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Film Focus: Michigan's Offense vs. BYU

A review of the Michigan-BYU film highlights how Jim Harbaugh has been tinkering with his offensive plays to confuse opposing defenses and wonders if Jake Rudock will be able to see the whole field in future weeks.

Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog

Michigan's offense had a less-than-ideal start against then-No. 22 BYU. On the first play from scrimmage, the Wolverines should have scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Jake Rudock to Jehu Chesson. Why? The BYU corner assigned to Chesson slipped and had no safety help over the top. But, for some reason, Rudock didn't see Chesson sprinting down the sideline all by his lonesome and dumped it to Henry Poggi for a two-yard gain instead. Three plays later, Michigan had to punt, and doubt about whether U-M's offense was up for the task began to creep in.

However, there was no need to fret. Rudock and the Wolverines marched down the field to score on each of their next five possessions. Here is how those five possessions went:

  • 10 plays, 80 yards (4:42): Touchdown
  • 10 plays, 90 yards (4:19): Touchdown
  • 2 plays, 68 yards (0:52): Touchdown
  • 6 plays, 59 yards (3:26): Touchdown
  • 10 plays, 47 yards (5:04): Field Goal

By halftime, Michigan had built a 31-0 lead against a stunned BYU outfit. For all intents and purposes, the game was over. The Wolverines downshifted in the second half and were content to bleed the clock. The consequence was that Michigan didn't add to its point total in the final 30 minutes, but it didn't need to as Michigan blanked BYU, 31-0.

So how did Michigan's offense perform against the Cougars? Let's go to the game film:

Jim Harbaugh Tinkered with His O, and Vanilla Became Chocolate

In its last two games against Oregon State and UNLV, Michigan's offense was vanilla. Jim Harbaugh, Tim Drevno, and Jedd Fisch didn't need to dial up any plays that were fancy or unconventional. Even if Michigan left rushing yards on the field against the Beavers or ran into nine-man boxes against the Rebels, the Wolverines had enough talent up front to win the line of scrimmage and overpower their sub-par opponents. One example of this is when Michigan ran power 24 times against Oregon State because the Beavers couldn't stop it -- those runs gained 133 yards (5.54 YPC). Another is when Michigan decided to run sweeps to attack the edge of UNLV's loaded boxes, which led to scores on Jehu Chesson's 36-yard jet sweep and Ty Isaac's 76-yard toss sweep. The end result was that Michigan ran for 231 yards on 44 called runs (5.25 YPC) and 242 yards on 37 called runs (6.54 YPC) against Oregon State and UNLV, respectively. Vanilla worked just fine.

But vanilla wasn't going to work against BYU. Unlike Oregon State (76th in S&P+) and UNLV (97th in S&P+), the Cougars were a quality team. They may have been a tad overrated in the polls, but it was understandable given that they had just escaped a three-game stretch at Nebraska, versus then-No. 20 Boise State, and at then-No. 10 UCLA with a 2-1 record. Therefore, Michigan needed to unveil an offensive game plan for which BYU was not prepared. And, boy, did Harbaugh and his crew do just that on Saturday.

Let's first look at some of the more obvious change-ups that Harbaugh threw at BYU.

On 1st & 10 during Michigan's second drive of the game, the Wolverines came out in the Emory and Henry formation, which places an offense's tackles near the sidelines rather than grouped with the interior linemen where the ball will be snapped. Generally, when used, the Emory and Henry formation splits one tackle to each sideline, where they are joined by two skill position players. However, Michigan does it where there are four players to the boundary sideline. Amara Darboh stands behind a three-person shield consisting of Jake Butt, Mason Cole, and Erik Magnuson. Michigan has not used this formation yet this season, so BYU doesn't know how to defend it. Look at the Cougars' alignment. They have only three defenders over by that sideline with two deep safeties. If Michigan throws a screen to Darboh, which is exactly what Michigan will do, he should scamper up the side for a solid gain as long as the blocks are executed properly:

FF - BYU - Emory and Henry - Failed Screen - 1

Though BYU doesn't have the right alignment to defend Michigan's Emory and Henry formation, the formation telegraphs that Michigan will throw a screen. At the instant the ball is snapped, one of the BYU defensive backs bursts forward in an attempt to split the shield to cover Darboh. All of Michigan's blockers on the far side have not even budged:

FF - BYU - Emory and Henry - Failed Screen - 2

The BYU defensive back sprints inside of Butt and breaks through into the backfield. Butt tries to hinder the penetration, but Butt's reaction at the snap wasn't quick enough:

FF - BYU - Emory and Henry - Failed Screen - 3

The BYU defense back is able to get into the passing lane and break up the screen:

FF - BYU - Emory and Henry - Failed Screen - 4

It's too bad because, if you look, you can see the space that Darboh would have had.

This wasn't the only time that Michigan lined up an offensive tackle outside of the down linemen. Near the end of the first quarter, it's 2nd & 6, and Michigan is in an empty shotgun set. But this is not an ordinary empty shotgun set. See the circled Wolverine in the slot? That's Cole. Not Brian. Mason. And tight end A.J. Williams is lined up as the left tackle on the line of scrimmage. However, Williams is an eligible receiver, and Cole is not. Teams are allowed seven men on the line of scrimmage, and only the ends of that line can be eligible receivers. Here, Cole is not an end. Rather, Cole is covered by Drake Harris below him, making Williams and Harris the two ends. The plan is to fool BYU into thinking Williams is not an eligible receiver. Yes, this is exactly the formation that stirred up controversy when New England debuted it against Jim's brother, John, and Baltimore in the 2015 NFL playoffs. At least one Harbaugh gets to use this package:

FF - BYU - Williams - At LT - 1

At the snap, Cole backs off the line of scrimmage because he is not an eligible receiver. If he had ran forward, he would have been flagged for ineligible receiver downfield. At the same time, De'Veon Smith, who was in the slot on the far side, runs his bubble screen, while Williams releases from the left tackle spot into his seam route. This puts the BYU linebacker in a bind, though he doesn't even realize it. If the linebacker sticks with Williams on the seam route, Rudock will throw out to Smith on the bubble screen for a chunk of yards. But the linebacker runs after Smith because why would he expect the Williams to run a route as the left tackle? Exactly. That's what makes this so effective:

FF - BYU - Williams - At LT - 2

Rudock sees that Williams is wide open in the middle of the field:

FF - BYU - Williams - At LT - 3

But the BYU defensive lineman gets his hand up and makes a fantastic pass break-up:

FF - BYU - Williams - At LT - 4

Another wonderful play design that is stopped by a great individual defensive effort.

You're probably thinking, "Drew, why are you showing us all of these new formations and play designs that didn't even work?" Don't worry. One did work, and you should already know which one I'm talking about. Let's rewind back to Michigan's second drive. It's 3rd & 11 on the BYU 20-yard line, and Michigan motions into a pro-set formation -- another formation that Michigan has not yet used this season. The Cougars are in their 3-4, but, because they like to confuse offenses with their blitzes and coverages on obvious passing downs, they have only one down lineman while six defenders stand in the box:

FF - BYU - Hill - Fake Double Screen - 1

Rudock takes the snap, and the two Wolverines in the backfield split out to run swing routes -- Butt to the far side and Drake Johnson to the near side. BYU has rushed four players, leaving three defenders to cover any Michigan receivers leaving the backfield. As Rudock drops back, he a pumps a throw to Butt, which draws a defender to that side:

FF - BYU - Hill - Fake Double Screen - 2

Rudock turns and pumps to Johnson, drawing the other two BYU defenders to that side:

BYU - Hill - Fake Double Screen - 3

But both Butt and Johnson were decoys to draw the BYU linebackers away from the middle of the field. Why? Because this play is designed to go to tight end Khalid Hill, who had been blocking on the line of scrimmage for the last two frames. His patience in feigning to block is why two linebackers scurried after Johnson in the flat rather than just one. Neither linebacker thought that Hill would be a receiving target. So Hill bides his time before he runs a seam route into wide-open grass. Rudock sees Hill and throws:

FF - BYU - Hill - Fake Double Screen - 4

Hill makes the reception and rumbles down to the one, setting up Michigan's first score:

FF - BYU - Hill - Fake Double Screen - 5

These were just some of the new plays and designs that Harbaugh used against BYU. There were others that were not as obvious. Like last week against UNLV, Harbaugh called a toss sweep. This time, though, rather than have Graham Glasgow and the play-side tackle pull on the sweep, the two guards, Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis, pulled. Harbaugh also called a constraint for that toss sweep with a toss counter, where Johnson took a pitch and faked like he would run in one direction before he cut back to follow the pulling Braden and Kalis -- and Rudock! -- in the other direction. This counter should have went for a big gain, but Johnson tried to bounce it outside when there was a big lane into which he could cut upfield. Also, Harbaugh called runs purposely designed to screw with the BYU linebackers' keys. For example, Michigan's guard, whether it be Braden or Kalis, would pull to the outside of the tackle, suggesting to the linebackers that Michigan was about to run a Down G to the outside. Except the running back would run inside.

Like I said, these didn't always work due to execution. But the designs were incredible.

There are two main takeaways. First, Harbaugh is a master game-planner. Each week, he and his assistants are designing something new and unique that the opposing defense has not seen before. Michigan is no longer in the era where its head coach is screaming that all the offense needs to do is execute power to be successful. Yes, execution is important -- see above -- but offenses need plays that put defenses in challenging circumstances. Harbaugh is doing just that, tinkering with plays and run fits, and, as a result, Michigan's offense has become unpredictable. Second, think about how far Michigan's offensive line has come in two seasons. In 2013, Michigan arguably had the worst offensive line in the nation. Now, in 2015, Harbaugh is tinkering with these plays week to week, and the line has been able to execute them for the most part. In just a short period of time, you can see the development that these linemen have had under Drevno. It's a significant leap.

What does this mean for next week? I don't know. Why? Harbaugh is tinkering again.

The Tight Ends and Fullbacks Are Improving Week to Week

Jake Butt was interviewed on BTN Live on Monday and made this comment:

I don't have the database to confirm such a claim, but it would not surprise me if it were true, particularly against BYU. More than I think in any other game this year, Michigan relied on heavy formations to counter the Cougars' 3-4 defense -- one that was missing its star nose tackle in Travis Tuiloma due to a knee injury. The Wolverines often set up in one-wide I-formation packages with an H-back lined up over a guard. They also used the full house formation with two tight ends and no wide receivers on occasion. It was clear that Michigan believed it could overpower BYU and blow them off the line of scrimmage.

However, if a team is going to use heavy formations that often, it needs its tight ends and fullbacks to block. Otherwise, their mistakes can sink an entire play. After being weak links as blockers in recent seasons, Michigan's tight ends and fullbacks are coming on strong in 2015. Joe Kerridge didn't play against BYU due to an injury, but he was solid in each of the first three games. His replacement, Sione Houma, was excellent against the Cougars. Not only did he run the ball with force when given the chance -- four runs for 17 yards -- he was adept at kicking out edge defenders on outside runs and cutting inside linebackers on runs up the middle. Further, Henry Poggi has been much better the past two weeks. I strongly criticized him after his performance against Oregon State, calling for Khalid Hill to replace him, but Poggi has been a consistent contributor since then. Speaking of Hill, he has done a nice job and adds spark to the passing game. A.J. Williams is a completely different blocker than he used to be and should receive more snaps. And Jake Butt has been up and down as a blocker, but he's no Devin Funchess in that regard.

As these guys continue to improve, Michigan's run offense will continue to progress.

The Weekly Update on Jake Rudock

Let's start with the positives. Jake Rudock was much better on Saturday against BYU than he was the previous week against UNLV -- though that really isn't saying much. Nonetheless, this was Rudock's best game in the maize and blue. He completed 14-of-25 passes (56.0 pct.) for 194 yards (7.8 YPA) and a touchdown. He also scrambled eight times for 48 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Rudock did not turn it over once.

However, Rudock still isn't seeing the whole field when he drops back. I mean:

FF - BYU - Rudock - Missed Receiver - 1

FF - BYU - Rudock - Missed Receiver - 2

FF - BYU - Rudock - Missed Receiver - 3

Those receivers are wide open for big plays. And Rudock didn't throw to any of them.

Also, Rudock still was late with some of his decisions. Some didn't matter. Some did. On his 41-yard completion to Jake Butt, Rudock's fake on the play action sucked up both BYU safeties, allowing Butt to cross into open space behind them. Rudock could have delivered a strike to Butt immediately. However, Rudock waited a second or so before he began his delivery, which almost gave one of the BYU safeties enough time to recover. But Rudock still threw enough of a good pass to get it to Butt for the big play. On the other hand, his decision not to throw it to Butt on this third-down drag route here ...

FF - BYU - Rudock - Late on Drag - 1

... as opposed to here ...

FF - BYU - Rudock - Late on Drag - 2

... cost Michigan a first down as the BYU defender closed the gap and earned the PBU.

I understand Rudock's tendency to be more risk-averse after turning over the football six times in the first three games, and I know that Michigan just needs Rudock to manage the game. However, these are simple reads and throws that Rudock should be making. There is not much risk. His fear of making a mistake is causing him to make mistakes.

If Michigan wants to continue its earlier-than-expected rise, it needs more from Rudock.

De'Veon Smith Teleports and Then Goes #BEASTMODE

This play should have been a one-yard gain. Tops. This was a power to the strong side, but Henry Poggi was blown back and Ben Braden lost his seal a bit. The result was that the hole into which De'Veon Smith was running closed in on him. He looked as if he had been smothered by the defense. But no one knew he could teleport, which -- NOT FAIR:

FF - BYU - De'Veon Smith Teleports - GIF

And you don't need an X's and O's analysis to tell you what Smith did thereafter:

FF - BYU - Smith - TD - GIF

Goodness, De'Veon.


Check back tomorrow as I break down Michigan's defense versus BYU.