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Film Focus: Busting Michigan's Bowl Bid

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For the season finale of the "Film Focus" series, Maize n Brew provides an X's and O's breakdown of the play that busted Michigan's bowl bid.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This is a pointless exercise, but, whatever, I'm pot-committed at this point.

This past weekend, Michigan and Maryland met together on a freezing, dreary day in Michigan Stadium to play a football game in which most people had little interest. The Wolverines were 5-5. The Terrapins were 6-4. The Big Ten East had crowned its champion, Ohio State, earlier in the afternoon. The only real question that needed to be answered was whether Michigan would win and become eligible for a bowl invitation.

And Michigan needed to win because the odds of earning a sixth win in Ohio were slim.

Optimism that Michigan would be victorious brewed early in the third quarter. After the two teams traded field goals in the first half, Devin Gardner led Michigan on a 10-play, 66-yard drive to open the second half, which concluded with his 15-yard touchdown scamper to take a 16-9 lead. Then, on the ensuing defensive possession, Michigan held firm, forcing Maryland to punt from its own territory. That's when everyone inside Michigan Stadium and those watching on television thought the Wolverines had broken the game open: Dennis Norfleet had finally returned a punt for a touchdown.

Except he hadn't.

A needless block in the back away from the return was penalized, erasing Norfleet's long-overdue touchdown from the box score -- but not our memories or our hearts.

Unfortunately, it changed the entire game. Rather than own a comfortable 14-point lead in the second half, Michigan punted the ball back to Maryland, who proceeded to march into the red zone. The drive stalled, however, and it seemed the Terrapins would have to settle for a short field goal and trail the Wolverines by four points. But another critical Michigan special-teams mistake -- Jourdan Lewis roughing the kicker -- gifted Maryland a new set of downs inside the 10-yard line. The Terrapins capitalized on the very next play, scoring a touchdown and knotting the game at 16 points apiece.

Then, after Matt Wile missed a 39-yard field goal that would have reclaimed the lead for Michigan, tallying the home team's third special-teams miscue of the half, Maryland delivered the knockout blow that busted the Wolverines' best shot at a bowl bid.

***

In a tie game midway through the fourth quarter, Maryland is driving yet again. The Terrapins have just netted a 17-yard gain to cross into Michigan territory, setting up a 1st & 10 on the 39-yard line. They continue to run their no-huddle offense, quickly aligning in a four-wide shotgun formation with trip receivers to the field side. Michigan already has its nickel personnel on the field and hurriedly gets into position. However, there's some confusion in the secondary as Jarrod Wilson seems unsure where he should be. Nonetheless, he rolls down to mark the slot receiver, leaving Michigan with only one deep safety -- Dymonte Thomas, who just so happens to be on the far set of hash marks:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 1

When C.J. Brown calls for the snap, the inside slot receiver begins to peel back towards the field sideline, indicating that he's running a bubble screen. Wilson, who had been rolling down to mark the receiver, notices it immediately and crashes down with the hope he'll be able to blow this play up for a big loss. However, Wilson is not the only Wolverine that recognizes the bubble route. Field corner Raymon Taylor sees it, too. Taylor also sees Brown looking at the receiver running the bubble screen, so he focuses his attention on Brown, creeping forward to set the edge on the screen for Wilson:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 2

However, Taylor is caught peeking because the bubble screen isn't Brown's target. Instead, Brown is targeting the go route packaged with the screen. As Taylor creeps forward to stop the screen, the outside receiver Taylor is supposed to be covering, Amba Etta-Tawo, pretends to make a routine block before he explodes into his pattern. Taylor realizes he's been tricked and in no position to jam or obstruct Etta-Tawo. He tries to swing his hips as quickly as possible to recover, especially since he has no help over the top because Thomas started on the other side of the field. The problem, though, is that Brown knows Taylor has been burned and is already in his throwing motion:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 3

Uh oh:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 4

Crap:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 5

Taylor prevented a touchdown, but Maryland scored the game-winner two plays later:

Maryland FF: Fake Bubble Screen - 6

***

As this transpired, I laughed. It was either laugh or yell in utter frustration for the bazillionth time. I laughed not because this was yet another example that Michigan struggled to defend a spread offense when it goes uptempo. I laughed because it was another reminder of how broken Michigan's offense has become.

This fake bubble screen by Maryland is designed beautifully, and it all relates to the simple idea of having base plays and constraints. Base plays are plays that an offense runs regularly and executes very well. However, an offense just can't always run a base play because, over time, defenses will cheat to those base plays and shut them down. This is why base plays must have constraints -- plays that exploit when a defense cheats to the base play. Not only does this keep the defense honest, but it has the potential to hit big plays, like what happened on Saturday.

The fake bubble screen is set up, of course, by running actual bubble screens earlier in the game, which the Terrapins did with not much success. Nonetheless, the Michigan defense had now seen this bubble screen a few times, so they began to cheat towards stopping it when they saw the slot receiver peel back towards the sideline, which is exactly what Taylor did, peeking into the backfield and preparing to set the edge without worrying about his receiver. Accordingly, the offense, expecting this development, adds the wrinkle of the go route to burn the cornerback that's not honest. Maryland bided its time and waited until the decisive drive in the fourth quarter to unleash the constraint.

Voila!

When's the last time Michigan did something like that? When's the last time that Michigan ran a play that schematically exploited a defense's weakness for a large gain? There was the fake flanker screen that Michigan ran for a touchdown against Miami (OH) that I broke down in a previous installment of Film Focus. But that was in Week 3, and Michigan has yet to call a similar play again despite running numerous flanker and bubble screens thereafter. A few weeks ago, I discussed a bubble screen option off of a zone read that would have been a touchdown that Michigan has yet to try. That's the problem: there are opportunities, but Michigan isn't capitalizing, which is why the Wolverines have the third-fewest 30-plus-yard plays in the nation (10).

And, because Michigan refuses to run these plays and Maryland used a similar concept for a 36-yard completion during its critical fourth-quarter drive, the Wolverines, as a heavy underdog, need a win against their hated rival, Ohio State, in Columbus to become bowl-eligible. Maybe, just maybe, Michigan has been saving all of its wrinkles for The Game, and Michigan will unveil an integrated offensive gameplan that picks apart the Buckeyes' defense. But the odds of Michigan doing so are slim to none, which is why Maryland's fake bubble screen was the final nail in the coffin for Michigan.