Where Does the Offense Go From Here?

Much to the delight of Michigan fans (or maybe just bloggers), Smart Football has taken a fairly serious interest in Michigan since Rich Rodriguez has been the headman. Of course, part of the reason that the Wolverines get mentioned time and again is the fact that everything is not all sunshine and lollipops in Ann Arbor. Of course, Rodriguez has never taken a significant interest in the defensive performance of his teams, so surely the focus of Smart Football is on that side of the ball, no?

Not So Fast My Friend. It is in fact the offense that Chris has taken an interest in. More specifically, it is the idea that Michigan’s offense is not as diversified or systematic as perhaps it should be. This is not an old issue for Chris, who has brought up the point before that the passing game is not conceptually designed. In the more recent post, he goes a little more in-depth:

If Rodriguez wants his offense to be truly elite again, it’s the passing game that has to be the source of innovation. The run game tools are largely in place. There’s some room for improvement all around, but, last season with general inexperience — and without a legitimate running threat at quarterback — the lack of a viable downfield passing attack worked to help cripple the Rodriguez offense. But the fact that this aspect never developed over the course of the season was what really troubled me.

There’s much more to say on this topic, but for now suffice to say that Rodriguez is in danger of falling behind in the spread offense arms race in terms of sophistication. I discussed that phenomena with Purdue as a pass-first spread team over the last decade, but it’s of a slightly different order with Michigan.

Let’s break this down, shall we?

Passing Game
Smart Football sez:

But Rodriguez is a bright guy and his passing game originally derived from (though is a long way now) the old run and shoot. So you’d think he could remedy this. Yet with nothing but true freshman, that evolution will have to wait. The longer they wait, however, the farther behind they fall. The only hope is the increased athleticism masks these deficiencies.

Brian’s take on the matter is that Rodriguez hasn’t been forced to have a complex passing game, because with Pat White at the helm, a dominating run game and simple pass game will work just fine, thank you. I tend to agree with that assessment, and it better be true, because, as noted by Smart Football, the Wolverines are likely a year away from being able to add any complexity to the passing game.

With Pat White able to run the ball like he did, and probably not able to pass well enough to have a full pass game installed, it’s easy to see a potential reason the pass game stayed stagnant. Rodriguez’s recruiting has shown that he’s more interested in being able to throw the ball, however, and Tate Forcier may even be a better passer today than White, if not quite the runner:

Running Game
Smart Football:

Compare their offenses with Rodriguez’s: there’s not much difference from a run-game standpoint (though Meyer and OU mix up their sets a bit more and use more tight-ends now), but the passing games have seen a wide departure.

All due respect to Smart Football (and I may be wrong here, because he knows a hell of a lot more about the game than I do), but I’d be willing to say that even Rodriguez’s ground game, at least as implemented last year, is simpler than other spread teams, most notably Florida and Oregon. Again, part of that might have been players who were less-than-optimal for the spread offense, particularly at the quarterback position.

In the future, however, a diversification of the offense, perhaps including innovations like Meyer’s use of the H-back as a shovel option, or more counters, even the triple option/throwback pass that WVU used in the Meineke Bowl. Having better fits at the QB position, and not having to install just that base offense all offseason, will certainly help that in the future.

The Future

Perhaps Pat White got a bad rap as a passer, or maybe Bill Stewart actually knew what he was doing for WVU’s offense, thoughthe stats don’t agree – and that’s in a year where a senior Pat White was supposed to lead WVU to one of the most prolific offenses ever. However, with White looking more like a quarterback than a wideout or return man at the NFL (for better or for worse), it looks like Rodriguez’s schemes will be able to develop more complexity down the road.

As far as diversifying schemes goes, Chris points out that Oklahoma is an example of a spread team with a much more complex (and effective) passing game than Michigan’s. The use of the tight end is pointed out specifically. In fact, Rodriguez has reportedly planned to visit Oklahoma’s coaches in the offseason to trade information on the passing game, particularly the use of tight ends (of which Michigan has many who aren’t getting very much use).

In the future, I would love to see visits to Florida as well, for diversifying the running game a bit, along with figuring out other ways to use the tights ends effectively in the spread offense.

And, as pointed out by Smart Football, Oregon’s offense is one of the best-designed as well. I’ve pointed out in the past that I don’t think Michigan’s schemes are as creative as Oregon’s, and that’s one area where there is room for improvement. Perhaps in the future, Rodriguez can pick the brain of Chip Kelly.

And, most importantly for the future comes recruiting. Rodriguez has more resources available at Michigan than he ever did at West Virginia. White’s emergence as a possible NFL QB has to help recruiting as well. Even if he didn’t tweak his offense at all, if he continues to recruit like he has for the past two classes (or, more likely, improves it by having more success on the field), He could be able to usurp the quality of his offenses in Morgantown. With minor improvements to certain aspects of the offensive side of the ball, an outstanding offense is likely in the future of Michigan football.

Posted under Coaching, Football

Why Michigan 2008 isn’t Notre Dame 2007

The final part in a series that I started (and accidentally abandoned) a long time ago. The other teams of comparison were Minnesota 2007, Alabama 2007, and Nebraska 2004.

Notre Dame and Michigan’s 2007 and 2008 seasons, respectively, were somewhat similar. Does that mean Michigan is doomed to follow in the Irish’s footsteps and finish 6-6 in their next season? Let’s take a look at why or why not. First, there’s a comparison between the actual teams. As Brian explored on MGoBlog, despite the same record, Notre Dame’s season of terror was much more… terrible… than Michigan’s. So, although this post is primarily predictive, it’s important to note that Michigan’s year was nowhere near the disaster that ND’s was.

Another key difference between the two teams: 2007 was Weis’ third year in South Bend. He was playing with mostly his recruits (after doing all of his winning with Willingham’s oddly-lamented recruiting classes), at least the ones who hadn’t left after committing to Weis, spending two years in his program, earning starting jobs, and STILL hating the whale enough to ditch his program.

The Better

Michigan’s offense, though significantly better than Notre Dame’s, was full of first-time starters (every single player except for one – Steve Schilling), many of whom were never expected to contribute. The offensive line, in particular, didn’t have the accolades or experience of Notre Dame’s comparable unit, and they still managed to perform much better (as in “didn’t give up an NCAA record in sacks”). When you take into account that every single offensive player who had a meaningful role on the team (except Sam McGuffie, who missed much of the year with injury and was out when the offense started to, like, function) is back, and Notre Dame didn’t have quite that luxury between 2007 and 2008, it’s certainly a good sign for Michigan.

Michigan’s defense was supposed to be its strong suit in 2008, and that didn’t quite come to fruition. However, Michigan will be returning some of its most talented players on defense – defensive end Brandon Graham, corner Donovan Warren, and linebacker Obi Ezeh – and they are loking to build on that success.

The Worse

The quarterback situation for Michigan coming off 2008 is much wore than Notre Dame’s was the previous year. Though Jimmy Clausen had a horrible first year in South Bend, he was still the #1 overall recruit in the nation for a reason. Steven Threet, on the other hand (should he choose to stay) is a more limited, though still talented, player. If Michigan has to start a true freshman (or even a sophomore Threet), it will be a step down from a sophomore Clausen.

Michigan also lost its defensive coordinator, which can be seen as a blessing and a curse. Scott Shafer’s defense wasn’t the world-beater it was built up as before the season, but Michigan’s defense will still have to learn from its third coordinator in as many years, which certainly increases the likelihood of missed assignments, etc. Of course, GERG did beat the Irish in their house last year.

The Verdict

Halfway through last year, emulating ND’s two-year stretch might have been a pretty good goal for Michigan. The head-to-head win in the series, and a path to an 8-4 record (and therefore, ridiculously, a BCS bowl) seemed to be well within ND’s grasp. Then, of course, they fell flat on their faces, getting GERGed and not even registering a first down against USC until the third quarter. Rich Rodriguez’s noted track record of success and actual support (in the form of opinions) from people in the know would certainly seem to imply that the Wolverines aren’t headed for an extended down period like the Irish may be.

With Michigan’s fairly unique situation last year, particularly for a first-year coach, they were set up for a pretty special kind of suck. Notre Dame’s 2007 team, in all honesty, shouldn’t have been. With a year under the RR regime, a hell of a lot more experience, and some new recruits coming in, the Wolverines should be disappointed with a season like Notre Dame’s. Of course, expecting much better might be setting up unreasonable expectations (8 winsis a reasonable goal).

Posted under Analysis, Coaching, Football

Life on the Margins: Michigan Wolverines 2008

For those of you who are college fotball fans and don’t read Dr. Saturday, shame on you. The Artist Formerly Known As Sunday Morning QB is one of the most analytical, fair, and funny college football writers I’ve come across. His season-long “Life on the Margins” series was continuously “Obsessing over the statistical anomalies and minutiae of close and closer-than-they-looked games that could have gone the other way. Be careful before you judge these games by the final score alone …

Of course, Michigan’s season was one almost defined by turnovers, yardage deficits, and results that simply had observers scratching their heads. In the spirit of DocSat, let’s take a look at Michigan’s season on the margins.

Michigan v. Utah
Michigan UtahBased only on the marginal analysis, it would appear that Utah should have run away with this game. They out-gained Michigan by huge yardage overall and on a per-play basis while starting with better average field position. The Utes wasted only 5 yards of offense in the entire game (this is a huge deal: they only gained 5 total yards that didn’t contribute to a scoring effort in some way), and tied Michigan in both turnovers and swing points. So, based on this analysis, it appears as though Utah should have run away with this game. The big difference in this contest, and what allowed Michigan to keep it close, was the manner in which Utah was scoring. While the Wolverines scored 3 touchdowns and a field goal, the Utes were settling for 3-pointers for much of the day, and Louie Sakoda nailed 4 of them. Near-swing points also played a role. While none of Michigan’s touchdowns came on drives of fewer than 25 yards (as per DocSat criteria), they had a 26-yarder, a 33-yarder, and a 31-yarder. Considering Michigan’s worse average starting field position, the remainder of their drives must have started in horrible situations (and they did: 8 of Michigan’s other drives started at or inside their own 20). It seems that, unless Michigan could get good field position, the offense was destined to fail. If only we had realized it would be like that all season…
Michigan v. Miami
Michigan MiamiMichigan is used to dominating MAC teams. Until later in 2008, the Wolverines had never lost to a squad from the Mid-American conference. So, when Michigan won this game, it was no surprise. In terms of marginal analysis, Miami was a fairly straightforward game as well. The final 10-point margin didn’t scream “There should be a difference of more than 30 total yards between these teams.” Michigan greatly outgained the RedHawks in yards-per-play (5.30 to 3.81) and got the benefit of a single turnover by Miami to their none, and 3 swing points resulting from it.Yeah, there’s a typo in the graph. It should be 16 to 15 first downs, in favor of Miami.
Michigan v. Notre Dame
Michigan Notre DameI think Doctor Saturday was peering into the future and seeing this game when he hatched the whole “Life on the Margins” concept. Looking at the boxscore, the Wolverines should have dominated the scoreboard. Michigan outgained the Irish by 128 yards overall, nearly a full yard per play, more than 10 yards per possession, and 7 overall first downs. If only that was a guaranteed way to put points on the board (awkward scoring systems in spring games notwithstanding). Michigan turned the ball over 6 times to Notre Dame’s 2, and the Irish had 21 swing points, while Michigan had 0. The Irish were very lucky to win this game (and even that against a historically-bad Michigan team), and perhaps a closer analysis would have tempered the expectations of Notre Dame fans. Without the huge disparity in turnovers and the resulting swing points, Michigan would be a hypothetical 17-14 winner of this game. Alas, turnovers are part of football, and the scoreboard ended with a big win for Notre Dame. What doesn’t make sense, however, is claiming that the Irish beat down Michigan in a reverse of the 2006 game. In fact, if you look at, like, the stat sheet, that’s a ridiculous comparison to make. Michigan dominated play in both years (340-245 in total yardage in ’06, 5.40-3.71 per play), and just so happened to get ridiculously unlucky/sloppy in ’08. Michigan fans actually came out of this game as encouraged as they could possibly be by a 3-score loss to one of their most hated rivals. Alas, aside from Michigan falling off a cliff not too long after this game, it appears as though Notre Dame’s defense was indeed just that bad, and the Irish offense was nothing special.
Michigan v. Wisconsin
Michigan WisconsinWisconsin started the season as a top-10 team, and were still in the upper echelon of college football heading into this game. They brought an undefeated record into Ann Arbor expecting to emerge with a fourth victory. In the end, though, the Badgers would be dealt the first of their many losses on the season. The margins were kind to Michigan in the this game. The Wolverines were outgained by 116 yards (0.62 per play) and 4 first downs, committed more turnovers than their opponent, and even scored fewer swing points than the Badgers. However, they managed to come away with the win. How? The answer lies in points per score. The Badgers, like Utah before them, were forced to settle for field goals, while the Wolverines scored only touchdowns. In fact, the Badgers had 3 swing scores, but only gained 9 points on all of them combined. Michigan, on the other hand, had only 1 swing score, but John Thompson, of all people, made it count by taking the interception all the way back. Wisconsin had 4 field goal attempts (one was missed) and Michigan didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer. Making each score count was huge for Michigan. Wasted yards were also a big factor in this game, as Wisconsin wasted nearly as many yards as they used on scoring drives, while Michigan wasted about one third of theirs.
Michigan v. Illinois
Michigan IllinoisThe Illinois game was really the beginning of the end for Michigan’s season. The slide, momentarily halted by an exciting win over Wisconsin, resumed in full force at home against the Illini. The defense, expected to keep Michigan in games in 2008 until the offense came around, began a slide of its own, which would continue for the remainder of the year. Juice Williams set a Big House record with 431 yards accounted for on his own. Michigan turned the ball over twice, one of which turned into 7 Illinois points. However, Michigan did, at one point, look like a competent team in this game. The Wolverines led 17-14 at halftime after their lack of depth did them in later in the game (get used to this; it’s something of a theme in Michigan’s 2008 season). Illinois dominated the second half, outscoring Michigan 31-3. A rudimentary analysis of the margins bears that out. The Illini outgained Michigan by more than 2 yards per play, wasted 20% of their yards while Michigan wasted 43%, had more swing points, total yards, first downs, etc. Led by Juice Williams, the illini were simply the better team on this day. Of course, the Illini, like the Wolverines, would unravel later in the year. The win in Ann Arbor was almost certainly Illinois’s best performance of the year. The fact that it came against the anemic offense of Michigan is understandable.
Michigan v. Toledo
Michigan ToledoToledo, or as Michigan fans know it “ARGJGRFGRGFGHGH.” Michigan, despite being the more talented team, managed to lose to a MAC team, and a bad one at that. How did it happen? Surely there was a ridiculous difference in the margins, no? Surprisingly, that isn’t so much the case. The Rockets outgained Michigan 327-290 (4.54-4.39 per play), and had a deficit of only 2 first downs. Michigan, in fact, seemed to get its lunch handed to it. HOWEVA, the Wolverines were actually able to hold the Rockets when they needed to: only 78 of Toledo’s yards contributed to a score of any type. The Rockets wasted the vast majority of their yardage. Michigan used a little more than a third of theirs for scores. So how did the Rockets win? Michigan’s season-long bugaboo, the turnover, resulted in this Toledo victory. The rockets had 10 swing points, including an interception return of 100 yards by Tyrell Herbert. Michigan had no swing points, and only benefitted from one Rockets turnover. If not for a missed field goal by KC Lopata at the end of the game, the Wolverines still would have had a chance to take this one in overtime. The yards-per-play, not among the worst of Michigan’s season, contributed to one of the lowest scoring outputs based on timing. Michigan turned the ball over at the worst possible instants. On Herbert’s interception return, the Wovlerines had driven the field and were going in for the score. Had that turnover not taken place, Michigan would have likely won this game – not even accounting for the momentum swing it created.
Michigan v. Penn State
Michigan Penn StateOn a macro, game-long level, Penn State dominated Michigan. The Wolverines had fewer yards (total and per-play), fewer first downs, worse starting field position, and 29 fewer points. However, it is important to point out Michigan’s success in the first half, after which they led 17-14 (including a Penn State drive with only 2 minutes left in the half to bring the margin back within a field goal). At the beginning of the second half, the tides turned. Steve Threet got hurt, Nick Sheridan took a safety, and it was all downhill from there. The momentum-killing 2-pointer led to a second-half shellacking at the hands of the Nittany Lions, and they followed it with 30 more points, including 10 more swing points. A greater man than I would look at the marginal analysis of each half of this game, to see the radical tale-of-two-halves. Without looking at the actual data, I would assume Michigan fairly dominated the first two quarters straight up, while Penn State controlled the third and fourth. Aided by the swing points they they scored, the second half was an ugly, ugly thing to behold for Michigan fans. Like the Illinois game, it was partially a testament to the lack of depth across the board on Michigan’s roster. Once the depth is built up, games aren’t likely to continue this familiar path.
Michigan v. Michigan State
Michigan Michigan StateSometimes, little brother wins. This was one of those instances. Sparty had more rushing yards, more passing yards, more first downs, and a significant advantage in yards-per-play. Michigan turned it over once more than did Brian Hoyer, and even though they had the game’s only swing points (on a terrible call that gave Brandon Minor a TD reception), they really had their asses handed to them. Still notable, however, is that this game was tied after three quarters. Again, Michigan’s lack of depth did them in late in the game. Looking to the future, the Wolverines really weren’t as close to Michigan State this year as they’d like to think (of course, how close can you expect a 3-9 team to be to a 9-4 team?). With Sparty losing their QB and RB, however, the Wolverines can make up ground next year.
Michigan v. Purdue
Michigan PurduePurdue had 522 yards of total offense. Of course, that does include a 61-yard fake punt and a 32-yard hook-and-ladder, but is 429 yards against one of the league’s sputtering offenses really that much of an improvement? The points scored on those two drive aren’t technically “swing points” but they are certainly unconventional ways in which Purdue ended up scoring, and in effect do the same thing. Without those two scores, Michigan would have won. Of course, the Boilermakers still would have outgained Michigan by 129 yards and 0.4 yards per play. The margins were fairly even in this game, as each team had 7 swing points (Michigan’s on a punt return for touchdown, Purdue’s on a fumble recovery that gave them the ball just 14 yards from paydirt), a single turnover, and identical starting field position. So yeah, that 3-3-5 experiment really sucked. Thanks, Tony Gibson. The Wolverines, afraid of the rushing threat by redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Siller, went with a run-oriented defense. In stopping the run (Purdue still ran for 256 yards, 77 of them by Siller), the Wolverines gave up the short passing game. Siller threw for 266 and 3 touchdowns, with no turnovers. The Boilermakers wasted 22% of their yards, while Michigan didn’t use 17%. Again, the timing of big plays by either team tell more of the story than the yardage itself.
Michigan v. Minnesota
Michigan MinnesotaAfter being shredded by Purdue, clearly Michigan stood no chance against the potent(ish) offense and ball-hungry defense of Minnesota. Uh, not so much. The Wolverines turned the ball over once (matched by the Gophers) and gave up by far its fewest yards of the season. Michigan almost doubled up the Gophers in yard-per-play (and more than doubled their number of first downs), Nick Sheridan was competent, and Wolverines fans perhaps got a glimpse of what the future could look like under Rich Rodriguez. The gophers wasted nearly half of their yards, and Michigan wasted less than a quarter of their own. In every single way, the margins bear out that this was a dominating performance by Michigan. The Wolverines outdid the gophers in every marginal category except swing points and turnovers, in which the two teams were even.
Michigan v. Northwestern
Michigan NorthwesternrMichigan outgained Northwestern by 7 yards, but they also ended up 7 short of the Wildcats in a much more important measure – points. The Wolverines scored the game’s only swing points (on a blocked punt returned to the endzone by walkon Ricky Reyes). So with advantages in perhaps the two most important categories, on top of field position, how did Michigan lose to Northwestern? The answer lies instead in wasted yards. Michigan had great field position on their first drive (Northwestern’s 8), but Nick Sheridan tossed two incompletions and KC “Kicking Consistency” Lopata missed a field goal. The offense came away empty-handed, perhaps setting the tone for the whole game. The timing of turnovers is an important factor, that isn’t readily apparent just from looking at the boxscore or the marginal analysis. Michigan’s first turnover was a killer in terms of timing. Though the 39-yard drive that ensued from that turnover doesn’t count as “swing points” in the strict terms of being shorter than 25 yards, it wasn’t far off. The missed opportunity for Michigan combined with the opportunity given directly to Northwestern. certainly hurt Michigan on the final scoreboard. This was a game that Michigan could have won, based on marginal analysis.
Michigan v. Ohio State
Michigan Ohio StateAgain Michigan was within striking distance at halftime, and again their opponent used far-superior depth to slam the door on the Wolverines. This game, still, was closer than it seemed. Michigan missed a field goal, and turned it over twice to Ohio State’s once (14 swing points for OSU, 0 for Michigan). Sure, playing hypotheticals accomplishes almost nothing, but even without the changes in momentum that those events produced, that still would have meant only a 28-10 loss for Michigan, far from a blowout. But as we learned in the Notre Dame game, turnover and swing points do indeed count on the final scoreboard, and Michigan was demoralized by the Buckeyes for the second year in a row.

Posted under Analysis, Football

Greg Robinson Named Defensive Coordinator

Greg Robinson, recent ex-headman at Syracuse, will reportedly be named Michigan’s Defensive Coordinator. GERG comes to the Wolverines after a failed 4-year stint in upstate New York. Prior to that, he was Texas’s Defensive Coordinator in 2004, preceded by stints with two NFL teams.

Robinson was the Defensive Coordinator of the Denver Broncos from 1995-2000, and served the same position with the Kansas City Chiefs the next 3 years. In Denver, Robinson’s defenses ranged from stellar to middle-of-the-pack. Of course, Robinson won Super Bowls in Denver in 1998 and 1999. His defenses there had a bizarre trend of alternating years being good against the run or against the pass. In Kansas City, Robinson’s defenses could be described as little other than abject failure. The Chiefs organization decided to focus on drafting and exceeding on offense, while somewhat neglecting the defensive side of the ball.

Denver Broncos
Year Total D Rush D Pass D Scoring D
1995 15 23 9 17
1996 4 1 10 7
1997 5 16 5 7
1998 11 3 26 9
1999 7 19 8 11
2000 24 7 31 23
Kansas City Chiefs
Year Total D Rush D Pass D Scoring D
2001 23 27 14 23
2002 32 24 31 28
2003 29 30 20 19

Texas DC
Robinson spent only 1 year as the defensive coordinator at Texas, and therefore it is important to compare that year (highlighted in burnt orange below) to the preceding and following year. Robinson slightly improved the defense overall in his year as defensive coordinator, but the year after he left, the defense suddenly became awesome. However, it is important to look at everything in context. The Longhorns’ offense was the Vince Young-led terror in 2005, and in 2004 Young was still developing as a quarterback, giving the opposing offenses more opportunity to possess and move the ball.

Year Total D Rush D Pass D Scoring D
2003 25 9 58 6
2004 23 16 58 18
2005 10 33 8 8

Syracuse HC
Following his tenure in Austin, Robinson became the head coach of Syracuse. His 4-year run in upstate New York was terrible (10-37), and it became clear that perhaps his skill set was not cut out to be a college head coach. Robinson was criticized for being a poor communicator and all-but-refusing to take the recruiting aspect of coaching seriously. However, Robinson was sent out with a bang as his Orangemen defeated the heavily-favored Irish of Notre Dame in a snowy affair in November.

Michigan DC
Wolverines fans hope that Robinson’s shortcomings as a head coach do not translate to his ability to be a defensive coordinator in college. His pedigree as an X-and-O guru (the NFL doesn’t hire just anyone, I promise) certainly is welcome. However, ex-DC Scott Shafer, coincidentally the new DC at Syracuse, was also known as a solid defensive theorist, but he was doomed by a lack of chemistry with the existing coaches on Michigan’s staff. If Robinson has similar issues, will Rodriguez realize that maybe his assistants from West Virginia aren’t the best position coaches for Michigan, or will the clocik have run out on his tim in Ann Arbor.

Pros: NFL experience (recruits love it, even if you can’t coach in colege to save your life: see Charlie Weis), history of success in NFL and (briefly) in college as a DC.
Cons: Epic fail as Syracuse HC, poor DC with second NFL squad, reportedly lacks great communication skills, not much of a recruiter, age.

Posted under Analysis, Coaching, Football

Potential Defensive Coordinator Profile: Jay Hopson

Prior to serving as Michigan’s linebackers coach in 2008, Jay Hopson spent the previous three years as the Defensive Coordinator and Secondary Coach at the University of Southern Mississippi. Of course, I believe we can get into this discussion without getting sidetracked into an exploration of why he went from secondary at USM to linebackers at Michigan. No?
OK, tangent time:
As Scott Shafer is held responsible for the poor play by Michigan’s defense this year by people who, no offense, clearly weren’t paying enough attention this year, let’s look at something. Tony Gibson was the safeties coach, and Michigan’s safeties were pitiful this year, even compared to the historical standard. Would it have made more sense for Shafer to only serve as DC and let Hopson take control of the secondary (check out his credentials as a secondary coach from MGoBlue:

Prior to his appointment as defensive coordinator, Hopson coached the defensive backs for the Golden Eagles from 2001-03. In 2002, his unit led the nation in fewest passing touchdowns allowed and finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense. Southern Mississippi led C-USA and finished fifth nationally in pass defense during the 2003 season. Each year of his tenure, USM ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense.)

, while finding a good linebackers coach instead of having Tony Gibson turn Stevie Brown and Brandon Harrison into (or, “let them remain,” as it were) nightmares in the defensive backfield? Almost certainly yes. Lloyd Carr was criticized for year for refusing to fire Mike DeBord and Andy Moeller. Tony Gibson (admittedly, in only one year to effect change) has so far proven to be no more effective, and retaining him forced other coaches out of their areas of expertise.

End Tangent.

Back to the point. If Hopson is to become Michigan’s defensive coordinator, it is certainly relevant to see how his teams performed during his time at the same position for Southern Miss.

Jay Hopson: USM D-Coordinator
Category 2005 2006 2007
Rushing Defense 73 50 43
Pass Efficiency Defense 78 21 59
Pass Defense 75 26 67
Sacks 34 81 49
Tackles For Loss 63 50 51
Total Defense 73 30 48
Scoring Defense 33 28 41

So, in all, acceptable but not thrilling numbers (keep in mind USM’s non-conference games were often against teams with much better talent).

So when the numbers don’t tell a definitive tale, we go to someone who watched the games with an analytical eye, and get his opinion. If only there was a great CFB blogger who also happened to be a Southern Miss grad. Wait a minute, we’re in luck! The venerable SMQ/Dr. Saturday on Hopson:

At a sparsely attended game like Saturday’s, USM fans have pretty much free reign on the field afterwards, and SMQ took the North end zone as a shortcut to his car. When he ran across Hopson en route to the locker room, he told the coach, “Nice job hanging tough by the defense,” which was not much consolation but was true: it gave up a couple drives, including the 60-yard, game-tying march over the final four minutes of regulation, but it also scored as many touchdowns as either offense, on a length-of-field interception return by no-name Eddie Hicks that momentarily turned the tide at the end of a frustrating ECU drive, and held the Pirates to the field goal attempt in the overtime after allowing them to get first-and-goal at the three…
In regulation, USM’s defense allowed 10 points (the first ECU touchdown was a kick return) and about 275 yards. It gave up no true big plays. You have to be able to win with that.

So, happy but not enthused, just as the stats would imply. Interestingly, Hopson seems to be a proponent of the 3-4 defense (with one of the linebacker positions occupied by a safety) that Michigan saw this year in its “Okie” package, rather than a true 3-3-5 stack. How much of the tension between position coaches would this change actually alleviate? That certainly remains to be seen. For more from SMQ, check out Brian’s post from yesterday.

Of course, now that Michigan followers are attempting to pick apart Hopson’s resume for any relevant information, someone else will be appointed coordinator, and this will all have been a waste.

Posted under Football

Scott Shafer out as DC

The Michigan Athletic Department reports that Michigan Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer has resigned from his position.

Shafer was in his first year as defensive corrdinator at Michigan, and the unit, which was expected to carry the offense through a rebuilding year, was unable to perform to expectations. The search for a new defensive coordinator will likely start immediately.

As someone who watched the games with something of an analytical eye, this move irks me somewhat. It appeared that players were often in position to make plays, but failed to wrap up their tackles, or made poor plays on the ball. At what point are players and position coaches responsible for poor safety and linebacker play?

Posted under Coaching, Football

Discussing Michigan Football with the Family

At Thanksgiving Dinner this year the talk flowed into Michigan’s disappointing football season. Almost all the siblings on my dad’s side went to Michigan for some amount of time (only one graduated). My aunt brought up how East Grand Rapids coach Peter Stuursma inherited nothing and is now going to the state championships every other year (for the sake of this story, we’ll overlook how Kevin Grady’s dad finds “housing” in the district for some talented athletes).

When my uncle brought up the fact that he lost 6 games his first season (that’s a 2-6 season which is the same winning percentage as 3-9 fyi…), she said “Yes, but after that they won a lot of games every year.” At that point my hand was firmly attached to my forehead. When I said what the difference was between Peter Stuursma’s first year and Rich Rodriguez’s, she said that something was, but she couldn’t explain it to me.

Then I explained how Rich Rodriguez generally had a rough first year followed by a fairly good second year and then BECOMES A MACHINE. I told them how at WVU he had one bad year followed by four years of 8+ wins and 3 years of 10+ wins*. After I said that, another uncle said “10 wins won’t cut it at Michigan.” At this point I’m trying to resist the urge to fly over the table with a butter knife. Lloyd Carr was a great coach and only had 5 of 12 years with double digit wins. Bo Schembechler, THE Michigan coach in the modern era was only slightly better at 10 of 20 seasons of 10+ wins**.

I’m hoping he just doesn’t really know football. If Michigan fans think 10 wins is unacceptable, we’re worse off than I expected. 10 wins is a great season. 8 wins is a good season. Sure we’re Michigan and our team should always be in contention for a championship, but you can’t expect to be a game or two away every year. With limited scholarships, you don’t have hegemonic powers. There is more ebb and flow. It’s time Michigan fans learn to appreciate what we’ve had, have and will soon have.

*People are mature. From Rich Rodriguez’s Wikpedia entry:

**It’ s a little hard to compare the to eras given Bo only had 10 games with a much harder to reach bowl up until 1975, but Lloyd’s whole tenure was within the era of limited scholarship era. I’m not sure if the factors balance out or not.

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Inside the Play: Minnesota Offense

The Situation
Three and a half minutes remain in the third quarter. After a big run by Michael Shaw, the Wolverines have the ball on Minnesota’s 11 yard line. Michigan leads Minnesota 19-3, and the team has dominated the run of play for the entire game. They currently have a 16-point lead, but another score of any kind would give them a three-possession margin. A touchdown would effectively end the game. The ball is on the left hash.

The Personnel and Formation
Justin Feagin is in at quarterback (this would warrant an exclamation point most of the time, but it’s like the hundredth time in this game he’s lined up at the position), flanked to his right by fullback Mark Moundros. Michigan has a two-TE set, with Mike Massey(!) on the left and Kevin Koger on the right. Martavious Odoms is in slot right, with LaTerryal Savoy the flanker. Minnesota initially lines up with a deep safety and man coverage on the two wideouts, but when they notice the play in at quarterback, they shift their personnel to remain manned up on the outside, but bringing nine guys into the box.

The Play
At the snap, Savoy goes downfield to block his defender, and Odoms starts on the standard bubble screen route. Feagin half-rolls towards that side, and cocks to throw to Odoms. He sees Odoms’s defender crash forward to take away the screen, and he tucks the ball and runs it off right tackle. He is hit almost immediately, but manages to squirm forward for three yards.

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Why it Didn’t Work
The run aspect of the play was obviously doomed from the beginning, as soon as the Gophers shifted nine defenders into the box. Odoms was actually provided a fairly robust cushion by his defender, and Savoy gets a pretty good block on his (Savoy is probably the team’s best blocker at the position, he just isn’t much of a huge receiving threat). However, Feagin is clearly not entirely comfortable with this throw, as he delays it a bit. This gives the Minnesota defender a chance to crash up on Odoms, taking away the throw. Feagin has no choice at this point but to run it for what he can.

The Future
This play is sorta-but-not-particularly interesting for what it is, but is far more intriguing because of what it can mean for the future. Obviously, the play does not have quite as much potential (as is), now that Feagin is etablished as a pasing threat, though not yet a credible one in any way. However, if he can throw the bubble screen well, it gives a pretty good option play. I expect to see him in during the Northwestern game for at least one attempt at this play (or the same concept from a slightly different formation). This sets up something for the Ohio State game, wherein he fakes the bubble screen, fakes the run, and throws it to one of the tight ends, who has released upfield (take a look at the video again, either could have gone into the endzone and likely been wide open).

Now you know what it was like Inside the Play… and maybe inside a future play as well.

Posted under Football

Xs, Os, and A-pluses

The entire time he was the headman in Ann Arbor, Lloyd Carr was more than just a football coach: he was a molder of young men. Some Michigan fans may scoff at that, and point to the decline in winning percentage over his last few years, or losing his last four games against Ohio State. However, Lloyd realized, like so many people with any sort of perspective often do, that coaching football is about more than just Xs and Os, wins and losses. In fact, if you asked nearly any college football coach in the game today, he would say that teaching young football players how to become men is at least as important.

In 2006, Lloyd Carr had an outstanding year from the win and loss standpoint. However, Lloyd will undoubtedly tell you that 2007 was a year that he was more proud of his team. Until the very end, he taught not only hot reads and zone blitzes, but how a man is expected to behave, and even the finer points of Rudyard Kipling and Jack Kerouac. His players made him proud in the Capital One bowl, and even more so when they have moved on with their lives since.

So without Lloyd at the helm in Ann Arbor this year, have the values of Coach Carr and Coach Schembechler before him left as well? Probably not. Lloyd is still around, and he certainly would love for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year to embody a commitment to academics and shaping young men that he sought in his tenure in Ann Arbor.

Rich Rodriguez may be a year or two away from being in the running for a Coach of the Year Award, but with Lloyd still in town, you can bet the values of academics will never leave the program.

For more information on the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award, or to vote for a coach who you think values the classroom as much as the practice field, visit coachoftheyear.com.

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Inside the Play: Minnesota Defense

The Situation
Just under 12 minutes remain in the first half. Minnesota has reached Michigan’s territory for the first time on the day, facing a 3rd & 7 from Michigan’s 47. The Wolverine defense has dominated the game thus far, preventing Minnesota from gaining a single first down. Getting another stop here could solidify Michigan’s momentum, and springboard the team to just their third victory of the year.

The Personnel and Formation
Minnesota is in a trips left spread formation. There is one receiver to the right of the line, and one far left with two slot players inside of him. Adam Weber is in the shotgun with DeLeon Eskridge flanking him to the right. Michigan responds with its Okie nickel package. The Wolverines are showing man-free coverage, with Donovan Warren lined up over the solo receiver, Morgan Trent over the trips split end, and Brandon Harrison and Charles Stewart (as a linebacker) over the slot receivers.

The Play
Weber drops back to pass. Michigan indeed comes after him, with man-free coverage, blitzing 6 (Eskridge does not go out on a passing route, so Michael Williams, as a linebacker, ignores him and goes after Weber). Weber has about a microsecond to react, and no time to throw. Obi Ezeh finds a big crease in the middle of the line and sacks Weber, along with Williams and Jonas Mouton.

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Why it Worked
Michigan managed to send 6 pass rushers against 6 blockers, but still get to Weber with relative ease. The Gophers’ blocking assignments were confused by the use of the Okie Chaos, in addition to a twist pass-rush move by Brandon Graham. Even if the Maroon Sea had not parted for Ezeh, Williams and Mouton still would have had plenty of opportunity to sack Weber before he could get a pass off. The outside rush by Williams ran into the futile blocking attempt of Eskridge, and Mouton used his speed to get around the left tackle on the other flank. Had Eskridge gone out on a safety valve route, Williams would have had the responsibility of staying with him.

By the way, Michigan has been doing similar things all season – the players just haven’t been executing, particularly in the “tackling” department. Not to harp on one point to much, but Scott Shafer knows what he is doing. If players are in position to make plays (it’s what they do, after all), the blame goes on the kids for not finishing them, rather than on the guy cooking up the schemes.

Now you know what it was like Inside the Play.

Posted under Football