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Michigan Film Study: Breaking down three key plays from the Rose Bowl

The Wolverines put on a masterclass in terms of scheme and execution.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Alabama at Michigan Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines executed their game plan to perfection against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. Through a combination of innovation and old favorites, Michigan was able to impose its will against the Tide and overcome a few miscues to punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff National Championship.

In this week’s film study, so much jumped off the screen. Offensively, the Wolverines motioned and shifted on almost every play to create misdirection and leverage advantages. Defensively, Michigan constantly rolled into different coverages at the snap and used an array of blitzes and pressures from stunts and twists in the front seven to create chaos.

It was the best-called game on both sides of the ball this year for the Wolverines, but of all the plays, these three were personal favorites. Let’s check the tape.

12-Personnel Running Back Mesh (“Slither”)

Inside the 10-yard line, Michigan comes out with 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends) in a subtly unique alignment. To the left of the formation, Roman Wilson is the split-end aligned with a cut split only about seven yards away from the left tackle LaDarius Henderson. Tight end Colston Loveland is in the slot as a receiver and tight end A.J. Barner is aligned as an off-ball H-back between Loveland and Henderson.

These three guys are solely designed to create traffic in the middle of the field.

At the snap, Loveland and Wilson immediately begin working to the middle of the defense. To add an extra element of chaos, Barner works vertically before slowly becoming a “crosser” to ensure there is a log jam in the middle of the field.

Behind this mass of humanity are two passing options for quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Running back Blake Corum gather-steps to his right to affect the linebackers, and then runs through the line of scrimmage and into the flat.

Nick Saban’s defenses are predicated on zone coverages with man-to-man responsibilities underneath. If the linebacker tries to pass Corum off, he will be wide open in the flat. If the linebacker chases, then Cornelius Johnson — who aligned with a split cut to the other side of the formation — will come open right behind Corum on a crossing route.

The defense elects to not cover either Michigan player, and Corum waltzes into the end zone with Johnson starting the celebration behind him.

13-Personnel Power

In overtime, Michigan went to one of its favorite plays of the season: Power. The Wolverines came out in an unbalanced 13-personnel (one running back, three tight ends) look with Barner and Loveland on the left side of the line of scrimmage, and Max Bredeson offset in the backfield as an H-back on the right.

Just before the snap, Bredeson motions to the left to build up momentum for his kick-out block on the safety. Once the ball is snapped, right guard Karsen Barnhart pulls around to lead Corum. Typically, Barnhart would be looking to block the MIKE linebacker through the C-gap, but the MIKE crashes hard into the C-gap and is washed away by Loveland’s initial block of the edge, and becomes a part of a two-for-one special.

Barnhart recognizes this in the moment and continues to lead Corum around the outside through the line of scrimmage, and now Michigan has an extra blocker in space. Behind Barnhart, Corum delivers a jump cut from hell and proceeds to follow Barnhart as he easily runs through Alabama’s last safety. Corum reads his blocks to perfection and refuses to be denied in the final 10 yards with another cut, spin, and finishes powerfully into the end zone.

Be sure to watch this again and focus on the excellence of every player. Corum being Corum; Bredeson and Barnhart in space; Loveland sealing two guys; Barner taking care of the backside linebacker; LaDarius Henderson, Trevor Keegan, Drake Nugent and Trente Jones walling off the entire defensive front; wide receiver Cornelius Johnson flying in late and still fighting to help Corum score.

Michigan hasn’t been the dominant running team it was in 2021 and 2022, but with their season on the line, the Wolverines proved they possess the physicality and execution across all 11 positions needed to compete for a National Championship.

Fourth-and-Goal Cover 0 Stop

With the game on the line, Alabama put the ball in the hands of its most dynamic player, quarterback Jalen Milroe. The Tide came out in 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end) and let him decide their season. Now, there has been speculation about the final play call. Was it an RPO or was it a designed quarterback Power?

The case for QB Power… Michigan is in Cover 0 (man-to-man) and the tracking of the running back lightens the box to seven Wolverines. With the right guard pulling to the strong side, Milroe should have a one-on-one opportunity to pick up three yards and score.

The case for an RPO… The running back flares out to the flat before the snap and is tracked in man-to-man coverage by Junior Colson. It appears briefly that Colson is trying to signal safety Rod Moore, but with time of the essence, Colson follows. With a leverage advantage, Milroe can decide if the play on the perimeter is more likely to score or if he can make it into the end zone himself. Knowing Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s style, I would wager this was an RPO.

The low snap disrupts the timing and Milroe has to act fast. The Wolverines have six lined up across the line of scrimmage (Mike Sainristil, Derrick Moore, Kenneth Grant, Mason Graham, Josaiah Stewart, and Michael Barrett) and they are all coming after Milroe. Moore is the seventh man in the box and he is playing a linebacking role on this play.

Milroe handles the snap and darts toward the line of scrimmage. Off the edge, Sainristil overplays his rush and if this was an RPO, his over-pursuit could have persuaded Milroe to keep the ball. In a perfect crimson world, the left tackle seals Derrick Moore, Milroe cuts, and the quarterback follows his right guard into the end zone as he runs over Rod Moore. But Michigan had other ideas and it started on the backside.

Josaiah Stewart (245 pounds) starts this play from a two-point stance and explodes into All-American right tackle J.C. Latham (360 pounds). Stewart’s leverage, drive and power force Latham to retreat into Milroe before being placed flat on his back. This push from Stewart eliminates any chance of Milroe cutting and forces him into the arms of Moore, who blew right through the strong side tight end.

Between the tackles, there was ZERO room to run — the defense was designed to engulf Milroe and it did just that. Just like the Ohio State game, after the offense took care of business, the defense closed the show.