Film Focus is back.
Last week, after Michigan State steamrolled Michigan, I asked whether I should continue writing this column for the rest of this season given that it was unlikely to see this team improve in the final month or Brady Hoke and his staff coach in Ann Arbor in 2015. I received a mixed response. Some said not to waste my time, while others said that they enjoyed the column despite its overwhelmingly somber tone week to week. I have decided to stick with it, although I likely won't touch on as many topics as I previously did. And my focus will be more on individuals that will be back next season.
You would think that this week's column would be much more upbeat after Michigan blew out Indiana, 34-10, this past Saturday. However, the truth is that there's not much to extract from this game. Offensively, Michigan faced a Hoosiers defense that traditionally has made discombobulated offenses look like juggernauts. For example, Michigan had a 200-yard passer, 100-yard rusher, and 100-yard receiver in the same game. The last time that happened? When Michigan faced Indiana last season. And, defensively, the Wolverines lined up against an offense that probably would have been better off with Tevin Coleman handling every snap at quarterback rather than Zander Diamont, a true freshman that had his redshirt removed mid-season because Indiana had no other scholarship options, or Nate Boudreau, a walk-on.
It's coincidence, but I'm not that surprised that Michigan beat Indiana by the same score that it beat MAC basement-dweller Miami (OH) earlier in the season. Without Nate Sudfeld, or any other capable quarterback on the roster (*cough* Tre Roberson *cough*), the Hoosiers are the worst team in the Big Ten -- Illinois would give them a run for their money, though -- and a MAC-level equivalent. Indiana's only chance to make things interesting was for Coleman to explode, but Michigan, to their credit, suppressed him. Coleman, who had been averaging 8.83 yards per carry, had a season-low 4.00 against the Wolverines, so the Hoosiers never threatened.
This was a nice win for Michigan. But it doesn't alter much for the final three games.
Nonetheless, here are two things that stood out after re-watching the Michigan-Indiana film. As always, the screen shots are grabbed from the video posted by MGoVideo.
Jake Ryan: MIKE or Mirage?
I know I just said I will focus more on players that'll return in 2015, but we need to talk about senior Jake Ryan. One of the biggest questions entering this season was how well Ryan would adjust from being a strong-side linebacker (SAM) in a 4-3 Under to a middle linebacker (MIKE) in a 4-3 Over. Initially, the results were not positive. No longer able to attack ferociously off the edge, Ryan was hesitant reading runs in the middle of the field, allowing himself to be sealed off at the second level, and often made improper coverage drops, which is one reason why quarterbacks have had little trouble shredding the center of Michigan's pass defense. Accordingly, I have criticized Brady Hoke and his staff for neutralizing one of their best defensive weapons with this shift.
But let's look at the stats for a second. In his last six games, Ryan has racked up 59 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. For context, only two other Big Ten players -- Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue -- have recorded at least 11.5 tackles-for-loss all season, let alone in their last six games. These are incredible numbers. Because Ryan has been stuffing the stat sheet like he has, he's earned two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors in the past three weeks. And, to add the cherry on top, Ryan is the middle linebacker for a Michigan defense that is ranked ninth in the nation in total defense and 16th in rushing defense.
So has my criticism of Hoke's shift of Ryan from SAM to MIKE been misplaced?
Possibly, to an extent, as I do believe Ryan is now more decisive with his reads versus the run, but I think he's benefited from facing one-dimensional offenses recently more than anything else. His two best performances were against Penn State -- a team that can only pass and only do so when its five turnstiles for an offensive line keep Christian Hackenberg upright -- and Indiana -- a team with no choice but to start its version of Russell Bellomy at quarterback. Ryan's improvement against these two teams is no coincidence, and the Hoosiers' offense played to his strengths perfectly.
What better for Ryan than to defend an offense that can't throw, giving him permission to attack the run without worrying about coverage drops? For example, on 1st & 10, Indiana is in a four-wide shotgun formation with trips receivers to the field side. Michigan is in its 4-3 Over but has only six defenders in the box because James Ross III is lined up over one of the wideouts in trips. Indiana will run a read-option that, for some reason I'm unsure of, will allow both Chris Wormley and Frank Clark to be unblocked. This is great for Michigan. Plus, Ryan, reading run all the way, will surge towards the line of scrimmage without hesitation at the snap:
This is why I'm unsure why Indiana did not block either Wormley or Clark. At the mesh point, Zander Diamont reads whether to hand the ball off to Tevin Coleman. The problem is that Wormley is crashing down the line, meaning a give to Coleman will have little chance of success, while Clark is sitting behind waiting for Diamont to keep it. Neither option looks promising, but Diamont decides that Coleman plunging forward is better than he trying to beat Clark to the edge. As this happens, Ryan has already engaged with two linemen at the line of scrimmage, trying to get play side:
Ryan sheds one lineman and now has only one left to beat. Ryan does this with ease because the momentum from his quick reaction to the snap helped him knock the remaining lineman off balance. Accordingly, this lineman is unable to seal Ryan to the inside, and Ryan forces his way into the lane where Coleman wants to run. And, even if Ryan had not done this, Coleman would have recorded only a minimal gain because (1) he's stumbling, (2) Wormley is about to crash down on him, and (3) Clark is squeezing down as well:
But Ryan's decisiveness and strength to fight through two offensive linemen and beat Coleman to the gap was the difference on this play. When Ryan gets to the play side of the lineman, his knee is in position to knock the football out of Coleman's grip as Coleman stumbles to the turf. Few players noticed the loose football, but Bryan Mone did. So he fell on top of it before a Hoosier could, earning Michigan its first takeaway:
Ryan did this throughout the game against Indiana. Knowing that the Hoosiers were running the ball almost every play, he pinned his ears back and attacked the line of scrimmage, preventing offensive linemen from picking him off at the second level. This made it difficult for Coleman and Indiana's rushing attack to generate any sort of rhythm until they caught Michigan's defense off guard with some tempo in the second half. Ryan was at his best on Saturday because his main focus was attacking, not protecting the middle of the field against the pass.
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This is why I think Saturday's performance should not necessarily be used as evidence that Ryan has made a full adjustment to MIKE. There's no doubt his reads against the run have been better, but he still has issues in pass coverage. I believe this is where Michigan really misses Desmond Morgan, who has missed nearly the entire season with an injury. Not only is Morgan as proficient against the run at MIKE as Ryan, he is much more consistent with his coverage drops. Morgan's absence has affected Michigan's pass defense more than some realize.
I still believe that Ryan has been Michigan's best linebacker this season and has done everything in his power to be the best MIKE he can be. He still has been quite the playmaker as indicated by his numbers and has helped anchor one of the nation's best run defenses. I just think that he has been out of position all season. Ryan thrives as a SAM in a 4-3 Under or as an outside linebacker in general. I think even Michigan's coaches have realized this as well. Why else would they continually put Ryan on the edge in obvious passing downs like this, even if Indiana is in the Wildcat on 3rd & 7?
At this point, with Morgan out and in line to receive a medical redshirt, there's no reason for Michigan to make a switch now. Ryan is Michigan's best option at MIKE and producing at a high rate statistically. However, don't be surprised if he's exploited in the middle in the final three games. I would not expect to see that happen against Northwestern because the Wildcats have one of the worst passing offenses in the nation. But against Ohio State's lethal aerial attack with J.T. Barrett? Watch out. Nonetheless, it's time that I dial back my criticism of Hoke for moving Ryan inside, even if it still wasn't the correct move to make before the season when Morgan was healthy.
Popping the Question: Should Michigan Run the Pop Pass?
It's no secret that Michigan's offense has lacked explosiveness all season. According to FEI, Michigan is 93rd in the nation in a stat called "explosive drives," which is the percentage of an offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play. Michigan's rank in this stat is no surprise given that the Wolverines have only six 20-plus-yard runs and three 30-plus yard passes in seven games against Power 5 schools. I could list all of the reasons why this is the case, but do you really want me to? Nah. Let's move on.
But you know what would be one great way to remedy this problem? Pop passes.
Pop passes are new-ish plays that innovative offensive coordinators have added to their playbook to keep defenses on their heels. What is a pop pass? In the simplest terms, it's a read-option or designed quarterback run that has a pass option to it. What happens is the offensive line blocks like a run has been called while the receivers run routes. The quarterback then reads how the defense reacts and makes a decision to either hand the football off to the running back, keep the football for a run, or throw the football. And this decision must be made before an offensive lineman is more than three yards past the line of scrimmage; otherwise, the offense will be penalized for having an ineligible receiver down field. The number and type of reads these pop passes have put a huge burden on a defense to try to stop all of them, which is why they lead to big gains often.
If you're still unsure what a pop pass is, know that you probably saw one of the first times it was ever run in college football back in 2010 (0:45 mark):
Yes, the first time I ever saw a pop pass was when Denard Robinson began a designed quarterback run, sucking in Notre Dame's defense, before hitting a wide-open Roy Roundtree down the seam for a touchdown in 2010. I remember, after watching it live, how mesmerized by it I was. And Notre Dame had no idea what hit them as Rich Rodriguez and the rest of the Michigan sideline cackled with glee. It looked so easy.
Nothing looks easy for the Wolverines' offense anymore, which is why they need to reinsert the pop pass into the playbook even if Rodriguez is in Tucson. No, Michigan is no longer running the spread offense under Brady Hoke and Doug Nussmeier, but the dissimilarities between the two offenses are not as numerous as you may think. In fact, Michigan is just one wrinkle away from calling a pop pass and bewildering its opponent.
I noticed this opportunity when re-watching the Michigan-Indiana tape. In the second quarter, Michigan had a 2nd & 5 at Indiana's 35-yard line. Michigan is in a shotgun formation with trips receivers to the field side. Also, tight end A.J. Williams is in a three-point stance to the field side. Indiana has its 3-4 personnel on the field but is in a funky formation that looks like a 4-3. On this play, Michigan will run a read-option, allowing the far-side outside linebacker that's at the line of scrimmage to come in unimpeded. Concurrently, Dennis Norfleet will run a bubble screen in an attempt to draw the three Hoosiers away from the hash marks to give Devin Gardner room to run if he pulls:
Gardner receives the snap and begins to read the unblocked outside linebacker running into the backfield. If the linebacker sits in space, Gardner should hand the ball off to Drake Johnson. On the other hand, if the linebacker crashes down the line of scrimmage to chase after Johnson, then Gardner should pull the football and keep it for himself. When Johnson reaches the mesh point, it seems like the linebacker is heading after Johnson, so Gardner gets ready to pull the football for himself. As this happens, notice the Hoosier that is responsible for Norfleet. He's peeking into the backfield, waiting to see if Gardner will hold onto the football:
Gardner makes the right read, pulls the football, and begins to run toward the line of scrimmage. There's a problem, though. The Hoosier that's responsible for Norfleet is full-blown sprinting towards Gardner to bring him down for a minimal gain. Do you see what I am seeing? Look at the top of the frame. Michigan has three players to Indiana's two, and there are no other players in the vicinity. The bubble screen is WIDE OPEN. If this was a pop pass, Gardner would see that Hoosier crashing down and throw it to the outside to Norfleet, who would have a sure 35-yard touchdown:
But this was not a pop pass. Gardner never looks at Norfleet because his only read was to hand the ball off to Johnson or keep the ball for himself. This is not Gardner's fault. This is just the play he was told to execute. However, because that Hoosier crashed down, and Jack Miller missed his block at the second level, Gardner is hit just one yard past the line of scrimmage before falling for an additional three:
Michigan picked up four yards when one additional read equaled a touchdown.
Nussmeier needs to add this wrinkle to his playbook now. Michigan has not run the pop pass once all season. Not once. Michigan's future opponents, like say, Ohio State, will not expect Michigan to call this play at all. If the Wolverines were to run a read-option, I believe that it is very likely that the Buckeyes would crash down on Gardner just like Indiana did. They would never expect Gardner to throw it to the outside after keeping on a read-option. And there would be no better way to surprise them than for Michigan to call the pop pass and see Norfleet or Devin Funchess or any other Michigan receiver jogging into the end zone for an easy touchdown.
Do it, Michigan. Because it's not like what you're doing now is working.