On Saturday, Michigan snapped its three-game losing streak by securing an 18-13 victory versus Penn State, doing so in just the third night game ever to be played at Michigan Stadium. Despite the dazzling, mesmerizing halftime show performed by the Michigan Marching Band, this game was by no means aesthetically pleasing. The score was low ... and odd. Both teams combined for more punt yards (312) than yards of total offense (179) after the intermission. Coaching blunders were abound on both sidelines. It was a mess. Re-watching the tape confirmed as such.
But re-watching the tape also revealed what the Wolverines did to ensure that their players could sing "The Victors" with their fellow students in the northwest corner of Michigan Stadium afterwards and that over 110,000 spectators could head home dancing like Dennis Norfleet. A win is a win, and, given how this season has progressed, I am not sure how many more Michigan will be able to celebrate. So let's see what the Wolverines did correctly -- and incorrectly -- against Penn State.
As always, screen shots below are courtesy of MGoVideo.
Sack a Hack(enberg)
In last week's "Film Focus" column, I shredded Michigan's defense with my words almost as badly as Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova did with his passes on the football field. Okay, I lied. What Nova did was way worse. Nova -- a quarterback that has been mocked endlessly by opposing fan bases, including the one with an affinity for the Wolverines, for his turnover tendency and disastrous decisions -- posted a career-high 404 passing yards, 10.4 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. And a reason why Nova looked like an All-American was because Michigan's defensive line could barely sniff him each time he dropped back to pass.
So, with Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg strolling into Ann Arbor, questions were centered on how Michigan's defense would contain the future first-round NFL Draft selection, if it could at all. The answer keyed not so much on Hackenberg's inherent abilities but on the shoddy offensive line in front of him. As Black Shoe Diaries senior writer Devon Edwards explained in last week's Q&A:
Hackenberg's greatest weakness is the offensive line. When he's had time, Hack's generally been able to find open receivers, and get the ball where it needs to be. I'm no scout, but Hackenberg really is a prototypical NFL quarterback .... However, when he's getting hit half a second after receiving the snap, there's no chance but to run for his life and hope the primary target can come open.
The formula was simple: pressure Hackenberg, shut down Penn State's offense.
Did the Wolverines follow the formula? After sacking Hackenberg six times and holding Penn State to only 13 points and a season-low 214 total yards, they answered with a resounding yes. Of the 40 times Hackenberg dropped back to pass, Michigan pressured him 20 times, which included 13 hits. This is a significant improvement in pressure rate over what Michigan mustered against Rutgers. And the rate would have been even higher if Penn State did not rely on three-step drops, screens, and other quick passes in the second half.
Michigan got in Hackenberg's grill in various ways, too. There was no one tactic on which Michigan needed to rely. One example is when Penn State had a 2nd & Goal on U-M's 9-yard line early in the second quarter. The Lions are in an I-formation with twin receivers to the field side and a tight end to the boundary. Michigan counters with press man coverage in its 4-3 Over. There will be no blitzes, so this is a pure four-man rush. Penn State will call a play-action pass, hoping Michigan's defense will suck in on the fake and leave the tight end open on the corner route:
At the snap, Michigan's defense does not bit. James Ross III jams the tight end and prohibits a clean release into the end zone. This forces Hackenberg to look at his secondary and tertiary reads, both of which are slants from the twin receivers. As this happens, weak-side defensive end Mario Ojemudia whisks by the left tackle off the edge, while strong-side defensive end Brennen Beyer discards running back Zach Zwinak with a fierce punch with his right arm:
Ojemudia grasps at Hackenbergs's ankles, so the Penn State quarterback pushes forward in the pocket. Not even a split-second later, though, Hackenberg surrenders any shot of finding an open receiver and attempts to scramble. But to no avail. Beyer crashes in from the far side, grabbing Hackenberg with one hand and spinning him, just as defensive tackle Chris Wormley sheds his blocker:
Wormley shuts all lanes through which Hackenberg may try to escape, allowing he, Ojemudia, Beyer, and linebacker Joe Bolden to all jump on top of Hackenberg for the sack, moving the Lions back two yards. Ojemudia and Wormley each were credited with a half-sack, but this accomplishment should be attributed to Ojemudia and Beyer winning their one-on-one battles while Wormley slammed the front door:
A defensive coordinator always is thrilled when his defensive line can generate a natural pass rush without any assistance, as Michigan's did in the play diagrammed above. But there are instances when the defensive coordinator needs to pull out a few tricks to give the pass rush a jump-start. One such way to do so is to have two defensive linemen stunt with the goal that it will free up a pass rusher. So Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison called one when his defense was looking to hammer the nail in the coffin.
With less than three minutes left in the game, likely needing a field goal on this drive to even the score, Penn State is in a dismal situation. It is third down, and the Lions will not be able to move the chains without a 19-yard gain. So they align in a three-wide shotgun set and call a long-developing pass. Michigan is in a 3-3-5 nickel package with both safeties playing deep in prevent. Mattison will rush only four Wolverines, which includes defensive tackle Matthew Godin and weak-side defensive end Frank Clark stunting and linebacker Ben Gedeon blitzing after a brief delay:
As Hackenberg drops back and waits for a receiver to break open down field, Godin stunts to the outside before using his brute strength to bulldoze through two Penn State offensive linemen back inside. This not only brings pressure upon Hackenberg in the pocket, but it also open a lane back to the outside for Clark. The Lions' offensive linemen may have had little trouble passing Godin and Clark to one another on the initial stunt, but there have no chance of doing so a second time:
Godin's initial pressure in the middle was enough to nudge Hackenberg to his right into path Clark is taking at the Penn State quarterback. In a blur, Clark bears down on Hackenberg and even runs through an obvious hold as a Penn State offensive lineman claws at his jersey from behind after he popped back the outside:
Clark lays both hands on Hackenberg and tosses him to the turf for a pivotal sack -- I would like to see Clark use more of a form tackle here after Nova slipped out of Clark's sack attempt last week -- that puts Penn State in a 4th & 32 from its own 3-yard line:
Natural four-man rushes worked. Stunts succeeded. And Mattison dialed up multiple blitzes that flustered Hackenberg, two of which resulted in a Jourdan Lewis interception and an intentional grounding. It was as if Michigan's defensive front could do no wrong, which was the exact opposite of what transpired at Rutgers last weekend.
However, I am of the opinion that this was because Penn State's offensive line is so poor, not because the light bulb suddenly clicked for Michigan's pass rush. For instance, on the Lions' opening drive, they had 3rd & Goal on the U-M 11-yard line. Given the down and distance, Hackenberg will need to let one fly, so Penn State sets up in a three-wide shotgun set with trips to the field side. Michigan is in a 3-3-5 nickel package, pressing the receivers while Gedeon readies for a delayed blitz:
The three Michigan defensive linemen are stoned at the snap. This should not be a surprise for Clark or Godin, who are double- and triple-teamed, respectively. However, it is a surprise that Beyer cannot shed the single block from the tight end. With the number of blockers Penn State has to Michigan rushers, it seems like Hackenberg will ages to wait for a receiver to create separation and become open in the end zone. Except, just as Zwinak departs the backfield, Gedeon begins his delayed blitz:
Gedeon surges right past Zwinak, who turns his head in wonderment, and bursts in to the backfield untouched. Hackenberg scurries to his right in an attempt to avoid the heat. But the attempt is futile because Gedeon, who has been dubbed "The Freak" by some, closes the gap and hauls Hackenberg down by his legs. The sack forces Penn State to settle for a short field goal rather than open the game with seven points:
These are the breakdowns that plague Penn State's offensive line routinely. This never should have been a sack. How do five offensive linemen block only two Michigan defensive linemen? How does Zwinak allow Gedeon to blitz right past him without an attempt to chip him? These are not instances where Penn State's offensive linemen physically lost a one-on-one battle. These are examples of rampant miscommunication and missed assignments, which is something Michigan fans were all too familiar with last season. There is little cohesion along Penn State's offensive line, which is why the Nittany Lions are tied for 116th nationally in average tackles-for-loss allowed, are tied for 119th in average sacks allowed, and likely have the worst offensive line in the Big Ten.
Michigan will not have the benefit of facing the conference's worst offensive line each week for the remainder of the season. Rather, the offensive lines of Michigan's future opponents are of a much higher quality, especially Michigan State's, which allows the fewest sacks per game in the nation. I need to see more evidence that Michigan's defensive linemen can win one-on-one battles against stronger, better, and more experienced offensive linemen. Until then, I expect the number of sacks Michigan averages in its remaining games to fall back to two per game like it was through the first six games of the season, not near the six that the Wolverines totaled on Saturday.
Blameless Blake Countess
This has been a very forgettable season for Blake Countess. Countess entered the year with sky-high expectations after turning in an All-Big Ten campaign in 2013. He was projected by many to be one of the Big Ten's two best cornerbacks and changing his uniform number to No. 2 -- the number that former Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson made legendary at Michigan -- only added to the heap of hype.
However, he has failed to match those expectations, and it really has not been close. Michigan's shift away from a soft zone defense to one that emphasizes press man coverage has exposed Countess. This season has confirmed that Countess is a zone merchant, one that baits quarterback into throwing towards zones he has covered, not a corner that possesses the proper footwork or technique to thrive in press coverage. Just ask Notre Dame and Rutgers, two schools that absolutely torched Countess all game long. It has gotten to the point where I have called for Countess to be demoted to either nickelback, or even worse, because his presence on the field is hurting Michigan.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that everything Countess should blamed for everything. Yes, he whiffed when he tried to sack Christian Hackenberg on a corner blitz and allowed a Penn State receiver DaeSean Hamilton to release too easily on a corner route for a 20-yard gain. And, yes, Countess was the corner marking Hamilton a few plays later when he snagged Hackenberg's only touchdown pass. Because of everything that had happened this season, in the moment, I believed Countess was at fault. But, upon further review, there was not much more he could do.
The Nittany Lions face a 3rd & Goal at the U-M 10-yard line. They are looking to reach the end zone, and, in this situation, throwing the football is pretty much the only option. Thus, Penn State is in a three-wide shotgun formation with twin receivers to the field side, one of which is below the frame. Michigan counters with its 3-3-5 nickel defense and press man coverage. Countess is covering Hamilton, who will run a post, in the slot to the near side:
At the snap, Hackenberg drops back and, on a rare occasion, finds himself with a clean pocket. He begins to scan to his left to see if one of the two receivers running routes on that side are open. One of those two receivers is Hamilton. Countess was in a position to jam Hamilton at the line of scrimmage, but, because Hamilton releases to the outside, Countess just turns and runs step for step with Hamilton to the inside:
Hackenberg still senses no pressure in the pocket, indicating that his offensive line has won this round, which is key because Penn State's receivers generated little separation on their routes. So, as Hamilton begins to cut out of his break on his post, Hackenberg delivers a laser towards him even though Countess is blanketing him:
As indicated by the yellow circle below, Hackenberg's bullet hits Hamilton in the left thigh, where essentially only Hamilton can make a play on the football even though Countess is in Hamilton's jersey. Hamilton is able to hold on for the touchdown, leaving Michigan fans to wonder aloud what has happened to Countess:
Here, could Countess have played this better? Sure. He could have played a bit more underneath that may have allowed him to undercut Hamilton's post route for an interception. He also could have snapped his head around faster, which may have given him an opportunity to knock down the pass before it reached Hamilton's left thigh. But this would be picking nits because Countess' coverage here was actually very good. Sometimes, you are the victim of a perfect pass, and there is not much you can do about it. This was one of those passes by Hackenberg and an example why NFL scouts are drooling over him.
The Resurrection of Mr. Ross the Third
Welcome back, James Ross III.
Following a freshman season in 2012 during which Ross III saw a significant number of snaps at outside linebacker and flashed great promise, expectations were quite high for him in 2013. He was penned in as the full-time starter at WILL -- weak-side linebacker -- and, with the presumption that a talented sophomore in such a situation would develop rapidly, he seemed on track to become an All-Big Ten linebacker in the future.
However, in the past season and a half, Ross III's trajectory had shifted. In 2013, despite recording the second-most tackles on the roster with 85, Ross III underwhelmed because Michigan's defensive line allowed offensive linemen into the second level too easily, which then permitted them to pick off the undersized Ross III and neutralize the instincts that made him such a force as a freshman. Then, in the first half of this season, he was a casualty of Michigan's transition from a 4-3 Under to a 4-3 Over and heavy deployment of nickel packages, for which the nickelback replaced him. This is why Ross III had only nine tackles through the first six games of 2014.
But, even though he managed only three stops against Penn State, Ross III bounced back in a big way. The number of stops do not tell the story. Ross III was all over the field, and the plays he made did not show up in the box score because he was setting up tackles for his teammates, not for himself. This was never more evident than when Ross III, as the SAM, also known as the strong-side linebacker, needed to set the edge on the outside to force a play back inside to his fellow Wolverine defenders.
For example, Penn State has 1st & Goal on U-M's 7-yard line. The Lions are in an I-formation with twin receivers to the field side and a tight end to the boundary. Michigan responds with a 4-3 Under with Ross III as the outside linebacker to the boundary and safety Jarrod Wilson rolled down into the box. Penn State will run power to the boundary for which running back Bill Belton will have three lead blockers: two pulling guards and the fullback. Ross III, the furthest Wolverine to the boundary, must not allow the pulling right guard (#72) to block him inside. If that happens, Belton will have a clear path to the end zone. Therefore, Ross III must set the edge, beat the block, and force Belton back inside, where fellow linebackers Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden can clean up:
Belton receives the handoff and runs power to the boundary, following his three lead blockers. Before I get to Ross III, whom I want to focus on for this play, I must applaud strong-side defensive end Taco Charlton. For Penn State's power to succeed, tight end Jesse James (#18) needs to execute a down block on Charlton to seal him to the inside. Yet Charlton completely overpowers James and drives him back two yards into the path of the pulling left guard. This effectively wipes out one of Belton's three lead blockers and leaves Bolden unaccounted for to stop Belton even if Ross III does not do what he does next -- notice Ross III is positioned to the outside and has leverage with his pads:
In addition to setting the edge, which would have been sufficient for Bolden to bring Belton down for a loss of one yard, Ross III obliterates #72, who falls backwards onto his behind. This was not some wide receiver that Ross III just trucked. This was a 6'3", 291-pound right guard that the 6'1", 227-pound Ross III just blew back into Belton, who has no choice but to stumble and slow down. At this point, the play is done. Belton can either cut inside into the arms of Bolden and Ross III or bounce outside to where Ross III can still track him down and Ryan waits for a larger loss:
Belton chooses the latter option and is hauled down by Ryan for a four-yard loss:
As you can see, Ross III, with an assist from Charlton, is the reason why this Penn State run was such a failure, yet it was Ryan who earned the credit for the tackle-for-loss, not Ross III. The other times Ross III set the edge and disrupted led to him making the stop. Nonetheless, this diagrammed play is why I write this column: to recognize those for plays made that show up on the film but no in the box score. Ross III had his best game of the season on Saturday, which is why he has his own section in this column this week.
Will Ross III have a section devoted to his positive play in future weeks of this column? Time will tell. Like what I wrote in the first section about Michigan's pass rush, Ross III very much benefited from facing an offensive line that just may be worse than the one Michigan had last season. It was rare to see Penn State's offensive linemen rumble into the second level to block linebackers. Generally, Ross III had free lanes through which he could run to set an edge and make a play. This likely will not be as easy to do in Michigan's remaining five games when the Wolverines compete against much, much better offensive lines. And, if those offensive linemen are able to get into the second level regularly, Ross III's instincts may be neutralized like they were much of last season.
Mike Hull, My(ke) God
It is only appropriate that Penn State's Mike Hull has that first name. As Penn State's middle linebacker, which is also referred to as a MIKE in football, Hull is the centerpiece of a ferocious run defense. Before Saturday's contest, the Nittany Lions were ceding the fewest rushing yards per carry (1.99) in the nation. And, while Penn State's vicious defensive line deserves much of the credit for this, consuming offensive linemen and providing Hull with open gaps to make plays at the line of scrimmage, Hull still must prove he has the instincts and skills to do it.
And, boy, does Hull have them.
On this play, Michigan has 1st & 10 on its own 29-yard line. The Wolverines are in a two-wide shotgun formation with twin receivers to the field, while Penn State is in either a 4-3 Over with a linebacker over Michigan's slot receiver or in a basic nickel package. Michigan will run a sweep with De'Veon Smith to the boundary, pulling both center Jack Miller and left guard Graham Glasgow as lead blockers:
At the snap, both Miller and Glasgow pull immediately to their left. As soon as they begin to pull -- and I mean as soon as that happens -- Hull reads that this play will be run to the boundary and takes off. Just look at the screen shot below. Hull is already a yard ahead of the other Penn State linebacker and flying towards the gap vacated by Miller and Glasgow before Smith has even received the handoff:
While Smith is not the speediest running back, there are not many running backs that will be able to avoid Hull on such a play. Hull shoots the gap and tracks down Smith in the backfield before Smith can cut upfield, where his blocks are in place. So, rather than Smith picking up a minimum of five yards on this sweep, Hull's instincts and ability allow him to drop Smith for a three-yard loss single-handedly:
Hull did this over and over and over again all night. He was an absolute nightmare for Michigan's rushing offense. Just check the stats. Michigan rushed for only 2.79 yards per carry even after sacks were removed, while Hull finished with a game-high 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and a sack. Michigan's rushing offense and inexperienced offensive line will continue to have problems for the rest of the season, but I do not believe they will face a middle linebacker as talented or instinctual as Hull, who should make the All-Big Ten first team at season's end.
The Devin Connection: Restored
Oh, look, Michigan does have a 6'5" monster of a wide receiver that it can lob the ball up to, even if the defense plays its coverage correctly and the pass is poorly thrown:
This 43-yard touchdown by Devin Funchess, which occurred because Penn State safety Ryan Keiser tried to intercept the pass like he was returning a punt rather than high point the football, was Michigan's longest of the season.
Maybe the Wolverines should try doing this a bit more often.
Hoke and Franklin Need To Be Put on Timeout
Each week, Brady Hoke seems to find new ways to mismanage the game or his players. There was the time when Michigan had only 10 players on the punt team against Utah, allowing the Utes to score a crucial touchdown. There was the time when Hoke and his staff allowed Shane Morris to play two snaps although Morris clearly displayed concussion-like symptoms against Minnesota. There was the time when Michigan fielded only 10 players on its punt return team against Rutgers last week. So it should be no surprise that Hoke made a decision that left everyone scratching their heads against Penn State.
But do not worry: James Franklin made one, too.
Let's start with Hoke's since it occurred first. Very late in the first half, Penn State had the football and was trying to scratch something together to score some points before the intermission. However, after the Lions were stopped one yard short of the first-down marker, which was at the PSU 40-yard line, on third down with no timeouts and fewer than 30 seconds remaining, they were content with permitting the clock to run out and running into the locker room:
But Hoke was not so content, so, with three seconds left on the clock, he called Michigan's final timeout:
Hoke wanted one last shot at a touchdown before the half and thought the timeout would force Penn State to punt to Dennis Norfleet. In some scenarios, such a decision would be optimal. One of those scenarios would be if Penn State was inside its own 10-yard line. Why? Christian Hackenberg cannot throw a football 100 yards. Another such scenario would be if there were more than 15 seconds on the game clock. Why? Franklin would not be as inclined to try a Hail Mary from near midfield because, if it falls incomplete, Michigan would be gifted with prime field position with some time remaining on the clock.
But Hoke did not call his final timeout in either of these scenarios. Rather, he called it when Penn State had the ball on its own 39-yard line with three seconds left. Guess what? Penn State will never, ever punt in this situation. Instead, Franklin will put the ball in Hackenberg's hands to chuck a ball 60 yards, something that a quarterback with one of the strongest arms in the nation has no problem doing, on the final play of the half. And that is exactly what Hoke allowed Penn State to do by calling his final timeout with three seconds left rather than calling it with 18 seconds left like he could have or, heck, not calling it at all.
To make matters worse, this thought that Penn State would try a Hail Mary never crossed Hoke's mind. How do I know? Because Hoke had his punt return team on the field as Penn State's offense trotted back onto the gridiron. Just look at this screen shot of Hoke, in which he is screaming at Norfleet to sprint off the field before the ball is snapped:
Thankfully, Brennen Beyer sacked Hackenberg before he could unleash a bomb, ending the threat, but it does not change the fact that this was atrocious game management by Hoke as he very well could have handed free points to Penn State.
Of course, Franklin did not want to be outdone, so he had his own moment of game-management "brilliance" late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 16-13 with more than two minutes remaining, Penn State was sacked for a big loss, which set the Lions up with a 4th & 32 from their own 3-yard line:
Although Penn State needs points on this drive, there is no way Penn State can try to go for it when it is 4th & 32 on its own 3-yard line. The odds of the Lions converting a first down are essentially zero. The right move here is to take an intentional safety, give Michigan the free two points, and try to recover the ensuing onside kick. Yes, this robs Penn State of the chance of kick a game-tying field goal, but, if the onside kick is recovered, the Lions would have the ball with better field position and a clock that Michigan has not been able to kill.
After the sack, Franklin should tell the offense to snap the ball quickly and have Hackenberg fall in the end zone for a safety. This does not happen, though, as Franklin sends out the punt team. And, then, to compound the problem, Penn State allows the play clock to run all the way down, allowing 33 of 137 seconds on the clock to run off, before...
... calling one of its two remaining timeouts:
Franklin made a mistake by not taking the intentional safety immediately. He then made another mistake by allowing the play clock to run all the way down, killing 33 seconds on the game clock when Penn State needs all the time it can have. Franklin would later clarify he called the timeout because he wanted to ensure that his punt team knew to take an intentional safety. That is great and all, but ...
Why call timeout?!
Take a delay of game penalty! It would have costed Penn State only 1.5 yards when it was already 4th & 32. Penn State did not need those 1.5 yards, especially because Franklin was already intending to take an intentional safety. But the Nittany Lions did need that second timeout. Badly, whether or not they were able to recover the onside kick.
This game made it clear that, with regard to game management, both Hoke and Franklin need to be put on timeout.
The Offsides Onside Kick
Ah, yes, the offsides onside kick. Penn State fans were screaming that the fix was in after these Big Ten referees flagged the Nittany Lions for offsides on an onside kick that they recovered. If unflagged, Penn State would have had the football with an opportunity to score a touchdown to win the game. However, because of the flag, the Lions were forced to re-kick after a five-yard penalty was assessed, and the Wolverines recovered, allowing Michigan to run out the clock without Penn State getting another crack at it.
In the moment, I agreed with Penn State fans claiming their school had been screwed. I did not see how offsides could be called because I did not think it was close. But, after investigating the matter further, I believe it was much, much closer than some Penn State fans would care to admit. In fact, it may have actually been offsides:
If any part of any player on the kicking unit crosses the front side of the 20-yard line before the football has been kicked off the tee, that player is offsides. Therefore, I found the screen shot that shows the precise moment when the ball has been kicked off the tee. If any Nittany Lion is crossing the thin red line I have added, offsides would be the correct call.
As you can see, it is that close. I cannot make decision either way because the camera taking this shot is not set directly on the 20-yard line. The slight angle with which we view this play is enough to cast doubt on any determination one makes about whether or not offsides was correct call. Anyone that says that they are 100-percent certain one way or the other is lying, essentially. So did Michigan benefit from a bad call? Possibly. Was it the right call? Also possibly.
But would another call have altered the game's final score? Given that Penn State mustered only 65 yards of total offense in the second half and would have needed to travel about 70 yards in 90 seconds for a game-winning touchdown, I am going to go on a limb and say that the outcome likely would have been the same.
But you never know.
Dancin' Dennis Norfleet
Let's end this on a high note. Take us away, Dennis.