Four Plays – Michigan vs. Florida 2017
This series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays (assuming first-sting personnel in a base defensive alignment).
It was January 1, 2012. The football gods had smiled upon the Michigan Wolverines that evening, and somehow they had prevailed in a hard-fought Sugar Bowl against probably the last of Frank Beamer’s great Virginia Tech teams. Michigan had claimed that win even though the Hokies had largely controlled the game that night—but the Wolverines had hung around, capitalized on VT mistakes, and made just enough plays for their
puck pigskin luck to count. So they were Sugar Bowl champions, and it was easy to think that Michigan Football, after five long years of suffering, was truly “back.”
Recruits seemed to believe it. Five weeks after that Sugar Bowl victory, Brady Hoke signed the country’s #6 recruiting class (per 247) class and then, just a few weeks later, accepted verbal commitments from eight top 2013 prospects on a single February weekend. The media seemed to believe it. The preseason AP poll gave the Wolverines a #8 ranking and ABC slotted Michigan’s Jerryworld opener against #2 and defending national champion Alabama for prime time on the season’s inaugural Saturday. Even Vegas seemed to kind of believe it—pegging Michigan as a two TD ‘dog, just on the edge of plausibility.
I wanted to believe it too. So when the inevitable emails from my old A2 crew about tickets and flights and lodging in Dallas started to hit my inbox, I wanted in on that action. Michigan didn’t necessarily have to beat Alabama. Being “back” meant, to me, that Michigan could at least compete against any team in the country. Michigan hadn’t actually beaten Texas in the 2005 Rose Bowl, or Ohio State in Football Armageddon, or USC in the 2006 consolation game. But those kinds of losses—close, thrilling games against tip-top competition--certainly hadn’t been the ones Michigan needed to come “back” from. It was the blowouts, like Dennis Dixon or Mississippi State. It was the humiliating upsets, like Toledo at the Big House or that other one in 2007. It was even the embarrassing victories, like UMass in 2009 or that Illinois game (you know the one).
And I just let those emails sit.
I didn’t want to come out and say it, but deep down inside, I knew Michigan Football wasn’t anywhere near “back” in 2012. Deep inside I knew that team didn’t stand a chance against Saban’s juggernaut, and that if I went to that game, I’d spend at least the fourth quarter anxiously awaiting the clock to run out and then be bummed-out all weekend. So I didn’t really want to go to Dallas. I let those emails sit.
. . .
Michigan opens the 2017 season back in Jerryworld, and this time around there isn’t any question about whether the Wolverines are back. If there is a paper tiger in this year’s matchup, it’s the team on the opposite sideline. The Florida Gators have won two consecutive SEC East titles, but seemingly by default. While the West has risen, the once mighty East has descended into an annual orgy of self-destruction, unrealized hype, and squandered talent. Somehow Florida, despite a long-term affliction with inexorable offensive anemia, has managed to linger atop this miserable heap the past two cycles, only to then have its heart ritually yanked from its chest by Mr. Saban in the league championship games. This year, even the Gators’ mighty defense turns over—with only three starters returning from the #4 defense per S&P+ last season. That unit has been consistently good, and certainly doesn’t need to prove it’s “back.” But the question we’re asking is, are they still there?
Let’s take a look at some matchups.
When Michigan has the ball…
1. 27 Power O
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these and it’s the first game of the season with some new faces on offense, so let’s start out with Harbaugh’s base running play, good ole Power O. For beginners, Power O is a venerable rushing play on which the offense tries to create a rushing lane outside the playside tackle and uses a backside guard as a lead blocker. The hallmarks of Power O are a double-team on the playside DT, a kick-out block, usually from a fullback or H-back type player, on the defensive force player (typically the end-man-on-line-of-scrimmage or “EMLOS”), and (relatively) easy downblocks for the remaining OL. Florida hired defensive coordinator Randy Shannon in the off-season; Shannon has historically been a 4-3 Over guy so I’ll assume that’s essentially what he’ll install at UF, even if he may be doing the viper/star/hybridspaceplayer thing with one of his LBs.
TE Tyrone Wheatley Jr.: Block MLB David Reese
LT Mason Cole: Double-team 3T Taven Bryan with LG Ben Bredeson; when defender sealed, advance to second level
LG Ben Bredeson: Block 3T Taven Bryan
C Patrick Kugler: Block down on NT Khairi Clark
RG Michael Onwenu: Pull through 7-hole outside LT, block first defender to appear (likely SLB Kylan Johnson)
RT Jon Runyan Jr.: Block down on WDE Jabari Zuniga
FB Khalid Hill: Execute kick-out block (i.e, seal to outside) on SDE CeCe Jefferson (the EMLOS)
QB Wilton Speight: Execute handoff to TB Chris Evans
TB Chris Evans: Take counter step (toward backside; allows RG time to execute pull); receive handoff and attack 7-hole outside LT; follow the pulling guard (Onwenu) and cut off his blocks
There are too many new players on the field for both teams to assess this with any real confidence, but Florida is at least starting juniors and RS sophomores with significant playing experience. That gives them the nod with Michigan starting three new OL.
2. Semi (Three Verticals)
Randy Shannon at the University of Florida just screams Cover 2 Man. Like I want to wake up tomorrow morning and it’s 2001 and the letters “YTM” haven’t been thought of yet but would signal something badass and terrifying if they had. Homie ain’t playing no zone.
Zach Gentry scored a long TD in the spring game on a four verticals play in which the defense appeared to have busted. But four verticals is best run against Cover 3, with the four deep routes stressing the three deep defenders. One of Steve Spurrier’s favorite old Cover 2 beaters, which he called “Semi,” uses three vertical receivers—two on deep sideline routes to occupy the deep safeties, while the third receiver attacks the open middle on a deep post. Does an old, 5-step-drop Fun’N’Gun play seem like something that would be appropriate to pull out against Randy Shannon’s Gator defense? Why yes. Yes it does.
Shown here from under center, the QB takes a 5-step drop and reads the high safety. If the high safety drops into a deep half (as expected), then the QB’s progression is outside-in, starting with the Z receiver. If the low safety helps the cornerback bracket the Z, then he won’t be available to pick up the U receiver on the deep post. If the low safety does pick up the U, then the Z has single coverage on the edge. The back will release to the flat as a safety valve. OTOH, if the high safety stays in the middle of the field or rotates to the strong side, then the QB progresses outside-in from the X receiver, who should have single coverage. If the X can’t beat his man, the second read is to the U (who should be cutting underneath the high safety on a dig), and then to the late-releasing Y in the flat.
XWR Kekoa Crawford: Release vertically to 10-12 yard depth vs. CB Chauncey Gardner ; sell post, then break for corner
ZWR Tarik Black: Release vertically to 10-12 yard depth vs. CB Duke Dawson; sell post, then break for corner
UTE Ian Bunting: Release vertically to 10-12 yard depth vs. MLB David Reese while reading deep safeties; if middle of field open, continue on post route; if middle of field closed, cut 90 degrees on dig
LT Mason Cole: Pass block vs. SDE CeCe Jefferson
LG Ben Bredeson: Pass block vs. NT Khairi Clark
C Patrick Kugler: Pass block vs. NT Khairi Clark
RG Michael Onwenu: Pass block vs. 3T Taven Bryan
RT Jon Runyan Jr.: Pass block vs. WDE Jabari Zuniga
YTE Tyrone Wheatley Jr.: Pass block vs. SDE CeCe Jefferson, release to flat
QB Wilton Speight: Five-step drop; read high safety to determine which side to target, read WR-Slot-Flat
TB Chris Evans: Pass protect, then release to flat
Michigan has three unproven linemen who will need to protect Speight, and no proven receivers who will need to get open against a very good Florida secondary. The UF linebackers could be a weakness, but this play doesn’t really pick on them much.
When Florida has the ball…
3. Inside Zone Read
So, Florida’s offensive coordinator is none other than former Michigan OC Doug Nussmeier, who you may remember from 2014: Year of the Clusterfuck. Nuss, as well as McElwain, are long-time single-back offense guys and Nuss in particular is a constraint theory devotee. This basically means that he likes to spread the defense out with extra wide receivers to create running lanes inside, then attack with his base play: inside zone. If he can run that for 4+ yards a pop, great—the defense will need to overplay inside zone and then he can punish them through the air. Of course, if Nuss can’t establish inside zone—like he couldn’t at Michigan—then the whole thing doesn’t really go so well.
That’s where Malik Zaire’s running ability could make a big difference. Florida isn’t likely to have much success against the Michigan defensive front running 10-on-11. But with Zaire at QB, the Gators can add option reads to their inside zone play and present a much more dangerous threat.
Remember zone blocking rules: covered OL block the DL covering them, uncovered OL move to the second level, and the running back looks for crease and then makes a single cut to hit is. But here, Florida effectively blocks the backside DE by optioning him off. If that DE chases the tailback, the QB keeps the ball and has clear sailing to the outside.
WDE Chase Winovich: Set edge two yards deep and two yards wide against QB keeper; defend C-gap; if handoff, give backside pursuit
NT Bryan Mone: defend backside A-gap vs. LG Tyler Jordan
3T Maurice Hurst: defend playside B-gap vs. RG Fredrick Johnson
SDE Rashan Gary: defend playside C-gap vs. TE DeAndre Goolsby
WLB Mike McCray: defend backside B-gap vs. LT Martez Ivey
MLB Devin Bush Jr.: defend playside A-gap vs. C TJ McCoy
V: Khaleke Hudson: defend playside D-gap vs. RT Jawaan Taylor
Last year’s DL stars have moved onto the NFL, but Michigan has reached next-man-up status at that position. They face a veteran Florida O-line that hasn’t produced in the run game—and as Michigan fans have seen, another year or two of experience doesn’t necessarily translate to a significant performance improvement up front. Zaire will help, but probably not enough.
Well, I wasn’t going to watch the entire Florida spring game just to find a play. So it’s fortunate that Felipe Franks had some success with Y-Stick in the first quarter; Y-stick is a popular concept these days that you’ll see in pretty much any offense—and one that teams will probably call often against Don Brown and his tendency to blitz the ever-loving hell out of you.
The concept here is for the Z receiver to release outside and carry the cornerback deep, then flood the curl/flat zone underneath by pairing the Y-receiver’s “stick” route with a “shoot” route from a running back (B). Here we see the front side of the play against Cover 2 Man. The corner will run with the Z receiver and the safety will drop for a deep half (to help on the Z over top). That leaves the WLB, with responsibility for the curl/flat zone underneath, in a 1-on-2 situation. If he takes the stick route, then the back is alone in the flat. If he follows the back, that leaves the stick route open.
Of course, part of the reason for Y-Stick’s popularity is that it exploits a structural vulnerability in Cover 2. If the offense catches the defense in Cover 2 and calls this play, the main goal for the defense will be to mitigate the gain. But what if the defense is playing Cover 1 or Cover 4 (a.k.a. “quarters”)? In that case, there is a defender to cover each receiver and the inside-outside stretch doesn’t work.
This speaks to the importance of disguising coverages, and to having a first-rate defensive coordinator who can both adroitly adjust his calls to the threats being presented, and effectively teach the different techniques and concepts to his young players. May Don Brown live for 1,000 years.
Assignments (let’s give M a chance on this play, and say they are in Cover 1):
FCB Lavert Hill: Press coverage vs. XWR Antonio Callaway*** or Freddie Swain
VIPER Khaleke Hudson: Man-to-man coverage on UTE DeAndre Goolsby
FS Tyree Kinnel: Patrol deep middle
MLB Devin Bush Jr.: Spy QB Malik Zaire
WLB Mike McCray: Man-to-man coverage on RB Jordan Scarlett
SS Josh Metellus: Man-to-man coverage on YWR Tyrie Cleveland
BCB David Long: Press coverage vs. ZWR Brandon Powell
SDE Rashan Gary: Pass rush vs. LT Martez Ivey
NT Bryan Mone: Pass rush vs. C McCoy, LG Tyler Jordan
3T Maurice Hurst: Pass rush vs. RG Fredrick Johnson
WDE Chase Winovich: Pass rush vs. RT Jawaan Taylor
I will call the matchup of Florida’s young receivers against Michigan’s young defensive backs a wash for now, but otherwise the field seems to slant in favor of the Maize & Blue when Florida goes to the air. M has a significant edge in the trenches with its superior pass rushers against the mediocre Florida line, though this is mitigated somewhat on Y-Stick—a quick, 3-step drop passing play. And M has another big edge with its defensive in year 2 of Don Brown’s scheme against Malik Zaire in his first game at Florida.