These past two weeks have been quite the role reversal for Michigan's offense.
For much of this season, it was De'Veon Smith and the running game that kept the offense afloat while Jake Rudock sputtered. But that wasn't the case against Rutgers and Indiana, both of whom have defenses that give offenses the option to shred them on the ground, through the air, or both if they're so inclined. Michigan did most of its damage with Rudock's arm, and that damage was substantial. In his last two games, Rudock completed 51-of-71 passes (71.8 pct.) for 777 yards (10.9 YPA), eight touchdowns, and only one interception, and imprinted his name in several places in Michigan's record book. On the other hand, when Rudock's scrambles and sacks are removed, Michigan carried the ball 62 times for 223 yards, averaging a bad 3.60 YPC, against Rutgers and Indiana.
So why the turn of events? My thoughts after watching the Michigan-Indiana game film:
The Running Game is a Mess
It reminded me of last season. Not the play-calling, but the poor blocks, the unexecuted assignments, and the missed open lanes. All three of these things didn't happen on every carry, but all an offense needs is for one of these to pop up and it can submarine the run. And, unfortunately for Michigan, one of these errors seemed to transpire on most runs.
One reason for these errors was Michigan's interior offensive line. The trio of left guard Ben Braden, center Graham Glasgow, and right guard Kyle Kalis had a game that they'd like to forget, as I handed all of them negative grades. Braden and Kalis had similar run-blocking performances -- though Braden had a worse game overall as he fell victim to three straight Indiana stunts that caused two quarterback pressures and a sack -- but, surprisingly, it was Glasgow that made the most mistakes among the three Wolverines.
One of Glasgow's most noticeable errors occurred on a trap that Michigan called to exploit Indiana's aggressive, one-gapping defensive line. The Wolverines had a 2nd & 6 on their own 28-yard line and were in an Ace formation against Indiana's stacked front. Glasgow hiked the ball to Jake Rudock, and, rather than block the nose tackle shaded to his right, he shot straight to the second level, while Khalid Hill, who was set as an H-back to the left, zoomed across the formation to seal the nose tackle in the backfield. This created a crease for De'Veon Smith as the blocks in front him began to develop. Though it wasn't a guarantee Smith would get a huge chunk because Braden was beginning to lose his block inside and the Hoosiers had a backside linebacker firing down, Glasgow stumbled as he tried to engage Indiana's strong-side linebacker, spun around, and fell:
That Indiana linebacker plugged the hole, and Smith was held to a one-yard gain.
Another noticeable mistake by Glasgow happened late in the third when Michigan was marching to reclaim its lead. It was 1st & 10 on the Indiana 33. The Wolverines were in a three-wide shotgun set, and the Hoosiers were in their nickel package with only six defenders in the box. Michigan called a power, pulling Braden around from left, and had a numbers advantage. There were six Michigan blockers to six Hoosiers in the box. Thus, as long as each Michigan blocker did its job, Smith should have been able to spring into the second level. However, as Michigan's offensive line tried to escort Indiana's slanting defensive line to the far side, Indiana's Darius Latham chucked Glasgow to the ground:
What could have been 10-yard gain or even more was stopped after just two yards.
Why did Glasgow -- and Michigan's other offensive linemen -- have problems? I think it might be the nature of Rutgers and Indiana's defensive lines. Both lines are undersized, so, to compensate, they use a one-gapping technique, which means that, when the ball is snapped, the linemen shoot into one gap for which they are responsible rather than engage the offensive lineman in front of them and read into what gap on either side of them the running back will run. This defensive strategy can be exposed if the line slants into the wrong gaps, but, when the right gaps are chosen pre-snap, the defensive linemen are firing off the ball quickly and low, which can be tough for an offensive lineman to handle. I think this is why Glasgow and the gang in the interior have seemed stiff and too upright. Glasgow said as much in his Monday presser, admitting that their pad level was too high. They lost leverage too much, and Latham, who is a former four-star recruit and very good defensive tackle, and other Hoosier defensive linemen took advantage.
However, it wasn't always the offensive line's fault. The running backs made more than their fair share of mistakes. Sione Houma ran hard and well, and I can see why he has become Michigan's third-stringer despite his lack of speed. But Smith and Drake Johnson struggled -- the latter much more so than the former. The biggest issue is that they're missing open cut-back lanes or chances to bounce when they're available. None was more egregious when Johnson didn't redirect this power to the outside on his right:
That's just unacceptable. It's not often that Michigan's offensive line can open a lane like that, so, when it happens, the running backs must see them and capitalize. On this play, Johnson was hit at the line of scrimmage when he could have shot into open space to his right untouched and been one Hoosier missed tackle away from hitting the end zone.
And Smith missed open cutback lanes, too. Part of this was a lack of vision, but I also think that he was slow to hit them sometimes. Smith seemed hesitant as a runner when I watched the film, and it makes me wonder how much his ankle injury bothers him. He hasn't been the same player since he hurt it, and Michigan's ground game has suffered.
But, to be fair, it wasn't always the players' fault. Sometimes, an offensive line can block a run perfectly while the back hits the correct gap, but, schematically, the play never stood a chance. That occurred from time to time against Indiana because the Hoosiers had every intention of loading of the box with defenders before the snap. I mean, look at this:
Indiana has nine players in the box and a 10th -- the Hoosiers' second safety -- that is nine yards deep. Michigan ran into this and couldn't cross the line of scrimmage. I know: I'm shocked, too. Further, Rudock should have checked into a bubble screen if he could because that was wide open and could have picked up a chunk of yards to spark a drive.
Nonetheless, the point is that Indiana loaded the box all game. Frequently, just prior to the snap, the Hoosiers would roll down their strong safety, adding an eighth defender to their defensive front, while keeping the free safety shallow as well. Even when the run game is at its best -- to be clear, it's not right now -- it would struggle to pick up yards.
However, because of these defensive fronts, it opened up the passing game for Rudock.
Play-Action and Attacking Indiana's Soft Zone Coverage
During the game, as Jake Rudock was dealing and Michigan's running backs were getting stoned, I half-jokingly asked whether Michigan should throw on every play. I was only half-joking because I was that frustrated with the run, but I knew that Michigan had to continue running to keep Indiana's defense honest. And that's what Michigan was doing given that the Wolverines called 53 passes, seven of which turned into Rudock scrambles or sacks, and 21 designed runs. Michigan's plan was to throw, throw, and throw some more, but, if the Wolverines dropped back to pass on every snap, Indiana would back off the line of scrimmage and tighten passing windows for Rudock. Therefore, Michigan ran on occasion, even into stacked defensive fronts, to keep the play-action game effective.
And, boy, did it work. Time and time again, Indiana's linebackers and strong safety bit on the play-action fake, giving Rudock space to complete intermediate and long routes over the top. There are many, many examples of this, but let's look at one on Michigan's second drive of the third quarter. It's 2nd & 7 on the Michigan 42. The Wolverines are in an I-formation with Amara Darboh as the only receiver out wide. Indiana is in a 4-3; however, it has rolled down its strong safety, and its second corner is in the box to cover tight end Khalid Hill. Indiana is playing this aggressively and could crash on this hard:
But Michigan is not running the ball. Rudock takes the snap and fakes the hand-off to Drake Johnson. All of Indiana's linebackers and its strong safety bite on this. As Rudock looks up to pass, there are eight Hoosiers somewhere near the line of scrimmage. Even the Hoosiers' free safety has moved down a few yards inside the first-down marker. This has opened up all the space for Darboh, who is running a 12-yard post on the far side:
Rudock sees Darboh and throws an easy pass to him:
Darboh hauls it in, and there is only one Hoosier between he and a touchdown:
However, Darboh can't make Rashard Fant miss, and he's tripped up for an 18-yard gain:
Michigan had routes open like this all game. Sometimes, there'd be deeper corners and safeties over the top in a Cover 3, so the threat of breaking off a long one wasn't always there. Nonetheless, Michigan sucked in Indiana's defense with play-action fakes, and receivers found gaps in the zone. They just needed Rudock to connect with them.
The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock
Jake Rudock's transformation these past two weeks has been incredible to watch. Yes, he's benefited from facing two poor pass defenses in Rutgers and Indiana, but there's more to it than that. He's not just completing passes because his receivers are open more often than they have been, which is accurate. He's making NFL-type throws that he wasn't even considering in the first eight games of the season. He finally connected on a pass that traveled more than 30 yards in the air, hitting Jehu Chesson for his first score:
He's more willing to throw passes up high on which his receivers can make plays:
He made what was probably his best throw of the entire season on his 64-yard touchdown pass to Chesson. I planned to break it down here, but MGoBlog's Seth Fisher provided a very detailed analysis of the play that you definitely should read.
It's amazing what happens when a quarterback begins to understand the offense, is confident in himself, and trusts that his receivers will make plays for him. While the boost in Rudock's stats is thanks to Rutgers and Indiana, this isn't the same Rudock from the first eight weeks. He's not just hitting wide-open receivers. He's making excellent throws and decisions even when pressure bears down on him or coverage is tight.
So will this carry over to this weekend's game against Penn State? I'm not sure. I do wonder if Rudock's boost in confidence is because he knows he's playing sub-par pass defenses in Rutgers and Indiana, which won't be the case against Penn State, who has the nation's best pass rush and one of the better secondaries. But he's making throws that he wasn't making before, and, if Michigan can get him into a nice rhythm early, watch out.
Tomorrow, I'll break down Michigan's defense vs. Indiana. I'll understand if you skip it.