The Michigan Wolverines came out with a very specific offensive game plan against East Carolina dedicated to working on concepts in the run game, improving chemistry along the offensive line, and developing a baseline fluidity in the passing game.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy was stellar passing the football. The second-year starter set a program record for accuracy (87 percent), with a minimum of 30 attempts, and threw three touchdowns to Roman Wilson. However, the run game was less than spectacular, only accounting for 122 yards and what could be described as a “meh” performance.
Why was the run game so sluggish? Firstly, the offensive line is going to take time to gel. That is just the reality of the situation, and the return of Sherrone Moore this week will expedite this process. Secondly, the Wolverines were only operating with a fraction of their playbook.
Most notably, the offense featured zero quarterback runs for McCarthy, zero RPOs — despite the fact a split-zone RPO would have dismantled the Pirates worse than the Royal Navy — and only a select few runs were dedicated to getting Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards or a reversing receiver on the edge with the football.
The rationale behind this is simple: there is no reason to put things on film for the sake of looking cool or running up the score in Week 1. That said, Michigan did run a few interesting plays that stood out this week.
Let’s take a look.
Michigan had not gone under center this much in a game since 2018 before snake oil salesman Josh Gattis showed up with the “Speed in Space” tonic. The Wolverines frequently went under center in this contest and would operate out of 22-personnel (two running backs, two tight ends) or a variation of 12 or 13 personnel with an extra offensive lineman on the line of scrimmage.
To open up things in the second quarter, Michigan came out in 12 personnel with one wide receiver (Darrius Clemons) and one extra offensive lineman (Trente Jones) outside the left tackle. McCarthy shifted the offense pre-snap with tight end Max Bredeson joining Blake Corum in the backfield as his fullback and tight end AJ Barner lined up on the line outside the right tackle.
McCarthy took the snap from under center, reverse pivoted and handed the ball to Corum. While McCarthy was handing the ball off, Bredeson erased the stand-up linebacker on the edge, and a pulling Zak Zinter came to lead the way and eliminated an angle for the run-through linebacker.
Corum was left one-on-one with a corner and was just barely pushed out of bounds inside the five-yard line. The offensive line was masterful on this play, but check out Clemons at the top of the formation getting in on the action! Blocking with this kind of ferocity is how you stay on the field as a young receiver.
Michigan ran a play similar to this at the goal line last year against Indiana, except Zinter pulled and wrapped around to kick out the end from a jumbo formation.
This is a concept that head coach Jim Harbaugh has been using for years.
Operating out of 11 personnel on third-and-seven for this iteration, McCarthy brings wide receiver Cornelius Johnson in motion to bunch him next to Roman Wilson in the slot. This helps create just a little more chaos upon their release from the line of scrimmage for the defensive backs.
Johnson runs a quick five-yard out and McCarthy keeps his eyes on CJ to prevent the Cover 2 safety from doubling Wilson, who is running a corner route. McCarthy — operating out of a gorgeous pocket — delivers a strike to Wilson for first down.
This play stands out because it shows maturity on McCarthy’s part, but not where some may think. This isn’t just an eyes thing, watch McCarthy’s feet. His feet align with the timing of the route and he delivers the ball with purpose. While not the exact same play, we saw what happened against TCU when McCarthy took an extra gather step for a route that didn’t call for it and delivered the ball too soft.
This is another play that has traveled with Harbaugh across a few different stops.
Once again operating out of 11 personnel and facing a third-and-long, Michigan anticipated a heavy blitz from the Pirates and got just that with seven rushers crowding the line of scrimmage. Tight end Colston Loveland and running back Donovan Edwards stayed in to block to even the odds, but McCarthy knew he had to help out as well.
As soon as McCarthy gets the snap, he moves the pocket back and to his left without taking his eyes away from his receivers. On the outside, Wilson — the nearest receiver to the line — runs an over route and absorbs a second defender to open up space in the middle of the field. McCarthy looks to Wilson first, but as soon as the second defender attaches, the quarterback moves his eyes to the backside of the play.
The slot receiver — it looks like Frederick Moore, but it is hard to tell because of the angle — runs a deep corner and Johnson comes underneath on a 15-yard dig route. McCarthy sets his feet 10 yards deeper than the original line of scrimmage, still takes a hit as he throws, and delivers the ball to CJ on a rope.
This play is the epitome of growth from McCarthy. It shows poise, presence, courage, and mechanics that have taken a quantum leap in the offseason.