Persistent Underachievement, Part II

Submitted by Ron Utah on October 25th, 2017 at 6:42 PM

This is part two of a diary exploring Michigan's offensive woes.  Part one is here, and is basically identifying that there is a problem that goes beyond youth and inexperience.  Part II endeavors to offer some solutions and a path to sustainable success.  There is a TL;DR at the bottom.

Harbaugh's results in his first two seasons could be accurately viewed as overachievement.  Why would anyone, then, spend so much time researching and writing about underachievement?  As was pointed out in part one, the team's success has been on the back of the defense.  The offense finished 2015 at #38 in S&P+ and ended last season at #40.  As noted in part one, our current rank is #85.  The point is that while the team efficiency was good the first two years and is okay now, that is on the back of the defense.  Our offense was middling (for a P5 team) the first two seasons and is now bad.

I suppose that in order for any of this to make sense we have to agree on a premise: Michigan's offense should be elite.  What does that mean?  To me, top 30 every year, top 10 some years, occasionally in the top five.  We are miles away from that, and going from inept (#85) to elite is a leap that will require more than just added experience and talent.  Again, this ground was covered in Part I.

Next we have to agree on some equations for success.  To me, it's a simple formula:


Let's break that down even further.  Scheme is the combination of: PLAYBOOK + GAMEPLANNING + PLAYCALLING.  Execution is TECHNIQUE + TALENT + TEAMWORK.  Here are some remedies to Michigan's current challenges, taking these ideas into account:

Masters of None

love this show

Michigan's playbook is vast.  That is probably an understatement.  The number of formations, plays, route combinations, feels overwhelming.  As I've said before, it feels an awful lot like Harbaugh's goal at Michigan was to create an offense that had no tendencies and was therefore very hard to predict or gameplan against.  Using formational and play design diversity, the theory goes, the defense has no idea what's coming.

The problem with the unpredictable approach is that your offense can't possibly spend the required time to master those plays.  Successful habits are created through repeated execution of proper technique and teamwork.  This is why teams with lesser talent, like Wisconsin, can execute consistently--they practice the same plays, techniques, concepts every day, week, and year.  What prevents Wisconsin from being an elite program isn't scheme, it's talent.  Their players simply are not good enough to create an elite offense.  But they are damn consistent.

The long-term ramifications of a voluminous playbook, then, are that it stunts the development of mastery of any set of plays.  This means it takes longer for players to get good at the Michigan offense.  Are these limitations offset by defenses not knowing what the offense is about to do?  The clear answer so far is NO.  Last year's offense annihilated lesser opponents who appeared to have no idea what Michigan was going to run.  Against better teams, Michigan's offense stalled, I believe, because they were unable to masterfully execute plays.  Despite scoring more points than we had in over a century, Michigan finished the season ranked #40 in S&P+, a middling Power Five offense that could not move the ball against top competition.  It turns out defenses don't need to know what's coming if they can just react to a play that won't be run especially well.

blocking is hard...can we make it easier?

Every elite college offense has a base set of plays around which they build their playbook.  What are Michigan's?  Many posters have named several plays that we run.  Yes, we run those plays.  The problem is that we also run hundreds of other plays, too, and the most consistest play we've run this year--inside zone--is one that we're not very good at.  Our first play against Penn State was IZ, and Mason Cole--probably our best offensive player--blew his assignment and Higdon was lucky to get close to the LOS. Yes, it probably would have been a nice gain and maybe even a TD if Cole makes his block.  But he didn't. 

Now, this is obviously just one example, but it sure feels representative of our offense's problem: inconsistent execution.  Did Cole screw-up because he's young?  Inexperienced?  Lacking in talent?  Sure, every player is going to get beaten sometimes, but if Mason Cole had been repping IZ for three years and it was an emphasis every week, the chances of him getting beaten so easily decline dramatically.  IZ should, in fact, play to Cole's strengths.

For the purposes of success in this year, and, perhpas more importantly, for repeated success in the years to come, Michigan needs to work on a set of plays that they can master, so that freshmen today are running the same plays when they're seniors.  If we keep changing it up, we'll never master anything.

Jim Harbuagh is far more qualified than I to choose those plays.  That said, he has an obvious knowledge of and affinity for power/gap running.  It's hard to watch Wisconsin and Stanford and not be jealous of their consistent rushing attacks.  But in today's college football landscape, there are plenty of examples of power running games coming out of the shotgun, even utilizing multiple TEs and FBs.  Again, I don't really care which plays are our base set, but I do care how those plays are run.  Adding inside zone this year to an already dizzying array of runs appears to have hurt more than it has helped.

If you're looking for my suggestion, it would be to use power running out of the shotgun.  Having a QB that can run (even someone of O'Korn's athletic level is fine) changes the numbers for the defense.  Running power/option schemes from the shotgun or pistol seems like a way to modernize Hargaugh's bread-and-butter scheme.  Look at Auburn, Ohio State, Clemson...there are plenty of examples of teams using power shotgun schemes.  But if under center is going to continue to be the focus, that's fine too.  Watch a Stanford game and you'll see a scheme I'd love for us run.

In the passing game, the base plays, in my opinion, should be simpler versions of what we run now.  For starters, I do not believe we ran a single slant against Penn State.  To me, this is bonkers.  The slant is a route that even high school WRs can run effectively.  We have run it some the past two years, but this season we've seen very little of it.  We run tons of drags and mesh concepts (more on that later) but not many slants.  It's one of the most effective routes in football, and it's easy to run and throw.  PSU gashed us on several slants.  Why aren't we doing it? It should be a core play in any college offense, again, in part because of the extra real estate afforded by the wider hash marks.  From there, I'd like to see more angle routes from backs and TEs, and more swing passes.  In short, we should have a core package of 3-step drop pass plays.  Oh, and did I mention that slant routes are the best set-ups for fades?

time to stop mocking arm punts

And what about the deep passing game?  For years, this blog has mocked the "arm punts" that have become increasingly common in college football (though I doubt Michigan fans were mocking arm punts in the Grbac-to-Howard days).  But watching the PSU game, it really stood out to me that arm punts might actually be a good idea. 

Trace McSorley is a pretty good QB, but his arm is no better JOK's or Wilton Speight's.  It's probably worse.  The picture above is representative of a poor throwing motion. His deep passes do resemble punts.  So what the hell is going on?  Is it luck?

Arm punts actually help overcome many of the limitations of college offenses.  For starters, the pass is released earlier, decreasing the required time to block.  In college, this is essential, since it seems that every elite team has at least one nearly unblockable DL player, often more.  McSorley's ugly deep passes are thrown sooner and higher, giving the receiver time to find, run under, and catch the pass.  The OL doesn't have to hold their blocks as long.  Against cover zero or even a single high safety, an arm punt can still essentially be a throw into single coverage.  And, as you saw on Saturday, it's really hard to defend an inside fade (fade route from the slot) when the receiver knows when the ball is coming and has time to turn around and adjust, while the defender--even if the coverage is great--still has to get his head around and avoid pass interference.

The point of this long explanation is not to suggest that we should be running inside fade arm punts every play, but that this is actually a pretty damn good solution to a deep passing game in today's version of college football.  Heck, JOK's long completion to Crawford was an arm punt, and it worked for all the reasons explained above.  Michigan needs a deep passing game that: 1) Helps reduce the amount of time the OL has to protect 2) Takes advantage of aggressive defenses and 3) Allows athlete to make plays without having to run perfectly precise routes.

I loved the inside fade concept PSU used, and see no reason we could not execute that play with DPJ or Gentry.  Michigan needs to find a deep passing game that doesn't demand so much precision and uses repeatable concepts that can be applied every season.

What about beating OSU?

This season's offensive RPS is...not good

As noted above, any scheme really can work.  That said, this year's offense--and, to a lesser extent, the previous two versions as well--seems to make it much harder than other teams.  Given that it's too late to focus fall camp on mastering a select set of plays and building counters off of those, what can we do this season (and going forward) to make life a little easier?

Penn State's biggest trick is not very tricky: they spread the field with athletes and force you to pick your poison.  But they did several things against us that were very clever, and we were clearly not prepared for.  The first was motioning Barkley to receive the direct snap and running read option from that look.  The rumor is that Michigan had prepared for that.  If true, it sure did not look like it.  Our safeties should have been crashing down on that motion.  As it was, we only had six in the box, which meant PSU could block every defender.  Which is what happened.

The second was much more clever and even more impactful.  They ran speed option but had their OL run zone in the opposite direction of the play.  Our defense read their keys instead of the ball, followed the action of the OL, and McSorley and Barkley were off to the races against blocked DBs.

Another was the way Barkley motioned.  The "Never put McCray on Barkley" crowd must have been furious, but McCray is not a MLB, and he would have had to play that position (which he has not practiced) if Bush vacated to cover the RB.  This is not as simple as some people suggest.  Don't get me wrong--our scheme should not allow McCray to be one-one-one with Barkley, but the fix requires some fairly significant changes to our defense.

All of these are examples of misdirection.  Using pre-snap motions and hard action that actually took advantage of Michigan's great eye discipline was genius, but not complex.  There is not reason Michigan can't do that.  Harbaugh did more of it at Stanford.  Heck, we did more of it the last two years.  I'm puzzled why we don't do it more.  And I didn't even get into the RPOs, which were also hugely successful.

This is not our savior

I like Jedd Fisch.  The "Good shit, Jedd" gif is one of my favorites.  Interestingly, that was just a play he stole form the Patriots, and was a simple rub route.  But even Jedd Fisch did not use enough misdirection for my taste (and for today's college football).

While many posters argue that I can't possibly know what I'm talking about since the Michigan coaches are so much smarter (the second half of that statement is true), the reality is that the Michigan offense has been moving more towards my suggestions in recent weeks.  Backs are protecting less, and running hot routes more (though it's clear they aren't very good at it, so they probably did not practice it enough in camp).  Our most productive package against PSU was the McDoom pre-snap motion package.  We tired a TE screen (though I hated the play design).

Here's an open question: Why do we use slow-developing mesh concepts instead of the instant rub routes we've seen deployed against us by teams like Cincinnati and Indiana?  Does someone on Michigan's staff believe it's dishonorable to use the blatant disregard of offensive pass interference to our advantage?

My point in this section is to say that all is not lost.  We can make subtle adjustments this season (and keep doing them in the future) that can take better advantage of our talent.  Rub routes, pre-snap motion that isolates LBs on our RBs (remember the smoke screen to Evans against MSU?), and hard action (moving the OL away from the play) are not hard to execute.  Mesh concepts, triangle patterns, 7-step drops--the core of our passing playbook--require much more precision to execute.  Do they work?  Of course.  But only if you're playing 11-man football, which is tough in today's college game, and even tougher when the 11 men have to know 250 plays each.

In the running game, if we're going to stay under center and use FBs every play, let's use more wham, trap, and counter concepts that keep defenders guessing on where the block is coming from (this used to be Harbaugh's calling card).  More deception.  And let's use pre-snap motion there, too, to get the defense to declare their match-ups and help make sure we're in the right play, if nothing else.

The Coaching

Lots of folks are calling for the jobs of Drevno, Pep, and Jay Harbaugh.  While I believe Drevno's OL development can certainly be called into question, and that all of the offensive staff (and Head Coach) deserve some criticism for this year's offense, all of these guys have track records and did not suddenly become idiots.  That said, having so many accomplished coaches might not be a good thing--it may just be adding to the diversity of concepts and plays.  Greg Frey's addition has conincided with the emergence of inside zone--a play that has been a loser for us and certainly took precious practice time from other concepts.

Let me be crystal clear: I'm not calling for anyone's head.  If you asked me to fire someone, it would definitely be Drevno--as the OL and playcalling have both been suspect--but Drev has coached some great OLs to great success (he may not be a good playcaller).

Honestly, it's up to Jim Harbaugh to steer this ship.  As noted above, Jedd Fisch's offense was better, but still not good enough.  Since Rich Rod, how often do we have WRs completely uncovered?  How often to we have running lanes you can drive a truck through?  I'm definitely not calling for the Rod's return, but there is no reason our current brain trust cannot scheme us into a couple of big plays each game, and those plays should not require all 11 players to execute perfectly.  Those QB power fakes certainly didn't, and PSU's RPOs, inside fades, hard action, and pre-snap adjustments weren't new ideas with high degrees of difficulty either.  They were largely the same plays PSU has been running over and over for two years now.  And that's one reason they're so effective.

I have no doubt Harbaugh can pull this off.  But I do doubt our offense's long-term success if the continued approach is to run so many diverse concepts and plays, especially packages that require all 11 to execute precise assignments in order to find success.


The proposed solutions to our offensive morass: 1) Build a playbook around a core set of plays/concepts that are repeated with much greater frequency than anything we are currently running, and provide daily, weekly, and year-to-year continuity that maximizes each players understanding of and ability to execute said plays.  2) Make better use of deception and match-up isolation the way virtually every other program in CFB does.  3) Incorporate some simple concepts that are ubiquitous in CFB to get some more success this season.  Faster-developing plays that require less pass pro are an obvious bonus (ie, Indiana and Cincinnati's rub routes, PSU arm punts, slant patterns)  4) The coaches themselves are all brilliant...but perhaps this staff needs some focus and reorganization (too many cooks theory).  5) You maximize your talent when they can run plays with mastery...this takes time, which means you cannot run as many concepts.  Once some plays/concepts are mastered, defenses have to respect those, opening up counters and wrinkles that are not complex but can result in big plays.  6) Please, for the love of God, don't run PA on 4th and long, or any obvious passing down.  Ever.  (yep, just had to add that)



October 25th, 2017 at 6:53 PM ^

That's a joke. But to your comment:

Lots of folks are calling for the jobs of Drevno, Pep, and Jay Harbaugh ... all of these guys have track records and did not suddenly become idiots.

And in response I say Jay Harbaugh's "track record" is a green pomegranate awaiting ripening. Pep hasn't accomplished much measurable and positive within the past five years. Then there's Drevno .... It's no secret I'm not a fan of these three in their current roles. But do note I do not accuse them of idocy. Just possible incompetence in their present positions.

Barn Animal

October 25th, 2017 at 7:02 PM ^

Results have been a mixed bag. On one hand the rbs sucks at pass pro, fumble and have had a few overall poor games (MSU). But if you’re going to blame him for all of that he at least deserves some credit for Isaac and Higdon emerging and take into account the poor Oline they are running behind.


October 25th, 2017 at 8:59 PM ^

The offensive coaching staff isn't the same as last year.  Wheatley and Fisch left.  Hamilton and Frey were brought in (and Jay Harbaugh was shifted to coaching RBs).  Some people have suggested that these changes were not for the better (worse WR coaching, worse RB coaching, lack of offensive identity, lack of offensive creativity).  

Barn Animal

October 25th, 2017 at 7:12 PM ^

And it appears the easiest way to do that is to part ways with Drevno. But this most likely means Pep takes complete control of the offense. I’m willing to give that a chance though others may not.


October 25th, 2017 at 7:15 PM ^

Nobody starts on a doctoral thesis on quantum particle motion on the first day of physics class in highschool. Or undergrad. Or grad school either. The knowledge to understand the complexity is built over time, starting from basic concepts. 

The Hoover Dam or the Mackinac Bridge wasn't built in one piece. They were built from foundation, assembling smaller pieces. So can the playbook be taught or learnt in smaller easy to understand pieces? Does the team need a different approach to learning and mastering the offense? 


October 25th, 2017 at 8:08 PM ^

Maybe too much time is spent learning lots of plays and that leaves less time for position skill development. I see lots of folks getting beat in their position.



October 25th, 2017 at 8:14 PM ^

Broad thought: I wonder if having such an expansive playbook would be less of a problem if we had a more experienced team. Last year was better--the team (particuarly WR and OL), but didn't have the talent of this team. In future years we are likely to have more experience with the same or greater talent. I think that solves much of the problem. Yes, practice the base plays more, but when the players are ready, open it up more.

Narrow point: PA on passing downs. This has been discussed, and I believe the conclusion (at least the one I took away) is that there are two reasons for it. 1) On some plays, the timing works better out of PA, even if it doesn't freeze the LB level. 2) Much of football is instinctual, and even on passing downs, PA can freeze the LBs for a split-second as they react rather than think--often enough to give a bit of space.

I'll hang up now and listen to your response.

Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 12:29 PM ^

Experience helps.  It always does.  There are two problems with that, though: 1) In college football, you are constantly reloading.  A "good" year with lots of returning starters almost always preceeds a "bad" year with very few.  And if you become elite, guys leave even sooner.  2) You are still slowing development by running so many different concepts.  You are limiting how soon and how well you can use talent if you are forcing it to learn so much.  And for some players, it will always be a challenge to master so many different techniques and concepts.

PA on passing downs--If we're in shotgun and faking a draw, I have less of a problem with it.  The core problem with PA from under center on passing downs is that your QB is turning his back to the defense and to his reads, and he's almost certainly taking a 7-step drop (slow-developing play).  If the defensive line knows it's a passing down (particularly if we are behind by a couple of scores) they are going to pin their ears back and rush.  Now your line has to block pass-rushers for longer, and your QB will need time to make a good decision after turning around.  None of these trade-offs is worth the slim chance that you get a slight hesitation from the LBs.

Here's the simple test: do you see great offenses running under center PA on passing downs, even in the NFL?  It's just not a sound concept, and it's one this site lambasted Al Borges for regularly--got to give the same treatement to this staff.



October 25th, 2017 at 8:52 PM ^

So how do you simultaneously limit the playbook and add more misdirection?

I think the idea of Harbaughffense is to run the same play from many formations, to basically screw with the defense presnap. So you could limit that, but adding in additional presnap (misdirection) and post snap (RPOs and other options) is adding complexity right back in.

As Brian has mentioned, many teams mix IZ and power - it's not crazy to do both, our OL just sucks at it.

Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 12:35 PM ^

This question is thoroughly answered in the content of the post, with examples.  Pre-snap motion and formation changes is super-easy.  It does not require lots of reps to line up in one place and switch to another, because you are not working against an opponent during that process.  You just do it.

RPOs is just adding slant patterns to an existing running play.

Hard action or line slants is the same process for the line, and the option just goes the other direction.

Rub routes might take a bit of practice, but you're just running into a defender...this is not rocket science.

As for mixing IZ and power--yes, it's common.  Yes, it can be done.  But why add that wrinkle when we don't have an established set of plays that we're already good at?  None of our OL starters are freshmen--they've all been repping power/gap schemes for over a year.  They're not great at those yet...why add a different concept?

And for the folks claiming IZ tecnique is not that different from power, I call bullshit.  Clearly they never played OL.  Targeting in zone schemes and timing combo blocks is VASTLY different.

Maize and Bloop

October 25th, 2017 at 8:55 PM ^

Did the coaches miscalculate the time the diverse offense would become fully operational? If we continue the course, and get more reps of the vast amount of plays, will things start to come together? Can this diversity potentially begin to pay big dividends down the line after a very painful learning curve?

Or do we abandon that path, along with any progress made, dumb down the playbook and claw our way to as many wins as possible this season where we are effectively playing for pride?


October 25th, 2017 at 9:21 PM ^

Having such an extensive playbook is really hard on the quarterback. The other positions, for the most part, really just need to focus on their individual assignment for a given play. Obviously, the quarterback needs to know everyone's assignments and options for every play.

The only coach whose playbook is more complicated than Harbaugh's is Jimbo Fisher. We've seen them implode this year as soon as Francois went down. They went from high powered offense to shitshow. He's shown how amazing it works with Jameis, EJ Manuel, and Ponder. But he's shown how terrible it can run with a bad qb. Jimbo and JH are both stubborn as hell.

We now see why Speight won the job. He was making the right reads just about all the time early in the season. The problem was he had the yips and overthrew them all, but he has a strong grasp of how the offense should run. JOK just seems like he's too indecisive and unsure of himself out there (although I have to give him credit, he didn't play bad on Saturday.) The playcalling is not helping him either. As OP mentioned, why no slants? Having 3 WRs who are already bad at getting seperation run verticals is frustrating. 

Outside of Jimbo and Harbaugh, the only other coach with a playbook in their complexity tier is David Shaw. After that there is a huge dropoff. Last year Shaw started 3-2 with the losses being blowouts. He completely changed the playcalling once he realized his qb wasn't going to get it done(yes having McCaffery helps) and the offense production took off . No doubt we beat MSU if we just keep running the ball. PSU still would've been a loss, but the insistence of going away from what works "to try and catch them off guard" is annoying.

I'm just rambling at this point, but I would really like to see them assert themselves as a running team and dumb down the playbook for JOK. Bring in Wheatley and the boys and run heavy jumbo sets to get the qb settled in. Spreading everyone out all the time now isn't working, but I bet it would if it was a wrinkle instead of being 2 out of every 3 downs.

Anyways, good write-up OP.

Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 12:46 PM ^

Love this breakdown and agree with almost everything.  

However, I would question the thinking that just focusing on individual assignments in different plays is easy.  There's a reason teams use specific formations with certain plays, and a reason teams experience very different success running the same plays in different formations: your alignment changes the defense's alignment, which changes the location of the space you are attacking, and changes the people next to you helping you execute the play.  This is not a small adjustment.

Year of Revenge II

October 25th, 2017 at 9:50 PM ^

Great diary with more than reasonable assessments.

I predict for that reason it may not be well received, but I enjoyed it.  

IMO, we need a good, or at least serviceable right tackle, and a championship quarterback.  I do not presently see those things in the playing rotation.  We have some young qb's, and some young linemen, and they may be the answer eventually.  

We also need a safety who can tackle, yet cover as well.  Isn't Thomas a safety?  He could be an answer, as he is athletically gifted.

When we get those pieces, the issues you discuss in your diary are not going to seem as glaring as they do now.


October 25th, 2017 at 10:28 PM ^

I played poker for a living for many years, so I've thought a lot about the benefits and drawbacks of adding complexity to your strategy. In poker there are two main styles, LAG (loose aggressive) and TAG (tight aggressive). Loose means you play more hands. You have a wider range, similar to a football team having a wider range of plays. What I realized is, the LAG style makes the game more difficult for both you and your opponent. The "both" is key - it's more difficult to pull off, but more difficult to respond to.

You need a minimum level of complexity such that you're not exploitable by an obvious counter-strategy, similar to in football having constraint plays to protect your main plays. Beyond that minimum level, additional complexity increases the difficulty for both sides.

So when does it make sense to get more complex? When you can handle that difficulty better than your opponent. Typically that's when you're very skilled and experienced. Using this principle, Michigan seems to be exactly the sort of team that should minimize complexity as much as possible, since they're young and inexperienced. In fact, this seems so obvious, that I feel sure I'm missing something, since surely the coaching staff would recognize this. Maybe Harbaugh has in mind a very complex offense that he believes is the best way to go at the end of the day, and he's willing to take his licks while his players learn it.


October 26th, 2017 at 3:31 PM ^

"Maybe Harbaugh has in mind a very complex offense that he believes is the best way to go at the end of the day, and he's willing to take his licks while his players learn it."

From my pissed off point of view, it seems more like an unwillingness to adapt to the players available. I hope we're climbimg to the point that the scheme / system / plan becomes paramount, and each wave of players adapts.

I hope.

Eye of the Tiger

October 25th, 2017 at 10:39 PM ^


All of them are simple and relatively easy to execute.

1. Bubble screen to DJP out of shotgun/trips.

Need to pair this with run plays out of the same formation, but it would be a nice way to use DJP's athleticism and also get dudes out of the box. 

2. Tunnel screens to McDoom or Perry

He's small, quick and shifty. Plus our OL can't pass protect, so why not use the other team's aggression against it and get one of our small, quick and shift WRs into space? Cincinnati used this against us effectively. 

3. QB waggles to TE or FB.

Pep used to run this at Stanford, and it would take advantage of O'Korn's mobility. Basically playaction, roll right and then you have an RPO. In another variant they ran at Stanford, you also have a choice of receivers between a TE and an FB.

4. QB draw, zone read, etc.

O'Korn can run, so use that more. 











October 25th, 2017 at 10:52 PM ^

Is there any proof that Michigan's playbook is demonstrably different/larger than the one he had at Stanford?  Because I keep seeing people trot out this "the playbook is TOO LARGE and TOO ADVANCED" for college, but that shit worked at Stanford for the tune of two top-10 offenses, and I doubt Michigan's players are demonstrably less capable of picking up the nuances of said playbook.  

I guess I just reject the general premise that most of the team's "struggles" the past couple of years weren't due to the normal growing pains of a team trying to implement a reasonably complex offense with pieces that weren't always a great fit.  You mentioned Wisconsin as an example of a team with consistently great rushing attacks; last year they had the 48th best rushing offense in the country per S&P+.  Michigan, broken-ass offensive line Michigan that can't rep anything, was 49th.  Wisconsin had slightly fewer returning players in 2016 than 2017 (13 vs 15, 6 vs 8 on offense), but the big difference was they had far less turnover along the line in 2017 compared to 2016.  And these guys have largely been running the same offense for years, so staff turnover didn't change much of the philosophy.  But it took these younger guys, who hadn't seen the field much and had to deal with questions at QB, some time to gel.  And they are doing well this year because of that continuity.   Plus,  the fact Wisconsin hasn't faced a rushing defense better than 40th (and the one they did, NW, held them to 2.9 ypa) has probably helped, compared to last year when they played Michigan, OSU, LSU, PSU, and Iowa.  

So my point is that while Michigan's offense has struggled and surely there are tweaks to be made with the staff and the playcalling, I think the unsexy real reason they've struggled is that they just aren't that good right now with the players they have, and most of them will get better with more experience and maturity.


Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 12:42 PM ^

They are not consistently great, and that is not what I said.  I said they are consistent, and they are not great because they don't have enough talent.  But their consistency comes from the fact that every player is repping the same plays throughout their careers.

I do not want to run Wisconsin's offense or have Wisconsin's results.  But look at how much they produce from their limited talent, and compare that to us.

You are defaulting to the "youth and inexperience" argument, which is fine.  It's true.  But there are loads of young offenses with less talent that have produced at a higher level.  Time will tell if this year's sludgefart and last year's underacheivement on offense were worth the wait.

Any scheme can work if executed well.  But it's much harder to execute well when you have to do so many different things.  This is axiomatic.  There is only so much time to spend on each play, and on each technique.


October 26th, 2017 at 5:42 PM ^

I still would like to know which offenses that are as young as Michigan are doing significantly better.  Michigan had 4 offensive starters return; they're down to 3 now.  Other P5 teams with 4 starters coming back are MSU (90th in offense) and Nebraska (73rd) aren't demonstrably better.  Bump it up to five and teams like Purdue (69th), Rutgers (117th), North Carolina (104th), Virginia Tech (59th) aren't doing much better either.  Yes, that group includes USC and Louisville, who are doing well offensively, but both have their QBs and even USC hasn't looked like world-beaters offensively.  You can mention talent, but a lot of that is young talent, and that can take time to materialize into good production, especially when one of the few experienced pieces you have coming back is the QB and you lose that 4-ish games into the year.

I agree that trying to do too much with too little preparation can mess with your team.  But I also haven't seen much to suggest that the Michigan offense is trying to do all that much.  They struggle to perform the simple stuff they are trying to run at times, and so I don't think this is paralysis by choice as much as inefficiency by bad execution.  And some of that falls on the coaches absolutely, but I just think people are expecting too much out of a limited unit.

Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 12:49 PM ^

Forgot to address this specifically:

Yes, there is proof.  Watch Stanford play.  They are running an offense that is VERY similar to what they ran when JH was the HC there.  It is very, very different from our offense.  There is a clear focus on power, more deception in the blocking scheme, even more pulling, and even more TE and FB usage.

As for the complexity and volume of plays, that offense has a lot going on, but I feel like our offense is most of the Stanford offense plus a load of different concepts Stanford doesn't bother with.


October 26th, 2017 at 11:43 AM ^

Rich had bullets without a good base, borges had blanks without any base and Harbs has a plan to hammer... And theres a single shot per game it seems.
Whether the ground games working or not... Where the bullets at?


October 26th, 2017 at 12:57 PM ^

I respect the work that went into this diary and normally think Ron Utah's stuff is very good.  But I don't find these criticisms particularly persuasive.

First, we really don't know how much complexity the staff is asking the players to absorb.  The playbook may large compared with other college programs, but we really don't know how much of it the staff is using this season, let alone on a week-to-week basis.  The assumption that the offensive coaches are overwhelming the players with complexity might be plausible, but we really don't have any evidence for it, and that makes this entire exercise suspect.

Second, a lot of the problems we've observed in our offense appear to be rooted in poor technique or execution errors.  Our wide receivers struggle to create separation and have displayed poor hands.  Our OL has been terrible in pass pro.  Our QBs have been inaccurate. So there's an argument that complexity might be a good thing--if your players aren't good enough to out-execute opponents consistently, then maybe try and scheme your way to easy yards?  It might not work but it's very defensible reasoning IMO.

Third, I question the assumption that running an assortment of plays truly impairs technique development.  I will grant you that I have read extensively about Lombardi's approach to teaching his base plays and how there really is something to the countless reps creating muscle memory that enables a team to flawlessly execute a specific run over and over again.  But I also feel like that becomes an oversimplification at some point. 

To be an effective OL, you need to know how to execute a number of blocking techniques--and if you can execute a particular technique properly, then you should be able to execute that technique no matter what the guys around you are doing.  A lot of the gap-blocked plays call for the blockers to utilize a small handful of techniques (down blocks, combos, pulls, kick-outs) and really just change up which guy is doing which thing on any particular play.  That shouldn't present a bewildering level of complexity.  I get that M adds inside zone to all this and that great zone teams can demonstrate nuances of zone blocking that are probably way beyond M's capabilities at this point.  But it still doesn't seem to me that M's offensive linemen are overhwelmed mentally in the run game.  And the poor pass protection hasn't really been so much of a scheme issue as technique: (i) OL getting whipped,  (ii) WRs not getting open, (iii) QBs holding the ball too long.

Fourth, although I think M might be able to pick up a first down here or a chunk play there with some of Ron Utah's suggestions, ultimately I don't see calling more slants or "arm-punts" as much of a long-term remedy for the offense.  The OL need to get better at pass blocking.  The WRs need to get better at running routes and catching the damn ball.  The QBs need to get better at reading coverages and making accurate, on-time throws.  As JH says, you get better a football by playing football.  I think it's an extension of that to say you get better at pass blocking by pass blocking, you get better at running routes by running actual routes, you get better at reading coverages by actually reading coverages, etc.  So calling for the team to abandon its offense and just chuck up arm-punts seems like a contradiction of the previous argument (that the team needs to focus on a few core plays).  We saw how well tackle over worked as a long-term strategy for Hoke & Borges -- slants & arm punts seems like a similarly limited gimmick.

As far as firing Drevno goes, man.  I think Drevno did a pretty great job with what he had to work with in 2015 and 2016.  Even this season I think the OL has gotten much better at run blocking over the course of the season.  They still can't pass protect--but is that because Drevno is a lousy coach, or because the OL just aren't very good players, or because they are getting no help from poor WR and QB play?  

Ultimately I think "persistent underachievement" is a pretty harsh description of what we've seen from this staff.  I think they squeezed the most out of a pretty limited group of offensive players in 2015 and 2016, and now they have more talent to work with but it's young and undeveloped.  Perhaps the 2017 offense has underachieved relative to what we were all hoping for, but the title suggests underachievement has been an ongoing problem under JH and I just don't see that at all.


October 26th, 2017 at 1:47 PM ^

I still think that's a concern going forward. Harbaugh has a track record so it's no cause to panic, but seriously, wtf is going on? Why is the OL still so bad? Youth is a stupid excuse. You're telling me Harbaugh's #6 ranked offense in his 3rd year had better tools than they have here at Michigan? He had an elite OL but I thought we were in agreement that it was due to Harbaugh, not the elite talent that previous 1-11 coach Walt Harris recruited.


October 26th, 2017 at 4:51 PM ^

Well, I disagree that the running game "has failed to develop whatsoever."  Putting that aside, however, here was Harbaugh's starting line in his third season at Stanford:


LT: Jonathan Martin (RS-Fr) -- two-time All-American and later a 2nd round pick of the 49ers

LG: Andrew Phillips (Jr) -- first-team All-Pac 10 performer in 2010

C: Chase Beeler (Jr.) -- consensus All-American in 2010, now in his ninth NFL season

RG: David DeCastro (RS-Fr.) -- unanimous All-American at Stanford and 1st round NFL pick

RT: Chris Marinelli (Sr.) -- 1st team All-Pac 10 that season (and All-American to


I don't care how good a coach is, he's not going to turn a bunch of nobodies into All-Americans and NFL players.  You need some talent to work with.  And it's also worth pointing out that team had Andrew Luck at QB, so that line's ability to run the ball was augmented by a dangerous passing attack.  Michigan has...not that.

Of course, all of the guys above save Marinelli were Harbaugh recruits at Stanford.  So that suggests he and Drevno were able to identify and develop the right guys before--no reason to think they can't do it again.  But that doesn't necessarily mean it will happen in three years.  

If M wasn't signing and developing good OL, there would be cause for concern. But I don't think that's been the problem.  Rather, M has had some real bad luck at the OT position.  Newsome went down for two seasons and it remains to be seen whether he'll still be an effective player when he returns.  LTT was dismissed for legal trouble.  Devery Hamilton flipped at the last second to Stanford.  Now we might be losing Ekiyor.  Every team has attrition--but when your attrition is concentrated in a single position group, you at some point can't overcome it and have to roll with subpar performers.  It is what it is.  Maybe if we still have LTT or Newsome on this year's team, or maybe if we have Hamilton at RT instead of JBB/Ulizio, then we already have a good OL.  But we don't.  

I think the OL will be significantly better next season, provided we can avoid more of this killer attrition.  Bredeson and Onwenu should be legit good, Ruiz should be ready, and we're much more likely to find two quality OTs out of Newsome/Steuber/Hongford/Ulizio/JBB/ Runyan/Fliaga than one out of just year-younger Ulizio/JBB/Runyan.  By 2019 or so, we should not only have a good starting five but some quality depth beyond that.  Now if these young guys get to be sophomores and juniors and still aren't performing, talk to me then about underachievement.  But for now, it's frustrating to see so many people clamoring to fire Drevno because he hasn't turned projects like Ulizo and JBB into quality OL.  Maybe those guys just don't have what it takes.








October 26th, 2017 at 2:24 PM ^

the premise of your argument is that the execution is bad because there are too many plays and new concepts being installed.

But you ignore youth and talent. Our worst offensive lineman, Ulizio, is probably the least talented OL to suit up for Michigan since I started watching in the 90s. And he's young. His replacement, JBB, is not particularly talented either. Cole has been moved back-and-forth on the line several times and is now stuck playing out of his natural position. Kugler is a 5th year senior who could never make the field on previously poor OLs, so is now playing by default. Onewnu was a raw prospect coming in and is starting by necessity as a true sophomore.


Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 3:36 PM ^

I do not ignore these factors.  This was covered in more detail in part one.

Furthermore, your argument is filled with flaws.  Patrick Kugler was #68 in the 247 composite.  He's been working with this staff for three seasons.

JBB had offers from FSU, Florida, Miami, and Tennessee, among others.  He was the #335 player in his class.  He's a fourth-year player.

Ulizio is the only guy that was actually ranked poorly that started on our line, and he was recruited by this staff and is in his third year of development.

Your argument sounds like the scheme/coaching can only be called into question when we have great talent, which we'll only know we have when our OL is playing well...which would leave us no reason to question the scheme/coaching.

We are underperforming our talent on offense.  My expectation was not that this year's offense would be great, but at least competitive.  We are not.  With the players and resources we have, there is no excuse for Michigan to be #85 in offensive S&P+.


October 26th, 2017 at 5:25 PM ^

were highly touted recruits, and they were uniformly terrible with both Hoke’s staff and with Harbaugh’s. To me, that says they were overrated prospects and/or uncoachable.

I question Drevno’s recruiting ability most of anything, but my view is that his coaching and scheming gets an incomplete because he has exclusively bad and/or young talent to work with.
I just think your arguments require a lot of unknowable assumptions (as outlined by bronxblue below). IMO, the clearest faults are with OL recruiting misses (late Hoke and early Harbaugh) and a failure to develop a young QB to the point that he isn’t a better option than an early-season, mentally-broken Speight or a terrible back up O’Korn.

It's true, you can never know how talented a kid is until he performs well. If he doesn't perform well, it is possible it is on coaching to some degree. However, the only important thing is whether or not a coach's hand-picked recruits perform well. So far, Harbaugh/Drevno's recruits are bad or big recruiting misses, but outside of Ulizio, youth is a plausible explanation. My point is that you can't evaluate the coaching until the blue-chippers are playing.

There’s no way you can definitively say that this core of mediocre talent or youth would be coached better by different schemes.


Ron Utah

October 26th, 2017 at 6:54 PM ^

So you can't evaluate offensive coaching until at least year four?

Plenty of coaches have achieved more offensive success in the early years of their tenure, working with the same broken pieces as previous coaches.  Purdue is up to #69 from #94.  Everyone knows it's coaching.  Florida Atlantic went from #75 to #17.

Michigan went from inept to okay in Harbaugh's first year.  Good sign.  Michigan did not improve in year two.  Now it's year three, and we're super-young, but we're not mediocre or even a little bit bad.  We are terrible.  That is alarming.

As I pointed out, I'm not calling for Harbaugh's job.  Not at all.  But what we're doing is not working, and this diary attempts to explain why.  Obviously, it's impossible to prove this theory since we can't have someone else come in and coach these players in a different scheme this season to see what would happen.

And yet, at every elite program in the country, when they have young players, they make it work.  I expected the offense to take a step back this year, but that's not what happened.  We fell off a cliff.  And our offense is also decidedly more complex than many offenses that are more successful and more consistent.  We also don't even attempt to employ some tactics that are ubiquitous in CFB.  Why?  


October 26th, 2017 at 10:00 PM ^

I just don't think you've presented a convincing argument that the main problem with the offense is its complexity. Read through Brian's UFR. The plays are either wide open and missed, or one block away from working. And it's never the same person. This is just poor execution and bad talent. O'Korn is a historically bad QB.

I don't think you could find any team that had a big jump from one year to the next that had so few contributing upperclassmen. I think the cupboard for this season that Harbaugh acquired was historically bare, and it was compounded by a terrible transition class. I think everything else you are arguing is drastically less important than this fundamental issue.

Ron Utah

October 27th, 2017 at 2:10 PM ^

What's interesting about what you're saying (and what Brian is saying) is that these were the same issues with the Hoke offenses.  It was one player making a critical mistake every play.  To me--and I was a coach and college athlete--that comes down to coaching.  It's the coaches' responsibility to enable the success of the players.  If we were making the occasional one-man mistake on plays, I'd say that's just what happens with youth and inexperience.  But we are clearly running a scheme that our players--the young and the old, the talented and the maybe not-as-talented--cannot execute with any consistency.  It's not just JBB making OL mistakes, it's Cole and Kugler too.  It's not just JOK, it's WRs running imprecise routes, dropping passes, or not getting open.  It's RBs missing a cut.  It's FBs (our most experienced and strongest position on offense) missing their gaps.  Again, this is strikingly similar to what plagued the Borges offenses.

This is a vital point: execution is a shared responsibility between coaches and players.  The players must be taught the techniques, given a scheme they are able to execute, and then tasked with carrying out their responsibilities.  Everyone thought Hoke's offenses with would imrpove with time...they did not.

I agree that this season's roster has limitations.  I do not expect a top-25 offense from this year's team.  But we are not even mediocre, and my concern is about next year and the long-term future of the program.  What are you seeing that suggests, other than an uptick and talent and experience, we'll be a better offense?  Because it's a long way from being the 85th best team in CFB to being an elite offense.  I don't see the hints of elite anywhere.

Where are the easy yards?  Where are the positive RPS plays?  Where are the wide open WRs?  Yes, the plays we're running have a chance of success, but they require so much precision when compared to the offense we just saw, and precision is really hard to come by with college kids.  I just don't see our players being put in position to maximize their talents, and the numbers, eye test, and results support that.


October 28th, 2017 at 3:53 PM ^

Our main contributors are mainly the following:

young and talented (DPJ, Black, Gary, Bush, etc.)

young and untalented/mediocre (Ulizio, Crawford)

old and mediocre (Perry, JBB, Speight)

old and bad (Kugler, O'Korn)

There is no base to build a good team out of this crop. It also doesn't have any relevance on projecting the future, because the young and talented players will soon be old and talented. There's no reason to believe that those players won't develop to be great players and that this team will be gang busters in a couple years...

Crisler 71

October 26th, 2017 at 4:29 PM ^

I agree with the base plays concept.  Fritz Crisler would often spend an entire practice on one play, run over and over until it was perfect.

Regarding play action on 4th down, the famous Wangler to Carter TD pass on the last play of the game to break the tie against Indiana was a play action pass.  When asked about it Wangler replied that every pass play in the book was a play action.  Bo didn't believe in just dropping back and passing.


October 27th, 2017 at 11:33 AM ^

and a larger playbook doesn't necessarily translate to not tipping tendencies. It seems like player personnel groups often tip what we are going to do. Wheatley in usually means a run. A better example is the wildcat we ran with peppers last year. Initially it saw moderate success but over time was completely shut down given the complete lack of counters run from that formation/personnel set. The D knew exactly what we were going to run.