‘Run, run, run, bomb’: No secret what Michigan wants to do on offense
LINCOLN — The video was in high definition. The football was straight out of the grainy reel-to-reel film era.
On six straight first-quarter plays in its 45-20 win over SMU, Michigan sent two tight ends onto the field. On four of those six, the Wolverines had a fullback out there, too. That’s eight blockers. That’s “22” personnel — two backs and tight ends.
Repeatedly, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sent his tailback — lead blockers and pulling linemen, too — into the teeth of SMU’s front seven. Six times in a row. For all of 13 yards.
The plays looked like car crashes. Michigan didn’t score on the drive.
But the sequence sent a message: Michigan likes to play football in a proverbial phone booth, wearing down its opponent for three hours.
“Obviously, Michigan’s going to be a different game than we’ve seen the last few weeks,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said.
And that made Nebraska inside linebacker Will Honas smile. He’ll play whatever assignment he’s given, and if that means running with receivers, so be it. But if he has a choice, he’ll eat exactly what Michigan’s bringing to the dining table. Meat. Potatoes. Heavy stuff.
“Whoever comes out more physical, more ready to play, is going to be who comes out on top,” Honas said. The junior college transfer whittled down his final list of schools to three Big Ten teams — Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa — in part because he wanted to experience opponents like Michigan.
Mohamed Barry, another inside linebacker, called Saturday a “front-seven game.”
“The linebackers and D-linemen, we’re going to have opportunities to eat and impose our will on that team and it’s up to us to do that,” Barry said.
Michigan’s offense, averaging 37 points per game and 6.59 yards per play through three games, is closer to Wisconsin than perhaps any other Big Ten offense. It might even be a little more primordial than the Badgers.
Harbaugh, who played under Michigan legend Bo Schembechler, seems to prefer the body-blow football as much as any coach this side of the triple option. Pundits who presumed UM’s courting of spread quarterback Shea Patterson — now Michigan’s starter, completing 70.8 percent of his passes — would drag Harbaugh’s scheme into the 21st century were wrong.
Harbaugh is sticking to his roots of a run-based West Coast offense with plenty of motions, personnel groupings and presnap shifts. Michigan has averaged 60.3 offensive plays per game — far fewer than any other Big Ten team — draining the play clock on nearly every snap.
Nebraska, under Mike Riley, tried a version of this system and struggled to find an offensive identity. It generally takes top-level recruiting — finding the right receivers, tight ends, linemen and, of course, quarterback — and years of seasoning.
While Harbaugh had consistent success in his short stint at Stanford — quarterback Andrew Luck, whom Harbaugh recruited, helped — his system has been up and down in the Big Ten. Last year, Michigan’s young offense struggled, averaging 348.9 yards per game and 25.2 points. The line allowed 36 sacks. Harbaugh fired some of his offensive staff. He landed Patterson, a former five-star quarterback who transferred from Mississippi.
And, thus far, Harbaugh has pretty much doubled down on all the run stuff he’s always been doing. Power plays with pulling linemen. Fullback dives. The occasional jet sweep that tries to get around a defense drawn in by the power plays. More power plays.
“We feel like we have playmakers that can make plays both in the passing game and the run game, but at the end of the day, the University of Michigan is one of the few programs in the country that has the style and type of players that we should physically be able to do things that some people just can’t do,” Michigan assistant head coach Pep Hamilton said on a Detroit radio station Wednesday.
Where Michigan gets tricky, NU inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said, is in its presnap adjustments — wholesale shifts, motions. UM may run the same basic play out of a variety of formations, attempting to get Nebraska’s defense misaligned or confused.
“The majority of shifts and motions are just window dressing,” Ruud said. “West Coast offense — that’s been a staple for a long time. I came up playing against Jon Gruden (in the NFL) and sometimes there was a shift or motion on every single snap.”
What Michigan has done with its power runs — at least thus far — is successfully set up its play-action passing attack to tight ends and receivers. Defenses are forced to commit more and more defenders to stopping the run, which allows receivers and tight ends some favorable matchups.
“It’s going to be run, run, run, play-action bomb,” Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “It’s not really that hard of a scheme. We just got to stop it. It’s pretty much a black and white type of scheme. Run, run, run, bomb. There’s really not much in between.”
It’s those chunk plays — whether to receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (14 catches, 159 yards, four touchdowns this season) or tight end Zach Gentry (seven catches, 116 yards) — that make Chinander leery. Michigan is averaging 12 yards per completion.
“You’ve got to have a good plan to defend the run but also get those DBs in a spot where they can defend the deep ball,” Chinander said.