From the moment Jim Harbaugh took over the Michigan Wolverines, he wanted to run the football. His philosophy is that by controlling the ball, you control the game; running the ball drains the clock, opens up the passing game and makes reads easier for a quarterback.
While it started off strong for Harbaugh, his offenses eventually began to wane without creativity and evolution, so he went outside of his comfort zone for a perceived “modern” play caller. After a brief experiment with the totalitarian Josh Gattis speed-in-space approach, Harbaugh promoted Sherrone Moore to co-offensive coordinator. This promotion signified a return to form for Harbaugh, but also elevated one of the best offensive minds in the country.
Since Moore’s promotion, Michigan’s offense has evolved into a physical juggernaut that slowly overwhelms opponents over the course of 60 minutes. In 2021 and 2022, the Wolverines were ranked No. 24 in total offense in each season (previous high under Harbaugh was No. 50 in 2018) and jumped from No. 16 to No. 6 in scoring offense (previous high was No. 11 in 2016).
This season, the offense is expected to take another leap forward with Moore as the sole offensive coordinator and quarterback J.J. McCarthy returning as a second-year starter.
Many are wondering if the offense can change or at least diversify its attack since it was stymied for the second consecutive season in the College Football Playoff.
In a recent interview, Harbaugh stated he wants the attack to be more balanced. Last season, Michigan ran the ball 63 percent of the time and threw it 37 percent. I understand Harbaugh wants to have a more even split of plays but come on, Michigan is who it is because of its relentless run game.
I do expect the divide to be closer as the passing game advances, but not quite 50/50. To better understand this offense, here are five plays from last season that will define Michigan’s offense in 2023. Keeping up with the averages, three are runs and two are passes.
Duo was the bread and butter of the Wolverines’ rushing attack last year, and variations of this specific play accounted for more than half of all Michigan run plays. Duo — often confused with split-zone (which Michigan also runs) — is a gap scheme designed to generate double teams, vertical push, and create easy reads for the running back.
Against Penn State, Michigan ran one of the best duo plays you’ll ever see. Moore added a tight end kick-out wrinkle across the formation to displace an unblocked defender. All Blake Corum had to do was read the MIKE linebacker. Thankfully, the linebacker was pummeled by Zak Zinter, and “Blake the Great” rocketed to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown run.
With the strength and depth of Michigan’s offensive line, we will see variations of this exact play in every game in 2023.
Inside zone is a foundational piece of run schemes at every level of football because of its simplicity and effectiveness. While every scheme has variations and nuance, inside zone is essentially, “Take a 45-degree angle step play-side and block the person or persons in your zone.”
On this play, Michigan shifts Loveland early, forces Ohio State’s linebackers to move a few steps (which helps improve blocking angles) and rolls the Ohio State safeties into Cover 1 away from the eventual play-side run. As Loveland is realigning, center Olu Oluwatimi makes a critical identification that makes this entire play possible.
Understanding Ohio State’s formation and frequent interior movement from this look, Oluwatimi shifts the responsibilities of the left side of the line. This shift allows left guard Trevor Keegan to pick up a critical block a slanting defensive tackle and allows Oluwatimi to advance to the linebacker.
The right side of the offensive line is sealed off and the only other defender on that side is distracted by wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, who takes the corner out of the play with a decoy post route that also forces the safety to hesitate. This hesitation eliminates Ohio State’s safety valve, and Donovan Edwards wins a foot race to the end zone.
Michigan loves to pull its offensive linemen and get them out in space. If Gattis was “speed in space,” Moore is very much “meat in space.” While the counter play was the dominant pulling concept in 2021 (think Hassan Haskins vs. Ohio State), the pin-and-pull concept dominated 2022.
Moore loves to involve different pullers in this concept. Sometimes, it is GG (both guards), GC (guard and center), or TG (tackle and guard). In this example against Penn State, it’s guard Zinter and center Oluwatimi pulling into space.
This play is a masterclass in timing and execution. On the previous play, McCarthy scrambled to pick up a first down on 3rd and 4, and with the threat of a quarterback run fresh in Penn State’s mind, Moore exploits expectations with a three-layered RPO.
McCarthy can keep the ball if the strong side defensive end crashes, but because of the threat of his legs, the defender stays home. If the strong safety blitzes, McCarthy has Loveland wide open on a line route. However, the safety follows Loveland in coverage and takes away that option.
Moore anticipated both of these reactions and designed a weak-side pin and pull to exploit the boundary side. Zinter eliminates the first defender (cornerback) he sees outside of tight end Luke Schoonmaker, and Oluwatimi erases the first defender from the inside of Schoony (linebacker).
The backside linebacker hesitates briefly due to the mesh exchange between McCarthy and Edwards, allowing left tackle Ryan Hayes to get just enough of him to free Edwards on the sideline. Penn State’s free safety, the last line of defense, takes an angle so bad Alex Jones could be heard clapping in the distance. Edwards easily evades the final defender and makes a house call.
This is one of Michigan’s favorite shot plays. A dagger concept is simple: play-action where the outside X-receiver runs a deep dig route and the slot receiver runs a post. Designed to exploit the middle of the field and take advantage of heavy run support tendencies, Moore dials this up to perfection against Hawaii.
On the backs of a big Corum run, Moore motions tight end Erick All to act as an insert blocker. McCarthy sells the play-action fake behind All and Hawaii’s entire defense overreacts. McCarthy settles into his drop and finds Roman Wilson wide open.
Michigan faces different variations of man coverage as much as any team in the country due to its propensity for running the football. Moore’s go-to counter has become a bevy of rub and crossing routes to open up separation and exploit these light coverages.
There are hundreds of different crossing variations, but one of Michigan’s favorites is a modified switch release out of heavy personnel.
Against Indiana, before the play even begins, McCarthy tells CJ to widen his split (you can only see this on the full game version) because he is about to come in short motion to build momentum on his route. If McCarthy doesn’t recognize this, the spacing and timing of this play could have been ruined.
CJ goes in motion and at the snap, he goes inside and Schoonmaker goes outside before making his crossing cut, creating early friction in the Indiana defense. On the far side, Ronnie Bell and Loveland are working upfield and across to create as much traffic in the middle of the field as possible.
With CJ’s man tangled up in the congestion, McCarthy finds him on a shallow cross, which he takes to the house.
Moore returns to this concept in every game, but one counter off this play really stood out to me. In a 2x2 formation against Penn State, everything is unfolding the same way on the boundary side, except Bell runs a whip route instead of a crossing route, which leads to an easy pitch-and-catch first down for the Wolverines.