ELI5: What is the logic of "scripted plays" and why are they so effective against us?

Submitted by othernel on October 2nd, 2018 at 9:18 AM

One of the explanations I've seen on the board for the early struggles against ND and NW has been "they clearly scripted their first few drives" and we were not ready for it.

Can someone explain exactly what this means? I've been hearing for years that many coaches script out their first 15-20 plays before then calling plays on the fly, but it's never made much sense to me. Shouldn't every play come down to contextual decisions? And why can our defense supposedly not adjust to this?



October 2nd, 2018 at 9:25 AM ^

They aren't just effective against us. There is a reason that teams script their first drive or two. You prep against a team with what they have done in the past, and put on tape recently. By scripting drives, teams can break their tendencies, and screw with your defensive keys. It takes a little time to figure out exactly what they're doing. This is not just a vs Michigan issue, it's across football. 

Space Coyote

October 2nd, 2018 at 9:39 AM ^

To add to this, the scripted plays are also practiced much more. They are repped because the staff has seen something on film to give them some sort of confidence in those plays based on what the opponent does, what they do well, and what they don't do well.

So it's a combination of identifying opponent weakness (especially before they make adjustments), executing at a high level, and then adding wrinkles that you will anticipate to be more successful based on what you've seen (screwing with keys, etc.).


October 2nd, 2018 at 11:19 AM ^


It is a pretty cool subreddit.  Basically, someone will ask a question like "Why does time slow down as you approach light speed?" and some astrophysicist will dumb down their answer.  You can learn some cool stuff and it will allow you to act smart and feel superior to your friends and family.  And there is nothing more important than a false sense of superiority.


October 2nd, 2018 at 11:53 AM ^

Was just thinking this. If it works so well, why aren't we doing it? From what I know of our personnel, we certainly have the player intellect to do it... Maybe because it would render us inflexible (ironic, considering non-data-supported accusatory narratives coming out of the fan base)? But then I guess it would be a data thing. It shouldn't be difficult to conclude whether or not scripted plays do produce an advantage.

We should catch up with wall-street and have an adapted scripted-play algorithm. Choose our plays like an ETF places trades. Replace our non-OC with an app, lol.


October 2nd, 2018 at 12:56 PM ^

Logged in to upvote. 

One guy that was really good at developing play scripts that people forget or never noticed: Al Borges. Michigan was really good at moving the ball in the first drive or two in many games; not infrequently the offense died as the script ran out. 

And, yes, Harbaugh does this. And generally does it well. Michigan's general offensive struggles, especially last year, have concealed this somewhat. 


October 2nd, 2018 at 2:01 PM ^

Agreed on Borges, he was pretty great at that. His problem was (to my amateur eye) that he seemed to try to carry that mentality throughout the game, resulting in no offensive identity, other than being generally offensive over the season. There are times where I wish Harbaugh had just a little Borges in him (nttawwt), but I'm a damn plebe, and really don't have much in depth football knowledge. 


October 2nd, 2018 at 3:27 PM ^

This is wrong. Borges consistently installed and ran unique and interesting stuff in his scripts throughout his tenure at Michigan. 

The problem is that once the script was used up and the opponents had a feel for what was in Michigan's toolbox, the team was wretched at executing basic plays on a level playing field. 

My suspicion is that a combination of plain bad player coaching (particularly on the OL but everywhere else too) and an emphasis on practicing the scripted plays at the expense of the base stuff (you know, like power and iso; also remember that Hoke practices were glacially slow) meant that the team was just not very good at regular stuff. 


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:26 AM ^

Scripted plays are carefully put together set of plays, based on your film review of the other team

You are hoping to catch the defense in some of their tendencies with a couple plays, and then play off of the previous plays with a clever constraint or twist on those plays

They have another advantage of your offense knowing those plays, and getting some extra practice on them in advance. Whereas the defense has less knowledge of what the offense is going to do, and cannot simultaneously script plays to counter the offenses scripted plays.

This is the advantage that offense has (dictating plays) vs defense (reacting to the offense)

Our defense DOES adjust to this. Why do you think that we're kicking ass in the 2nd half?



October 2nd, 2018 at 9:27 AM ^

TL;DR: defense is hard.

If you're an offensive coordinator, you know your opponent has all of your film from prior games, and will prepare for that. So you design a series of plays to trick the defense into thinking you're going to do those things again, then do something a little different. It all happens very fast, and one person flowing to the wrong hole means they get a chunk play.

To use an example that was covered here recently, before Nebraska you could pretty much watch the fullback and that's where Michigan was gonna run it. So when we played Nebraska, we sent him to the pick up a block on the backside of the play, which had Nebraska's linebackers in the wrong hole because they were following the FB.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:28 AM ^

Logged in for this.  I coach high school football and can speak to this a little bit.

A lot of play calling comes down to an if/then - as in if they do X, then I'm going to do Y.  Scripting the first 15 plays allows you to see how the defense/individual players react to different things (formations, motions, personnel, pulls, veer paths).

Once the defense shows how they're going to react to those things you can call the game accordingly.

As to why they seem to work against Michigan.... hard to say.  For example, NW must have seen something on film to make them want to throw all the quick slants.  Once we adjusted they had no answer.   Their coaches had a great opening game plan but weren't able to adjust based on our adjustment


EDIT: Scripted plays aren't always made to gain yards, their more to gain valuable information

Space Coyote

October 2nd, 2018 at 9:42 AM ^

Agree, this is another advantage. This is also why you tend to see a lot of teams use more formations and motions (so that they can get into multiple formations) to see how teams align and if they check coverage/defense given specific motions (RB out of the backfield, motion to trips, motion to 5 wide, etc.).

You're trying to do what you do well, against tendencies you've seen from the defense and their weaknesses, and trying to show a lot of things so that once your script is over you have an idea where to go next.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:13 PM ^

Great answer. My second idea for neck sharpies this week was to show how Michigan adjusted to those slants. M likes to play Cover 1 with their linebackers activating on run action. Stop the run first, let the DBs play m2m. That leads to slot defenders constantly trying to defend slants when set up with outside leverage, since the one instruction from this offseason was no more goddamn slot fades.

You still need a QB who can throw accurately and receivers who can get a step to do it effectively. I am almost certain Northwestern saw the SMU tape and Proche burning Michigan with slants and though they could pull off the same with Nagle or KMB or whatever that guy with the long name's letters are. Thorson had to be inch-perfect on a lot of them.

Northwestern had a bye week coming into this one so they had extra time to scout and come up with their opening script.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:28 AM ^

Funny, we don't seem to have a set of scripted plays for other teams for the first 10-15 plays. We certainly didn't at Northwestern.

Can we please have some scripted plays for the game against state? Forget about saving it for ohio state, use scripted plays against state.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:38 AM ^

Apparently you didn’t watch Nebraska. (We do it every game, this is just the best and most obvious example of it)

Prior to Nebraska you could follow our fullback and that’s where the run was going to go. Michigan anticipated Nebraska noticing this trend and figured Nebraska would key their linebackers on the fullback. So Michigan incorporated some Down G and counters to attack that Nebraska tendency. I don’t think I have to tell you that it worked with extreme efficiency. 

Space Coyote

October 2nd, 2018 at 9:47 AM ^

I don't know specifically if Harbaugh scripts plays. Not all coaches do, and some coaches script situationally. But even though Michigan wasn't successful during their early plays, doesn't mean there weren't a number of things they were showing to get a defensive response, and doesn't mean they weren't running plays that were likely to be successful. I don't think Michigan comes out the way they did if they didn't have some plan in mind.

But based on the first drive alone, I'm pretty sure Michigan got a feel for early down coverage, check for 5 wide, how they adjusted to jet motion, etc. By about play 10, they had a feel for what Northwestern was doing to the point that they were quite efficient and effective on offense. The initial scout and the initial execution might not have been great, but overall they got out of the first 10 plays what they needed to adjust and move on.


October 2nd, 2018 at 12:57 PM ^

I also got the impression Michigan didn't spend a ton of time preparing for NW specifically. The coaching staff probably believed they could run the same suite of plays they had so far, and still win. By and large, they did that. Almost. I won't be surprised if they do the same thing against Maryland.

I'm near 100% positive we don't see the quad WR motion the FB in for a TD play (and it's cousin) if we aren't down by a score near the end of the game.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:29 AM ^

Pretty much the opponent evaluated film of our defense, sees what we’re good at and devises a strategy and a few plays to attack it (every defense has weak spots). They evaluate what THEY’RE good at and anticipate what we will do to counter it, and devise a strategy and a few plays to attack THAT. They’re usually able to put a drive or two together and really attack a defense before that D regains it’s composure and makes the necessary adjustments. 

For a well coached team with time to prepare (Notre Dame had an off-season, NW had a bye week) that usually results in a good amount of success and some points on the board. 

The opponent has “scripted plays,” basically meaning they’ve practiced a certain number of plays in a certain order depending on the down and distance. After they run through their scripted plays it’s back to the normal “call it on the fly” play calling. 

Ultimately there’s not much you can do to stop the opponent’s scripted plays. They’re specifically designed to attack your weaknesses and what adjustments you’re expected to make coming into the game. It’s specifically designed to put your defense on its heels and jump out to a lead. Its really about how you adjust to that and hopefully the opponent doesn’t execute it. 

An example in our case would be jumping to a 14 point lead against OSU with a gameplan none of us saw coming and obviously OSU never saw coming, and then our offense really had nothing after that point


October 2nd, 2018 at 10:45 AM ^

Sometimes it’s planning, skill and luck, all coming together.  Clearly NW had a plan, and executed.  Some of their 1H passes completed were simply amazing.  Their QB threw into some amazingly tight windows and it worked.  Early on, we had open windows and couldn’t get the ball to hit the house.

Magnum P.I.

October 2nd, 2018 at 9:36 AM ^

For a good example of how to do it well, watch any MSU game against us from the past few years. They draw up some great offense to exploit our much more talented D.


October 2nd, 2018 at 1:01 PM ^

Yep. They knew how Michigan would respond to their formations and their motion, and they drew up exactly the matchups and the openings that they wanted. 

They knew it would grind down, too. Back when they were thumping Al Borges every year Michigan would open with a really good drive. Then, as Brian memorably described it, they would "download" our offense and the game was basically over. Now we're the ones doing the downloading. 


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:44 AM ^

As a man, have you ever approached a lady your interested in at a club and sparked conversation?

If you have, which scenario would be easier:

1. Having a scripted "opener" to follow and direct conversation; or

2. Winging it and randomly talking about whatever comes to mind

In most cases, knowing what you want to talk about and if/then paths to follow allows you to settle your nerves, not think, and just do.  This same concept works in football and other applications in life.


October 2nd, 2018 at 10:26 AM ^

Shit I've been doing it wrong... explains a lot.  

In the vane of gathering intel from how the defense (lady) reacts to your opening plays and using that to generate success using the IF/THEN paths, I have gained some valuable info that I'll share.

IF you open your conversation with said lady with a "winging it" remark and the first thing you do is warn her about the ABC gum stuck under the bar, THEN she will not talk to you again.  Go ahead and pull that play right off your play card.  

All that said, the first 15-20 plays being scripted is NOT written in stone, they will still adjust to the context of the game.  Not many teams are running a 4-wide pass play on 3rd and 1 just because that was play #14 on their script.  They may work back to it if the game flow allows to see how the defense reacts, but teams often deviate from the script to adjust to the game situation. 

Ideally your scripted plays will be successful AND give you intel about the keys the Defense is using so you can break a tendency later on in the game.  It seems like UM has a bit of arrogance about this and just believes in executing their core plays at a level that can't be stopped instead of any trickery or tendency breaking.  Aside from the OSU game last year.  That was 100% breaking tendencies and was a genius game plan, if only we could complete a pass.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:49 AM ^

My amateur fan watching opinion is that it is easier to script plays against UM because you know what you are getting.   Other teams you don't know what type of zone they will be in or if they will be in man.  So the play they script might not get the coverage it is best at exploiting.  UM you know you are getting a blitz and man to man.  The only variable is you don't know where the blitz is coming from.  But, if you design plays to get the ball out quickly you don't really have to worry about where the blitz is coming from. 

My hawt take is that UM's defense actually comes out too jacked up.  Most of the board says UM comes out flat.  I think UM comes out flying around and teams have done a good job (especially ND) using that ultra aggression against UM.  It seemed ND let the DEs run past the first few plays and dropped screens off and had 40 yards picked up before anyone could get settled in. 


October 2nd, 2018 at 1:02 PM ^

I tend to believe it is true, moreso earlier in games. My Don Brown game plan against State would be to come out in the most Charmin soft zone Don Brown can get his guys to play for the whole first quarter, disguised at the snap as man.

Once State has exhausted the 37 trick plays they have been practicing since January, loose the hounds.

4th and Go For It

October 2nd, 2018 at 9:51 AM ^

I think the execution piece is really the key, as other posters have mentioned. It seems like so much of success and failure on a given football play come down to execution or lack thereof. With a set of plays designed to attack your opponents known weaknesses that you can rep extensively, you're not only keying on the D's vulnerabilities but you're more like to execute those plays successfully.

Look at any non-conference game where you see a top team losing in the first quarter against an inferior team. Often that's scheme and execution from the scripted plays. Then the other team adjusts, the scripted stuff runs out, and the better team pulls takes control of the game.


October 2nd, 2018 at 9:56 AM ^

This sheds a lot of light on the topic. I didn't definitively say it works better against us. I was echoing what a lot of people on the board were complaining about after ND/NW.

So it seems like the first couple drives of most football games is throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent, and seeing how they respond.


October 2nd, 2018 at 10:00 AM ^

Not a coach, just a fan, but an observation.

The two cases of "the first 15 play script killed us" this year came in the opener, when Notre Dame had all of Fall Camp to run through them, and Northwestern, which was coming off an open week, where they also had additional time to install and adjust them.  So if practice makes perfect, they also had additional time to put a shine on it that a normal circumstance may not.


October 2nd, 2018 at 10:04 AM ^

Better question: Why can't our offense script drives? (I kid, sort of, but we do seem to have less opening drive success than our (good) opponents)


October 2nd, 2018 at 10:45 AM ^

It's clear to me, watching how the opposition attacks Michigan's defense early in games especially, that they are expecting Don Brown to bring at least five on the pass rush. This usually means freeing a linebacker, the viper, safety or sometimes the corner on the blitz, which is usually augmented by a line stunt.

During the game broadcast Saturday, the analyst claimed that the Wildcats were going after certain defenders on the pass, namely Lavert Hill. This wasn't actually the case. They were going after the center of the field because there was no safety help, and then running seam or corner routes to expose single coverage when Thorson had time. Long got called for PI in the endzone on one throw.

The offense  counters with motion to check the defensive alignment so the qb can tell who has what secondary responsibility especially in a single high safety look. Michigan has typically used the lone safety high alignment early in games, which opens up the middle and allows for quicker slant passes.

Michigan's second half adjustment against the Wildcats was to take away the slant and change up line stunts on blitz packages, so the qb didn't know where the pressure was coming from.

Against Michigan, one play that I think every team has tried especially early in games, is sending a a flaring back or tight end delay in the flat or down the sideline, usually to the left or field side to counter a five man rush. When this happens, it's usually aimed at countering say a linebacker who  is forced to cover the wheel route from a stationary position three or four steps behind the LOS. This is a difficult cover, but the throw is also difficult for the passer.

Up to now, it has been a hit or miss play, usually not a big play when caught, but a potential big gainer in a couple circumstances when it wasn't because the defender was so far off in trailing the would-be receiver. Michigan got lucky in those circumstances.

Almost every team Michigan has faced this year, has run this play. This is also the same play or variation that got MSU back into the game with a long TD in the botched punt loss contest a few years ago at home. If you remember the wheel route pass to Saquon Barkley at Happy Valley last season, that is another example of it. And they ran it any number of times because Barkley was great receiver out of the backfield.

Because of the way Michigan blitzes and designs its coverage, this is a great counter measure, but it also requires the qb to have great touch and get the ball off quick before the rush arrives, which usually impacts the ability to make the play work in the first place.



October 2nd, 2018 at 10:47 AM ^

Because we are super predictable against the lower tiered teams and try to save a lot for the big games.  Remember how much we broke tendency against OSU last year?  I think our coaches expect us to just be able to line up and beat all the unranked teams and be quite vanilla.


In addition to this we are also not great offensively at doing this to our opponent because we are so young and still just working on mastering our base offense.  It will be helpful in the years to come to have a QB that has been in the system for multiple years and not playing so many 1st and 2nd year players.