The 2018 Michigan offense has been somewhat predictable through the first half of the season and rightfully so considering Michigan began the 2018 season with arguably the most difficult schedule in college football opening on the road against Notre Dame, before facing a few sleepy cupcakes Western Michigan, SMU, Nebraska whom they dispatched boringly by not showing their hand.
Michigan would get another shot on the road before the schedule ascends playing in an awkward pseudo primetime (430pm) kickoff against the Northwestern Wildcats on Fox. Once again the Wolverines found themselves in familiar territory against an opponent on the road. The Wolverines started slow and found themselves facing a 17 point deficit in the first quarter. Michigan did not panic and change their game script instead they continued to use the run to set up the pass. They would eventually slog through and erase the deficit winning and more importantly finishing off a tough opponent on the road in primetime. Michigan used nearly every minute of the final three quarters finally taking their first lead of the game 20-17, and that's how the game would end. When Michigan opened on the road in South Bend against Notre Dame, they battled back from a deficit and had a shot in the games final minutes to possibly win and the narrative that has plagued Michigan over the last three years continued, they were unable to finish off an opponent.
The matchup against Wisconsin would be the next big test for both the Michigan offense and the Michigan defense. The Badgers have always been a football program who plays slow, physical, and methodical football. The Wolverines defense had to matchup against one of the nations top RB's Jonathon Taylor while the offense would face a defense that plays physical at the point of attack making it essential for Michigan to be able to move the line of scrimmage. In previous weeks Michigan dominated lesser opponents at the point of attack while struggling on the road against Notre Dame and Northwestern. In order for Michigan to erase the narrative that has plagued them in recent years they would have to dominate a top opponent in the trenches on both sides of the football in order to prove they are a legitimate top ten football program and a playoff contender.
Every week I chart one of the top college football games using the Football Scout 365 BGA (Big Game Analysis) scouting tool. This week I recognized something that Michigan has been holding back for obvious reasons (their daunting schedule), and that is the QB run option using outside zone. Every week Michigan has run the zone read and on approximately 90% of those plays the QB gives the ball even when there is an apparent opening for the QB to keep and go. Whether this was by design to preserve the QB (Shea Patterson) from absorbing too many hits, or Patterson who is a dual-threat QB by nature just forgot how to run the Zone read all together, I am going bet the farm this was by design to set up future opponents.
Michigan lined up in a pistol formation with the Y (TE) on the line tipping the defense that the play is strong left. Michigan added an additional TE (HB) who is lined up behind the outside of the RT. Michigan also has twins to the right of the formation.
Wisconsin is lined up in their base 34 (3-4 or 3 down lineman, 4 Linebackers). The defensive ends are playing inside technique (4i) on both sides with the Outside linebackers Will, and Sam both playing both playing at a 5 technique. The middle linebackers are both shading the two A gaps.
Offensive blocking responsibilities: Inside Zone/ HB Wham/with Arc
Y: Combo block down with LT on the RE release to LB's
LT: Combo block down on RE with the Y
LG: Combo block with the C on the nose release to second level
C: Combo block the N with the assistance from the LG
RG: Man block LE
RT: Man Block the Will
HB: Wham block/With Arc
Visual of what I just word vomited above.
QB/RB: Reads the Sam, if the Sam bites on the inside give to the TB, QB keeps and goes outside.
The play call was perfect as Michigan had spent the entirety of the 1st QTR running into a wall of Wisconsin defenders in the middle of the defense. The Badgers were aligned to defend the middle gaps with outside support coming from the Sam and Will backers. Now remember the situation, it is 1st and 10, and we just began the 2nd QTR after the long TV timeout, there is no better time than now to become contrarian.
Our Football Scout 365 Situational Analysis for this matchup shows that out of a total of 391 total offensive plays, Michigan ran the ball 117 times on first down against 56 passes. Michigan also ran the ball 20 out of 35 total attempts from within their own 20-yard line with a 7.9 yds per run avg.
Wisconsin is prepared for the run based on their alignment and what their analytics is telling them, Michigan will run the ball but its the subtlest change of tendency that would allow Michigan to take advantage of the moment.
The key to the success of this play for the offense is where the LB's are looking post snap when Shea Patterson and Kiran Higdon are meeting at the mesh. The defense sells out overplaying the inside zone give to Kiran Higdon, especially the Sam and the Strong Safety who vacate the entirety of the field on Pattersons left side. If Patterson Pulls the ball and runs, the play will go for big yardage, but if he gives it up its a tackle for loss.
You also notice that the HB (TE 84) completely bypasses the incoming Sam linebacker moving up field into an arc block on the safety.
The beauty of this play is that it is also a staple of the Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes run a wham design similar to this play and it has been their bread and butter for years under Urban Meyer.
In summary, I can conclude that this play was set up by previous run tendencies in past games and in the first QTR of this game when Michigan was running right into the middle of the Wisconsin defense. The timing of the play call helped to set up the big play opportunity for Michigan.
The Wolverines can run a lot more off of this one play including RPO (Run Pass Option) in the future, and I fully expect them to develop this further leading up to the Ohio State game. It was RPO's, and Zone read plays that undid the Buckeyes in Columbus a year ago against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, and it is apparent that Jim Harbaugh has recognized this and understands that to win the big games his offense must be more aggressive.
Michigan made wholesale changes to their coaching staff after last seasons 8-5 finish. Jim Harbaugh fired his longtime friend, best man and Offensive Coordinator Tim Drevno who has been on the staff since Jim Arrived in 2015. Drevno was also the Michigan Offensive Line Coach who many of the Michigan faithful were calling to fired after last years disastrous offensive line play that led to three QB's being knocked out of games due to poor pass blocking. Harbaugh had also cited poor team strength and conditioning following Michigans loss to South Carolina in the 2018 Outback Bowl. Harbaugh spoke to the media about how the team needed to get stronger and more physical to finish off opponents. Harbaugh followed that comment up by firing the longtime strength coach that had been with him at both Stanford and in the NFL with The 49ers.
JJim Harbaugh would replace Tim Drevno with former Ohio State Offense Line Coach Ed Warinner who coached the Offensive Line when the Buckeyes ran through, over and around the Michigan defense in 2015 using the same Wham design used above against Wisconsin. The Michigan Offensive line mauled the Badger defense wearing them down throughout the game. Michigan had three touchdown drives where they did not attempt a single pass. Warinner is also the likely culprit behind the above set up play we, and this says a lot about the collaborative effort that Jim Harbaugh alludes to when asked about who calls the plays for the Michigan offense. It is apparent that all of the offensive coaches have a hand in the design of the offense and this allows Michigan to be more versatile than in recent years.
The next piece of the puzzle would be a new strength and conditioning coach that fit what Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan to incorporate. Harbaugh went out and hired former Wisconsin, and Arkansas strength coach Ben Herbert. Herbert was brought into Michigan to change the culture of the strength program, and to instil a more physical approach on both sides of the football. This hire has paid dividends starting with the Notre Dame game where Michigan trailed throughout the game, but instead of folding late, Michigan had shown they are more conditioned than in recent years as they fought back and had a chance to win the game late.
The Northwestern game was also a testament to the new strength coach when Michigan trailed by 17 points and fought back eventually wearing the Northwestern defense down and taking over the game late. Unlike the Notre Dame game, Michigan finally finished a game on the road when trailing. More importantly, Michigan trailed by 17 points, the largest come from behind deficit faced by a Harbaugh coached Michigan team in which Michigan was able to win.
The Wisconsin game is another major testament that things are trending in the right direction as Michigan overpowered Wisconsin for three straight quarters. Ben Herbert was awarded the game ball because of this championship effort.
The final piece of the puzzle for Michigan would be Harbaugh being able to sway Shea Patterson to transfer to Michigan. He met with Patterson in Oxford Mississippi last December to discuss the opportunity. Patterson would be the final piece of the puzzle and is precisely what Jim Harbaugh needed to transform his offense.
Why am I pointing this out? Michigans 38-13 win against Wisconsin is a culmination of multiple variables coming together. Not just the setup play, but the coordinated effort of the Michigan coaching staff working together to build something special in Ann Arbor. It would have been much more comfortable for Harbaugh to keep his old staff together and stay the course, but it was Harbaughs willingness to make changes to his staff that has led the Wolverines to a 6-1 start in 2018. Time will tell if the payoff will be more immediate than expected as the schedule only gets more difficult for the Wolverines.