This is part two of a diary exploring Michigan's offensive woes. Part one is here, and is basically identifying that there is a problem that goes beyond youth and inexperience. Part II endeavors to offer some solutions and a path to sustainable success. There is a TL;DR at the bottom.
Harbaugh's results in his first two seasons could be accurately viewed as overachievement. Why would anyone, then, spend so much time researching and writing about underachievement? As was pointed out in part one, the team's success has been on the back of the defense. The offense finished 2015 at #38 in S&P+ and ended last season at #40. As noted in part one, our current rank is #85. The point is that while the team efficiency was good the first two years and is okay now, that is on the back of the defense. Our offense was middling (for a P5 team) the first two seasons and is now bad.
I suppose that in order for any of this to make sense we have to agree on a premise: Michigan's offense should be elite. What does that mean? To me, top 30 every year, top 10 some years, occasionally in the top five. We are miles away from that, and going from inept (#85) to elite is a leap that will require more than just added experience and talent. Again, this ground was covered in Part I.
Next we have to agree on some equations for success. To me, it's a simple formula:
SCHEME + EXECUTION = SUCCESS
Let's break that down even further. Scheme is the combination of: PLAYBOOK + GAMEPLANNING + PLAYCALLING. Execution is TECHNIQUE + TALENT + TEAMWORK. Here are some remedies to Michigan's current challenges, taking these ideas into account:
Masters of None
love this show
Michigan's playbook is vast. That is probably an understatement. The number of formations, plays, route combinations, concepts...it feels overwhelming. As I've said before, it feels an awful lot like Harbaugh's goal at Michigan was to create an offense that had no tendencies and was therefore very hard to predict or gameplan against. Using formational and play design diversity, the theory goes, the defense has no idea what's coming.
The problem with the unpredictable approach is that your offense can't possibly spend the required time to master those plays. Successful habits are created through repeated execution of proper technique and teamwork. This is why teams with lesser talent, like Wisconsin, can execute consistently--they practice the same plays, techniques, concepts every day, week, and year. What prevents Wisconsin from being an elite program isn't scheme, it's talent. Their players simply are not good enough to create an elite offense. But they are damn consistent.
The long-term ramifications of a voluminous playbook, then, are that it stunts the development of mastery of any set of plays. This means it takes longer for players to get good at the Michigan offense. Are these limitations offset by defenses not knowing what the offense is about to do? The clear answer so far is NO. Last year's offense annihilated lesser opponents who appeared to have no idea what Michigan was going to run. Against better teams, Michigan's offense stalled, I believe, because they were unable to masterfully execute plays. Despite scoring more points than we had in over a century, Michigan finished the season ranked #40 in S&P+, a middling Power Five offense that could not move the ball against top competition. It turns out defenses don't need to know what's coming if they can just react to a play that won't be run especially well.
blocking is hard...can we make it easier?
Every elite college offense has a base set of plays around which they build their playbook. What are Michigan's? Many posters have named several plays that we run. Yes, we run those plays. The problem is that we also run hundreds of other plays, too, and the most consistest play we've run this year--inside zone--is one that we're not very good at. Our first play against Penn State was IZ, and Mason Cole--probably our best offensive player--blew his assignment and Higdon was lucky to get close to the LOS. Yes, it probably would have been a nice gain and maybe even a TD if Cole makes his block. But he didn't.
Now, this is obviously just one example, but it sure feels representative of our offense's problem: inconsistent execution. Did Cole screw-up because he's young? Inexperienced? Lacking in talent? Sure, every player is going to get beaten sometimes, but if Mason Cole had been repping IZ for three years and it was an emphasis every week, the chances of him getting beaten so easily decline dramatically. IZ should, in fact, play to Cole's strengths.
For the purposes of success in this year, and, perhpas more importantly, for repeated success in the years to come, Michigan needs to work on a set of plays that they can master, so that freshmen today are running the same plays when they're seniors. If we keep changing it up, we'll never master anything.
Jim Harbuagh is far more qualified than I to choose those plays. That said, he has an obvious knowledge of and affinity for power/gap running. It's hard to watch Wisconsin and Stanford and not be jealous of their consistent rushing attacks. But in today's college football landscape, there are plenty of examples of power running games coming out of the shotgun, even utilizing multiple TEs and FBs. Again, I don't really care which plays are our base set, but I do care how those plays are run. Adding inside zone this year to an already dizzying array of runs appears to have hurt more than it has helped.
If you're looking for my suggestion, it would be to use power running out of the shotgun. Having a QB that can run (even someone of O'Korn's athletic level is fine) changes the numbers for the defense. Running power/option schemes from the shotgun or pistol seems like a way to modernize Hargaugh's bread-and-butter scheme. Look at Auburn, Ohio State, Clemson...there are plenty of examples of teams using power shotgun schemes. But if under center is going to continue to be the focus, that's fine too. Watch a Stanford game and you'll see a scheme I'd love for us run.
In the passing game, the base plays, in my opinion, should be simpler versions of what we run now. For starters, I do not believe we ran a single slant against Penn State. To me, this is bonkers. The slant is a route that even high school WRs can run effectively. We have run it some the past two years, but this season we've seen very little of it. We run tons of drags and mesh concepts (more on that later) but not many slants. It's one of the most effective routes in football, and it's easy to run and throw. PSU gashed us on several slants. Why aren't we doing it? It should be a core play in any college offense, again, in part because of the extra real estate afforded by the wider hash marks. From there, I'd like to see more angle routes from backs and TEs, and more swing passes. In short, we should have a core package of 3-step drop pass plays. Oh, and did I mention that slant routes are the best set-ups for fades?
time to stop mocking arm punts
And what about the deep passing game? For years, this blog has mocked the "arm punts" that have become increasingly common in college football (though I doubt Michigan fans were mocking arm punts in the Grbac-to-Howard days). But watching the PSU game, it really stood out to me that arm punts might actually be a good idea.
Trace McSorley is a pretty good QB, but his arm is no better JOK's or Wilton Speight's. It's probably worse. The picture above is representative of a poor throwing motion. His deep passes do resemble punts. So what the hell is going on? Is it luck?
Arm punts actually help overcome many of the limitations of college offenses. For starters, the pass is released earlier, decreasing the required time to block. In college, this is essential, since it seems that every elite team has at least one nearly unblockable DL player, often more. McSorley's ugly deep passes are thrown sooner and higher, giving the receiver time to find, run under, and catch the pass. The OL doesn't have to hold their blocks as long. Against cover zero or even a single high safety, an arm punt can still essentially be a throw into single coverage. And, as you saw on Saturday, it's really hard to defend an inside fade (fade route from the slot) when the receiver knows when the ball is coming and has time to turn around and adjust, while the defender--even if the coverage is great--still has to get his head around and avoid pass interference.
The point of this long explanation is not to suggest that we should be running inside fade arm punts every play, but that this is actually a pretty damn good solution to a deep passing game in today's version of college football. Heck, JOK's long completion to Crawford was an arm punt, and it worked for all the reasons explained above. Michigan needs a deep passing game that: 1) Helps reduce the amount of time the OL has to protect 2) Takes advantage of aggressive defenses and 3) Allows athlete to make plays without having to run perfectly precise routes.
I loved the inside fade concept PSU used, and see no reason we could not execute that play with DPJ or Gentry. Michigan needs to find a deep passing game that doesn't demand so much precision and uses repeatable concepts that can be applied every season.
What about beating OSU?
This season's offensive RPS is...not good
As noted above, any scheme really can work. That said, this year's offense--and, to a lesser extent, the previous two versions as well--seems to make it much harder than other teams. Given that it's too late to focus fall camp on mastering a select set of plays and building counters off of those, what can we do this season (and going forward) to make life a little easier?
Penn State's biggest trick is not very tricky: they spread the field with athletes and force you to pick your poison. But they did several things against us that were very clever, and we were clearly not prepared for. The first was motioning Barkley to receive the direct snap and running read option from that look. The rumor is that Michigan had prepared for that. If true, it sure did not look like it. Our safeties should have been crashing down on that motion. As it was, we only had six in the box, which meant PSU could block every defender. Which is what happened.
The second was much more clever and even more impactful. They ran speed option but had their OL run zone in the opposite direction of the play. Our defense read their keys instead of the ball, followed the action of the OL, and McSorley and Barkley were off to the races against blocked DBs.
Another was the way Barkley motioned. The "Never put McCray on Barkley" crowd must have been furious, but McCray is not a MLB, and he would have had to play that position (which he has not practiced) if Bush vacated to cover the RB. This is not as simple as some people suggest. Don't get me wrong--our scheme should not allow McCray to be one-one-one with Barkley, but the fix requires some fairly significant changes to our defense.
All of these are examples of misdirection. Using pre-snap motions and hard action that actually took advantage of Michigan's great eye discipline was genius, but not complex. There is not reason Michigan can't do that. Harbaugh did more of it at Stanford. Heck, we did more of it the last two years. I'm puzzled why we don't do it more. And I didn't even get into the RPOs, which were also hugely successful.
This is not our savior
I like Jedd Fisch. The "Good shit, Jedd" gif is one of my favorites. Interestingly, that was just a play he stole form the Patriots, and was a simple rub route. But even Jedd Fisch did not use enough misdirection for my taste (and for today's college football).
While many posters argue that I can't possibly know what I'm talking about since the Michigan coaches are so much smarter (the second half of that statement is true), the reality is that the Michigan offense has been moving more towards my suggestions in recent weeks. Backs are protecting less, and running hot routes more (though it's clear they aren't very good at it, so they probably did not practice it enough in camp). Our most productive package against PSU was the McDoom pre-snap motion package. We tired a TE screen (though I hated the play design).
Here's an open question: Why do we use slow-developing mesh concepts instead of the instant rub routes we've seen deployed against us by teams like Cincinnati and Indiana? Does someone on Michigan's staff believe it's dishonorable to use the blatant disregard of offensive pass interference to our advantage?
My point in this section is to say that all is not lost. We can make subtle adjustments this season (and keep doing them in the future) that can take better advantage of our talent. Rub routes, pre-snap motion that isolates LBs on our RBs (remember the smoke screen to Evans against MSU?), and hard action (moving the OL away from the play) are not hard to execute. Mesh concepts, triangle patterns, 7-step drops--the core of our passing playbook--require much more precision to execute. Do they work? Of course. But only if you're playing 11-man football, which is tough in today's college game, and even tougher when the 11 men have to know 250 plays each.
In the running game, if we're going to stay under center and use FBs every play, let's use more wham, trap, and counter concepts that keep defenders guessing on where the block is coming from (this used to be Harbaugh's calling card). More deception. And let's use pre-snap motion there, too, to get the defense to declare their match-ups and help make sure we're in the right play, if nothing else.
Lots of folks are calling for the jobs of Drevno, Pep, and Jay Harbaugh. While I believe Drevno's OL development can certainly be called into question, and that all of the offensive staff (and Head Coach) deserve some criticism for this year's offense, all of these guys have track records and did not suddenly become idiots. That said, having so many accomplished coaches might not be a good thing--it may just be adding to the diversity of concepts and plays. Greg Frey's addition has conincided with the emergence of inside zone--a play that has been a loser for us and certainly took precious practice time from other concepts.
Let me be crystal clear: I'm not calling for anyone's head. If you asked me to fire someone, it would definitely be Drevno--as the OL and playcalling have both been suspect--but Drev has coached some great OLs to great success (he may not be a good playcaller).
Honestly, it's up to Jim Harbaugh to steer this ship. As noted above, Jedd Fisch's offense was better, but still not good enough. Since Rich Rod, how often do we have WRs completely uncovered? How often to we have running lanes you can drive a truck through? I'm definitely not calling for the Rod's return, but there is no reason our current brain trust cannot scheme us into a couple of big plays each game, and those plays should not require all 11 players to execute perfectly. Those QB power fakes certainly didn't, and PSU's RPOs, inside fades, hard action, and pre-snap adjustments weren't new ideas with high degrees of difficulty either. They were largely the same plays PSU has been running over and over for two years now. And that's one reason they're so effective.
I have no doubt Harbaugh can pull this off. But I do doubt our offense's long-term success if the continued approach is to run so many diverse concepts and plays, especially packages that require all 11 to execute precise assignments in order to find success.
The proposed solutions to our offensive morass: 1) Build a playbook around a core set of plays/concepts that are repeated with much greater frequency than anything we are currently running, and provide daily, weekly, and year-to-year continuity that maximizes each players understanding of and ability to execute said plays. 2) Make better use of deception and match-up isolation the way virtually every other program in CFB does. 3) Incorporate some simple concepts that are ubiquitous in CFB to get some more success this season. Faster-developing plays that require less pass pro are an obvious bonus (ie, Indiana and Cincinnati's rub routes, PSU arm punts, slant patterns) 4) The coaches themselves are all brilliant...but perhaps this staff needs some focus and reorganization (too many cooks theory). 5) You maximize your talent when they can run plays with mastery...this takes time, which means you cannot run as many concepts. Once some plays/concepts are mastered, defenses have to respect those, opening up counters and wrinkles that are not complex but can result in big plays. 6) Please, for the love of God, don't run PA on 4th and long, or any obvious passing down. Ever. (yep, just had to add that)