Chad Henne has made marvelous progress thus far in the season. His improvement week to week continues to steady the offense in the absence of a consistent ground game. Michigan's offensive coaches utilized their tendencies to their advantage last week. On numerous occasions they called passing plays out of formations that they generally run out of, and vice versa. Most of their long runs on the ground seemed to come in obvious pass situations. Still, despite the encouraging performance (from a play-calling and passing standpoint), they continued to lose the battle up front on first and second down.
Many times an unsuccessful run play is not the fault of the linemen. Take for instance the play mentioned below from the Miami of Ohio game.
Miami of Ohio 2nd quarter 15:00, 2nd and 4
Kevin Dudley picks off the blitzing linebacker and pancakes him. Another backer shoots through the B gap where a pulling Lentz should pick him up. David Underwood wasn't patient and didn't allow for Lentz to get to the hole. He bounced to the outside for no gain.
Now contrast that with the play below from the Iowa game.
Iowa 1st quarter 8:23, 3rd and 1
Leo Henige blocks down on one tackle and David Baas blocks down on the other. Both stone their opponents and move them out of the play. Lentz pulls around through the B-gap and nails the linebacker. Hart lets Lentz make it around and explodes through for a big gain.
Patience is a key part of being an effective runningback. That is a trait that can be taught to those that it doesn't come naturally to. (Great vision, on the other hand, is something you either have or you don't in my opinion, but that is a discussion for another time). Hart has a nice feel for the game. He knows when to let the play develop and when to run it up in there full speed. (He also has excellent vision, but again, we'll get into that another day).
When a back is running the way he's supposed to and the play still breaks down, it's a sign that the battle up front is being lost. The Michigan staff made an excellent adjustment by moving Baas to center and bringing Henige off of the bench. That put their three best run blockers (including Jake Long) in the game at the same time. David Baas is a very special player because at 6-5 325 pounds, not only is he excellent at the point of attack, but he is a great space player as well. By space player I mean a guy that can get out on a pull, make it to the hole quickly, and actually get a hat on a much quicker player like a linebacker or DB. Some do it better than others do, and David Baas is the best Michigan has in that regard. He can even do it from a center position, and Michigan loves to run the stretch play with both he and Long pulling to the outside. Below are a few excellent examples of the difference Baas and Henige make on the lineup.
Iowa 1st quarter 2:41, 2nd and 8
Both Baas and Henige get two guys on this play. They each get out on the playside linebacker on the screen and combine to clear him out of the play. Henige, from his knees, turns and picks up the tackle in backside pursuit. Baas continues upfield and blows away the DB to allow Hart to pick up another 3 yards for a grand total of 13 on the play.
If there is a single breakdown along the line it can blow up the entire play. That being the case, Michigan must get more consistent play from the right guard in the running game. Take for instance the plays below.
Notre Dame 1st quarter 4:30, 1st and 17
Lentz is supposed to block down on Laws to cover the hole vacated by a pulling Bihl. Lentz is beat off the ball badly by Laws and pushed into the backfield to disrupt the stretch play for a loss of three yards.
Indiana 2nd quarter under 2 minutes remaining, 2nd and 10
ISO. Lentz is stoned at the line of scrimmage. That prevents Dudley from making it through and he has to block the linebacker in the hole. Hart saves the play by bouncing it to the outside for a pickup of 10 yards.
Better guard play will be one of the keys to a stronger performance on the ground this week. The Gophers have a few strong players up front and they will attempt at times to play Michigan straight up at times (like Indiana did) with 7 men in the box. The Wolverines must be able to make them pay when they choose to do so.
Michigan was shredded on the ground last year by the Gopher offense for over 400 yards. (Check out Zone Blocking 101 for more details about the Minnesota blocking scheme). Aside from the Gopher's penchant for cut blocking, there were a few significant problems the Wolverines had while attempting to shut down the Big Ten's top ranked rushing offense last year. Those same issues have shown up at times this year and must be eliminated to be successful in today's game.
The two issues in question are over-pursuit and combo blocks on the outside. The two actually go hand and hand. Michigan had real trouble with the outside combo block last year and were often wiped out of edge plays, leaving the outside wide open for big yardage. Take for instance the Notre Dame play from this year mentioned below.
Notre Dame 2nd quarter around the 13 minute mark, 2nd and 17
Wide side toss. H-back stacked behind the tight end prior to the snap. UM deploys 3 man line and walks LB up to line of scrimmage in 9 technique (outside arm and leg free…or outside the TE). The playside TE and offset H-back combo block Manning and the double team blows him off of the ball. That gives McClintok too much ground to cover in inside-out pursuit. One of the blockers comes off of Manning to pick up a DB. Darius Walker picks up 8 yards.
That is zone blocking at its best. What defenses would like to happen is for the outside man to take on the double team and either hold it with his outside arm free, or tie both linemen up so one of them can't get off into the second level. That forces the running back to cutback into the help defense in pursuit. The key is for those defenders trailing the play to maintain their gap responsibilities (i.e. gap integrity) and be waiting in whatever cutback lane the RB tries to get into. Over-pursuit has reared its ugly head again this year though.
Iowa 3rd quarter, 1st def series, 1st and 10 on Iowa 28
Iowa lines up in the same formation runs the same play as Notre Dame did in the play mentiioned above. Manning attacks blockers with his outside arm free and holds his position. Ernest Shazor comes up on the safety force and the play is turned back in. David Harris pursues the play to the outside, but doesn't maintain coverage of the B gap…instead choosing to get all of the way to the outside to help cut off the RB. He ends up occupying the same space as Manning and allowing a HUGE cutback lane through the B gap for a 10-yard gain. 2 plays later Harris does the same thing for a 10-yard gain.
Defended correctly, it goes a little something like this.
Iowa 3rd quarter, same series, 1st and 10 on Michigan 17
Same play again. This time Lamarr Woodley blows the playside tackle into the backfield to neutralize the outside. Gabe Watson cuts off backside by getting off a block and racing down the line to aid in the hit. Even if those two didn't make the tackle, McClintok would have made the stop because he was disciplined in pursuit and didn't overrun the play.
Gabe Watson will be a huge factor in today's game. The more often he can occupy two linemen, the better. That will allow the backers to stay clean and not have to worry about the cut blocks. At the same time, the entire front seven will have to stay cognizant of their gaps. That will be huge. McClintok and Reid should be fine. The question is can Michigan maintain the same integrity when substituting.
I believe that the Gophers will have some success on the ground, but not nearly as much as they did last year. They're probably good for 150-170 yards, which won't be good enough to beat Michigan at home. Look for another big day through the air on offense.