Something is not quite right in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 27-20 overtime win over Indiana last Saturday did little to paper over the cracks. In Jim Harbaugh’s third season, Michigan’s offense has cratered.
On the ground and through the air the team has regressed.
Harbaugh has made the decision to zig while the rest of the sport zags. Pace-and-space offenses have engulfed college football. Yet Harbaugh and his staff remain staunch advocates and teachers of a more complex system, one built around power-run concepts and a rhythm-based passing attack. Harbaugh resurrected a dormant Stanford football program with a smashmouth style that became somewhat of a market inefficiency in a PAC-12 conference that had fully embraced spread-option principles.
He’s attempting to do the same at his alma mater, to varying degrees of success over two-plus seasons.
A complex and expansive system presents more opportunities for success (and to send guys on to the NFL!). But it also leaves the door open for more things to go wrong.
The team’s starting quarterbacks — Wilton Speight and John O’Korn — have come under fire throughout the season. Putting up just 58 passing yards in the win over Indiana did little to alleviate the concern. However, the offense isn’t intended to be a pass-first system. And the problems run much deeper than the most important spot on the field.
But the problems go beyond just a systematic failure, and trickle down from the top. The team has personnel issues and makes more mental errors than we are accustomed to seeing from a Harbaugh-led team. And the coach himself has contributed to the offensive futility with often odd scheming and in-game play-calling.
Let’s break down the major reasons for the Wolverines’ stagnant offense:
The offensive line and gap-run scheme
A power-run game, followed by heavy play-action. That’s the foundation Harbaugh is looking to build a champion upon.
The team sits 61st in the nation in rushing yards per attempt (averaging 4.4 yards), down 14 spots from a year ago (47th). That’s not close to good enough for a squad built around a ground-and-pound mentality.
Michigan’s gap running scheme is as intricate and expansive as any team in the nation outside of the service academies. Every angle matters. The rhythm matters. Blocks must be sequential, not strictly in unison. This isn’t a group of rhinos lining up and just smashing folks off the ball.
“It’s an offense that, to be successful, requires precision.” Harbaugh told reporters this week.
Linemen are constantly pulling and moving to out-leverage the defense and create better matchups at the point of attack. Running backs put their heads down and attack specific gaps.
It’s sophisticated and tough to execute down in and down out. It takes top-level coaching; linemen with nimble feet (as well as the smarts and internal clock to execute their blocking assignments); and backs with the vision and patience to navigate through the maze. You can’t arrive at the hole early. You can’t arrive late. You must arrive on time.
It’s tough. When it works, it’s damn effective.
At its best, a well-executed gap-run is poetry in motion: One side of the line angle blocks (contorting their bodies with the correct leverage to wall off defenders, or suck them in to charge downhill and gift space); someone pulls to seal an unblocked defender; linemen or fullback charge up to the second-level to take-on a linebacker or safety; and a running back follows in behind, galloping into the open field with ease.
It doesn’t get much better than this:
The group this year, however, has been inconsistent and disappointing. It’s been a home run or strikeout offense. Behind a line that has lacked the technical nous, mobility and sheer size to execute the sequential blocks, the team has spent long periods stuck in the mud. There are flashes where everything comes together, but no down in and down out consistency.
Tim Drevno, the team’s offensive coordinator and line coach, is one of best in the business. He’s followed Harbaugh from Stanford, to the NFL, and now to Michigan. He’s not only a talented schemer, he’s one of the best hands-on talent developers at any level of the sport.
Drevno was forced to re-jig the line coming into the season. It’s younger. It’s lighter.
It shows. Mason Cole, the team’s best lineman, has shifted from center to left tackle for the season, leaving a void in the middle of the unit. Cole was crucial as a point man for the rest of the line last season. He was the steady hand that held the point, shaped his body and had guys pull and move around him.
The majority of Michigan’s runs (more than 80 percent vs. Michigan State for instance) are targeted between the tackles. Having a top-level center who’s constantly in the correct position allows younger, often more mobile players to act as the pull blockers – a far simpler “see it, hit it” assignment.
The interior — center Patrick Kugler, and guards Ben Brederson and Michael Onwenua — has not been good enough. The team is conceding an average of 13.4 run stuffs per game (tackles at, or behind, the line of scrimmage), per College Football Film Room. The group last year conceded almost half that number.
The timing of the group has consistently been off. And all too often, the middle of the line has been swallowed by the opposing front before the team’s extra blockers — tight ends, fullbacks or anyone else — have been able to pull and seal the play.
Other times, plays have been buried by technical deficiencies. It’s become a regular occurrence to see that one player or more has panicked (see below) when they’ve seen an open defender into the backfield. They vacated their responsibility, and in turn, rendered everyone else’s carefully crafted assignment null and void.
Great offensive lines require great trust. Each lineman must trust his buddy beside him to execute his job. If not, the whole blocking mechanism falls apart.
They’ve also faced fronts that have set out to slant and angle through, rather than rush head-up against the linemen. That makes the job for the interior linemen much more difficult. They must get across the face of a slanting defender before flipping their hips and twisting them all the way back across their body.
Any kind of slanting or angling has consistently discombobulated four of the five starters, particularly the young pair of guards.
The play below from the Indiana game below is flat-out comical:
The right guard allowed the defender over his outside shoulder to slant inside.
The Michigan lineman was unsure whether he was supposed to seal a double-team with the center, or fire immediately up to the second. He left himself in no man’s land.
Outside of him, the right tackle was unable to get across the defender who had slanted inside; it was just too far for him to reach in time. Rather than leaving the left guard (who was pulling around) to seal off and trap the defender, he tried to hold and ride with the defender into the backfield.
It killed the play. The left guard (No. 74) pulled around and had no angle to take on the defender knifing through the line. He wound up running into and blocking his own lineman.
It didn’t end there. The pulling guard performed a pirouette, did a 180 from the line of scrimmage, and essentially tackled his own running back – the player he was supposed to be leading through a cavernous hole.
It was the perfect microcosm of Michigan’s intricate blocking mechanics this season: a little defensive wrinkle, poor technique, poor rhythm and a lack of trust. It’s tough to fix that at this stage of the season, regardless of the teacher.
Linemen missing their landmark and running into each other would seem like a one-time thing for a team that reps as many power concepts as the Wolverines. Nope. It’s a consistent trend.
The team has been much better on inside zone-runs, though. And Harbaugh should commit to them more moving forward.
Unlike a gap run, in which a runner is told to attack a specific gap, zone-runs present the back with options. They read their own line and the defensive front, look for crevices and bounce through a series of decisions and possibilities. Zone-runs also free up the offensive line to run off the ball, drop their pads and charge head-on toward the defense.
The interior guys also get help with a series of double-teams or scrape blocks.
Michigan’s crop of backs wouldn’t crack into the top-10 in the nation, but the members of the three-man rotating cast all have shown good patience, vision and burst on zone-runs.
If Drevno and Harbaugh are unwilling to move Cole back to center mid-stream (they won’t), they must switch up the plan and move to simpler zone-runs, putting the emphasis on the backs rather than the line.
Against Indiana, it was clear that the team made a decision to shift the focus to outside runs – toss plays, sweeps etc. – usually putting Cole into space to go hunting as the pulling lineman and using tight ends, guards and receivers to seal the edges rather than pull and move themselves.
It was a necessary change up, but it didn’t work.
It hasn’t just been in the run game either. The line has struggled just as much in pass protection.
Some of the issues that have plagued the Wolverines on the ground have carried over to the air: technique, and know how.
Defenses have targeted the Wolverines protection with zone-blitzes (a defensive lineman dropping out and another defender blitzing), Cross-Dog blitzes (a pair of blitzers crossing each other’s faces), and Green-Dog blitzes — an option-based blitz: If the offensive player the defender is set to cover stays in to block, then the defender becomes a freelance blitzer.
The line, along with whichever tight ends or backs are kept in to block, has done a poor job communicating and handing off blitzing defender. It’s killed the passing game on deeper dropbacks in which the quarterback needs more time for routes to develop.
The play above was a terrible decision and throw from O’Korn. Yet the quarterback was forced to release it with a defender sitting in his lap. Neither the tight end (No. 80) or the right guard picked up the blitzing defender.
Indiana slanted its defensive lineman inside, forcing the right guard and center to double-team him. That left a wide-open alley for the blitzing linebacker to fire into.
Still, the Wolverines had the numbers to block it up with ease. Either the guard should have handed the lineman off to the center and picked up the defender. Or, the tight end (who initially lined up as a fullback), should have slid across and picked up whoever came through the opening beside the guard.
By the time O’Korn released the ball, Indiana’s linebacker was sitting in his lap.
The throw had little chance even if the quarterback was kept perfectly clean. With a defender in his face, it had no chance.
With a roster this talented and staff this good, being out-schemed and out-executed up front for most of the year would have been unfathomable before the season started. But, strangely, that’s where the Wolverines are.
It’s not just been player development and player execution; the game-day coaching has been questionable at best. The team has sunk from 54th in yards per play a year ago to 84th this season — a state that accounts for tempo, the number of plays and variations in schematic styles.
Some of the play-calling has been downright odd.
Harbaugh and Drevno have opted to throw the ball on early downs more often than usual. A combination of poor quarterback play, an average crop of receivers, and bad protection has constantly left them in third-and-long situations, making it tough to convert and extend drives – they’re No. 107 in the country in third-down conversations (31.8 percent) down from No. 35 a year ago (43.2 percent), per TeamRankings.com.
On all seven of the team’s first-half drives against Michigan State, prior to the monsoon, the Wolverines threw the ball on first down or second-and-six-plus. That’s not Jim Harbaugh football.
It’s fair to note that some of these may well be box RPOs/Check With Me plays, in which the quarterback is given two plays: He checks to a run against a lighter box, or a pass against a loaded one.
The lack of a competent run-game has led the coaching staff to morph through necessity to a pass-heavy system, one the current roster is not equipped for.
Early in the down-and-distance they’ve been trying to take home-run shots off heavy play-action. They stack the box with heavy personnel, isolate one or two receivers, and let either quarterback take a shot downfield. Speight hit some. O’Korn has missed them all.
Shouldn’t have thrown:
O’Korn has been poor since replacing Speight, who went down with an undisclosed injury against Purdue and is excepted to miss “multiple weeks,” according to reports.
O’Korn, a Houston transfer, offers more mobility. However, that’s rendered largely useless when the team is put into a constant stream of tough-to-convert third-and-longs in a rhythm-based passing offense. If O’Korn continues to miss early down shots, Harbaugh needs to take a look at redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, a change he’s been resistant to thus far.
This is what happens when a roster is built around one foundational element that isn’t clicking. The team cannot trust its ground game on early downs. They’ve tried to help it out by looking to hit shots downfield, thereby forcing the defense to back up, lighten the box, and make it easier to run. It hasn’t worked.
A great play-action side doesn’t necessarily need a dominant run-game. That’s a misnomer. It only needs the illusion of a run. The offensive line, quarterback, receivers, backs must sell it just as hard as they would an actual run play. That’s part of what makes run-pass options so effective: The offensive line and running backs have no idea if they’re getting the ball or not, so they run the play with the same level of intensity.
It would be wise for Harbaugh and Drevno to convert some of the team’s heavy play-action attempts, in which the quarterback is turning his back to the defense, in to RPOs, where O’Korn can keep his eyes downfield.
O’Korn has struggled with turning his back, resetting his feet, and scanning the field. Even when play-action shots have been there (like in the earlier examples), his mechanics have crushed the play.
Michigan’s complex system is such that the run game and pass game should constantly serve and build off one another. So far, they’ve hamstrung each other.
Harbaugh and company need to re-commit to the ground game early in the down-and-distance with simplistic runs, and shift the style of some of the deep shot attempts. They’re simple tweaks that should help fix some of the sides bigger issues.
There’s no need for an existential crisis or calls for a complete overhaul. Harbaugh and his staff have designed a complex system that requires excellence from everyone in the building. It’s not there this season. There’s no quick fix that will transform the unit into a top-25 offense.
Harbaugh remains the right guy for the long term. His system remains one the Wolverines can win championships with. Yet for the remainder of the year, the offense will sink any championship aspirations.