On the surface, it appears that Michigan dominated Maryland in all facets last Saturday, blanking the Terrapins, 28-0, and out-gaining them, 378-105, but we know that isn't the truth. Michigan's offense scored only two field goals in the first half and didn't record its first touchdown until the midway point of the third quarter. There were two reasons for this. The first was that the Wolverines could not sustain drives. Michigan had only two drives gain more than 50 yards -- one was a five-play, 55-yard drive that led to a field goal thanks to a 44-yard screen to Jake Butt and the other all came on one play as Jehu Chesson took a jet sweep 66 yards to the house. The second was that Michigan continued to have issues with ball security as Jake Rudock threw one pick and Michigan put the ball on the carpet three times, losing two of them.
The logical follow-up is to ask whether Maryland has a solid defense. The Terrapins' defense is mediocre, sitting 60th in S&P+, but it was bombed by Bowling Green (12th in Offensive S&P+) and West Virginia (16th in Offensive S&P+), allowing a combined 93 points and 1,293 total yards in those two games. So Michigan has problems it must repair.
What are they? Here are my thoughts after watching the Michigan-Maryland game film:
This Was a Less-Comforting Edition of the UNLV Game
This is what I wrote in my Film Focus column for Michigan's offense vs. UNLV:
The Rebels' gameplan was clear: they were not going to permit Michigan to beat them on the ground, particularly between the tackles. If Michigan wanted to win decisively, it needed either to gain the edge or unleash an aerial assault. But this was UNLV -- a 32.5-point underdog -- not Ohio State or Michigan State or even Maryland. Michigan didn't need to pull out all of the fancy tricks or constraints to beat the Rebels -- though U-M did show a few. Jim Harbaugh seemed content calling his vanilla man-blocking runs and giving his offensive line more reps. From what I watched, Michigan's offensive linemen were not bad at the point of attack. For the most part, they executed their blocks as designed. UNLV just had more defenders than U-M had blockers, which clogged lanes.
Now here is the defensive scheme Maryland mostly used when Michigan went heavy:
The box isn't as stacked as when UNLV loaded it up, but Maryland has the same idea. The Terrapins are in a 4-3 Under and have their safety (circled above) roll down to make it look like a 4-4. Plus, on the far side, the corner is in an overhang position just seven yards from the line. He will be able to cover a releasing tight end or provide run support.
The message was clear: Maryland wasn't going to permit Michigan to grind them into the grass. And it worked. Let's remove Michigan's three biggest plays of the game: a 66-yard jet sweep for Jehu Chesson, a 44-yard screen to Jake Butt, and a 31-yard screen to Drake Johnson. I'll explain why I'm removing these three plays in a minute. When we do so, Michigan gained only 241 yards on the other 64 plays with Jake Rudock in the game. That is only 3.77 yards per play. That is an alarming lack of efficiency for U-M's offense.
So why did I remove those three long gains? You're likely muttering, "Drew, you just can't remove plays. Michigan still made them." And you are correct. I removed them, though, because those plays -- a jet sweep and two screens -- are designed to beat a stacked box where the defenders are intent on plugging up the middle of the field. And do you remember how Michigan scored two of its touchdowns against UNLV's loaded box? On a 31-yard jet sweep to none other than Chesson and a 76-yard toss for Ty Isaac.
The similarities between this offensive effort and the one against UNLV are striking. Michigan seemed content running into Maryland's stacked boxes and then picking its spots for big plays to the outside or over the top -- for example, when Rudock overthrew an open Chesson running a post during the first possession. Jim Harbaugh knew that the Terrapins didn't have the firepower to upset Michigan, which is the primary reason why he left De'Veon Smith in Ann Arbor. A few explosive plays would be sufficient to win.
But I'm still not as comfortable after this performance as I was after the one against UNLV. As I mentioned above, the Wolverines' plays were very vanilla and their offensive linemen did well at the point of attack against the Rebels. This was not the case against Maryland. Michigan didn't unveil new formations and schemes that were as unique as the ones it showed against BYU, but U-M wasn't just sitting back and relying on power either. For the first time this season, Michigan ran plays out of the T formation -- see the photo above -- but Isaac fumbled twice running out of it. Harbaugh also revealed a new tweak to the flanker screens that Michigan has called all season. Look at the photo below:
Freddy Canteen feigns that he will block on this flanker screen and begins to shoot up the sideline on a wheel route. In real time, Michigan fans were upset that Rudock didn't throw the screen to Amara Darboh immediately for a first down, but, as you can see, Rudock never once looked at Darboh because Darboh was just a decoy. And he was a great decoy because the Maryland safety closes down on the screen and never sees Canteen break deep. Canteen didn't have a ton of separation, but a well-thrown ball from Rudock should lead to a Michigan touchdown. However, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson miscommunicated on their protection scheme, which put two Terrapin rushers on Magnuson while Kalis blocked air. Maybe Rudock should have hung up a ball under which Canteen could run. But Rudock feels the pressure, tries to escape, and fumbles.
Also, speaking of Michigan's offensive linemen, they did not do as well on Saturday. This wasn't like UNLV when the line blocked well but there were just too many defenders. U-M's offensive line had trouble with Maryland's defensive front. Too often were Maryland defenders able to shed Wolverine blocks when Michigan ran the ball. Too often did Michigan's linemen not pick up stunts, allowing too much pressure near Rudock. I thought Graham Glasgow performed very well and Ben Braden had a nice second half, but the rest of the line was meh. Though, Mason Cole was dinged points because he had trouble preventing speed rushes from Yannick Ngakoue, who has 6.5 sacks in this season.
At this point of the season, I would say that Michigan's offensive line will be no better than average at blocking the run, which is about where that unit was last season. Glasgow is Michigan's most consistent run-blocker and is adept at walling off the nose tackle. Cole also has improved as a road-grader and has buried the ends more frequently. However, Braden, Kalis, and Magnuson are inconsistent, which has nuked some big gains. The good news, though, is that Michigan's pass protection still is very good. However, what we learned is that Michigan's offensive line can still improve in passing off stunting blitzers to each other and that Cole can't be left on an island against excellent speed rushers.
So what does this all mean? Michigan will not be a team that methodically moves the chains against solid defenses this season. Though Smith's return from injury will help in that regard, the offensive line isn't skilled enough to get the job done against stacked fronts on an every-down basis. And that's okay. Harbaugh will continue to build upon the offense, adding new stuff that defenses have yet to see, and call plays that beat these fronts for big gains. The sweeps and screens have worked. Will vertical passes? Well...
The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock
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 what did Rudock do wrong against Maryland? Much of the same as we've seen before.
Overthrow a wide-open receiver on a deep ball? Check.
Throw balls behind the receiver or too low that limit yards after the catch? Check.
Stare down receivers and throw passes that should have been intercepted? Check.
Fail to see the whole field -- or even half -- while making his reads? Check.
And then there is this from The Ozone's Tony Gerdeman:
A couple of weeks ago we had a fun exercise where I tracked how far downfield each of Rudock's passes went. I did the same again this week, and the numbers were as you would expect. He completed 14 of 19 passes that traveled no further than 8 yards. When he went beyond those 8 yards, however, his completions dropped to just 2 of 14. One of those incompletions didn't count because it was called back because of intentional grounding, but I thought it still fit.
The deep balls are an issue, and, if Rudock could connect on some of them, it could help open up running lanes underneath as defenses would not be as content to crowd the line of scrimmage. But the real problem is that Rudock is missing on some of the easier throws and reads, even when his offensive line gives him plenty of time to survey the field. Yes, he's completing most of his shorter throws, as Gerdeman notes, but those throws have not been on the numbers and are taking receivers off of their feet. The result is that yards are being left out on the field, which leads to more drives stalling. Rudock hasn't been all bad -- that 20-yard rollout and scramble was nice -- but this is a concern.
It's a concern that hasn't had much of an effect that past month because Michigan's defense has pulverized the competition. But Michigan's defense won't be able to hold every offense it faces to no more than seven points and fewer than 200 yards -- I think at least. At some point, the defense will need Rudock to win a game. I don't know if he can.
Has Drake Johnson of the Year of 2014 Returned?
It seems so.
Drake Johnson had this 20-yard run and another 19-yard scamper on his way to a 13-carry, 68-rushing-yard game. On a day when Ty Isaac fumbled twice and Derrick Green went down as soon as he was touched, Johnson looked like he has finally found his rhythm. This was the vision and one-cut-and-go that we have been waiting to see from him. Whereas De'Veon Smith or Green would just barrel this up the middle for a minimal gain, Johnson sees the back side open and squeezes right next to Ben Braden's outside seal to avoid being tackled by the recovering blitzer. I don't want to declare Johnson all the way back yet because U-M's backs tend to be inconsistent. But this a positive omen.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that Johnson and Isaac would duel to be Smith's sidekick in Michigan's backfield before Michigan clashed with Northwestern. Given that Smith was listed at No. 1 and Johnson at No. 2 in this week's depth chart, it seems that Johnson has won that duel. And, because the Wildcats are prone to allowing explosive runs, Johnson could play a significant role in Saturday's showdown. If he's indeed BACK, of course.
Check back tomorrow as I break down Michigan's defense versus Maryland.