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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ball is snapped. Ruiz and Onwenu engage.
There goes Ben Mason. And there goes Raekwon Williams.
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.