There was no "rebel" uprising on Saturday as Michigan overran UNLV comfortably, 28-7. Early in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines had a 28-0 advantage on the scoreboard and had outgained the Rebels, 350-111. It was only some late signs of life, some of which occurred while Michigan's reserves were on the field, from UNLV that made the box score look more competitive than it was. But Michigan failed to cover the 32.5-point spread by nearly two touchdowns, and that failure rests on the offense, which left Michigan fans with questions and concerns about this unit in the coming weeks -- particularly this next one as No. 22 BYU rolls into town.
After watching the Michigan-UNLV film, here are my thoughts on Michigan's offense:
Unlike Oregon State, UNLV Loaded the Box against Michigan
In last week's Film Focus column, I devoted a healthy section to how Oregon State's defense seemed to have no problem handing free rushing yards to Michigan. The Beavers often had two safeties at least 10 yards off the line of scrimmage when Michigan was in heavy formations, which gave the Wolverines a numbers advantage in the box. MGoBlog's Seth Fisher provided his input in the comments, suggesting that this was because Oregon State's safeties were not reacting to the run quickly in their Cover 4 scheme, not because Oregon State was not playing a gap-sound formation. After further review -- and refreshing my memory on Cover 4 schemes -- I concur with Seth. Michigan's numbers advantage in the box was an indictment on Oregon State's safeties.
But it was still a numbers advantage, which is why Michigan had success on the ground.
Michigan had no such advantage against UNLV. The Rebels took my advice from last week and decided to load the box before the snap. Just look at these UNLV alignments:
These were just in the first quarter, and UNLV didn't discontinue this thereafter.
The Rebels' gameplan was clear: they were not going to permit Michigan to beat them on the ground, particularly between the tackles. If Michigan wanted to win decisively, it needed either to gain the edge or unleash an aerial assault. But this was UNLV -- a 32.5-point underdog -- not Ohio State or Michigan State or even Maryland. Michigan didn't need to pull out all of the fancy tricks or constraints to beat the Rebels -- though U-M did show a few. Jim Harbaugh seemed content calling his vanilla man-blocking runs and giving his offensive line more reps. From what I watched, Michigan's offensive linemen were not bad at the point of attack. For the most part, they executed their blocks as designed. UNLV just had more defenders than U-M had blockers, which clogged lanes.
This is why De'Veon Smith seemed to crash back down to earth after his career performance against the Beavers. Smith ran for only 33 yards on 13 carries (2.54 YPC) against UNLV, but I don't think it truly was his fault. We know his limitations. I discussed them extensively last week. We know that Smith is a punisher -- a running back that can churn out yards with his legs when his offensive line generates a push that opens holes. But, when those holes don't open, Smith does not have the wiggle or the instincts to create one for himself. And, with UNLV committing eight, nine, and even ten defenders to the box before the snap, Smith never had a chance to get into a real rhythm.
I still think Smith will be a great fit as part of a two-headed rushing attack for Michigan. The Wolverines just need to find a more elusive running back that can complement Smith's hard-nosed style. I have advocated for weeks that, if healthy, Drake Johnson is that back. However, Ty Isaac stated his case for that role with an eight-carry, 114-yard game. Yes, 76 of those yards came on one fantastic run, which I will dissect at the end of this column, but, even if we put that aside, Isaac still averaged 5.43 yards per carry. Isaac and Johnson should be given two more weeks to duke it out before Northwestern's stout (?!) defense arrives in Ann Arbor. Michigan wants to have that battle settled by then.
So, all in all, I wouldn't fret too much about Michigan's running game. Last week, I told you not to get too excited. This week, I'm telling you not to be too worried. If higher-caliber opponents choose to load the box in the future, Harbaugh will call constraints more frequently, which will force them to reconsider. That should reopen running lanes.
Michigan Had Plays Designed to Beat the Loaded Box
However, this doesn't mean that Jim Harbaugh didn't call any plays designed to beat a loaded box. In fact, when Harbaugh did call them, they were -- or should have been -- very effective. The first one that should come to mind is the jet sweep that led to Jehu Chesson's 36-yard touchdown run. It's 2nd & 6, and Michigan comes out in a two-wide weak formation, though it's similar to an Ace formation because Henry Poggi is lined up a bit wider and shallower than usual. As you can see below, UNLV has loaded up the box with eight defenders, so any run up the middle will be a minimal gain at best. This is why Harbaugh has decided to test UNLV's edge. Prior to the snap, Chesson moves in motion:
Jake Rudock takes the snap and gives a quick hand-off to the moving Chesson. It's a jet sweep. The offensive line knows this and wants to eliminate any chance that UNLV can track this down from behind. Thus, Graham Glasgow, Ben Braden, and Mason Cole all throw cut blocks to wash out the Rebel defenders trapped inside the box. Glasgow and Braden take their men to the ground, while Cole delays his man just enough to allow Chesson to the outside. Kyle Kalis also has gotten to the second level to seal off a Rebel linebacker. Now there is just one defender between Chesson and a huge gain, and, fortunately, Chesson has Poggi leading the way. Poggi must take out this UNLV player:
And Poggi, whom I criticized last week for a poor cut block, executes a perfect one:
Chesson gets to the outside and is off to the races. Chesson has excellent speed, so no Rebel should be able to catch him from behind. The only question is whether Amara Darboh has maintained his block downfield to allow Chesson to score untouched. Yep:
There is one other play that Harbaugh called -- twice -- when UNLV continued to load the box: the swing pass. But this wasn't your basic swing pass. Similar to how Michigan wanted its offensive linemen to cut down UNLV's defensive front on the jet sweep to prevent the Rebels from tracking down Chesson, Michigan wanted its wide receivers and tight ends to set "incidental" picks on UNLV's back seven while running their routes to release the running back into open space. For example, Michigan has 3rd & Goal. The Wolverines are in a three-wide shotgun set, while UNLV has seven men in the box and will be in zone coverage. Prior to the snap, Chesson starts to move in motion inside:
Just before Rudock calls for the ball, Chesson stops his motion to the outside of Jake Butt. Chesson will run a quick hitch, and Butt will run a post over the middle of the field:
Rudock takes the snap and stares at Butt running his post and Chesson running his hitch. Rudock's first option is Butt, but his second option is Smith, not Chesson. As you can see, the route run by Chesson was designed to create a traffic jam for the UNLV defender that was assigned to cover that area in the flat. The UNLV defenders are stuck in the mass of bodies by the right hashmark, so Smith runs his swing route with no person near him:
Rudock makes the throw:
And Smith struts in for the Michigan touchdown:
Harbaugh called this play again early in the third quarter, but it didn't work:
Unfortunately, this is the perfect segue for my next section.
Not Even I Can Defend Jake Rudock after that Performance
After Michigan's first two games, fans expressed their concern for Jake Rudock's play. Rudock had been built up as a low-variance, turnover-limiting game manager, but, through two weeks, he had thrown four interceptions and lost a fumble. In this space, I stated that Rudock was not as much of a liability as everyone was presuming and that he still was moving the offense in the right direction, even with the numerous turnovers.
However, I cannot defend Rudock this week. He completed 14-of-22 passes (63.6 pct.) for just 123 yards (5.6 YPA), a touchdown, and an interception against UNLV. This is an alarming stat line against a defense of this caliber. It's even more alarming when one breaks down how he earned that line. The OZone's Tony Gerdeman tracked how far downfield each of Rudock's throws went against the Rebels. By Gerdeman's count, Rudock was 13-of-15 on passes that traveled no more than seven yards past the line of scrimmage, but he completed 1-of-7 passes that traveled further than seven yards in the air. This must change for Michigan's offense to be effective next week and during Big Ten season. As I stated above, Michigan could manage to beat UNLV's nine defenders in the box without an aerial assault because the Rebels didn't have the talent or depth to compete. But that won't be the case from here on out. Teams will continue to load the box with defenders, and these teams will be better disciplined on the edges. Michigan will need Rudock to throw accurate passes down the field to force defenses to back off. Wind or no wind, that he hasn't be able to do it through three games is a major problem.
But, to me, the bigger issue is that Rudock seemed unsure of himself against UNLV, despite that Michigan's offensive line provided him with a clean pocket. One of Rudock's strengths is that he is decisive with his throws, even if they are low-reward, low-risk throws. However, as former Michigan safety Marcus Ray suggested in his terrific breakdown of Rudock's performance -- one that you must read -- Rudock seemed to be misreading his progressions and mistiming his throws. He spotted a wide-open Jake Butt in the end zone too late, which forced him to chuck a pass too far to the outside to avoid UNLV's safety. Amara Darboh ran a slant and stopped in an open gap, but Rudock threw it too late, which allowed a safety to knock it down. I could go on, but you get the point.
This was Rudock's worst game of the season -- by far. The question is whether Rudock will be able to turn this around. Before the season, we mentioned the stat that Rudock threw only five interceptions all of 2014. What we all forgot is that Rudock threw 13 picks in his first season as a starter at Iowa. And, now, he has played just three games in a new offense at a school to where he transferred this past summer. Rudock still is trying to adjust and become comfortable in Jim Harbaugh's offense, and I think Rudock will improve as he becomes more comfortable. I just don't know how long the adjustment period will last or how long it will take for him to become comfortable. Unfortunately, Michigan is in a position where it needs him to be comfortable as soon as this weekend.
A Closer Look at Michigan's Longest Rushing TD by a RB since 2009
Let's end this on a high note. Before Saturday, the last time that a Michigan running back had broken free for a touchdown longer than 75 yards was against Eastern Michigan in 2009, when Carlos Brown exploded up the gut for a 90-yard score (skip to 5:15 mark):
Thanks to Ty Isaac, Michigan was able to update that stat on Saturday. In the second quarter and on Michigan's own 24-yard line, Isaac took a pitch from Jake Rudock and found himself in the end zone 76 yards later. Given how difficult it has been for Michigan running backs to explode for big runs in recent seasons, one would think that a run of this length would need perfect execution by the blockers in front of him. But, as Jim Harbaugh noted in his post-game press conference, that was not the case whatsoever:
But was Ty Isaac's 76-yard touchdown run blocked correctly? pic.twitter.com/2nsqTxgvQA— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 19, 2015
So how did it work? Let's break it down.
Michigan lines up in a one-wide weak formation with two tight ends and a fullback. Given that Michigan's lone receiver is Freddy Canteen and he's lined up in the slot, everyone knows this will be a run. And, in this case, it is a toss to be precise. The plan is for Henry Poggi and Canteen to deliver crack-back blocks to seal the inside, while Mason Cole, Graham Glasgow, and Sione Houma pull to the outside to lead the way for Isaac:
Rudock takes the snap, and, before he's even pitched it to Isaac, I think there are already problems. Poggi connects on his crack-back block, but I think Canteen has targeted the wrong defender. Rather than take a free shot at the defensive lineman or linebacker, he heads after the safety in the second level. I think this is a mistake because this means that Cole and Glasgow have to block the lineman and linebacker, which likely will occur in the backfield where UNLV has a much better chance to blow up the run for a big loss:
Now Michigan definitely has problems. Cole has to take on the UNLV defensive lineman, but, because Cole had little leverage on his pull, the lineman is able to push Cole about three yards behind the line. This obstructs Glasgow as he tries to pull to the outside to block the linebacker. And there's Canteen, who whiffs when he tries to block the safety:
Cole gains control and seals the lineman to the inside, but this looks really bad for U-M:
However, Isaac then demonstrates vision, instincts, and, most importantly, patience that I haven't seen from a Michigan running back in some time. Isaac realizes that those two UNLV defenders, one of whom received a nice little shove in the back from Canteen, are speeding for the outside. He knows that Glasgow may be able to block one of them but not both. So Isaac slows down and lets Glasgow run in front of him to block the linebacker. And, just like how Denard Robinson used to do all the time, Isaac puts his hand on Glasgow's back to guide the block and use it to cut back when the lane opens:
Isaac makes his cut and bursts up the field. The deep UNLV safety that was supposed to clean up any big plays has run over in support, but he doesn't realize that Kyle Kalis made his way to the second level and has rumbled over to seal him to the outside:
Isaac now just has one defender from the far side to beat. Commence stiff arm:
Notwithstanding poor blocks and execution in front of him, Isaac needed just one cut and one stiff arm to scamper up the sidelines for a 76-yard touchdown. Not too shabby.
Tomorrow, I will provide a film breakdown of Michigan's defense versus UNLV.