The box score suggests that there was nothing special about Michigan's offense in the Wolverines' 28-16 win over Penn State. Michigan totaled 343 yards, rushed for only 87, averaged just a sliver over 5.0 YPP, and turned over the football twice. That's fine, but it's nothing to celebrate. Yet, when I re-watched the game, I oddly was impressed. Michigan's offense wasn't trying to post record-breaking numbers like it had against Rutgers and Indiana. Rather, it was just trying to do what it needed to do to win the game, and, as I'll explain below, the Wolverines did just that.
The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock
As Lance Gordon noted in his Monday column, how people perceive Jake Rudock drastically has changed from September to November. After sputtering for much of the season and not topping 200 passing yards in seven straight games, Rudock has received rave reviews. On Saturday, he became the first Michigan quarterback ever to throw for at least 250 yards in three straight games (337 vs. Rutgers, 440 at Indiana, 256 at Penn State), and, in his last three games, he has completed 76-of-109 passes (69.7 pct.) for 1,033 yards (9.5 YPA), 10 touchdowns, and two picks. Those are stunning stats.
And it's not just the stats that stand out. Now, Rudock looks comfortable in the pocket, trusts his reads more than he has all season, and fires NFL-esque passes. Let's look at Michigan's opening series when the Wolverines have a 3rd & 9 on their own 35-yard line. Michigan is in a three-wide shotgun, and Penn State will be in a Cover 2 with its nickel:
Rudock calls for the snap, and Penn State rushes only its four defensive linemen. The other seven Nittany Lions have fallen back into coverage. The offensive line does its job and creates a clean pocket for Rudock, who surveys the field. It's here when you begin to see just how much more Rudock is capable of than Michigan fans were led to believe. Rudock identifies that Penn State is in a Cover 2 and knows that middle of the field between the two safeties is a weak spot. On the other hand, the Lions know this, too, which is why they drop linebacker Jason Cabinda (#40) into that area while linebacker Troy Reeder (#42) keeps an eye on Jake Butt's underneath dig route. However, what Rudock knows and Cabinda doesn't is that Jehu Chesson (not on screen) is running a deep dig behind the linebackers. So, in order to open that space in the middle, Rudock turns his head to his left (our right) as if he's looking to throw in that direction. Watching Rudock's eyes, Cabinda takes the bait and roams to his right as he falls back into his zone:
Cabinda's drop has enlarged a window that's just big enough into which Chesson can run his dig route. However, because the window will be so small, Rudock can't wait for Chesson to be in it before he releases the pass. That would be intercepted. Rather, he must release it much earlier, so the ball will arrive right when Chesson gets there. Therefore, Rudock whips his head back to the center of the field and winds up to throw:
Rudock unleashes the pass, and Cabinda realizes he's been deceived. Cabinda tries to recover, but it takes too long for him to stop his momentum and switch directions. In the meantime, safety Marcus Allen sees the ball and moves to his right to make a play on it:
But Rudock's timing is perfect, and Chesson swoops underneath Allen to catch the ball:
Chesson is in open space and sprints 20 yards after the catch for a 39-yard gain:
That is an unbelievable third-down throw from Rudock. Only a quarterback that is confident in himself, his teammates, and the playbook can make that throw into that coverage by looking off a linebacker like that. And it led to a Michigan touchdown.
But Rudock was not the main reason why Michigan's pass offense looked so good. I know that seems hard to believe given that he recorded 256 passing yards and fired the excellent pass that I just diagrammed, but it's the truth. For starters, Michigan didn't ask Rudock to take many shots downfield. He averaged only 6.7 YPA despite completing 65.8 percent of his passes. Those numbers hint most of Rudock's throws were underneath, which is correct. Also, when Rudock did complete passes that were past the sticks, his receiver either was wide open because of an excellent route, or twisted his body while running a fade, stretched his arms out to snag the pass, and dragged his toes in bounds:
My point isn't that Rudock was bad; he was good. My point is that, unlike against Indiana when Rudock looked invincible and Michigan asked him to win the game, Michigan wanted Rudock to be safe against a Penn State pass defense that is ranked in the top 15 in all of the meaningful categories. And Rudock obliged other than the one interception, which was ugly but understandable since he had been rocked on a sack one snap earlier.
So what was the main reason why the pass offense looked so good? The game plan.
Jim Harbaugh and Jedd Fisch Scouted Penn State Perfectly
MGoBlog's Brian Cook echoed this in his post-game column, and I will hammer it home: the difference between Jim Harbaugh's staff and Brady Hoke's staff as it relates to offensive game-planning is stark. Cook raises the perfect example to show this, too:
But when presented with a situation where they did not expect to and could not run the ball much, Michigan did not repeatedly bang their collective head into a brick wall.
Michigan's final drive featured five De'Veon Smith runs and one kneel-down. Five Jake Rudock attempts were sacks or scrambles. Once those are put in the appropriate bins, Michigan ran just 19 times to 43 passes.
Two years ago in that very stadium a complete wreck of an offensive line took on an equally stout Penn State defense. They didn't throw one wide receiver screen. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran 27 times for 27 yards. This year before garbage time time, De'Veon Smith had 8 carries; 6 went to Chesson and Peppers.
Jim Harbaugh, Jedd Fisch, and Tim Drevno knew that Michigan had to throw the ball to win. However, they also knew that they were asking for trouble if they told Jake Rudock to fling it all over the field against Penn State's elite pass defense and pass rush. So what did they do? They negated Penn State's pass rush as best as they could by repeatedly having Rudock do only three-step drops and throw to short routes, most of which were screens, hitches, drags, and swings, underneath the Cover 2 zones. This often led to six-, seven-, and eight-yard pickups. Nothing monumental, but enough to move the chains.
This was important because it took the pressure off of Michigan's line to protect Rudock for long periods of time. By my count, of the 40 times that Rudock dropped back to pass and didn't scramble, he was hit only seven times and sacked only twice. Given that Penn State entered the game with a nation's best 42 sacks, this was a resounding success for Michigan's pass protection. But it wasn't solely because Michigan's offensive line won its battles against Penn State's pass rush over and over again. It was because Michigan's play-calling rarely provided Penn State enough time to get to Rudock. When Michigan did call longer-developing plays, additional blockers were left in to assist the linemen.
Negating Penn State's pass rush only works, though, if the underneath passes are effective. I won't even address the hitches and drags. Rudock threw eight passes to receivers that were behind the line of scrimmage. Rudock completed six flash screens to his flanker that netted 41 yards and touchdown and two swing passes to De'Veon Smith that gained 15 yards. That's eight passes for 56 yards, all of which and then some were earned after the catch. And those totals should have been nine passes for 63 yards:
The officials flagged that for an illegal block below the waist. BELOW THE WAIST.
Anyways, except for that awful flag, all of these screens and swing passes worked. The flash screen to the flanker is one that Michigan has ran in almost every game. It's part of a packaged play where Michigan's offensive line run-blocks and the running back moves forward as if he'll receive the hand-off. This is to freeze the defenders that are in the box and give the outside receiver one or two extra seconds and more space to make a move.
The first such screen that Michigan ran was in the second quarter, and it exploited a matchup the Wolverines really liked: Amara Darboh vs. Brandon Bell (#11). Often when Michigan had two receivers to the same side, Penn State would have Bell extend out over the slot receiver. To capitalize, Michigan would call the flash screen, which meant that the slot receiver would shoot to the outside and block the field corner as Rudock threw a quick pass to the wideout -- Darboh here -- standing just behind the line of scrimmage:
Here, once the screen is completed to Darboh, it is on him to beat Bell to the edge. If Darboh can't, the screen is ineffective and shut down for a minimal gain. However, here and at least two times thereafter, Darboh showcased just enough speed to outrun Bell to the sideline and pick up positive yardage. Here, Darboh scampers for a six-yard gain:
Thanks to great blocking by the slots and moves by the flankers, this worked repeatedly.
But it also worked only because Harbaugh, Fisch, and Drevno knew this was a soft spot in Penn State's Cover 2 zone and Michigan had the skill players to generate yards after the catch. That's what happens when Michigan has an offensive staff that knows how to scout opposing defenses and break down their tendencies. Michigan then can pick them apart and move the ball. It wasn't flashy or special and didn't need to be. It was smart.
Raising Awareness for Jake Butt's Route Running
However, as much as Michigan relied on underneath passes to move the ball, it needed to keep Penn State's defense honest. Once in awhile, Michigan needed to be able to throw to receivers running intermediate routes, so Penn State's linebackers didn't move their zones closer to the line of scrimmage. Michigan accomplished this, and, as I mentioned above, it wasn't because Jake Rudock was throwing dimes. It was because Michigan's receivers, Jake Butt in particular, demonstrated excellent route running on Saturday.
Butt frequently is praised as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation, and, when that happens, most analysts point to his leaping ability and hands. They're not wrong, but what often is overlooked is his route running. When Butt runs post and corner routes, he has become adept at using a slight fake to create lots of separation.
Let's look at Rudock's 26-yard touchdown pass to Butt on Michigan's first drive. It's 1st & 10 after Michigan earned an important third-down conversion on a 39-yard gain on the prior play. The Wolverines are in a two-wide Ace formation with Amara Darboh on the far side and Grant Perry on the near side, and Penn State is in a Cover 4 zone, I believe:
Michigan hikes the ball to Rudock, who fakes a hand-off to De'Veon Smith. Penn State rushes only its four defensive linemen, but its linebackers bite on the play-action before getting back in their zones. As Rudock drops back, Darboh and Butt run scissors on the far side, with Darboh on a post and Butt a corner. I think Penn State is in a Cover 4 because, not only will its linebackers drop into zones, its corner and safety on the near side where Perry runs his dig route also are in zone, which is evident by Grant Haley's (#15) opened stance. The reason I think this is Cover 4 is because, despite everyone else being in zone, corner Trevor Williams (#10) is manned up on Darboh and safety Malik Golden (#9) comes down to cover Butt. Usually, in a Cover 4, if the slot receiver or tight end runs a route more than eight yards downfield, the safety essentially is tasked with playing man coverage on him. I could be wrong, but I think that's what's happening here:
Okay, now that I've described the play, let's focus on Butt's route. Butt released straight downfield at the snap, which was Golden's key that he has man coverage on Butt. As Butt crosses the 20-yard line, he begins to angle his route to his right as if he is about to run a post over the middle. Golden notices this and starts to crash down to cut off the route:
However, Butt sticks his right foot, throws his shoulder to right as if he will about to run the post, and quickly breaks to his left to run a corner. The move by Butt freezes Golden:
Butt now has a huge cushion between he and Golden as he heads for the corner. Also, because Penn State's linebackers didn't drop deep thanks to the play-action fake and Smith's route into the flat, they won't be able to get back fast enough to defend any pass to Butt. Accordingly, Rudock has an enormous window through which to hit Butt:
The window is so big that Rudock doesn't even need to throw a perfect pass to Butt. In fact, his pass is a bit late and behind Butt, which forces Butt to slow down to catch it:
But it doesn't matter because Butt's route created all the space that he needed. Butt hauls in the pass and rumbles towards the goal line, rolling over defenders into the end zone:
#BUTTDOWN pic.twitter.com/08p3dHLhsA— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) November 21, 2015
This wasn't only time that Butt did this either, doing it on a post in the second quarter:
It's the little things like Butt's route running that make life much simpler for Rudock.
Will Jabrill Peppers Be Michigan's Running Back vs. Ohio State?
Jabrill Peppers won't be the only running back this weekend, but I believe we will see Peppers play more snaps there than he has all season. Why? Well, do I need to explain myself? He is Michigan's most explosive athlete, makes defenders look silly in space, and runs with aggression when he has the ball in has hands. Here is Peppers on offense in the third quarter after Penn State muffed the punt. It's 1st & Goal on the PSU 9, and Peppers is the running back in Michigan's four-wide shotgun set. Michigan call an inside zone option after spreading the Lions wide, leaving Evan Schwan (#94) unblocked. Schwan firms up and creeps down, playing the option well. Jake Rudock gives it to Peppers:
Mason Cole and Ben Braden do a great job of burying Penn State's defensive tackle and linebacker inside, opening a corridor for Peppers. However, because Schwan played the option well, the corridor is narrow, and Schwan is able to get an arm on Peppers. But Peppers explodes through the sliver of space he has and breaks through the tackle try:
Peppers gains six yards and gives Michigan two downs to punch the ball in the end zone:
I'm not sure if there's another Michigan back that gets those additional yards.
Though Michigan has had trouble running the ball in recent weeks, it hasn't used Peppers more at running back because he's more valuable on defense and needs to conserve his energy. However, I think we'll see more of him on Saturday -- other than the obvious reason that it's The Game -- because it's the regular-season finale and Michigan called basic runs for him against Penn State. This wasn't like before when Michigan used him as a decoy or for trickeration. This was Peppers playing actual running back. There are two concerns. First, we haven't seen him truly run between the tackles. Second, Peppers likely can't pass-block. But he's too good not to play there.
Even Jim Harbaugh admitted that he is considering the tantalizing prospect of playing Peppers more at running back next season. But let's see what happens this weekend.
Check back tomorrow when I break down Michigan's defense vs. Penn State.