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Film Focus: Michigan's Offense vs. Minnesota

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This week's Film Focus includes a film breakdown of how Michigan used Jabrill Peppers on offense vs. Minnesota and highlights the struggles of Michigan's quarterbacks and offensive line.

Patrick Barron-MGoBlog

Michigan's offense scored 29 points in its three-point win over Minnesota, but it was a dissatisfactory performance. The Wolverines totaled only 296 yards and averaged only 4.85 yards per play, which was the third time that they failed to exceed five yards per play. The previous two times: 4.93 at Utah and 3.97 vs. Michigan State. Both losses. However, Michigan pulled out the win because it capitalized on its scoring chances. Thanks to some excellent starting field position on three series, Michigan mustered four trips into the red zone, and all four ended with a celebration in the end zone. If Michigan hadn't finished those drives, it would be a very somber week.

Though Michigan is relieved instead, there still is much about which to worry. At this level of output, Michigan's offense should be able to make Rutgers and Indiana's defenses -- the two worst defenses in the Big Ten by a wide margin -- look as incompetent as the ACC officials on the final play of Miami-Duke this past weekend, but that won't get it done against top-20 defenses in Penn State and Ohio State in Michigan's final two games.

So, after re-watching the game film, here are my thoughts on Michigan's offense:

Jabrill Peppers: Michigan's Swiss Army Knife

During the bye week, I made 10 predictions about Michigan football for the rest of the season, one of which was that Jabrill Peppers would not play another snap on offense until The Game. My theory was that Michigan would not need him on offense to beat its next four opponents. However, it took only one half for that prediction to go up in flames, and it's a good thing that it did because, without Peppers' offensive contribution against Minnesota, the Wolverines may not have left Minneapolis with their sixth win.

I didn't track the number of snaps that Peppers played on offense, but, in addition to his role as Michigan's corner, nickel, and strong safety on defense and kickoff and punt returner on special teams, he lined up at quarterback, H-back, and split-end receiver against Minnesota. Thus, Peppers had one of the funkier stat lines to date. On offense, he ran the ball three times for 19 yards and a touchdown, was credited with a fourth run when he was "sacked" because he ran out of bounds three yards behind the line of scrimmage as he looked downfield to throw, assisted on Jehu Chesson's 22-yard reverse, and drew a pass interference call the one and only time he was targeted down the field.

So I decided to break down all of these plays to understand Peppers' offensive impact.

Play No. 1: 2nd & 8 on MICH 27 (7:04, 2Q)

Michigan is in a four-wide Ace formation with twin receivers to each side, and A.J. Williams is in a two-point stance adjacent to Mason Cole. Minnesota is in its nickel formation with its nickel shaded inside of Jake Butt, who is in the slot to the near side. Prior to the snap, Jabrill Peppers, who is the far flanker, motions behind the formation:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - End Around - 1

Jake Rudock takes the snap and hands it off to Peppers running behind him. It's an end around. Williams down-blocks on the defensive end, Cole pulls to the outside as a lead blocker while Ben Braden seals off the defensive tackle trying to shoot into the backfield through the gap that Cole just vacated, and Butt and Chesson head to the second level:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - End Around - 2

Cole leads the way for Peppers and eyes that Graham Glasgow wasn't able to get to the second level fast enough to pick off one of Minnesota's linebackers. That linebacker takes a poor angle and tries to shoot inside of Cole to get to Peppers, but Peppers likely could outrun him to the outside. Nonetheless, Cole wants Peppers to have room to make his cut upfield, so Cole slows down and pushes the linebacker down to the turf. Butt has initiated his block with the nickel, and Chesson is about to do the same with the corner. The only man unaccounted for is Minnesota's safety, who is attempting to figure out which side of Butt's block Peppers will go. Glasgow tries to sprint down to wall him off:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - End Around - 3

Butt pushes his man to the outside, and Peppers realizes that there won't be enough real estate for him to head in that direction and break upfield. Therefore, Peppers cuts inside. Minnesota's safety is there to make a play, but what Peppers wants to do is to lead the safety into the running Glasgow. If Peppers can do that, there'll be lots of yards to be had:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - End Around - 4

But Peppers is running too fast and doesn't have enough control of his speed to make the necessary cut to set up the block. Instead, Peppers tries run to inside of the safety before Glasgow can get there but is brought down by his shoelaces. He falls forward for nine:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - End Around - 5

Peppers also may not have waited for Glasgow's block because the defensive tackle that Kyle Kalis failed to cut down to the ground at the beginning of the play had hurried back across the field to constrict that opening. So waiting for Glasgow may not have mattered.

Play No. 2: 2nd & 3 on MICH 32 (3:39, 2Q)

Michigan is an offset I-formation with one receiver to the near side, but it's not your typical alignment because Peppers is the "fullback." Rather than be positioned just three yards behind Braden like Joe Kerridge or Sione Houma would, Peppers is four yards behind the line and outside of Cole. Minnesota counters the heavy package with a 4-3:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 1

Rudock drops back to pass, and Amara Darboh runs a seam route with the purpose to draw Minnesota's defenders to the inside. Peppers heads to the outside before he begins to move upfield. He's running a wheel route, and that's where Rudock is looking. Minnesota's middle linebacker notices this and starts to take an angle towards the near sidelines to cover Peppers and cut off his route. Also, Minnesota's defensive end uses an outside-inside move on Cole in an attempt to split Cole and Braden and pressure Rudock:

FF - MInnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 2

Cole is able to recover, but Rudock senses the pressure and throws off of his back foot:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 3

Rudock chucks it up, and, as you can see, Peppers has a one-on-one matchup with Minnesota's middle linebacker down the sideline. Also, the linebacker has taken a shallow angle to cut off Peppers. The linebacker likely isn't fast enough to stick with Peppers, so a ball over the top should see Peppers run underneath it and speed away:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 4

However, Rudock underthrows Peppers by a good 15-20 yards. Rather than throw it over the top where Peppers should be able to haul it in and sprint towards the end zone, Rudock puts the ball in a place that forces Peppers to stop and come back to the ball. This also allows the linebacker to make a play on the ball, though he runs into Peppers first:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 5

The linebacker knocks Peppers over and intercepts Rudock's pass:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Wheel - 6

However, the interception is negated by a 15-yard pass interference penalty.

Play No. 3: 3rd & 4 on MICH 45 (13:17, 3Q)

Michigan is in a three-wide Ace formation with Peppers in the slot on the near side. Minnesota is in its nickel and has a Cover 1 man defense behind it. Why? When Peppers begins to motion across the formation, the nickel runs across the formation with him:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 1

Rudock takes the snap and tosses it quickly to Peppers sprinting behind him. With Derrick Green running ahead of Peppers from the tailback position, it looks like Green will block for Peppers for what will be another end around. The defense sees this, too, as its strong safety, two linebackers, and nickel all flow to the far side. However, this is not an end around because Chesson begins to run behind the play in the other direction:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 2

Peppers catches the toss from Rudock and quickly pitches it back to Chesson. Reverse! Minnesota's defense has run itself out of position, and Chesson has two blocks that can clear a path for him. The first is Cole, who will begin to block the linebacker that has lost containment, and the second is Rudock, about whom the defense forgot after he tossed it:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 3

Thanks to the threat of Peppers, Chesson has acres of open grass in front of him:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 4

Rudock takes out one defender, while Cole tries to maintain his block on the linebacker:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 5

But Cole cannot. Though Darboh had buried his corner down the field and even out of bounds, that Cole lost his block likely was insignificant because Minnesota's safety was coming over to shut down the play. Of course, Chesson may have had more room to juke him and head to the end zone. Who knows? But what I do know is that, because of the defense's fear of Peppers and the design of this reverse, Chesson ran 22 yards untouched:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Reverse - 6

Play No. 4: 1st & Goal on MINN 6 (11:29, 3Q)

Michigan comes out in the Wildcat with two receivers to the far side and Peppers as the quarterback. Here we go! I'm usually not a fan of the Wildcat, but, when a team has an athlete like Peppers, might as well give it a shot. Minnesota counters with its 4-3 defense:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - TD - 1

Peppers calls for the snap, and Michigan runs a crack-back sweep to the near side. Williams attempts a down block on the defensive end, Braden tries a reach block on the nearside defensive tackle, Kalis fails to cut down the other defensive tackle, and Erik Magnuson chops down a linebacker in the second level. This is done to allow Cole and Glasgow to pull and clear a path for Peppers, while Chesson and Butt wall off the edge:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - TD - 2

But there is some miscommunication. Butt and Chesson both block the same safety, allowing Minnesota's corner to come back and fill the lane where Peppers is running. The corner still could have been blocked if Glasgow continued to pull around Cole, but Glasgow and Cole block the same defender. This means Peppers must make a man miss:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - TD - 3

However, Peppers has a better idea. Rather than make the 199-pound Minnesota corner miss, Peppers lowers his shoulder and boulders right through him with immense power:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - TD - 4

Peppers carries the corner three yards before he crosses goal line for a touchdown:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - TD - 5

You can watch the touchdown and Pepper use his truck stick in full speed here:

Play No. 5: 1st & 10 on MICH 25 (11:43, 4Q)

Michigan is in the Wildcat with Peppers at quarterback behind a tight Emory and Henry formation -- you can see that Michigan's tackles are not lined up directly adjacent to the guards. Minnesota is in its 4-3 with its defensive ends aligned over Michigan's tackles:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sweep - 1

Peppers calls for the snap and runs a sweep to his right. Michigan wants to double the strongside defensive tackle and end before two blockers rumble into the second level to pick off Minnesota's linebackers. However, the defensive tackle withstands the double from Glasgow and Kalis, and Tom Strobel, moonlighting as a tight end on this play, forgets his assignment and doesn't move off his block. The result is that neither linebacker is picked off in the second level. This means that Chesson, who is Peppers' lead blocker, will have to take down one of those linebackers while Houma kicks out the corner. But there still will be another linebacker that will have a clean shot at Peppers:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sweep - 2

Peppers tries to extend the play out towards the sidelines as Chesson cuts down the first linebacker that has roamed over. Peppers realizes that the blocking hasn't developed well in front of him, so he cuts sharply inside of Chesson's cut block and bulls ahead:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sweep - 3

Peppers' quick decision and agility help him slither forward for a four-yard gain:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sweep - 4

Play No. 6: 2nd & 7 on MINN 9 (5:34, 4Q)

Michigan is in the Wildcat with Peppers at quarterback and two receivers to the far side. Minnesota is in its 4-3 defense. Hoping to trick the Minnesota defense into committing to the run, the Wolverines have given Peppers a pass-run option when he rolls out to his right. If it works, Butt or Drake Johnson will run open routes on that side of the field:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sack - 1

When Peppers takes the snap, Butt, who's the left tackle and an eligible receiver on this unbalanced line, breaks into his corner route. At the same time, Kalis begins to pull to the right to be a pass blocker in front of the rolling Peppers. The problem is that Minnesota's defensive ends have been aggressive all night and shooting upfield. This is no different. The end instantly gets in Peppers' face, and, because Kalis is out of position, he interferes with Johnson, who is attempting to run a route into the flat. The timing of this play has been disrupted, and all Peppers can worry about is evading Minnesota's defensive end:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sack - 2

Peppers runs around the end and pulls the ball up to look for an open target to whom he can throw. However, the unbalanced line didn't deceive Minnesota, so Butt is doubled in the end zone. Plus, Peppers can't find a comfortable window to get the ball to Johnson:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sack - 3

So Peppers tucks the ball and heads for the sidelines, where he runs out of bounds three yards behind the line of scrimmage. This is considered a sack for Minnesota's defense:

FF - Minnesota - Peppers - Sack - 4

Though I wish that Peppers had thrown the ball away before he stepped out of bounds to avoid losing three yards for the ensuing third-down play, I was pleased that he had the discipline not to force a pass that wasn't there. When a team calls a pass to be thrown by a non-quarterback, you often see that player chuck a pass towards a covered receiver because he is so giddy to throw the ball. That leads to mistakes and, in many cases, interceptions. Not that any team wants to throw an interception, but Michigan could not afford to toss one here because it would be Michigan's last legit chance to take the lead with a backup quarterback. Peppers gave Michigan another shot, and you know the rest.

***

So what's the takeaway? Peppers has become Michigan's Swiss Army Knife. Not only is Michigan using Peppers on defense and special teams, but Peppers is playing multiple positions on offense, too. Though there were only six plays in which Peppers was directly involved, that's still a ton being put on his plate. Jim Harbaugh praised Peppers during his Monday presser, saying that the redshirt freshman has a special level of determination, talent, intelligence, and instincts. There's no question about that. Handling this much responsibility would be difficult for most seniors. For a redshirt freshman to do it is absolutely astounding. And it takes more than physical gifts to do it.

However, Peppers' physical gifts can't be discounted, and there were two common themes in how Michigan tried to use them on offense. Peppers may not be the fastest man on the team, but he's the best athlete. Not only is he fast, his ability to burst in and out of cuts and barrel over opponents with brute strength is remarkable. Michigan knows this, and opponents fear this. Just think back to the Michigan State game when Mark Dantonio called back-to-back timeouts to prepare for Peppers' presence on offense.

That's why the first common theme was that Michigan used lots of misdirection when Peppers was involved in the offense. The hope was that the Gophers would overreact to what Peppers was doing and allow another option to become available. Michigan tried it twice. It worked the first time as Chesson wasn't touched during his 22-yard gallop on the reverse, but it didn't work the second time when Peppers looked to pass on the final drive. I expect Harbaugh and the offensive staff will find new ways to use misdirection.

The second common theme was that all of Peppers' offensive touches involved plays that were outside the pocket. There were two sweeps, an end around, a wheel route, a reverse, and a roll-out pass. Not once did Peppers remain the pocket or run between the tackles. There are two reasons for this. One is that Peppers is at his best when he is able to make defenders miss in space. The other is that Michigan likely doesn't want Peppers to get to beat up by defensive linemen. However, I will be curious to see if this changes in the coming weeks. It seems like Michigan plans to use Peppers on offense more in the coming weeks, and Michigan will need to find new ways to use him to exploit defenses.

And I can say this with no hesitation: it will be fun to watch.

The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock (and Wilton Speight)

I wrote so much about Jabrill Peppers that I will keep these next two sections brief.

Jake Rudock had another up-and-down game (61.9 cmp%, 6.7 YPA, TD, INT) that mostly was down after his first possession. Rudock looked solid on his first few throws. There were two in particular where, with pressure bearing down on him, he fired two strikes in perfect locations to Jake Butt on an out and Amara Darboh on a slant. It seemed like Michigan was going to get Good Jake on Saturday. However, that idea evaporated soon thereafter when he ended that promising opening possession with a bad interception. On that play, Rudock twice had Butt open on a crossing route but missed him both times. The first miss was understandable as a Minnesota stunt put some pressure on him and forced him to bail from the pocket. The second miss wasn't, though, because, rather than lob a pass in front of Butt in open grass behind three defenders, Rudock tried to shovel pass through them to De'Veon Smith. The shovel pass was tipped in the air and easily intercepted. And, after that play, Rudock's awareness seemed to deteriorate on key plays.

However, Michigan fans caught a quick glimpse of what life is like without Rudock. Yes, Wilton Speight stepped up to guide Michigan to its game-winning touchdown. Though Chesson was open only because one of Minnesota's safeties was in the wrong area, Speight still threw a missile where only Chesson could grab it. Nonetheless, we just can't disregard how Speight was on other plays when he looked like a freshman. The first time he dropped back, which was on third down, he fled from a clean pocket when he had Joe Kerridge underneath and Butt to the sideline for first downs. But Speight hesitated and didn't throw to them, so Michigan punted. Also, on the final drive -- 1st & 10 on the 12 -- Michigan was in a four-wide shotgun and ran a zone read. The problem, though, was that Minnesota had stacked the box, meaning that, even with the right read, the play had no chance. Rudock would have recognized this and thrown the quick flanker screen, which would have been a walk-in touchdown. Speight didn't, and Michigan gained three yards.

Maybe Speight will improve now that he has those first-game, non-garbage time jitters out of the way. But I think it was evidence that Rudock is the best option at quarterback for this team, even if he does show his flaws each game. Jim Harbaugh said that Rudock will practice this week with a torso injury. Let's hope because Michigan needs him back.

Michigan's Interior OL Was Mauled by Minnesota's DTs

It was ugly. Michigan couldn't run the ball inside against Minnesota because the interior line had its worst performance. Kyle Kalis had the worst grade that I have given any Michigan offensive lineman this season, and Graham Glasgow, who has been Michigan's best lineman, had by far his worst game in quite some time. The Gophers' strategy was clear. The defensive ends were very aggressive, blazing up the field on almost every down and leaving gaps behind them. Michigan's tackles would escort those ends out of the way, but Michigan needed its interior linemen to keep those lanes open. However, they could not do that, whether their blocks were shed, they couldn't use doubles to push defensive tackles backwards, or they couldn't reach linebackers at the second level in time. With the offensive line unable to block Minnesota's instinctual front, Michigan's slower backs -- De'Veon Smith (9 car., 15 yards) and Derrick Green (3 car., 4 yards) -- had no room. This is why Michigan switched to the shiftier Drake Johnson (10 car., 55 yards).

***

Tomorrow, I'll provide a film breakdown of Michigan's defense against Minnesota.