Two hundred and thirty.
This is the number that Michigan State fans have emitted from their lungs on a loop since the Spartans beat Michigan, 27-23, in unfathomable fashion. It's like they're trapped in a six-second Vine. And, every time that you think that they're about to say something else, they blurt it out again. They blurt it out because the number represents Michigan's total yards on Saturday and it's their evidence that MSU outplayed Michigan. It's their evidence that MSU was more deserving of the win regardless of the miracle gift.
Here's the thing: total yards is a terrible metric to use to evaluate how an offense performed. Yes, an exorbitant number of yards likely is better than a few, but total yards doesn't account for the number of plays an offense has run or the starting field position an offense has had. This is why statistics such as yards per play and average starting field position paint a more vivid picture than total yards do. And Michigan had a significant advantage with its starting field position. On average, Michigan opened its possessions on its own 38-yard line, while Michigan State did so on its own 27-yard line. So, with the Wolverines needing to travel 11 yards fewer than MSU to reach the end zone on average over the course of a 14-drive game, they had much shorter fields with which to work.
This helps explain the discrepancy in each team's total yards -- 386 to 230 -- but it doesn't evaluate how each offense performed. This is where yards per play enter the picture. The Spartans averaged 5.4 YPP, while the Wolverines averaged 4.3 YPP before a 15-yard loss on Blake O'Neill's bobbled snap was included. So, yes, Michigan State's offense was more effective than Michigan's, but it just wasn't as decisive as MSU fans want you to believe.
But, as I watched the film to prepare to write this column, it felt like Michigan moved the ball effectively for the first three quarters. And, after checking the box score, the stats backed that inkling. In the first three quarters, Michigan averaged 5.28 YPP (206 yards on 39 plays). This fell right in line with how Michigan had performed all season, and it would have been the third-highest average the Spartans had permitted if Michigan could sustain it. However, Michigan couldn't. In the fourth quarter, before O'Neill dropped the snap, the Wolverines gained only 39 yards on 18 plays for 2.17 YPP. Simply, Michigan's offense grounded to a halt when it had the opportunity to put the game away at the end.
So here's what went right for Michigan's offense early and what went wrong late:
Jim Harbaugh Relied on Misdirection to Attack MSU's Aggression
Michigan State's defense is notorious for its Cover 4 scheme, which often means that the Spartans' two corners press at the line in man coverage with the safeties only 10 yards back in position to assist in run support. This is an aggressive defense -- one that sees its corners jamming receivers and the safeties crashing down fast once a run has been read. But the secondary isn't the only aggressive aspect of the Spartans' defense. Underneath, MSU runs a 4-3 Over that sees its defensive linemen shooting into the backfield while its linebackers blitz behind them to fill any open gaps that have been left behind. This is why misdirection is one of the keys to beating this defense. Jim Harbaugh knew that.
Harbaugh, Tim Drevno, and Jedd Fisch installed an offensive game plan that would be successful against Michigan State. Their plan was to turn Michigan State's aggression against the Spartans to pick up big plays. One way that Michigan did this was to call trap runs. A trap is when an offensive lineman allows the defensive lineman set across from him to shoot into the backfield unimpeded. The defensive lineman shoots too far, which permits him to be sealed by a pulling offensive lineman or H-back. This creates a crease for the running back while the original offensive lineman is able to move to the second level and pick off linebackers. And it could be seen on Michigan's first offensive snap:
After the snap, Jake Rudock pitches the ball to De'Veon Smith. On the line, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis double Malik McDowell to move him down and open a gap, Ben Braden and Mason Cole hurry to the second level to block Michigan State's linebackers, and Henry Poggi shifts across the formation to trap Joel Heath and create a running lane:
You can see that, if the blocks are made, Smith should be able to spurt into the secondary for a large chunk of yards. However, that wasn't the case here. Though Braden did his job for the most part and engaged with Riley Bullough, Cole wasn't able to get out to Jon Reschke fast enough. Reschke beat Cole to the inside, which meant Reschke could shut down Smith's lane. Plus, Poggi's cut block delayed Heath, but it wasn't really effective:
Reschke meets Smith at the line of scrimmage, while Heath grabs Smith's legs:
No gain for Smith.
So, no, the trap didn't work for Smith on this play, which led to a three-and-out for Michigan on its opening possession. However, the trap worked for much of the game, and there is no better example of this than Michigan's first play of its very next drive. Michigan is in an offset I-formation with Jehu Chesson motioning to the middle. This motion will be important to the success of what will be a fullback trap. Glasgow will wall off McDowell, Kalis and Erik Magnuson will shoot to the second level to pick off MSU's linebackers, and Braden will pull behind Glasgow to trap Heath in Michigan's backfield:
Rudock takes the snap and quickly hands the football to Sione Houma. Glasgow already has begun to turn McDowell away from the play, while Kalis and Magnuson have begun their trek to the second level. The pivotal block belongs to Braden, who has pulled behind Glasgow's block. If he can seal Heath, Houma will have a wide-open tunnel:
Braden does his job, and now you can see why Chesson's motion was so important. As I mentioned, Michigan State's linebackers are aggressive and want to flow to the ball quickly. What Chesson's motion does is suck the linebackers to the far side of the field, which makes the blocks for Kalis and Magnuson on Bullough and Darrien Harris, respectively, much easier than otherwise. The trap has worked, and Houma has space:
Houma shows impressive speed for a fullback and runs through an ankle tackle:
He rumbles for 27 yards before safety Grayson Miller can finally drag him down:
This was Michigan's longest run of the game. Michigan's second-longest run went for only eight yards, and guess what? That was also a trap -- that time for Smith. The trap was the only Michigan run play that achieved some consistent success against Michigan State, though the Spartans shut it down when Michigan called it a few more times later in the game. That the Spartans were able to defend it later -- along with counters and misdirection runs -- wasn't because of design but because Michigan's offensive line had trouble blocking Michigan State's talented front. McDowell and Shilique Calhoun proved how disruptive they can be and were why Michigan's offensive line had its lowest grade.
Michigan didn't try to use misdirection only on the ground either. Michigan used it when Rudock dropped back to pass as well. Much of this misdirection was in the form of play-action passes. This is normal for any college football team, but Michigan ran play action more frequently against the Spartans than it had most of the season. The purpose of this, just like with Chesson's motion on the fullback trap above, was to suck in the linebackers and safeties. And, when Michigan did it, it was to get the speedy Chesson into space where he can make plays after the catch. Just look at these play-action passes that shift Michigan State's defense to one side of the field and drag Chesson across to the other:
Each play gets Chesson into an open gap or space because Demetrious Cox and Harris overreact to the run fake. Rudock was able to roll out and deliver the ball to Chesson each time, gaining 11 and nine yards, respectively. Were these huge plays? No. But they were able to get the ball into the hands of Michigan's speedy playmaker after the catch.
And Michigan also used these play-action passes to Chesson in combination with another tactic that I liked: lining up Chesson as a tight end or even running back. Now, this shouldn't work on a regular basis because, if Chesson is lined up there, that will scream to future defenses that Michigan will pass. Thus, play-action fakes shouldn't succeed. But, because Michigan had not done this before and Michigan State is uber-aggressive, it sucked up the entire defense while putting Chesson on a linebacker or safety. And, trust me, when Chesson is being covered in man by a linebacker or safety, that is a huge win for the Wolverines. It led to one defensive pass interference and this 23-yard reception:
So, like I wrote to start this section, Michigan had a game plan that would work to counter Michigan State's aggressive tendencies on defense. It wasn't successful 100 percent of the time, but Michigan moved the ball with enough consistency in the first three quarters to score 20 points and keep Michigan State's defenders guessing.
However, the fourth quarter still needed to be played.
This Wasn't Lloyd Ball. This Was a Failure to Execute.
There is no denying it: Michigan's offense crumbled in the final frame. I mentioned that the Wolverines averaged only 2.17 YPP in the fourth quarter before Blake O'Neill went back to punt with 10 seconds left, so it should not be a surprise to you that Michigan went three-and-out in each of its final four possessions. And one of those three-and-outs was when Michigan started on the MSU 28-yard line, meaning the Wolverines settled for a field goal when they had a prime chance to add a third touchdown to the scoreboard.
After the game, I saw some Michigan fans pondering whether the offense sputtered because it deployed Lloyd Ball, which is the term used to describe the former Michigan coach's conservative tendencies when the Wolverines had a lead -- even a slim one. So, when I watched the fourth quarter, I paid extra attention to Jim Harbaugh's play-calling to see if it followed Carr's old game plans. And my conclusion is that that wasn't the case except for when Michigan ran the ball three straight times in the final two minutes, which was the appropriate strategy because Michigan State had only one timeout and Michigan wanted to run down the clock as much as possible to seal the victory. Yeah...
Anywho, what sunk Michigan's offense in the fourth quarter was Michigan's failure to execute. It wasn't Harbaugh's play-calling. In fact, Harbaugh's play-calling put Michigan in spots where it could pick up big plays and move the chains. But mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake continued to breathe life into the Spartans. Yes, four in a row.
The first was when Michigan had a 3rd & 9 on its own 25-yard line at the midpoint of the fourth quarter. The Spartans had just landed a quick-strike touchdown thanks to a 74-yard pass to their fullback to cut Michigan's lead to two points. Michigan needed to run down some clock and put points on the board either to push its lead back two scores or to ensure that a field goal wouldn't beat them. Michigan spreads out in a five-wide shotgun:
Jake Rudock drops back and sees Jehu Chesson flash open on his post route across the middle of the field. With pressure in his face, Rudock throws a strike to Chesson, who should be able to easily haul this in for a 19-yard reception and momentous first down:
But Chesson drops it:
The second mistake transpired on Michigan's first play of its next possession. The Spartans weren't able to capitalize, so Michigan had the ball again with another chance to extend its lead. It's 1st & 10, and Michigan comes out in an offset I-formation. The call is a counter as Erik Magnuson buries the end of the line and Sione Houma leads the way:
As Karan Higdon takes the football from Rudock on the counter, Houma blocks Darien Harris. As you can see, Higdon has a truck-sized hole through which he can run. With MSU's Arjen Colquhoun crashing down from the edge, Higdon may not be able to break this for a run longer than 10 yards. But this still should have gained at least six or seven:
But it doesn't because the turf monster gets to Higdon first. He trips forward for a yard:
So, rather than a new set of downs or 2nd & Short, it's 2nd & 9.
The third mistake was on the next play. You don't need much analysis for this one:
To be fair, Rudock had rolled out of the pocket and had to avoid some pressure before he lofted this ball in the air, and Chesson cut in a bit on his go route before straightening it out -- this may have slowed him down and led to the overthrow. But still. Yet again, Rudock can't connect with Chesson on the bomb, which should have sealed the win.
The fourth mistake was on the next play -- like I said, four in a row -- when it's 3rd & 9. Michigan is in shotgun with an empty backfield, so we all know that a throw is coming. Rudock takes the snap and immediately looks to his right. On the outside, Amara Darboh is running a slant. This is Rudock's first option, and, apparently, it's his only option because Grant Perry, who was the slot receiver on that side, has broken free on a seam:
Rudock never looks at Perry, though, and stares down Darboh. Riley Bullough sees this and begins to run over to squeeze down on the slant. Darboh has gained enough separation that well-time, well-placed ball from Rudock should lead to a catch and first down. But Rudock is a bit late with his throw and slings it behind Darboh. Darboh can't get his hands on it, and the ball ricochets off the defender's helmet back to Rudock:
Another failed third down. Michigan State gets another crack to take the lead.
Michigan hasn't won a close game yet -- its smallest margin of victory is 21 points -- and, if it wants to, its offense must make these late-game plays. Of course, Michigan still had all but won this until the flukiest play ever on the final snap, but, if Michigan's offense doesn't shoot itself in the foot in the fourth, it may not have needed to come to that.
The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock
Our Zach Travis has it covered here in this excellent column.
Check back tomorrow when I break down how Michigan's defense performed vs. MSU.