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Film Focus: Michigan's Offense vs. Northwestern

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Jake Rudock had his best game as a Wolverine against Northwestern. Why? Drew Hallett explains in this week's Film Focus column.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Entering last weekend, the vast majority of prognosticators believed that Michigan-Northwestern would be a knock-em-down, drag-em-out brawl. I know I did. The Wolverines had the second-best scoring defense in the nation, and the Wildcats were the only team with a better one. Michigan was a significant favorite because it had an average offense, while Northwestern had a poor one, but it still was supposed to be a struggle for the Wolverines to produce points on Saturday.

It wasn't.

By halftime, Michigan had 28 points on the scoreboard. By the end, Michigan had 38 -- reminder, Northwestern had allowed only 35 points total in the first five weeks. Yes, U-M was boosted by Jehu Chesson's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the contest and Jourdan Lewis' pick-six late in the second quarter, but that doesn't explain how Michigan's offense scored on its first two possessions or how Michigan's offense averaged 9.9 yards per play after the first quarter. This offense came out firing on all cylinders, and, once the Wolverines had a comfortable 21-0 lead, the offense shifted back into neutral. This is what Michigan did against the last ranked opponent it faced, too.

So what does this mean for the future? Let's look at the Michigan-Northwestern film:

The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock

This is what I wrote about Jake Rudock after his performance against Maryland:

It's time for me just to accept that Rudock is whom he is. After the first two weeks, I defended Rudock and thought he played relatively well despite the turnovers. After the third and fourth games, I criticized Rudock for his sudden lack of confidence in his reads and decision-making, though I left him an out by noting that he had participated in only four games in Jim Harbaugh's offense. I thought that he could improve as he became more accustomed to the playbook. I could write the same thing this week, but there are two problems. First, there are only seven more games remaining in the regular season. Second, the defenses that Rudock will face in the coming weeks will be much tougher.

So how did Rudock respond against Northwestern, which has one of the country's best pass defenses? He had his best game of the year, completing 17-of-23 passes (73.9 pct.) for 179 yards (7.8 YPA), scoring one rushing touchdown, and committing zero turnovers.

Of course.

My natural inclination was to ask whether Rudock is sand-bagging us. I mean, is it more than coincidence that Rudock had his best two halves of the season when Michigan opened its playbook against the two ranked opponents it has faced? Does Rudock perform better when he knows Michigan can't remain conservative and still win games?

Maybe. And I think we'll have a much clearer answer to those questions next week.

The reason why I'm not willing to commit to an answer just yet is because Northwestern's defensive strategy played right into Rudock's strengths. When I interviewed Inside NU's Zach Pereles in our Q&A last week, I was struck by this answer:

Against Rudock, the Wildcats won't change their game plan: they'll hope to get pressure with their front four while allowing short yardage passes underneath and tackling consistently. Northwestern has been very good about not allowing people get behind the defense, and once the pass goes short, tackling has generally been solid.

Why would Northwestern want to do that against Michigan? Rudock had faltered in many facets the first five weeks, but there was no area in which he struggled more than trying to throw the deep ball. By sending only four rushers and playing back in zones, Northwestern would allow Rudock to sit in the pocket and make the easy, short throws.

And that's exactly what Rudock did.

I didn't specifically keep track of how far downfield each of Rudock's passes went through the air as I watched the film, but I'm almost positive that only one of Rudock's 23 attempts traveled further than 10 yards -- the 32-yard completion to Jake Butt running a corner route off of a play-action fake. Everything else was underneath. Even Chesson's 27-yard reception was only a five-yard throw on a drag route that Chesson took upfield for an extra 22 yards after he turned on the jets to speed away from Anthony Walker.

And Jim Harbaugh, Tim Drevno, and Jedd Fisch made it easy for Rudock to have success with simple play designs. For example, with Northwestern setting up with lots of underneath zone coverage, Michigan called pass plays that had receivers running drags and crossing routes underneath that would pull defenders away from the designated target, who would run his route into space. Look at this 3rd & 3 in the second quarter:

FF - Northwestern - Williams - 13-Yard Hitch - 1

After the snap, Northwestern begins to drop back into a Cover 3 with three deep zones and four underneath. Rudock steps back and surveys the scene in front of him. He sees that Butt is running a drag route below the intermediate zones, which Northwestern's linebackers have noticed. A.J. Williams is running a hitch in the middle of the field:

FF - Northwestern - Williams - 13-Yard Hitch - 2

As the routes develop, two Northwestern linebackers are focused in on Butt, with one even pointing at him to make sure that he is covered. Another linebacker sees De'Veon Smith about to leak out of the backfield and shuffles to his left to lock down that area. But no Wildcat defender sees Williams sitting down in a wide-open gap thanks to Butt's drag:

FF - Northwestern - Williams - 13-Yard Hitch - 3

Rudock sees the wide-open Williams and delivers an eight-yard strike:

FF - Northwestern - Williams - 13-Yard Hitch - 4

Williams catches it and falls forward for an additional five yards. A 13-yard reception:

FF - Northwestern - Williams - 13-Yard Hitch - 5

First down, Michigan.

Editor Kevin Bunkley asked us in our staff roundtable last week to "explain what you think has to be the focus going into the week to get [Rudock] better." I responded that the one thing that Rudock must do better is be accurate on the short to intermediate throws. Passes that hit the receiver in stride underneath lead to yards after the catch and extended drives, and Michigan cannot afford not to have those. So that's what Michigan needed from Rudock against Northwestern, and he delivered in the biggest of ways.

However, Michigan will need more than that from Rudock this Saturday. Unlike Northwestern, Michigan State doesn't sit back in zone and allow passes underneath. In their Cover 4 scheme, the Spartans are aggressive, jamming receivers at the line and forcing opponents to beat them over the top. Though MSU isn't nearly the caliber of defense that it was in recent seasons, particularly in the secondary, Rudock will need to be able to connect with his receivers down the field. If he can't, U-M could be in trouble.

De'Veon Smith Bailed Out Michigan on Some Delayed Runs

De'Veon Smith continues to demonstrate that he is the best back on this roster. After taking the Maryland game off to rest his injured ankle, Smith had a strong return against Northwestern, toting the rock eight times for 59 yards (7.4 YPC). Though Smith still had his patented run during which he bowls over three defenders while taking another one for a ride, he showed more vision and wiggle than usual, which saved Michigan's behind.

On Michigan's second offensive snap of the game, it is 2nd & 9, and the Wolverines have the ball on their own 48-yard line. Michigan is in a two-wide Ace formation, and Northwestern is in a 4-3 Under. Michigan plans to give the ball to Smith, but the design is strange. It's somewhat like a delay because Michigan has both tight ends running routes:

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run - 1

Jake Rudock takes the snap, stands upright for a split-second like he will pass, and begins to hand the ball off to Smith. Erik Magnuson kicks out the Northwestern defensive end, while Kyle Kalis tries to seal the tackle inside. But, because Henry Poggi is running a route into the flat rather than blocking, Northwestern has a free rusher right in the gap:

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run - 2

This should be buried for a two- or three-yard loss, setting up 3rd & 5 or 3rd & 6:

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run - 3

Instead, Smith uses a quick cut to side-step the defender and sees a lane to his left:

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run - 4

Smith sprints through that hole ...

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run - 5

... and picks up an 18-yard gain.

FF - Northwestern - Smith - 18-Yard Run

With just one cut, Michigan went from 3rd & Long to 1st & 10 on the Northwestern 34.

I'm not sure what Michigan was trying to do on this play. I'm not sure if Michigan hoped that the linebacker would follow Poggi into the flat and vacate a running lane for Smith. What I do know, though, is that Michigan tried the same concept one or two more times later in this ballgame, and Northwestern didn't fall for it either time. Nonetheless, Smith turned these plays into big gains -- none more important than this one as it led to Michigan's first offensive touchdown and gave the Wolverines a two-score lead. If Smith can maintain this dimension to his running style, defenses will struggle to contain him.

Why Are You Discussing Special Teams? I Thought This Was Offense!

I'm cutting the section on Michigan's offense short this week because I want to spend a few moments on special teams. Under Brady Hoke, Michigan's return and coverage units were horrendous. This is not a secret. And, because Michigan had not returned a kickoff or a non-blocked punt for a touchdown since Darryl Stonum's kickoff return versus Notre Dame in 2009, fans have been antsy, waiting for that next return for a touchdown.

Well, thanks to special teams coach John Baxter, Michigan finally ended the drought.

You see, Jehu Chesson's 96-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against Northwestern was not thanks to some individual play or luck. It was designed, schemed by Baxter. He must have seen a weakness in Northwestern's kickoff coverage that could be exploited, particularly because NU's kickoff specialist often leaves his kicks short.

Jabrill Peppers, who is the kickoff returner alongside Chesson, mentioned after the game that he knew Northwestern was going to kick away from him and to Chesson. He claims he knew that based on how the kicker's tee was angled, but I think there was more to it than that. I think Baxter, Peppers, and the rest of the return unit knew it before they stepped onto the field. Why do I say this? Michigan pulled two blockers to the right side:

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 1

Chesson took a couple of steps straight up the field before he cut to his right. This sucked in Northwestern's coverage unit, which permitted some of Michigan's blockers to wall off the middle of the field. As you can see, an 18-wheeler could drive through that lane:

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 2

Chesson, who is the fastest player on the team, then uses his turbo button and speeds through the lane and into the open field. Michigan actually had a double team on a Wildcat player (see above) but loses it. It doesn't matter, though, because Mason Cole and Peppers lead the way for Chesson. That is how beautifully drawn-up this return is:

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 3

Cole and Peppers crush their blocks, leaving Chesson to run away from one last Wildcat:

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 4

Chesson does just that, and the rest is history:

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 5

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 6

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 7

FF - Northwestern - Chesson - KO Return - 8

Chesson was never touched.

You can watch the full Chesson return here:

It's nice that Michigan has a special teams coach that knows what he is doing.

***

Check back tomorrow when I break down how Michigan earned its third straight shutout.