This game left a lot of people wondering what happened to the idea of passing the ball to our tall and talented TEs, or incorporating the RBs into the passing attack as Pep suggested during the off-season.
Well, the simple answer is that, in this game, Michigan's gameplan was to account for Air Force’s blitz-happy defense by leaving the TE (mostly to help Ulizio) and RB to block on many passing downs. This had very mixed results.
In theory, the idea of adding two extra pass blockers makes a load of sense. However, gbdub posited an interesting theory:
“this might be like the Borgesian ‘Tackle Over’ where in theory leaving extra men back helps you block, but in reality with a weak line just gives more potential gaps to screw up. Maybe you're better off just letting the TE run a route, at least then the LB has to account for his route rather than just pinning his ears back and picking a gap to rush.
So, I decided to look back at the blocking on a couple of passing attempts that failed to pick up Air Force’s blitzes despite the two extra blockers, as well as the 1 throw to our TE, Gentry, that went for a long gain.
tl;dr: I don’t really know enough about gap assignments to make an assessment of gbdub’s theory, but it’s clear that the extra blockers failed to help on several plays.
1st & goal @ AF 9
Air Force has 7 in the box. Michigan is in the Gun with 3-wide and Higdon in the backfield. Gentry, who will stay in for pass protection, is split out in the backfield wide to Ulizio. Air Force will ultimately bring 6 rushers and leave 1 LB to spy Higdon.
Gentry and Ulizio double the DE, which leaves an Air Force defender unblocked. The play-fake takes Higdon to the other side of the line, where the OL is already holding up their 1-on-1 blocks perfectly.
Ulizio releases from the double team, but only sees the free rusher once it’s too late for him to make a block. The other side of the line is still holding up great. In fact, there is nobody for Higdon to block.
The free rusher gets into Speight’s face in a hurry, causing an already-difficult fade pass for Speight to attempt that sails over Crawford’s head incomplete.
Gentry is clearly assigned to help Ulizio on this play. The play-fake unfortunately takes Higdon out of position to block the extra rusher on the right side of the play. Given that Higdon blocks nobody here, it would be nice to see him release for a dump pass. Granted, there is an LB spying Higdon, but that’s a 1-on-1 match-up Higdon can win.
Edit: As UMfan21 pointed out, there's no way Speight would have time to make a progression here and check down to Higdon. In my fantasy world, where Speight is an NFL-level QB, he identifies the right-side blitz, knows that the blocking scheme is designed for Gentry and Ulizio to double the edge DE, flips Higdon in the back-field so that the play-fake takes him into a position to block the blitzing LB, steps into the throw in his subsequently Mary Poppins-level tidy pocket, delivers a perfectly placed ball to Crawford for the TD, and I sleep soundly for once in my life knowing that Michigan and the Lions are both winning it all this year.
(But, sadly, we live in a much more boring reality, where I post a Sp8 H8 rant blaming him for not being this fantasy QB, and you downvote me to oblivion. As if you didn't wish you lived in my Michigan Utopia.)
2nd & 11 @ AF 25:
Michigan is in the Gun, again 3-wide and now with Isaac in the backfield. Eubanks is the TE du jour for this play, and he is on the line to the right of Ulizio. Air Force is sending 6 rushers, and again leaving 1 LB to spy the RB.
This time the TE, Eubanks, does not take the same rusher as Ulizio. And Ulizio subsequently gets punished by the blitzing LB. The LB feints inside, and Ulizio everrrrr so slightly turns to help out Kugler.
The LB then comes back outside, catching Ulizio off guard and making him lose his balance.
And the LB bulls right past him. Note that Isaac is in position to help out here, and isn’t blocking anybody. Isaac never sees the approaching doom.
The LB gets to Speight for the easy sack, and Speight compounds the errors by fumbling the ball while trying to throwing it away.
The TE doesn’t help Ulizio on this play, and Ulizio gets burned. Isaac is also left in for protection, but doesn’t see the impending doom and instead blocks nobody. This is another situation where the extra man didn’t help, but this time because of a mental error by Isaac rather than the blocking scheme (and, obviously, Ulizio getting burned. But we've all railed on the guy enough, already).
2nd & 2 @ AF 39:
Michigan is in the I-formation with Gentry in the slot & Poggi + Higdon in the backfield. Air Force has 7 in the box and will run a well-designed man-zone corner blitz.
The entire OL shifts to the right, leaving 5 blockers on the 3 Air Force DL.
Cole and Bredeson end up double-teaming the same DE. Poggi steps up to block the first blitzing LB. Higdon gets in position to block the corner blitz. This leaves nobody to block the delayed blitz.
The delayed blitzer gets in Speight’s face in a hurry, forcing Speight into an incredibly difficult pass off his back foot.
The ball sails ~25 yards in the air perfectly into Gentry’s awaiting hands for the big gain. Great throw.
This time, the extra blockers do their jobs perfectly, as Poggi and Higdon pick up big blocks. But miscommunication on the line leaves Cole and Bredeson blocking the same man, and another free rusher gets home to Speight. This time, Speight makes a play in the face of immense pressure.
@5:22 seconds in...
1st & 10 @ the 21: Speight makes a crazy impressive throw. Another play where we keep in the TE (Mckeon) and RB (Higdon) for pass pro. Air Force brings the house and its 7v7 for the first time. But Ulizio and Mckeon block the same guy so Air Force has an extra rusher. Luckily, the pass pro is otherwise solid, so the free rusher takes quite some time to get there. This gives Perry enough time to do his thing, getting open on a slow-developing scissors route. Speight does a great job to stay in the pocket (especially given the pressure he’s previously faced), and makes a crazy throw that I don’t really understand the physics (looks like he throws sideways) that hits Perry in stride for 13 yards. Really amazing throw.
The blocking on this play was designed similar to the first play, but this time Air Force sends the house, and the pressure is going to get there by default. However, the OL does enough as a whole to give Speight the bare minimum amount of time he needed to deliver a really amazing throw. Interestingly, Speight missed this exact same throw in the first half--and from a much cleaner pocket (Air Force only brought 4 rushers while we kept in the RB and TE on that play).