Michigan has had its faults on offense, particularly in its past two games, but facing a defense like Rutgers' cures all. The Wolverines set season highs for points scored (49), total yards (487), and yards per play (7.16). Not only was their 7.16 YPP the first time that they topped 6.0 YPP this season, it was the first time that they topped 7.0 YPP since eviscerating Appalachian State in the opener ... of 2014.
Notwithstanding, this is not what Michigan fans or college football purveyors or even Jim Harbaugh wanted to discuss after the game. Their attention was focused on one of the more bizarre penalties we've seen: "intent to deceive." In the moment, I was furious:
INTENT TO DECEIVE? IT'S FOOTBALL— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) November 7, 2015
I won't get into the details of the play in this space because it has been discussed ad nauseam, but SB Nation's Rodger Sherman found the rule, reviewed the play, and concluded that the refs correctly flagged Michigan for an "intent to deceive."
However, it wasn't the only time Michigan's offense intended to deceive Rutgers. The Wolverines did it over and over. Except, those other times, it was legal. Michigan used an array of play fakes and misdirection to cause Rutgers' defense to look silly. It worked to open up passing lanes for Jake Rudock and whenever Jabrill Peppers took the gridiron.
After re-watching the Michigan-Rutgers film, I decided to take a closer look:
Screens, Wheels, and PA-mobiles
Jake Rudock had a career day against Rutgers, into which I'll dive more in the next section, but one reason why he had that success was because Michigan dialed up a variety of fakes in the passing game that worked to perfection. It's no secret Rutgers' defense is one of the nation's worst, particularly in the back. Not only are the Knights undisciplined, they try to compensate by being aggressive and sending lots of blitzes. Their goal is that their blitzes will get home before the quarterback can find an open receiver. And, in most cases, there is one. One way to counter this is screens, and Michigan noticed that could be effective vs. Rutgers. Well, maybe not Jim Harbaugh:
We really executed [the screens] well. That’s a credit to all the guys and the other coaches. Not me, because I’m not a good screen coach. Never have been. But Jedd Fisch and Tim Drevno are, and Tyrone Wheatley is, and very fortunate today that they got the guys coached up and it was an effective part of our game today.
Michigan has called lots of flanker and tunnel screens this year, but the slip screen to the running back has been rare. The Wolverines called it only twice -- once to great success against Maryland, notching a 31-yard touchdown -- before this past weekend. However, Harbaugh, Drevno, and Fisch pulled it out of their knapsack three times on Saturday.
The first time it was called was on Michigan's opening drive. The Wolverines faced a 3rd & 8 at midfield and were in a four-wide shotgun set. Rutgers had a crowd of defenders near the line of scrimmage with the corners feigning like they would drop back into zone coverage. However, the far-side linebacker would drop back into man coverage on Jake Butt as the other six defenders would be sent on a blitz. Clearly, Rutgers hoped that this overload blitz would overwhelm U-M's offensive line and lead to a drive-ending sack:
Rutgers' blitz got through the line, but only because Michigan wanted it to do so. While Michigan's offensive tackles Erik Magnuson and Mason Cole remained behind to keep the edges secure, the interior offensive linemen -- Kyle Kalis, Graham Glasgow, and Ben Braden -- stayed in to block for a beat or two before leaking out to the near side along with Drake Johnson. It's a slip screen to Johnson, and none of the Knights know what's developing. Rudock sees it's open and tosses a tough pass with pressure right in his grill:
Rudock floats the ball just enough that it sails over the ducked head of Braden and into the hands of Johnson, who turns upfield with a 900-pound security detail beside him:
This is a perfect call because Johnson has acres of grass in front of him. As Johnson races past the first-down marker, Amara Darboh flashes on our screen momentarily because he is escorting a Rutgers cornerback in the opposite direction. That is a punishing block:
Johnson sprints all the way down to the Rutgers 28-yard line before he finds some traffic in front of him. That's a free 22 yards. Johnson holds up and waits to cut behind Braden and Kalis. However, neither Johnson nor Kalis see the Knight defender closing in from the right side. Kalis is looking straight ahead for a block to make, and Johnson trails him:
Johnson shifts into the Rutgers defender before he falls forward to the 22-yard line:
That's a 28-yard gain, 22 yards of which were free, and could have been a touchdown.
Michigan didn't score on this possession because a strong gust of wind pushed aside Kenny Allen's 37-yard field-goal try, but this slip screen flipped field position and helped Michigan start its next series on the Rutgers 46. Michigan would score a touchdown on that drive and the four after that as well, two of which were thanks to the same screen:
The first of these two slips screens picked up a free 21 yards, converting a 2nd & 20, before De'Veon Smith rumbled through a tackler for an additional 10 yards. The second earned a free five yards before Smith made a man miss and ran for another nine yards.
That's three slip screens. All of them worked because Rutgers didn't learn from its mistakes or tell its defensive ends to anticipate the slips screens and peel off the rush into the flat. And all three gained a grand total of 73 yards, 77 of which were after the catch.
Makes life a lot easier for a quarterback that's struggled to throw the ball downfield.
You know what else helps? Installing the same fullback wheel route with which MSU confused Michigan to the effect of a 74-yard reception a few weeks ago. Once a coach puts a fascinating, effective play on film, other coaches will swoop in and steal it in a heartbeat. And you know that there was no chance that Harbaugh of all coaches wasn't going to use a new way to get the football to his fullbacks. So, on 1st & 10 in Rutgers territory early in the first quarter, the Wolverines are in a funky shotgun formation with Sione Houma and Jabrill Peppers lined up with him in the backfield, while Rutgers is in a 4-3. Prior to the snap, Jehu Chesson motions from the near side toward the formation:
As Darboh clears out on the far side by running a vertical route, Rudock fakes the jet sweep to Chesson, turns around, and fakes a pitch to Peppers headed in the opposite direction. It's a double fake, and Rutgers' defense has reacted to both of them. Three Knights sprint over to the flat on the far side where Chesson is headed, and three Knights crash down on Peppers in the near flat. But whom the Knights don't notice is Houma:
Houma has snuck out of the backfield on his wheel route undetected:
Rudock fires a pass over the defense, but it's slighty behind Houma:
If Rudock had thrown his pass out in front of Houma so Houma could have caught it in stride, this could have been a touchdown, though there was a deep safety in the middle of the field that may have ran over and shoved him out of bounds first. Nonetheless, Houma slows down to catch the pass, which allows a defender to chase him down from behind:
It's a 32-yard reception, 14 of which are after the catch, and Michigan's in the red zone.
The screens and this wheel route were more fanciful, but even Michigan's generic play-action, intermediate passes were very effective, particularly over the middle. As you could see in the fullback wheel route above, Rutgers' linebackers are eager to make plays and react to the first things that they see. This makes them easy targets to exploit.
Michigan decided to attack them on its first offensive snap after halftime, during which Rutgers' players reportedly were talking trash to the Wolverines despite that they were down by 19 points. Bold strategy. Nonetheless, this apparently ticked off Harbaugh, so he slammed his foot on the gas pedal. On 1st & 10 at their own 40-yard line, the Wolverines are in an Ace formation with two wide receivers: Chesson on the near side and Darboh, who's not pictured, on the far side. Rutgers counters with a 4-3 defense:
At the snap, the SAM linebacker is responsible for A.J. Williams, who has released into a route, so that leaves six defenders in the box for Rutgers. All four on the defensive line are rushing, so it's the two linebackers' jobs to patrol the middle of the field. However, Rudock steps back and fakes a handoff to Smith, so both linebackers get sucked in. This opens up the middle of the field for Butt, who's running a skinny post behind them:
Rudock throws a strike to Butt, who catches it 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. However, with two safeties on top of Butt, this shouldn't generate too much YAC:
But, one of the safeties takes a horrendous angle and runs underneath Butt, who is able to split both of the Rutgers defenders and break out into the open field:
Butt rumbles all the way down to the Rutgers four-yard line. It's a 56-yard gain:
It's Michigan's longest completion of the season, and U-M would score on the next play.
There are two key takeaways you should have from this section. The first is that Rutgers' defense is bad. Like really bad. They have poor technique. They are undisciplined. They blow assignments often. Though Indiana's pass defense is nothing to brag about, Rudock and the Wolverines won't face another defense as exploitable as Rutgers' this season.
The second is that Jake Rudock's career day -- 18-of-25 (72.0 pct.) for 337 yards (13.5 YPA), two passing touchdowns, and no interceptions -- did not occur because Rudock transformed into a downfield quarterback. In fact, of the 26 times that he attempted a pass, only twice did the ball travel more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage through the air. Once was when Rutgers had a total coverage bust that left Darboh Jeremy-Gallon-vs.-Indiana-in-2013 open, and the other was the pass interference that Rudock's underthrown ball drew because Chesson had to fight back for the ball. Everything else was a short or intermediate throw, which we know Rudock can make on a regular basis.
And that's what these play fakes did. They allowed Rudock to make the throws that he's confident that he can make while putting his receivers in positions to generate lots of yards after the catch. Of Rudock's 337 passing yards, a whopping 195 came after the catch. And, as you saw above, many came on throws that were to the line of scrimmage.
Rudock can thank Harbaugh, Drevno, and Fisch for "intending to deceive" Rutgers.
The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock
Though much of Jake Rudock's career day can be attributed Michigan's game plan, Rudock still had by far his best performance of the season. He sat confidently in the pocket, he was patient with his reads when he had to be, he threw the ball away or scrambled when the pass wasn't there, and almost all of his pass attempts were perfectly placed. In fact, Rudock should have finished with a higher completion rate than the 72 percent that he attained because his receivers dropped three passes that hit them in the numbers. There were only four throws that I thought could have better, and two of them -- the wheel route and the pass interference -- still picked up large chunks of yards.
What stood out to me was how and where Rudock placed his passes on his intermediate throws, particularly when he threw to Jake Butt. Butt is 6-foot-6 and has the best set of hands of any tight end in college football. Michigan fans have been asking Rudock to toss it up to Butt more often in one-on-one matchups because the odds are that Butt will soar up and haul in that pass. There were two occasions when Rudock put his faith in Butt.
The first led to a 17-yard reception against somewhat decent coverage by Rutgers:
The second was a great throw by Rudock that was bested only by a better pass breakup:
Even if the second one fell incomplete, it was the right decision and throw by Rudock. There were no other available targets in the end zone. So, rather than throw the ball away or eat a sack, Rudock lobbed one up for his best receiver to make a play on it.
You can't ask for much more than that.
However, those weren't Rudock's best throws of the game. They were very good, but his best throw of the game came on his touchdown strike to Amara Darboh. It may have been his best throw of the season. It's 3rd & 3 on the Rutgers 8, and Michigan decides to flood the near side of the field. BTN never shows us a great view of the routes run by Michigan's receivers, but it appears that Darboh ran either an out or a comeback. Either way, Darboh didn't get much separation. Nonetheless, Rudock releases a missile before Darboh gets into his break -- I think -- and delivers it through a tiny window to the outside in the only spot where Darboh could catch it. Look at this placement of the pass:
It's spot on.
So will this continue? We'll see. Rudock's effort may have just been the consequence of a great gameplan and a defense that couldn't pressure Rudock or force him off his first read very often. Rudock looked as comfortable as ever in the pocket, and it translated into his throws. But it could give him the confidence he needs for the next three weeks.
The Jabrill Peppers Effect
Jabrill Peppers is pretty damn incredible when he gets the football in his hands. I mean:
Jabrill Peppers doing Jabrill Peppers things. pic.twitter.com/kTUObApWgr— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) November 7, 2015
But what we've noticed for three straight games now is the impact that Peppers has on offense even when he's not touching the football. Defenses are so frightened by Peppers' speed, athleticism, and ability that they freak out when he's out there. We saw it when Mark Dantonio called back-to-back timeouts to set up his defense and when Michigan called a reverse against Minnesota during which Jehu Chesson scampered for 22 yards without being touched because the Gophers defense reacted to Peppers running the opposite direction before he pitched it to Chesson. Peppers is used so infrequently that defenses always account for him when his on the field, which makes him a great decoy.
There was no better example of this than Michigan's first touchdown against Rutgers.
Matt Millen broke this down well in the aftermath, and I want to highlight it again. Michigan is in a two-side shotgun set with Peppers as the receiver to the field and Chesson the receiver to the boundary. Rutgers is in a 4-3 Under and playing a zone coverage in the boundary as evidenced by the corner's opened stance. Peppers motions:
Jake Rudock takes the snap and fakes a jet sweep to Peppers. Most of the Rutgers defense reacts to this fake. The boundary corner, who was supposed to jam Chesson to disrupt his release, doesn't touch Chesson and remains on the edge in case Peppers gets the ball. Further, two linebackers and the corner that was sprinting with Peppers on the motion all step down to the line of scrimmage, which opens space for Chesson's post:
Chesson is open behind the defense, and the safety has too much ground to cover:
That's what Peppers' presence in small doses does for this offense. I know there are some out there that want Peppers to be more involved in the offense and run more traditional plays for him, and I understand that sentiment. I have two concerns, though. The first is the number of total snaps that Peppers would play and what that would mean for his stamina, energy, and health. The second is that Peppers will not have the same impact as a decoy as he does now. If he is on the field on offense all the time, defenses will become accustomed to him and no longer overreact. This could mean fewer plays in which his presence opens up free yards for others. On the other hand, if Michigan continues to use Peppers on rare occasions, defenses will think that he must be involved in the play somehow and freak out. Of course, Peppers has more opportunities to break things open when he has the ball. I'm not saying one way is better than the other. It's a trade-off.
But, for now, what Michigan is doing is working because the Jabrill Peppers effect is real.
Check back tomorrow when we break down Michigan's defense vs. Rutgers.