Because we can: Overanalysis of 5 telling offensive plays from the MSU game (with pics!)

Submitted by stephenrjking on October 22nd, 2018 at 5:09 AM

It's the bye week. Extra time to get chores done on Saturday. A few moments to step away from the weekly madhouse of college football fandom. An opportunity to reconnect with family.

Or a time to ridiculously over-analyze stuff from last weeks game.

This is Mgoblog; we choose option B.

And there's a lot of good stuff to look at. Sometimes it seems like the offense is so close. And sometimes it seems like it is so far. What can we find if we take a closer look? We've got screencaps, MS paint, and time: Let's do this.

The Leak Concept

Harbaugh's offense sometimes seems to be an offense of parts, stuff picked out of other people's playbooks. A lot of people are excited about Sean McVay's offense in LA, and one of those people appears to be Jim Harbaugh. McVay uses tons of play action, he likes throwing deep, and of course he runs the football. Harbaugh may not have McVay's playcalling system and philosophy, but he knows how to pick up good ideas.

This is one of them. In September Los Angeles scored a touchdown against Minnesota by throwing to Cooper Kupp running a Leak concept (starts at 18 seconds in this video). It's a beautiful play that uses the natural action of a TE blocking on a running play to set up a great matchup on the other side of the field.

Jim Harbaugh ran the leak concept to get that nice downfield pass to Nick Eubanks. It is shortly after the weather delay, late in the first quarter.

Michigan is in its versatile Ace formation. Nick Eubanks is lined up in the H back position on the right side. The call will be a play action pass, with Sean Mckeon in the left side H back position crossing the formation to block, mimicking split zone blocking.

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Eubanks will initially block the DE in front of him, but will then "leak" across the field, hopefully to the surprise of the men who would otherwise be covering him.

The ball is snapped. Michigan's WRs both push vertically while the OL gives a split zone look. Eubanks blocks the DE; the LBs both close on the LOS.

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The guise successful, Eubanks now leaks across the field in the wide open space between the LBs and the DBs. He isn't used, but Higdon also breaks into the empty space in the left flat. Mckeon is now pass blocking; Patterson has plenty of time.

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This is Patterson's primary read. The cornerback is not prepared for Eubanks to turn upfield outside of him, and Patterson finds Eubanks open in the space between the CB and the safety, who has been held deep by the vertical action of the WR.

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This is one of those "good idea" hodgepodge plays to install, but it works well because Michigan uses its tight ends so much in blocking from this type of formation. It fits with the offense. This should emerge again, probably in Columbus where OSU's linebackers appear vulnerable through the air. 

Fly Sweep Doom

Speaking of Sean McVay, Michigan really works hard to use fly sweeps this year. They are a good idea-an important constraint that has the capability of gaining big yards when the defense isn't ready. 

But Michigan often runs them poorly, and the defense is usually ready. 

This play is from Michigan's second-quarter package of disappointment. Michigan runs a Ronnie Bell sweep on second down, just after Shea has scrambled for a nice four or five yards to achieve a manageable second down. 

Bell starts wide left, motions to the right of the formation, pivots, and then motions back for the sweep. MSU is in clear zone coverage, close to the LOS. There's barely a step taken by anybody during Bell's entire motion.

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As Bell motions back across the formation, the play is doomed from the start. MSU has five guys on the strong side of the formation within five yards of the LOS. Even with the MLB initially shading to the run action, they outnumber Michigan. There is no wide receiver to offer any kind of interference to the CB on contain.

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As it happens, the DE penetrates and blows up the play. But this play has no chance even if he is pushed back; Michigan's TE faces two Spartan defenders that are closing hard. He can block one of them. The other will tackle Bell for a loss or no gain. 

This is one of the key plays that blew up Michigan's scoring opportunities in the second when there was a chance to put the game away early. I want them to use the jet sweeps, as they do a good job opening up running lanes for the RBs and they get the ball into the hands of some athletic receivers. 

But they can't run these plays if they are going to be dead the moment the ball is snapped. Do it, but do it better.

Pulling the Ball on the Pin And Pull

One of the frustrations with the Al Borges era is that even apparently creative playcalls seemed to blow up due to poor blocking. The feeling of seeing Denard Robinson or Devin Gardner line up under center in the I formation to run a play everyone knows is going to be a play action pass that the defense is ready for is, no doubt, an integral ingredient of the bleak tar inhabiting the bottom of the Black Pit Of Negative Expectations. 

But when the line is blocking plays well, the constraints to those plays open up like a flower on a sunny day. 

On Michigan's clinching drive, the running game was working well. Michigan's favorite running play against Michigan State was a pin-and-pull zone play, usually to the left, from the shotgun. Michigan's linemen were effective stepping outside and opening creases through which Karan Higdon could cut upfield. 

As a result, MSU had to commit heavily to stop the play.

Michigan is in the red zone. The coaches want blood. The call looks like a pin-and-pull zone to the right. 

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Higdon will press toward the sideline, and then cut upfield. MSU defends this with seven players, but they are aggressive; the weak side linebacker must charge to the hole to prevent Higdon from getting upfield past him and gaining chunk yards. Michigan will try to get a blocker on him; on the backside, Runyan leaves the defensive end unblocked to head toward the WLB. As he has on every other pin-and-pull zone, Shea Patterson stares straight at the EMLOS, the only defender not charging for the space Higdon will be running through.

However, Higdon will not receive the ball. 

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Patterson pulls the ball on a true zone read. You can see that the blocking is, once again, working effectively--two Michigan players have walled off the outside, while JBB has the inside sealed off. Higdon would have space to cut upfield and take on the WLB... but instead, Shea Patterson is running at full speed the other way. The EMLOS did shuffle, but Michigan's frequent and effective repetition of this play caused him to step the wrong way. He's in trouble. And the WLB is completely out of the play; in fact, he's still trying to track Higdon in this picture.

Patterson takes all this space, turns on the jets, and Michigan winds up with a first and goal inside the ten. It's the success of the conventional plays that make this work; by the time Michigan is here in the fourth quarter they are fully attuned to it. The zone read pull gets Michigan free yards.

Throw the Ball, Shea

Shea Patterson is playing really well. He is, by some distance, the best QB Harbaugh has put on the field at Michigan.

But he's still a bit tentative. Maybe the coaches accept this, since it cuts down on potentially serious mistakes. After all, MSU's only chance to score came as the result of a serious mistake.

But it's still frustrating. Sometimes Shea just needs to pull the trigger.

We're looking at a 3rd and 8 in the third quarter with the game tied at 7. 

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Michigan needs 8 yards, so the receivers need to get downfield. In this case, both DPJ on the right and Nico on the left are going to go vertical. Nico shades inside, perhaps allowing him to fade outside, but that isn't clear from the video. Both are going full speed; both have single coverage. MSU is showing two high safeties, but the strongside safety will quickly convert (smarter people can help with the specific coverage concept here) to man coverage on Gentry when he spills out into the flat. Mckeon on the LOS will angle to the middle of the field and then break to the flag; he is also in man coverage. 

There is one free safety on the screen here; he will shuffle to the middle of the field and off screen. Shea is looking at Nico Collins as the ball is snapped.

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In this shot, we see the strongside safety charging at Gentry in the flat. We also see DPJ, Nico, and Mckeon all with a step on their man; the CBs on Nico and DPJ are cleanly beaten. And we see six MSU players at the LOS, all currently blocked. The only man we don't see is the FS, who is back there somewhere. 

Shea waits, and waits, and waits. He will shuffle two yards further back, waiting. Then the pressure will come and he will throw the ball away in the general direction of Gentry, a place he had not been looking.

I'm not an expert here, but that FS can only cover so much ground. DPJ and Nico and Mckeon all had a step. At least one of them was open.

In my humble opinion: Throw the ball. 

Putting the Boot to the Throat. Or putting the nose on skates.

This is what Seth said about Raekwan Williams in Fee Fi Foe Film:

The tackles are both excellent. Raekwan Williams was the lone bright spot of 2016 and has now reached most of his ceiling as an unblockable freak messing up everything you want to do in the middle. He doesn't get a lot of penetration, and he's not an immobile planet. He's perfect for zone defense because he just won't leave his gap and won't let you have any space in your next one. If you double him now you've got two mostly useless guys sliding across the formation.


This is the second play after the Shea zone read. It is early in the fourth quarter and Michigan has a tenuous seven point lead. It is second and goal from the five.

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wassup guys

Here is Raekwan Williams, helpfully highlighted for your edification. He will be the assignment of C Cesar Ruiz and RG Michael Onwenu. Michigan is lined up in a heavy formation with Ben Mason in the backfield against the nation's #1 rushing defense.

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The ball is snapped. Ruiz and Onwenu engage.

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There goes Ben Mason. And there goes Raekwon Williams.

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Still going

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you guys are mean

And gone. That's five yards of public humiliation dumped by our interior upon a quality B1G defensive tackle. 


The staff called some plays that were terrific, at terrific moments. And they called a couple of clunkers.

No play calls do much if the QB won't throw the ball to open receivers; on the other hand, a lot of play calls look good if the offensive line is crushing the opposition. 

The staff is capable of being quite creative. The leak concept is a great play; several other route combos were also inspired. Theoretically, the ceiling of an offense that is capable of adopting these kinds of concepts and exploiting defense should be capable of real excellence.

And yet. Some of the offense’s sluggishness just appears to be Shea being trigger-shy. The most obvious play, not clipped here, was the rollout in the second quarter where DPJ was clearly open for a TD.

But it’s worth asking if Harbaugh’s preference to install creative concepts overloads the passing game and weighs things down. Sometimes it feels like it’s just an offense of parts, and not-so-great parts when another jet sweep gets snuffed out.

But there is room for optimism. There are times when it does feel like the offense is close to getting it together. When the OL is working, and ours is (!!!), the world opens up. Receivers get single covered on the outside on first down. A well-timed pull on a zone read results in acres of open grass. Two guys with sophomore eligibility plow a quality B1G DT five yards off of the line of scrimmage.

It’s possible that the offense turns a corner behind Shea. Gets the concepts. Puts the whole together.

Maybe. I hope so. The ceiling is high for this team. The offense will determine whether this team is good enough to contend for a B1G title…

Or for a national title.



October 22nd, 2018 at 5:31 AM ^

Great work. Idk about anyone else.... but I think Patterson should stay one more year. I don’t think he is quite NFL ready and will be drafted even higher if he stays. With that said, I am not holding my breath and just trying to enjoy the ride with a great talent learning to fly. 


October 22nd, 2018 at 4:35 PM ^

I thought Shea was a sure departure before the season started.

He's playing well. It's a weak QB class. But it's also a lower-demand position this season; there aren't that many teams that need a QB.

But if there are enough, he should go. QBs with any kind of franchise potential get drafted. Christian Ponder was a top 15 player, for example. If there are enough teams on the market that he can get picked up in the first or second round, it's not a bad idea to go. Next year's QB class will be a lot harder to get noticed in.

But, as you say, defense loses a lot more. If we have to plug in McCaffrey, I think a lot of us believe that will be ok with the rest of the offense. 

I think Bush and Gary are both for-sure gone. Obviously the first category (add Watson) is understood. I think your "potential to leave" category, however, gets it wrong: Almost no chance that Metellus goes, and a very small chance that Hudson does. 

More likely are the CBs. Both Hill and Long are eligible to be drafted and both are very good. I would be surprised if we DIDN'T lose at least one of them, and losing both is a real possibility. I thought it was a sure thing before the season; the hiccups early in the year might persuade one to stick around. With Watson out of eligibility, keeping one of those guys to pair with Ambry next year would be huge. 

The part of the team I was most worried about next year was DL. Winovich, Mone, and Gary will all be gone. But the injuries this year, while difficult, have allowed young guys to step up. Paye and Uche have both shown a lot this year and will be weaponized next season. Kemp looks good. Solomon, if healthy, will be solid. Given how the DL has struggled more than expected this year, I think the dropoff will be minimal. Which is great news.

In short: The defense should be pretty good next year. Probably a step back, but a smaller one than I would have thought at the beginning of the year. Given the development of the offense, we're in good shape--it should be better at the same points as this year's. That's a powerful formula. 


October 22nd, 2018 at 7:40 PM ^

BWat is gone and 1 or 2 of Long/Hill likely. That's my biggest worry. I'm not sure Metellus will be leaving next year even though he's an all-B1G caliber S this year.

EDIT: if the back end loses 2/3 of the top-3 CBs and the DL doesn't take a step forward, the defense could take a bigger step back than we'd like. The D will lose it's top-3 players and 5/6 of the top-7/8. Brown is the best in the business and he'll have a challenge in front of him.


October 22nd, 2018 at 6:57 AM ^

Great stuff.

"But he's still a bit tentative. Maybe the coaches accept this, since it cuts down on potentially serious mistakes."

Think that could well be the case. The season has set up nicely for Shane to grow into this offense. 


October 22nd, 2018 at 7:40 AM ^

Another quality diary.  Hope you are able to keep these coming!

On the passing play, at first glance I thought M appears to be running Three Verticals, which is a Cover 2 beater.  The read is on the weakside safety (the one to Collins' side), which dictates the progression.  If he stays on the weak side, then the progression is DPJ-McKeon-Collins.  But if he rotates to the middle of the field, then the progression is flipped: Nico-McKeon-DPJ.  He's off the screen but since the other safety came up on Gentry I am guessing the FS rotated to the middle.  So that means Patterson should have read Nico-McKeon-DPJ.  But then I noticed that all three of the deep receivers are inside the numbers and the CBs have outside leverage.  If they are running fades and the free safety is playing over the top, then obviously Patterson can't throw the ball.  

So, one possibility is that it's not three verticals; I don't know what the receivers did after this screenshot but as the receivers are only five yards downfield they could still just be stemming their routes.  But look at Collins pre-snap and then at the five-yard split.  He starts down at the bottom of the "3rd & 8" graphic, and then he winds up in the middle of the "B" on Sparty's field.

I think the corner successfully re-routed Collins to the inside.  He's the first read, and he's too far inside so that if Shea throws to Nico, the safety can get over.  Then Shea comes off Nico to McKeon, and then over to DPJ.  If the safety is reading his eyes, he probably shuts all three routes down.  Notice DPJ seems to have drifted a little further inside on his route as well, though not as much as Nico.



October 22nd, 2018 at 12:37 PM ^

This is where our ability to evaluate play selection and execution really breaks down. I was pretty deliberate about not naming stuff that I couldn't confirm was the case; the fact is, I don't have a camera angle to tell me what was happening downfield. Occasionally the network does us a solid and shows wide angle and even all-22 footage that we can use to understand a play. Here, we don't know exactly where the FS is and we don't know if Collins and DPJ continued their routes downfield.

My assertion is that there was a throw available to one of them. DPJ and Collins had their guys beat, albeit with outside leverage. But they were a step ahead. I think a throw is there. And an armpunt throw on 3rd and 8 isn't the highest risk play, anyway. 

But I'm just a guy. YMMV.


October 22nd, 2018 at 8:01 AM ^

Thanks for this!  I check into MGB at least 10-12 times/day but rarely post.  Felt compelled to do so here though to say thanks.  By no means am I any kind of expert, but loved the analysis and have felt similar feelings about Shea's reluctance to pull the trigger at times.  You mentioned the obvious to DPJ and there were others.  That said, I see the offense opening up little by little every game.  Feels like it could be Harbaugh getting incrementally more comfortable with Shea each game and/or a build-up to a more open offense for the osu game.  Either way, we have games coming in which we can't leave as many points on the field as it felt we did in the first half.  Btw, that leads me to asking what's up with Nordin?  Thanks again.


October 22nd, 2018 at 8:29 AM ^

I agree on the end around generally not being a good call against MSU - they're always in zone so you're not really moving anyone with the motion.  What has worked the past 2 years against MSU (or worked better anyways) is that the end around needs some kind of reverse action because the MSU LB/S players crash the run so hard.  Think the big McDoom play from 2016.  If the same play from yesterday was run but without motion and Shea takes a few steps to his left before handing off or shovel passing to Bell there might have been a chance - probably should have started this from the field side to the boundary side as well instead of vice versa.


October 22nd, 2018 at 9:27 AM ^

Great stuff!

I think the "problem" with Patterson throwing the ball deep is he seems to be purposely playing carefully especially if the team looks in good shape otherwise.  Like fans, I'm sure he (and the coaches) can see that teams like Wisconsin and MSU aren't going to be able to move the ball against the defense with any regularity, and the offense typically can move down field running the ball.  So while in a shootout he probably would launch down field, in a game where the other team isn't going to crack 100 yards there is some sanity in not giving them free yards on turnovers.  Because I saw enough of Patterson at Ole Miss to know he can and will throw down field if asked.

M_Born M_Believer

October 22nd, 2018 at 9:53 AM ^

Another HUGE missed opportunity was on the very first drive. On 3rd and 3 had Shea pulled the ball he had a escorted walk in for the TD. McKeon reads the DE correctly as he crashed down and the safety was flying up to the LOS. There was literally no one on that half of the field for McKeon yo block. He could have eacorted Shea all the way to the end zone. That would have been a huge punch to the gut of Sparty in the opening drive. 

But this is good cause that play will still be there as we are getting better at running the ball. Undisciplined Defenses (Hello OSU) will give up huge chunk plays on that play alone. 

Contineous improvement. That’s the focus right now. 


October 22nd, 2018 at 10:32 AM ^

I feel like Michigan runs a ton of plays just to set something up either for later in the game or even later in the season.  "Clunkers" as you call them even have their purpose as you see how a defense is reacting to what your doing.  Reaction A:  bag it  Reaction B:  maybe test again later  Reaction C:  highlight and exploit



Maximum Effort

October 22nd, 2018 at 12:22 PM ^

I agree.  It seems like this is Harbaugh's MO with the read option up until Wisc when we started to break tendencies for big gains (which explains the hard-headedness of sticking to the same play for a gain of 1 yard into a stacked box against SMU or something.) 

What do you think the chances are of the next evolution of the crappy jet sweep usage being saved up for the next big game moment?

Watching From Afar

October 22nd, 2018 at 11:14 AM ^

Bell and/or Martin are run tips for defenses. Bell in motion is a jet sweep tip. If they don't do the jet sweep with Bell in motion, it's either a Higdon run up the gut or a double PA that really hasn't done a lot.

I don't have the numbers on me, but the second I saw Bell in motion I started looking to see where he was going to have a shot on a jet sweep (which was nowhere) because it's almost a foregone conclusion that the play is coming. I'd like to see Shea have the ability to audible out of that if they line up and see a numbers disadvantage or zone coverage (though the latter is hard because you'd have to abort mid-presnap motion).

Much like the McDoom and Peppers stuff from the last 2 years, that stuff is getting too obvious now and the PA off of it isn't really getting guys wide open. The orbit motion stuff from McDoom 2 years ago was a good option out of this stuff that screwed with defenses. Also, Martin and Bell have both proven to be capable at catching passes. If they're going to continue being sent out on running plays more often than not, an actual passing play off of it could be useful. Or DPJ running a jet sweep again since that hasn't been seen a lot this year.


October 22nd, 2018 at 1:24 PM ^

Did anybody else notice that when we run the jet sweep, often we tip it because both WR are on the LOS? I thought I saw it on one of the Bell runs this game (though not the one charted) and also back in the Maryland game, I think. I thought it would be commented on in either the UFR or one of these picture pages, but I haven't noticed it. Am I crazy or did someone else notice the same thing?

Communist Football

October 22nd, 2018 at 1:47 PM ^

There are basically two problems with the Michigan offense right now:

1. Quinn Nordin

2. Shea's inconsistency in seeing the open receivers in the passing game

If we can get those two things fixed, we could win it all.


October 22nd, 2018 at 4:45 PM ^


With the ceiling lifted, we have two, almost parallel things to deal with.

The team as it is now, improving, playing great defense, OL growing, is capable of winning the B1G and gaining a playoff berth.

However, winning the national title means competing with Alabama. For that monumental task, Michigan needs the offense to go to plaid. This might be our best season in 20 years, but Alabama at this moment looks like the best team in college football since 1995 Nebraska.* So there's work to be done.

We don't need to get over our skis yet. Win the conference first, let the playoff chips fall where they may, then spend a couple of weeks dealing with the postseason. There will be time. 

*Were we to play this Alabama team, we probably lose conclusively. It's not the end of the world if it happens, especially if we look more competitive than previous B1G playoff losers. But then, nothing is for sure; the last team to draw serious talk of being the best cfb team since 1995 Nebraska was 2005 USC. Remember what happened to them?


October 22nd, 2018 at 5:23 PM ^

On the 3rd Q 3rd & 8, I was bummed Shea didn't at least throw it to wide open Gentry. 

Yeah, he wouldn't have caught it at the 1st down mark, but he'd nee to get about 3 yards out of a hard charging safety, with enough open field and good positioning to juke in either direction to eke out another 3 yards.

Even if it's not the best option, there was nothing to lose by making that throw.


October 22nd, 2018 at 10:49 PM ^

Great analysis of 5 critical plays.  For the most part, Shea has looked great this year.  Oh, and I love to see those pics of the O line getting a great push.  Who thought we'd see that this year?  Hail Warinner!

I see Shea maturing each week.  He looks a little tentative, but I also think that's Harbaugh learning from last year.  We win last year if we don't literally hand them the game with 5 turnovers.  So, this year, the game plan is that it's better to be a little tentative and make them beat us... and we all know how that went.  Hail Harbaugh!

And lest I should forget.  Always Hail Don Brown!