerated Green Bay in the playoffs with the zone read, he went to Atlanta with everyone buzzing about Kaepernick. The result? Kaep ran twice for 21 yards. But they ran Frank Gore down the Falcons' throat and won the game. Michigan will have stuff to exploit as teams adjust.
- The OL is executing so much better than it was last year. This wasn't super-complicated, but they caved the Wisconsin line to create space for this.
- It can be frustrating to wait for the offense to develop stuff, but Harbaugh has stuff in his toolbox and he can use it effectively.
- Michigan is really committed to so-called "college style" concepts like this.
This was a satisfying game for many reasons. One of the reasons was seeing concepts Michigan has been preparing for half a season come to fruition in brilliant fashion.
On to MSU.