by Mark Edwards
We’ve all heard it before when the 20/20 hindsight groups breakdown Michigan’s 2017 passing game. The blame started with Wilton Speight, then moved to the offensive line and then the lack of a dominant run game which eliminated quality play action passing. The honest, blunt truth is that the Michigan passing game has held back this team all season.
Sure, there have been flashes of efficiency like Florida’s Tarik Black deep ball and Chris Evans running wheel routes out of the backfield. Those are good things to see but the Michigan attack has been far too inconsistent this season. But if we just stop at the 20/20 view that Michigan is struggling to throw the ball, we are selling ourselves short of true analysis.
Whether it be Big Ten Network, the local newspaper writers or the ESPN staff, none of them have dug deeper to see how the passing game has changed from year one of Harbaugh to year three of Har-ball. When Jim Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke, he brought Jedd Fisch on board as the passing game coordinator. We were impressed by Fisch’s credentials of having worked for Steve Spurrier to the Jacksonville Jaguars. If 2017 has proven anything, I think those credentials continue to impress so many followers of college football.
When Fisch left for UCLA, Jim Harbaugh went to the NFL and hired Pep Hamilton as his passing game coordinator. Due to the playcalling style of the offensive staff, we have to believe that Hamilton is in the same exact position that Fisch held in 2015 & 2016.
So what’s the difference?
2015 & 2016 – It was always something new and unique
In the first two years of the Harbaugh Era, film study shows us a great propensity to throw the ball downfield and a premium was placed on creative play design. I acknowledge that Michigan had two NFL rostered wide receivers and the best tight end in college football who will at some point make his NFL debut. With that being said, Michigan didn’t just say, “Go win the 1-on-1 matchup.” That was not the approach of the Fisch-led passing game.
I have pulled two clips to show you that by mid-season of 2015, Michigan was running pass schemes that broke keys for defensive teams. Defenses “key” up what Michigan has shown them by assigning different defenders to react based on movements from the Michigan offensive personnel.
In our first example, Fisch against BYU knows that the Cougar linebackers are keying the running back movements. While there are many ways to combat this offensively, Fisch designed a double-screen look while letting Tight End (and now Fullback) Khalid Hill to basically be “left alone.”
It’s not just the execution of the play, it’s how the design turned the defensive coaching staff at BYU into liars for their players…albeit just for one play. Fisch was showing new wrinkles weekly and it made Michigan really difficult to prepare for.
In the second example, you see Michigan run play action to the left and Rudock boots back to his right. It is very similar to Brian Griese in 1997. The intricacy of the design is that the TE starts his customary drag across the field. As the Northwestern secondary recognizes the movement, Jake Butt plants his foot and redirects to the left which is not some the Wildcats had seen.
Why was the play so successful? Was it scheme or athletes? I would argue that it’s 100% scheme and that has to go to Fisch. When you design pass routes to break “keys”, you will find open space for receivers (even tight ends) to work in.
2017 – A NFL Approach
With the addition of Pep Hamilton, Michigan’s 2017 passing game is well-grounded in solid football theory. Anyone who argues that it’s not is just plain goofy and deserves to be on the C’mon Man segment before Monday Night Football. However, as you look at this year’s passing game, there is a CLEAR philosophical difference between that of the former passing coordinator.
Pep Hamilton came to Michigan from the Cleveland Browns. He is a really good coach and I believe he is a good teacher of the game. The NFL game is so different because there is parity in the talent around the league. Any team can win on any given Sunday…even the Browns (I think). The NFL passing game comes down to one thing. Match ups. Where the 2015-16 offense had great players AND an evolving week-to-week scheme, the 2017 offense is built on winning the match up.
The problem is that Michigan isn’t ready to win the 1-on-1 match up. Their best option to win that match up is TE Zach Gentry versus a linebacker. However, that has not shown up in a down-the-field manner. So we can deduce that the short-range design of the NFL passing schemes is what we see from 2017 Michigan.
In our first example, you see a TD pass from Speight to Grant Perry vs. Cincinnati on a “Layers” concept. The route is a shallow cross out of a four-wide set. How is this NFL like? Substitute Julian Edelman for Perry and it looks like the Patriots. Does Perry win the route? Yes. Have we seen it since? No. It’s not a design-based play, it’s a player A vs. player B play. Michigan wins a few of those but the victories have been very infrequent.
You can see that Hamilton puts Perry and Donovan Peoples-Jones mirror each other across the field horizontally. This allows the tight ends to play outside/deeper down th efield and is a staple of the ’12 personnel.’
In this second example from last week’s game, you see a classic “Mesh” concept. Two receivers run shallow crosses with a 10-yard dig behind it. This is where you see Michigan with Gentry and McKeon play a lot of snaps in the passing game. However, if you substitute NFL caliber tight ends and slots for the Michigan personnel, now it’s about who can beat the defender.
Michigan is very successful with the “Mesh” concept and actually used three tight ends. Michigan actually forced Maryland to bust a zone coverage. But once again, match ups dictate the day.
In conclusion, the major differences are the coaching philosophy of how to scheme a collegiate passing game. Fisch believed in the scheme exacerbating the defensive personnel while Hamilton has said, “Get great athletes in space and they will be defenders who aren’t quite as fast.”
For Michigan to win the final two regular season games of 2017, I think the nuances of 2015-16 will need to appear because I am not convinced that you will see multiple match ups that Michigan will win consistently.