Was the Play Action on 2nd & 20 Dumb? Maybe Not.

Submitted by EQ RC Blue on November 19th, 2015 at 11:40 AM

Brian has said on multiple occasions now that the play action on 2nd and 20 where Rudock threw the pick was a bad play call because it was an obvious passing down.  But let’s look at the full scenario. 

There are two minutes to go in the third quarter.  Michigan trails by two points.  The last possession ended in a missed 42-yard field goal.  Michigan sits at 2nd and 20 on the 25.  If they gain no yards in the next two plays they will kick approximately a 42 yard field goal.  According to Wayne Winston’s Mathletics, the probability of success of an NFL kicker of a 42-yard field goal is 80%.  The probability of success for a 32 yarder is 94%.  The disparity is probably significantly bigger for college kickers.  (And now we know Michigan’s snapper had the flu, making it even less likely that everything will go right to make a longer kick).  Thus, getting even ten yards over downs 2 and 3 could be a huge benefit.  And this is not even considering that 3rd and 12 or 13 is significantly more manageable than 3rd and 20. 

Meanwhile, running in an “obvious passing play” can have its own advantages, including facing a more pass-oriented defensive personnel, making it even more likely that the play would gain decent yardage, where, as discussed, such yardage could be critical to being up one versus down two. 

If running isn’t dumb, than play action isn’t dumb.

And Brian’s analysis assumes that players and coaches do what is “obvious” and expect what is “obvious,” which we know not to be the case.  Indiana played to stop the run this whole game.

In sum, perhaps it wasn’t the best play call, or perhaps play-action on 2nd and 20 isn’t as effective as on 1st and ten, but it’s not so obvious that running would’ve been stupid or that it was a bad play call.  And if Rudock doesn’t throw a duck (or makes a different read), who knows…  



November 19th, 2015 at 1:32 PM ^

The previous thread was with regards to 3rd and long.  This scenario being 2nd down makes a big difference IMO. 

If it's 3rd down and you need to get all 20 yards in one play, it seems to be a fairly obvious passing situation.

If it's 2nd down and you have two plays to get your 20 yards, running for the first chunk seems more plausible; especially knowing that if you don't pick up a 1st down you're already in field goal range,

Space Coyote

November 19th, 2015 at 1:47 PM ^

If 2nd level defenders are dropping at the snap, and Michigan runs right at them with heavy personnel that means:

  1. 230 lb LBs and 210 lb safeties are retreating from the play
  2. Those players then need to redirect after they've begun retreating, and typically aren't the most fluid players
  3. They not only need to redirect, but do so quickly and hard enough to take on 300+ lb OL that are now into their blocks at the 2nd level
  4. Meaning if the RB breaks the 1st line, he's getting at least 6 yards, and likely fairly significantly more.

If the offense wants to pick up 40% of the available yards on 2nd and 20, they need 8 yards. 8 yards isn't a far fetched idea if LBs retreat at the snap and don't respect the run. Therefore, on 2nd and 20, LBs need to respect the run before getting into their pass drop, or their get gashed.

This is why all 4 second level defenders (2 LBs, 1 CB, 1 Safety, another LB was blitzing off the edge) took at least two steps forward at the first sign of run action (both ILBs moved forward 3 yards before starting to back up, the safety 2 yards).

As I said, the defense reacted to PA, and it wasn't just dumb football on their part. They had to react to the run threat. They had to play their keys. The fact is that the safety made a really nice play gaining depth quickly. Rudock's pass may have been a little late, the FS not helping over the top on the WR was essential (because it prevented Williams from running a route with more depth), and that was that.

Sometimes plays don't work, sometimes another team executes better and defends it. It could have just as easily happened with 4 WRs in the game and a straight drop back. The PA forced the defense to react, it probably helped the OL protect on the play. The playcall wasn't a serious issue; and PA certainly wasn't.


November 19th, 2015 at 9:12 PM ^

I'm not going to argue whether or not the play call was dumb, but the INT happened because the play action didn't deceive as much as it would have in a situation where a run is more likely, like 1st and 10 or shorter distances, and the fact that UM had been struggling to run anyway didn't help matters.  Once Harbaugh gets the run game going like he wants it, this offense is going to be very hard to contain.

EQ RC Blue

November 19th, 2015 at 12:04 PM ^

You assume it's an obvious throwing down.  Gaining yards short of the first down is a huge benefit because of the increased probability of field goal success.  Running twice and gaining 8 yards total could be a perfectly good outcome.  The other coaches (and even players) might know this and take the threat of a running play seriously.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:18 PM ^

It does seem play action is being used on nearly every pass play.  With Michigan becoming more of a passing team (no choice as the run just isn't consistently productive) and Rudock not being the quickest release around, I'm worried that he is going to start to get sacked more by these upcoming stronger defenses.

I'd like to see more quick pass plays out of the gun-pistol.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:57 PM ^

Play action on a throwing down might not be fool anyone's brain, but a linebacker might hesitate just long enough for it to matter. Whether that's worth the QB turning his back to thw defense for a full second? Not sure...

What was truly silly was the one play where we ran play action...with an empty backfield. Lol. At that point, Rudock's lizard brain was clearly in all-PA-all-the-time mode.

Woodstock Wolverine

November 19th, 2015 at 11:55 AM ^

I've been wondering if they let him score. I was yelling at the TV to"just let them score for fucks sake" so we could get the ball back with some time. I like to think Harbaugh understood the situation, we couldn't stop them and the only way to win was getting the ball back. Harbaugh is the man.

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Michology 101

November 19th, 2015 at 1:28 PM ^

It just would've had a very bad look and possibly given IU a chance to decide not to cooperate and fall for it. If IU saw that's what we were trying to do, they might have just stopped near the one yard line and used more clock before scoring a TD or FG. I don't know if we let them score, but there was no need to make it obvious to IU.


November 19th, 2015 at 3:06 PM ^

We would have had more time than that - Howard scored with 2:52 left.  If we call the two timeouts and they run down the clock after 3rd down, they're probably kicking the field goal with around 1:50 to go.  I would rather have 1:50 and no timeouts, trailing only by 2, instead of 2:52 and two timeouts but needing a touchdown.

So I don't think it was optimal that he scored, although if he had to, it was good that he did before we burned any timeouts.  The real danger would be Howard going down outside the 10-yard line, so IU could pick up a first down and then kick the FG.  The key was for him to reach the 10, so that IU could only run a maximum of three plays.

Space Coyote

November 19th, 2015 at 11:54 AM ^

But it was only a 2 man route combination. Indiana had been biting down hard all day, regardless of the situation. The guy that made the INT even bit down on the play and was frozen for a little bit. Michigan gave a bunch of keys to indicate run (including keeping Butt in to block).

Two problems happened.

1. Rudock read the play pre-snap and shouldn't have thrown the ball. He didn't actually see the underneath defender, he just assumed where he was.

2. The Indiana underneath defender actually did a really good job gaining a lot of depth after initially biting down. It was something they didn't do well almost all game, but on that play he gained a lot more depth than normal and also high-pointed the ball.

So it shouldn't have been thrown, but it took a really good defensive play for it to be an INT. I don't have an issue with the play call.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:00 PM ^

Spot on. You don't line up in a heavy formation and run here. Or, at least, Harbaugh doesn't. I don't recall a single analogous situation this year where Harbaugh has gone in a shell and just played for a field goal. He wants to score touchdowns and calls plays that try to do that, even in tricky spots.

And if I don't recall it, Indiana coaches probably have a feel for his tendencies, too.

EQ RC Blue

November 19th, 2015 at 12:08 PM ^

You assume the defense expects pass, but why?  In that time of the game in that down situation, a FG is a desireable outcome.  Running twice and gaining 8 or 10 yards total dramatically increases the chances of a successful field goal.  Opposing coaches and players could and probably should take the threat of a running play seriously.  Lining up as Michigan did increses the odds they will.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:27 PM ^

I think you're dead wrong here. Here are some of the reasons:

1. The only time playing for a field goal is really the desirable scenario is at the end of a game when a field goal assures a win. In all other cases a touchdown is definitely superior.

2. Jim Harbaugh has shown no inclination to play conservative on 2nd & 20 type situations, and he is hardly the only coach to treat that distance that way. 

3. Given Indiana's defensive capabilities and Michigan's offensive success in the game, it was reasonable to believe that Michigan could successfully convert a long-yardage second down. They did it all day long. Why would they change?

4. Opposing coaches and players know that touchdowns are important; they also know that focusing on the pass can still allow them an opportunity to stop a couple of runs short of a first down.

5. Crucially: Opposing coaches and players DID NOT act as you suggest they should have, and they made absolutely the right call. The evidence says that they should have looked for pass, they did, and as a consequence they got a crucial turnover.


EQ RC Blue

November 19th, 2015 at 12:42 PM ^

1. Of course a TD is more desirable than a FG.  But if one play call will give you a 10% chance of a TD while another will give you a 90% chance of a FG down two late in the third, which is better?  And it's not like a run eliminates getting a TD in Michigan's situation.  Remember, a sack can take you out of FG range altogether.

2.  Harbaugh has shown the inclination to be aggressive, but also to be smart.  The question I'm posing is whether it was the smart play.  And other coaches take field goal position into account in long yardage situations in opposing territory.

3.  How many 2nd and 20s did Michigan convert on Saturday?  How many of their 46 passes went for more than 20 yards.  Again, even getting some yards on 2nd helds your FG position and increases your odds of converting on 3rd down.

4. I think this is covered.

5. According to Space Coyote above, the "guy that made the INT even bit down on the play and was frozen for a little bit."  So does that mean it was the right play call?  Maybe Jake just made a late or bad throw... 


November 19th, 2015 at 1:17 PM ^

1. Your 10/90% number is completely imaginary. Do you have actual, firm probability numbers on those scenarios? Here are actual numbers pulled from the stats: Michigan's tailbacks averaged 3.66 ypc for the game. Rudock average 9.6 ypa. Statistically that results in two runs to the 18 yardline for a makeable 35-yard field goal in the third quarter against a team that is gashing your defense... or two passes that get you to within a yard of the first down.

2. Coaches take field position into account, yes. Very few remain employed for long by giving up on any possibility of a touchdown in a game rapidly approaching shootout territory because they have two downs to gain 20 yards.

3. Michigan converted a 2nd & 29 on their second TD drive. In at least 3 other instances they converted when having 15 or more yards to gain.

A pass play also potentially nets some yards. Checkdowns, QB scrambles (which were working), things like that. Part of the complaint about this particular playcall is that there were only two men going out, so a yardage-eating checkdown was not available.

4. I disagree. Defensive coaches in that situation do not call defenses that anticipate running plays; it is far better to play the pass and give up a few extra yards on a run than to play the run and get beat for a TD. Indiana is not going to play a run-heavy defense in this down and distance.

5. He bit a little bit; if it was 2nd & 7, he probably bites harder and the play is open. A small bite may open a window, but Rudock needed more than a small bite.

I agree that it was a bad read or a late throw.

EQ RC Blue

November 19th, 2015 at 3:15 PM ^

3.  Interestingly, I went back to look at the play-by-play for the 2nd TD drive, and Michigan also converted a 2nd and 20 by running on 2nd down! Houma got 7 yards, leaving 3rd and 13, which they convereted on a 19-year (i.e., less than 20-yard) scramble.  So not only can it make sense, but Harbaugh had already showed that he would run on that exact down, 2nd and 20.  Also, I don't have time to check exactly what they did to convert when they had fifteen yards to go, but are you saying none of those involved runs?

1.  My numbers are arbitary, but they are also illustrative of the point that saying TDs are better than FGs is not the end of the discussion.  As to your numbers, Smith, who was in the game, averaged almost 5 yards per carry, and the numbers are skewed by the three runs for no yards at the end of regulation.  And running plays are less likely to get 0 or negative yards than passing plays even if the overall average is less, which is crucial when you are on the fringe of FG range.

2. Running on 2nd down does not give up any possibility of a touchdown.  See point 1.  And is 26-24 at the end of the 3rd (including a punt return TD) really a shootout?

4. Did Indiana play a different defense on that down than they did at other times?  And...

5. ... he did bite a little bit, which can make a big difference.  

Anyway, I'm not saying that running is obviously the right thing to do, or that the call was necessarily genius, but I don't think it was so ludicrous or crazy as to draw bafflement.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:34 PM ^

It is based on down and distance, expectation is pass. The first order misdirection is to fake the expected play and then run. Beyond that you can get cute and do double and triple reverse psychology, or factor in field goal percentages but it's diminishing returns in terms of the fake, because the LB you're trying to trick probably isn't running all those scenarios and is much more likely to just favor toward defending pass.

His Dudeness

November 19th, 2015 at 11:50 AM ^

When you talk about play action plays you're talking about deception, man. When you talk about deception what you're REALLY talking about is trying to be sneaky and I don't dig sneaky, ok? Like when I order a fruit cup and they fill it with that green melon. What is that crap anyway, man? BUt like I was saying before when you try to do something when youre talking about being deceptive every once in a while you trick even yourself into doing something some people might call dumb, but if it's dumb to a person who is decieved by your deception I was talking about earlier then is it really dumb or was it the right play all along?

WIn the game, man.


November 19th, 2015 at 11:53 AM ^

I think Our Fearless Leader said that on 1st and 10, the LB probably gets sucked up and the pass is likely open. On 2nd and 20, not so much. The issue isn't so much the PA as the general call there. You could argue that there was a good chance the LB would get sucked up, but obviously he wasn't.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:08 PM ^

The defenders are tained to read keys, so even if what the Key tells you (run on 2nd and 20) is stupid, Don't they still have to react to it? 

In other words, just because something is stupid, doesn't mean that someone's not trying it anyway, and the Defense will still have to defend that stupid thing.


November 19th, 2015 at 12:09 PM ^

If you have a play that you have repped as a play-action pass, wouldn't you just run it as a play-action pass irrespective of the situation?


November 19th, 2015 at 12:31 PM ^

I don't understand this argument (or the comment previously that suggest he threw a "duck"). He tried to arc the ball over the defender. He failed. That wasn't a problem with the pass--there was no "touch" pass that he could have thrown at the time he released it that would have successfully floated into the window that was available. He either needed to throw the ball sooner (probably still a touch pass) or to throw it away; it was a bad read.