Michigan pounded the Beavers of Oregon State, 35-7, last weekend in Jim Harbaugh's home debut as the Wolverines' head coach, and much of the pounding was done on the ground. The Wolverines called a run 44 times -- this doesn't include sacks, scrambles, or the final kneel -- for 231 yards (5.25 YPC) and four touchdowns, which was a vast improvement from the 67 yards that Michigan gained on 26 called runs (2.58 YPC) against Utah. Thus, Michigan fans walked away from the win satisfied -- a feeling MGoBlog's Ace Anbender perfectly labeled "shiwonhada."
That's how I felt in the immediate aftermath. That's how you felt, I'm sure.
But, after watching the Michigan-Oregon State tape, I'm going to ruin that for you.
Oregon State Wasn't Even Trying to Stop the Run
Football is a game of numbers. Yes, points scored versus points allowed are the numbers at which we look the most, but blockers versus defenders are numbers that deserve more attention. It's simple math: if an offense has more blockers on the line or in a formation than the defenders in or near the box, the running back should break free for a large run as long as the blocks are executed correctly. Generally, this will force the defense to put more defenders in the box, which in turn will open other weaknesses in the defense that the offense must exploit. At its most basic root, it is like a game of cat and mouse.
Oregon State had no interest in playing that game. Instead, the Beavers just sat back and allowed Michigan to run through them time and time again. How do I know this? Well, when defenses want to assert themselves against the run, they generally will bring a safety down into the box, adding another defender for whom the offense must account when running the ball. This is a tactic that I expect many defenses will use against Michigan because Jake Rudock and the Wolverine receivers have yet to prove they can beat defensive backs over the top. However, Oregon State did no such thing. Instead, the Beavers kept both safeties deep like Michigan had Tom Brady and Randy Moss out there:
That's Freddy Canteen at the bottom, not Moss, and Sione Houma rips off 13 yards.
This time, Michigan has two receivers on the field side at the bottom, rather than one, but Oregon State puts three defenders on that side. As a result, Michigan has a numbers advantage again, so it hands the ball off to Green, who runs for an easy seven yards:
There are many other examples of this. You can find them throughout the second half, particularly when Michigan reeled off its 14-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that closed the scoring and consisted of 13 runs, nine of which were power. This is a big reason why Michigan rushed for 179 yards on 30 called runs (5.97 YPC) after halftime. Oregon State just took it on the chin and let Michigan chip into them for five to seven yards at a time.
But here's the problem: Oregon State kept two safeties deep in the first half, too, and, yet, Michigan called 14 first-half runs that gained only 52 yards (3.71 YPC). For example, in the second quarter, Michigan faces a 2nd & 6 just past midfield. The Wolverines are in a one-wide strong formation with two tight ends and a fullback to the strength of the formation. On the other hand, Oregon State is in a 4-3 Over with, oh, two deep safeties:
Michigan calls a power with De'Veon Smith that should see him running for a long time:
I'm not guaranteeing that this should be a touchdown, but, because of the numbers advantage that Michigan has, Smith should break past the second level with only one Oregon State safety between him and pay dirt. This should be at least 10 yards. Easy.
But it's not. Why? Henry Poggi, whom I will discuss more below, runs past the playside linebacker that he needs to block -- see the question marks -- to pick off the backside linebacker that Erik Magnuson is about to hit. Just like that Michigan loses its numbers advantage because of Poggi's mental miscue. Now, Ben Braden pulls into the open gap and sees he needs to block the playside linebacker rather than the crashing safety, who becomes a free hitter in the gap. Jake Butt and Joe Kerridge are about to lose their blocks, but that would have been irrelevant if Poggi would have executed his assignment:
The safety closes the gap, which forces Smith to slow down and cut upfield behind Braden. This allows the two Beavers that Kerridge and Butt were blocking to catch up from behind. Plus, Braden didn't make a firm block on the playside linebacker. Thus, Smith is hit just three yards past the line of scrimmage, and he rumbles for another two:
A five-yard gain on what should have been at least 10 and maybe the full 48.
This is why I don't feel as good about Michigan's rushing attack as I did on Saturday. We were so happy to see Michigan running forward and moving the chains that we didn't focus on the details. Unfortunately, the details show that Oregon State gave rushing yards away to Michigan -- yards that the Wolverines did not take. This still semi-worked against Oregon State because the Beavers' front seven, particularly the linebackers, are MAC-level caliber. So, if you think that this game was a sign that Michigan's running game is progressing and will be effective against solid rush defenses, I think you're in for a rude surprise. This was about Oregon State being really bad, not Michigan being good.
Mason Cole and Erik Magnuson Crushed the Ends on Outside Runs
During the telecast, the one Michigan offensive lineman about whom Chris Spielman was raving was left guard Ben Braden. Spielman even went so far as to say that Braden is the only Michigan offensive player that could start on Ohio State. I respect Spielman's opinion and love his insight in the booth, but -- I'm sorry -- that's just not true. Braden arguably was Michigan's worst offensive lineman against Utah, and, though he was much better against a bad Oregon State front seven, he was not Michigan's best offensive lineman on Saturday. That honor should be shared by Mason Cole and Erik Magnuson.
Cole and Magnuson were excellent -- Oregon State caveat noted. Michigan's gameplan on the ground was clear: beat the Beavers on the edges and avoid defensive tackle Kyle Peko, who did a nice job in the interior clogging up lanes. To do this, Michigan needed to call lots of power, tosses, and off-tackle runs, all of which rely heavily on the playside offensive tackle to bury defensive ends and outside linebackers. That's what Cole and Magnuson did repeatedly against the Beavers. As a result, Michigan continued to call these runs outside the tackles. Pro Football Focus tallied that a staggering 32 of Michigan's 45 runs (71.1 pct.) were outside the tackles. Given that, by my count, Michigan ran power 24 times, off-tackle five times, toss four times, that seems to be accurate. And Michigan recorded 5.48 YPC on those runs, while its inside runs earned only 4.40 YPC. That's thanks to Cole and Magnuson. Pro Football Focus agrees, too.
A.J. Williams Had His Best Day as a Blocker; Henry Poggi Did Not
Twitter pal and fellow reviewer of Michigan football film DGDestroys watched the Michigan-Oregon State tape before I did and tweeted his thoughts on Sunday morning. There was one in particular that caught my attention and forced me to do a double take:
AJ WILLIAMS KICKED ASS. A LOT OF IT. Not perfect, but it was awesome to see.— DG (@DGDestroys) September 13, 2015
A.J. Williams? The same Williams that has spent the past three seasons at Michigan as an mini offensive tackle whiffing block after block on the line? Yes, the one and the same.
And DGDestroys was correct: Williams kicked ass. Michigan almost always has a tight end on the field, so, when it calls this many outside runs, it needs its tight ends -- like its offensive tackles -- to block well on the edges to open gaps. And Williams was the best of the bunch. He kicked out ends when the run was designed to go inside. He buried ends down the line to allow backs to bounce like De'Veon Smith did on this 10-yard carry:
It was a nice sight to see. Now we need to see if he can do it against stiffer competition.
On the other hand, Henry Poggi had a very rough performance, and, given the caliber of Oregon State's defense, it may be time for the Poggi experiment to end -- at least for this season. As I noted above, his mental miscue -- running right past the Oregon State defender he needed to block, which is something he also did on a Ty Isaac toss in the opener against Utah -- cost Michigan a long gain and possibly a touchdown. When he wasn't making mental mistakes, he struggled to remained engaged with his blocks. The Beavers often had little trouble shedding him before squeezing down on the hole to shorten Michigan's run. You can see this when Michigan tries to run power with Smith:
Poggi also missed his cut block on the Jehu Chesson reverse that went nowhere:
And Poggi had an unnecessary hold on a Jake Rudock scramble that led to a punt:
A switch needs to be made at H-back. Khalid Hill showed some spark at the position last season before he went down with a season-ending ACL injury. I didn't notice Hill against Oregon State, and I don't think he played. I was informed that he may have tweaked his knee because he posted on Snapchat that he's wearing a second knee brace now but will return next weekend. I don't know how legitimate that information is, so take it with a grain of salt. But, if Hill is able to contribute, Michigan needs to replace Poggi with him.
De'Veon Smith Brings the Pain, But Not The Wiggle
If I asked De'Veon Smith to predict what happens when he runs, he'd answer with this:
The Oregon State defender in this fantastic photo from MGoBlog's Eric Upchurch agrees:
Smith punished the Beavers, toting the rock 26 times for a career-high 126 yards and three touchdowns. Even more impressive, by MLive's Nick Baumgardner's count, 73 of those rushing yards were after contact. After watching the film, I'm not surprised. Smith ran over and through Oregon State defenders all game, demonstrating his ability to run low and drag defenders down the field. His first and third touchdown runs seemed identical, with him bouncing to the right and then literally bouncing off a waiting Oregon State defender before strutting into the end zone. At this point, it's clear what Smith is: a bulldozer of a running back that blasts defenders back when the offensive line gets push.
The offensive line delivered that push against Oregon State, but, as we've seen, it struggles to do that against stouter run defenses. And, when that push isn't there, holes are harder to find. That's when Michigan needs a running back that has wiggle, that can create holes for himself. Smith hasn't shown that ability and doesn't seem to care if he does. His main focus is to run north as fast as he possibly can -- which isn't that fast -- and blow through defenders. You can see that on this run by Smith here, when a simple cut to the outside could see him off to the races rather colliding into an incoming safety:
This is why I still think that Michigan needs Drake Johnson to return to full strength soon. Johnson has some rust he needs to shake off -- that was evident when an arm tackle tripped him up on his only carry against Oregon State -- but he can be a perfect complement to Smith in Michigan's rushing attack. And, during his press conference on Monday, Jim Harbaugh said that Johnson will have more opportunities next week.
That's good news.
Ending on a High Note: the 4th & 5 Conversion
Jake Rudock had a very Rudockian effort against Oregon State, completing 18-of-26 passes (69.2 pct.) for 180 yards (6.92 YPA). This points to a quarterback that threw lots of short and intermediate passes, meaning turnovers should have been limited. But they weren't as Rudock fumbled when he was sacked during Michigan's first possession and threw an interception in the second half. The fumble wasn't entirely Rudock's fault as an overload blitz by Oregon State caught Michigan by surprise. However, Rudock needs to be better about securing the football before taking the hit. The interception was Rudock's fault as his pass to Jake Butt on a stop route was late and too far inside. Further, though two passes down the field that fell incomplete should have been flagged for pass interference, Rudock still has yet to complete the deep pass. He airmailed Butt on a deep out route on a third down in the first quarter before he under-threw Jehu Chesson on a third-down go route in the third quarter -- though the wind may have knocked it down.
However, Rudock still managed the offense just fine. After I watched the PTSD-suffering Devin Gardner dance in the pocket, anticipating to be hit, each time he dropped back to pass last season, it's been refreshing to watch Rudock make purposeful movements in the pocket to avoid rushers while keeping his eyes downfield. And, though he wasn't feeling pressure here, Rudock made one of his best plays of the game -- one that contradicts the somewhat-accurate narrative that he stares down out routes -- at an absolutely critical moment. Trailing Oregon State, 7-3, with 5:12 left in the second quarter, Michigan faces a 4th & 5 at the Beavers' 28-yard line. The Wolverines are in a three-wide shotgun set with twins to the field side, while the Beavers plan to rush three and drop eight in coverage:
After the snap, Rudock's looks to his first option on his right, where Drake Harris runs a go route down the sideline and Grant Perry runs an out route underneath. However, neither is open as the Beavers have tight coverage. As this happens, in the middle of the field, Jake Butt tries to run an in route. However, Oregon State knows that Rudock tends to target Butt on third and fourth downs, so a second Beavers linebacker obstructs him:
Rudock then moves through his progression, next looking at Butt running across the field. The second Oregon State linebacker sees this and continues to shift towards his right where Butt is running. However, what that linebacker hasn't realized is that Rudock has led him in that direction for a purpose. What purpose is that? To open up a huge chunk of grass for De'Veon Smith, who has leaked out of the backfield unnoticed:
Rudock delivers an easy pass to the wide-open Smith, who picks up 20 yards:
First down, Michigan. Two plays later, touchdown, Michigan.
And Michigan takes a lead that it would not relinquish.
It wasn't the turning point, but it was significant. If that fourth-down play fails, Michigan is staring at a halftime deficit against a team that it was favored to beat by about two touchdowns. Who knows what kind of pressure the Wolverines feel coming out of the locker room under those circumstances? But we didn't need to know because Rudock executed a beautifully designed play perfectly, and Michigan never looked back.
Check back tomorrow when I break down Michigan's defense versus Oregon State.