Michigan’s dominant 26-0 win over Iowa wasn’t a victory that can be described as entertaining. In fact, between frequent Fox commercial interruptions and sloppy offensive football, it might be the worst Michigan viewing experience this season (though Bowling Green would like a word).
Defensively, the Wolverines were smothering. Michigan largely operated out of base looks and would frequently deploy three defensive tackles to shut down Iowa’s run-heavy/dependent approach. It wasn’t flashy or overly creative, but a physical, baseline performance was going to be enough to shut out this Iowa team.
Offensively, Michigan intentionally called one of the most vanilla games it has played all season. The Wolverines never ran any true play-action – only two soft play passes all game – and largely kept all its best plays in the back pocket. The Michigan Wolverines called basic concepts and schemes and were mostly devoid of any innovation. Why? Beating Iowa by four scores did not require a full effort and Michigan didn’t need to put anything else on tape.
It was a weird, sluggish game, but Michigan emerged victorious and reached its third-straight College Football Playoff. For today’s film study, let’s focus on one cool offensive wrinkle, one dominant defensive pass rush, and appreciate Coach Harbaugh returning to the sidelines.
Let’s check the tape.
3x1 Dagger Variation Flood on 4th-and-7
Michigan loves running the dagger concept (slot runs a go, split-end runs a deep 12-15-yard dig) and the flood concept where three receivers overrun or “flood” a specific zone of a zone defense. In this instance, the Wolverines combine elements of both concepts out of a 3x1 formation for a pivotal first down.
Facing a fourth-and-long on its opening series, Michigan came out with 11-personnel and aligned in a 3x1 formation. Michigan doesn’t operate out of 3x1 formations a ton but did so twice on this drive. The benefit of this formation is that it creates coverage problems for a defense and forces the unit to tip its hand pre-snap. With key indicators, quarterback J.J. McCarthy can diagnose the defense more easily and determine where his best matchups lie.
The three receivers at the bottom are Tyler Morris, tight end Colston Loveland, and Roman Wilson. Cornelius Johnson is isolated at the top of the formation and running back Donovan Edwards has joined his quarterback in the backfield. McCarthy sees Cover 3, understands where his advantage lies, and the ball is snapped.
Wilson and Loveland switch release at the first down marker (seven yards), with Wilson running a go route and Loveland running the 12-yard dig. Morris cuts underneath both to run a shallow drag and create a levels flood concept with Loveland. Edwards releases late as a safety valve, but McCarthy knew all along he was going to CJ.
With the boundary corner retreating, Johnson sprints 12 yards down the field, slams on the brakes, and as soon as he goes into his break, McCarthy throws with anticipation and hits Johnson between the numbers for a first down.
Iowa’s defense is the best-coached unit in the country. Period. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ran schemes in this game he had rarely shown all season and his team executed as if they had been practicing them for years. However, in this situation, Michigan’s Sherrone Moore was one step ahead.
Cover 4 Braiden McGregor Forced Fumble
In the second quarter, Michigan edge Jaylen Harrell discovered a deficiency in Iowa’s left tackle. Similar to Michigan’s tackles this season, Iowa’s left tackle struggled one-on-one with a pure speed rush against a nine-tech. In the fourth quarter, it was Braiden McGregor’s turn to take advantage.
Trailing by 20 with ten minutes remaining, Michigan was anticipating pass all the way. The Wolverines lined up in a traditional Cover 4 to defend against the Hawkeyes’ 11-personnel look and fired both edges out of a cannon. Harrell – due to his previous pass-rushing success – was chipped by a tight end, but McGregor was isolated at the top of the formation and got a clean release.
McGregor takes three steps upfield and does a beautiful job deploying a swipe technique to get the tackle’s hands off of him. Simultaneously, McGregor dips around the tackle’s outside shoulder and attacks the throwing arm of the quarterback like a volleyball player pursuing a spike. McGregor dislodges the ball, which is recovered by the Wolverines, and sets up Michigan at the Iowa 15-yard line.
Now, watch Mason Graham (2i-tech) put the right guard in a torture chamber. Graham shoots into the B-gap, spins back into the A, attacks with speed, and finishes with power to close in on the quarterback just a split-second after McGregor arrives. Plays like this will never show up in the box score for Graham, but this is why he is so feared across the country.
Jim Harbaugh Avoiding the Rush and Gatorade Shower
In head coach Jim Harbaugh’s return to the sidelines, Michigan captured a third consecutive Big Ten Championship. With another conference crown, Harbaugh knew a Gatorade shower was coming. As the game concluded in victory formation, Harbaugh removed his headset and heard linebacker Michael Barrett and running back Leon Franklin approaching with the Gatorade cooler.
Immediately, Harbaugh goes face up before escaping out to his right and backtracking into the Michigan sideline. Harbaugh is briefly held up by long snapper William Wagner (No. 49), but Michigan’s headman uses this to his advantage. Appearing to be restrained, Barrett and Franklin move into Gatorade dumping formation and at the last second, Harbaugh escapes, hits the edge, and is right back on his original trajectory toward Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for a handshake.
Some thought Harbaugh had lost a step or two, but the crafty veteran occasionally likes to remind fans that he did outrush Bo Jackson in his NFL career.