Last Saturday, Michigan suffered its worst loss in the 42-game history of its rivalry with Notre Dame. The Wolverines were routed by the Fighting Irish, 31-0, and exited the rivalry on an embarrassing note. Because it is clear I am a glutton for punishment and torture, I re-watched the film to see exactly where it all went wrong for the Maize and Blue. Yesterday, I broke down and discussed Michigan's newly debuted press man coverage and how Notre Dame's wide receivers tore it to pieces. Today, I focus on the quarterbacks. More specifically, I analyze, using screen shots I captured via MGoVideo, how Everett Golson and co. were able to neutralize Michigan's pass rush and why Devin Gardner imploded in the second half.
Everett Golson, The September Heisman, and Michigan's Pass Rush
There has been a running joke that has arisen from the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry the past five or so years: the September Heisman. Each year, the meeting between the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish is labeled as one of the best on the September non-conference slate and generates a national audience. So, of course, the best player on the winning side is thrust into the spotlight and lauded by the national media as a Heisman Trophy contender in the month of September. It happened with Tate Forcier in 2009. It happened with Denard Robinson in 2010. It somewhat happened with Robinson again in 2011. It happened with Manti Te'o in 2012. And it kinda happened with Devin Gardner in 2013. It is a tradition unlike any other.
Film Focus: Michigan at Notre Dame (Part 1)
"Film Focus" reviews the Michigan-Notre Dame film and tries to discover exactly how the Wolverines laid an egg in South Bend. In Part One, we look at Michigan's problematic press coverage.
So guess what? It happened again. The winner of the September Heisman this season: Everett Golson. Simply, Golson put on a show against the Wolverines. He completed 23-of-34 passes (67.6 pct.) for 226 yards, while tossing three touchdowns to zero interceptions. He was poised in the pocket, elusive when he needed to be, and showcased his cannon with great accuracy all evening. Golson had a near-perfect performance, and any mistakes he did make were minuscule. Two games into the season, he already has some gaudy numbers: 37-of-56 (66.1 pct) for 521 yards, eight total touchdowns (five passing, three rushing), and no turnovers. Accordingly, ESPN's Heisman Watch slots Golson fifth in this week's poll. Like I said, the September Heisman.
There is no doubt that Golson resembled one of the nation's better quarterbacks against the Wolverines. Some of his throws were immaculate with pinpoint precision. What frustrated Michigan fans, though, was that it seemed like Golson was able to make these throws because he never felt pressure from the Wolverines' defense. I was bombarded with tweets during and after the game asking to where Michigan's pass rush had disappeared. After pouring through the box score and reviewing the game film, I have the answer:
Golson, Brian Kelly, and Notre Dame called passing plays with short, quick routes that neutralized Michigan's pass rush.
The first hint that this was the case was Golson's stat line versus Michigan. Through the air, he gained 226 yards on 34 pass attempts for 6.65 yards per attempt. This yards-per-attempt figure is below average, and there are two reasons for this: (1) Golson completed a decent number of deep balls but was otherwise inaccurate; or (2) Golson completed a high percentage of his passes, but they were thrown to receivers running shorter routes. Given that Golson's completion rate against the Wolverines was a fantastic 67.6 percent, Reason No. 2 is the winner.
I went to the tape to confirm what the statistics were suggesting, and the tape agrees. Plus, the tape also demonstrates how much a pass rush can be marginalized if an offense run primarily out of shotgun utilizes three-step drops and quick routes. For example:
This is the first play of Notre Dame's second possession of the game. The Irish are in a four-wide shotgun set, while Michigan is in its nickel package. Unlike the plays I diagrammed in yesterday's "Film Focus," the Wolverines are not in press man coverage. As you can see, all four Michigan defensive backs that are lined across from an Irish wide receiver are six to seven yards off the line of scrimmage. The two linebackers are Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden. The four defensive linemen -- from top to bottom in the screen shot -- are Brennen Beyer, Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow, and Mario Ojemudia.
Golson receives the snap and acts as if he will hand the football off to Cam McDaniel (mesh point circled above). Both Ryan and Bolden read this and crash down to provide support. It is no surprise that they do. Look at the blocking of Notre Dame's offensive linemen. They are run-blocking, not pass-blocking. The Irish left guard and center double Glasgow and drive him backwards off the line of scrimmage, while the other three defensive linemen have one-on-one matchups and hold their ground.
Except this is not a run at all. In fact, it is a pop pass, also known as a play-option pass. Given that Notre Dame's offensive linemen are run-blocking, this can be a running play. However, there pass options off of this play design if Golson makes the correct read. Here, Golson reads that Ryan and Bolden are crashing down to stop McDaniel, so he keeps the football and looks for his receivers. His first target is Amir Carlisle, who runs a quick out to the boundary (indicated by the yellow arrow).
As Golson starts to stare down Carlisle, Ojemudia and Beyer realize that Golson still has the football and is looking to throw. Both use effective rip moves concurrently against their respective blockers -- offensive tackles that are run-blocking and not employing proper pass-blocking technique. Ojemudia and Beyer move past these offensive tackles with ease and, if given another second or two, will meet each other where Golson currently stands for a sack.
But Ojemudia and Beyer never have a chance to lay a lick on Golson. Carlisle runs a quick six-yard out that creates plenty of separation between he and Delonte Hollowell. Golson sees this immediately and fires a bullet (smaller circle above) to Carlisle before either Ojemudia or Beyer is withing three yards of him (larger circle above). Carlisle makes a simple catch for a six-yard gain.
Although this play is different than the traditional quick-hitting pass due to the pop pass feature, it still represents the offensive strategy Notre Dame employed against Michigan. Michigan's defensive ends beat their blockers and had a path to Golson available. But the Irish neutralized the threat by connecting on a quick route to the boundary. There was nothing Michigan's pass rush could do on this pop pass. And this was not the only pop pass Notre Dame successfully used against the Wolverines in this game.
Notre Dame had the same success limiting Michigan's pass rush on traditional pass plays, too.
This is the second play of what will be Notre Dame's second touchdown drive. It is second-and-eight at the Michigan 22-yard line. Notre Dame is in a four-wide shotgun formation with trips to the field. Michigan is in its nickel package with two high safeties and Ryan aligned over Notre Dame's inside slot receiver to the field. The Wolverines' four defensive linemen, from top to bottom, on this play are Beyer, Matthew Godin, Ondre Pipkins, and Frank Clark.
A split-second before Golson calls for the snap, Blake Countess, on the far side, bails out of his press man coverage, which indicates that Michigan is in a Cover 3 zone on this play. Golson then takes the snap and drops back to pass. Notre Dame's wideout to the boundary and inside slot receiver to the field each run a drag route underneath. As these receivers cross, Ryan and Bolden stay in their relative positions, confirming the Wolverines are in a zone. And, while this all happens, Frank Clark screams off the edge in attempt to beat Notre Dame's right tackle on a speed rush.
Frank Clark wins the battle (circled above). He blows past Notre Dame's right tackle and bears down on Golson, needing just a split-second longer to earn the sack.
But, at the snap, Golson notices Countess bail out of press coverage and picks up on the tip that Michigan is in a Cover 3 zone. Knowing that Countess is sprinting to a deep zone and William Fuller is running a comeback route just past the first-down marker, Golson takes a quick drop and rapidly throws a dart to the spot to where Fuller is expected to come back. The football is released just moments prior to when Frank Clark can reach Golson and then hauled in by Fuller without any challenge by Countess to move the chains.
There is not much else Frank Clark can do here. Sure, he could try to be a bit faster on his speed rush, but it does not get much better than that. Unfortunately, Golson took a quick drop and had open receivers that had run short routes, which allowed him to mitigate any threat Frank Clark may have posed on that particular passing play.
And it happened again on the very next play except, this time, it was Beyer who was robbed of a sack.
After picking up the first down on Fuller's comeback on the previous play, Notre Dame is in a four-wide shotgun set, but there are no trips this time. Michigan is in its nickel package once again with Bolden aligned over the tight end, Ben Koyack, in the slot to the boundary. But this defensive call will have a few variations to it. First, Hollowell will blitz from the field. Second, Frank Clark, who is lined up as the defensive end to the boundary, will drop back. The other three defensive linemen -- Godin, Pipkins, and Beyer, from top to botom -- will rush the quarterback as usual.
Golson handles the snap and drops back to pass. Hollowell begins his nickel blitz from the field, but the Fighting Irish are ready for it as the right tackle kicks out to shut it down. Accordingly, Notre Dame's right guard, who is not as savvy of a pass-blocker as right tackle, is left alone to deal with Beyer (circled above).
Beyer confronts the Notre Dame right guard and gets his hands inside the offensive lineman's shoulders. With his hands in great position, Beyer then uses a quick rip move to the inside to get around the right guard. As you can see in the foregoing screen shot, Beyer wins his one-on-one battle and now has a lane to take down Golson in the backfield.
But (indicated by the yellow arrow) ...
Koyack runs a quick six-yard out route to the boundary. The man responsible for covering Koyack is Bolden, who, as a linebacker, is not as adept at pass coverage. Bolden gives Koyack too big of a cushion, which allows Koyack to be wide open on the quick out. Golson sees this, feels the pressure from, and connects with Koyack, who manages three extra yards after the catch for a nine-yard gain. Another sack just avoided by Golson and Notre Dame.
As you can see, it did not matter whether Notre Dame called a traditional or pop pass. Each featured short routes that were safety valves for Golson if he felt pressure from Michigan's pass rush. This was the case whether the Wolverines brought just four rushers -- as diagrammed above -- or a blitz with five or six rushers -- not diagrammed above. It happened over and over again. And, during the few times Golson did not have a receiver running a short route available to him, Golson was able to elude the rush (see: Frank Clark's spinning sack attempt) or roll out of the pocket with ease.
Michigan fans want to claim that the Wolverines' pass rush was non-existent, but this was not the case. The defensive line did a decent job of winning its one-on-one battles against Notre Dame's offensive line. The pass rush was there, but it is terribly difficult to notch a sack if the quarterback is releasing the football as soon as he completes his quick drop, which Golson did all night. The pass rush needed Golson to hold onto the football a bit longer to be effective, but because Notre Dame called pass plays with short routes, Michigan's defenders could not stick with Notre Dame's receivers on these routes, and Golson had the vision to see this develop, Golson neutralized the pass rush fully.
This is a key reason why Golson is the September Heisman.
Good Devin Gardner vs. Bad Devin Gardner
On the other hand, Devin Gardner displayed the two types of quarterbacks he can be: the one that is worthy of being called a September Heisman and the one that makes coaches and fans want to pull out their hair. We know Gardner can be a very good quarterback. How else do you explain Gardner owning the best career passer rating in Michigan history? This is not a feat one attains via luck. And just look at how Gardner opened against Notre Dame. He completed nine of his first 10 passes for 80 yards. This is a 90-percent completion rate with an average of 8.0 yards per attempt. This is very good.
However, once Notre Dame built its lead to 21 points, Gardner began to regress and fell into some bad habits that have plagued him at times throughout this career. One of these bad habits is his vision. It was well noted last season that Gardner, when dropping back to pass, had a tendency to lock onto his first target rather than go through his progressions. This led to Gardner either trying to force a throw into really tight coverage when he should not or scrambling out of the pocket without looking to see if his secondary or tertiary reads are open. This was somewhat understandable last season, when Gardner was operating behind arguably the worst offensive line in the nation. The hope, though, was that new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be able to rectify these flaws with a new offensive scheme and proper coaching.
Unfortunately, for Michigan, "Bad Gardner" reappeared at inopportune times against Notre Dame last Saturday.
It is near the end of the first half, and Notre Dame has just taken a 21-point lead on a demoralizing third touchdown. Although it is unlikely given the clock and distance, Michigan wants to try to add some points to the scoreboard before halftime. The Wolverines are in a four-wide shotgun set with trips to the field and will pass. Dennis Norfleet will run a post route, Devin Funchess will run a quick hitch, and Justice Hayes will leak out of the backfield as a safety valve for Gardner.
Gardner drops back to pass, and Michigan's offensive line forms a clean pocket for him. Looking to gain a good chunk of yards on this first-down play, Gardner's first target is Norfleet, who bursts into his post route over the middle. Gardner stares this down and hopes that Norfleet can become open as he runs across the field. However, Notre Dame's linebacker, Joe Schmidt, gets good depth on his drop into coverage and closes off any passing lane Gardner may have to Norfleet. At this same time, Funchess is open on his quick hitch, and Hayes is open as he runs out of the backfield.
Gardner continues to lock in on Norfleet. Once Gardner realizes that he will not have a safe throw to Norfleet, he steps up into his pocket despite the fact that Michigan's offensive line has kept it completely clean. Gardner tries to make his way up field, so he can scramble for yardage. What Gardner fails to see, though, is that he has two receivers wide open underneath -- Funchess and Hayes (circled above) -- and Notre Dame defensive tackle Jarron Jones has disengaged from Mason Cole's block to close off Gardner's lane.
Jones wraps up Gardner quickly as Gardner tries to scramble forward. It is only at this moment when Gardner actually looks up to see that he has Funchess open underneath. Gardner tries to float a pass to Funchess before he is tackled to the ground. However, the force of Jones' hit causes Gardner to throw a wobbler that falls at Funchess' feet for an incompletion.
Given the situation, Gardner cannot be blamed for trying to make a big play here. With 34 seconds remaining in the half, Michigan cannot afford to dink and dunk its way down the field for points. The Wolverines need to connect on a few big plays to put themselves in a position to score. So I understand that Gardner may have looked off or not seen Funchess and Hayes underneath.
But I do not think that is what happened because it does not explain why Gardner tried to take off despite having no pressure in the pocket. If Gardner hangs in there longer, maybe one of Michigan's outside receivers breaks open down field or when they come back to the football. Instead, he takes off as soon as he realizes that his first option is not open. The result of the play here was not significant, as Michigan loses only a down during a possession which is unlikely to end with points. Nonetheless, it represents this bad habit of Gardner's and foreshadowed the following game-changing play.
Two plays earlier, Gardner connected with Funchess on a 33-yard pass down the far sideline to set Michigan up in Notre Dame territory. Trailing 28-0, if the Wolverines are going to put together any semblance of a comeback, it needs to begin with this drive. They cannot wait any further.
Now, it is second-and-nine at the Notre Dame 39-yard line. Michigan is in a three-wide shotgun set with A.J. Williams aligned as a tight end/H-back to the left of Cole. Hoping to reel off another big play, Michigan's three wideouts will each run long routes down the field, while Williams will stay behind to provide additional pass protection for Gardner.
Gardner drops back to pass and has a clean pocket for a long three seconds, which is plenty of time for Michigan's wide receivers to sprint down field and out of frame. However, Williams cannot sustain his block against Notre Dame's defensive end and allows him to get inside (circled above). This collapses the left side of the pocket.
Gardner dances away from the pressure he feels to his left. After he spins away, he regains his poise between hash marks, where Gardner has no Irish defender within five yards of him and all of the time in the world to look down field for an open receiver (circled above). In fact...
Jehu Chesson (circled above) breaks off his route and cuts back across the field, shaking the Notre Dame defensive back covering him in the process. Chesson is WIDE OPEN in the middle of the field near the Notre Dame 20-yard line. Gardner, with not pressure near him, should be able to locate Chesson with ease and fire a pass that should either score a touchdown or at least set up the Wolverines inside the Irish 10-yard line. And yet...
Gardner somehow never sees Chesson. Gardner then panics and begins scrambling up the field for positive yardage before Notre Dame's pass rush begins to hone in on him. Gardner jukes his way to a four-yard gain before taking a blind-side hit that knocks the football free (circled above). Gardner's fumble is recovered by the Irish, and a play that very likely could have ended with Michigan's first points on the scoreboard results in an unnecessary turnover.
In addition to this fumble, Gardner threw three interceptions in the second half. I will not break them down frame by frame here, but they were the result of poor vision by Gardner. It is safe to say that his second-half performance was a far cry from how he produced in the first half. In the first 30 minutes, Gardner was cool, calm, and collected as he repeatedly made the right throws. But, in the final 30 minutes, as Michigan began to break out of the huddle later in the play clock and Gardner trusted his offensive line less, his vision betrayed him. He made multiple incorrect reads, which led to his sloppy play and fans calling for him to be benched in favor of Shane Morris.
I disagree with those fans. Michigan's best chance of winning games still is with Gardner handling the snaps. And you do not just bench a fifth-year senior quarterback with as much talent as Gardner has after one bad half. But there is no doubt that Gardner's bad habits have not been fixed. He still does not trust his offensive line to give him the time to go through his progressions. He still feels like he needs to run for his life if his first target is not open, even if he does indeed have the time to look down field. This can be a problem, And, unless Gardner learns how to keep his eyes up at his targets rather than his offensive line, Bad Gardner will continue to pop up this season.