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Inside the Numbers: Doug Nussmeier's Play-Action Plan

"Inside the Numbers" has been tracking Michigan's offensive plays this season. After only three games, one of Doug Nussmeier's play-calling tendencies has emerged. What is it? What does it mean? We reveal below.

Leon Halip

Tendencies are the backbone of a scouting report. When coaches and players sit in a film room together and scout their next opponent, they search for tendencies. How often does an opponent deploy a certain formation? What percentage of the time does that opponent call a run out of that formation? Is there a specific run play that the opponent prefers to call out of that formation? On what down and distance does that opponent like to call that run play? Is there a particular personnel group that the opponent uses to run that play? Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

On January 8, 2014, news broke that flooded the Michigan faithful with excitement and hope: Doug Nussmeier would be leaving his post as Alabama's offensive coordinator to assume the same position at Michigan. After enduring The Al Borges Experience for three seasons, during which Michigan's offense failed to exceed 300 total yards in a notable 12 of 39 games, Wolverine fans would have been satisfied with any suitable replacement. But the Nussmeier hire was universally praised as a smashing success given his credentials. As FOX Sports college football writer Bruce Feldman -- then with CBS Sports -- explained at the time of the hire:

Under Nussmeier's guidance, [Alabama] set records for offensive touchdowns (68), total points (542), total offense (6,237) and passing touchdowns (31) in the 2012 season -- his first with the Crimson Tide. Despite a rebuilt offensive line, [Alabama] ranked No. 6 in the nation [in 2013] in yards per play (7.15) and were ranked third in the nation in that stat in games against ranked opponents (7.59).

The style of Alabama's offense -- emphasis on pounding the football on the ground with some play action mixed in -- was one Michigan wanted to emulate now that Denard Robinson had graduated to the NFL. So what better candidate to lead that transition than the coach overseeing the offense you want to run? Exactly.

Even though my "Inside the Numbers" columns generally will feature intriguing Michigan statistics, records, and streaks, I have a keen interest in the effect Nussmeier will have on Michigan's offense. I have an interest in the formations he will use, how often he will use them, and the plays he will call from each formation. Essentially, I have an interest in Nussmeier's tendencies as an offensive coordinator and as a play-caller. There's that word again: tendencies.

So I decided to do what coaches and players do when preparing for their next opponent and scout Michigan's offense. Throughout this season, I have been tracking all of Michigan's offensive plays, categorizing them by opponent, quarter, game clock, field position, down, distance, formation, run or pass, play call, player making the play, and yards gained or lost. At the start of this project, my hope was that, as the season progressed and my database grew, tendencies in Nussmeier's play-calling would emerge and provide insight into the direction Nussmeier is taking this offense.

Guess what? Somewhat surprisingly, one of Nussmeier's tendencies has already emerged, and, truth be told, it was not that difficult to discover. Through three games, Michigan has gone under center -- aligned in an Ace, I-Form, I-Form Offset, or Goal-Line formation -- 69 times, or on 36.3 percent of its plays. No, this is not the tendency to which I am referring. Let's dig deeper. Of these 69 plays called from an under-center formation, Nussmeier has called a running play 44 times (63.8 pct.) and a passing play 25 times (36.2 pct.). Once again, this is not the tendency to which I am referring.

But, when you look solely at Michigan's passing plays when the Wolverines go under center, the tendency to which I am referring sticks out like a sore thumb. So what is it? Every single passing play Nussmeier calls when Michigan is under center is play action.

Every. Single. One.

Well, there is one exception. There was one pass Michigan has thrown from under center that was not play action. However, Nussmeier did not call for it. The lone non-play-action pass thrown from under center was the result of a check Devin Gardner made at the line of scrimmage against Notre Dame. Nussmeier called a run play out of the Ace formation, but Gardner, after surveying the Irish defense, thought Jehu Chesson had a one-on-one matchup he could exploit on the edge. So Gardner took the snap and, rather than hand the ball off, threw a quick pass to Chesson at the line of scrimmage, which is also known as a long handoff. But that is the only exception.

Therefore, every passing play Nussmeier has called for Michigan to execute out of an under-center formation that Gardner or Shane Morris did not check out of at the line of scrimmage has been play action.

When I first discovered this Nussmeier tendency earlier this week, I shared my finding with my followers on Twitter. Most of the replies I received were negative, expressing something along the lines of ...

... which is a sentiment that I totally understand and initially felt.

However, upon further reflection, I actually think I recognize what Nussmeier is trying to accomplish by calling only play-action passes out of under-center formations. Not only does this simplify the offense for a young and inexperienced offensive line -- something the offensive line desperately needs after last season's fiasco -- it gives the defense the same look at the outset on every play. Each play Michigan calls from under center looks like Gardner or Morris is about to hand the football off to Derrick Green or De'Veon Smith, so the defense has little choice but to cheat to the run, especially since the Wolverines call for a run almost two-thirds of the time when in those formations.

And this is where Nussmeier traps the defense. Of the 24 play-action passes called from under center, 16 of them have been called on 1st and 10 -- a standard down where the defense expects Michigan to run the football, especially out of these formations.

It should be no shock then that Michigan's play-action passes from under center have been quite effective thus far. In fact, Michigan's stat line on play-action passes from under-center formations: 15-of-20 (75.0 pct.) for 237 yards (11.9 YPA), two touchdowns, and one interception; three scrambles for 24 yards; one sack for minus-seven yards. Although it must be noted that much of this production was at the expense of bottom-dwellers Appalachian State and Miami (OH), I think fans would be okay if Michigan could sustain this production on play-action passes from under center.

What does this mean for Michigan in the future? At the moment, this is not a bad strategy for Nussmeier and the Wolverines. But, if I have picked up on this tendency, then you can sure as heck bet that coaches of Michigan's future opponents will include it in their scouting report. Opponents will continue to expect the run when Michigan goes under center, but they will also implement measures to protect themselves against play action. Whether those measures will be effective, we will see. We just may learn the answer on Saturday when Utah strolls into town.

So now would probably would be a perfect time for Nussmeier to open the playbook a bit when Michigan goes under center. Defenses are not expecting Gardner to drop straight back to pass without faking a handoff. It may catch them off-guard and open up some big plays for the Wolverines' offense. Plus, opponents will then need to scrap this tendency of Nussmeier from their Michigan scouting report and reevaluate.

And then we can do this -- discovering Nussmeier's new tendency -- all over again.