Michigan served notice to Illinois on the opening drive that there would be no rust or dawdling on Saturday. The offense marched the field in 10 plays for an opening touchdown and never looked back. The drive included three different quarterbacks, and oh yes, a formation that featured no less than five tight ends to serve as the perfect finale to an authoritative opening possession.
Have you ever seen a five Tight End formation? No, you haven’t. At least you hadn’t until Saturday. The play started off with the second appearance of Michigan’s new “train” formation this year:
Let’s go ahead and circle the tight ends:
Yep, that’s five: Asiasi, Butt, Hill, Jocz, and Wheatley Jr. All of the action of this play headed towards the bottom of the screen, save for Jake Butt. Tyrone Wheatley Jr ran a perfect rub route that left Jake Butt uncovered coming across the field.
Unlike Michigan State’s receivers against Maryland, Wheatley Jr did not engage in a block on the defensive player and avoided an offensive pass interference flag for a pick play.
Earlier on the opening drive, Harbaugh, Fisch, and Drevno added an entirely new wrinkle to the jet sweep motion we’ve seen throughout the year. It was no coincidence that this play made an appearance the week before traveling to East Lansing, and I’d bet the farm that you see another development off of this same look and motion this upcoming Saturday.
Above, Eddie McDoom lined up to the bottom of the screen off the line of scrimmage. Pre-snap this gave the same jet sweep look that Illinois had no doubt seen a hundred times in the film room.
When McDoom went in motion the Illini shifted to cover the jet sweep. Initially, the corner across from McDoom followed, but then stopped and settled over Kekoa Crawford in the slot. The DB originally across from Crawford (arrow) then picked up McDoom. The linebackers and opposite corner also shifted towards the possible sweep action.
Crawford ran a seam route that took his defender out of the play, McDoom put the brakes on at the snap and headed back from whence he came, meanwhile the linebacking corps had no idea where the football was going.
The Mike linebacker bit up hard on the play-action, meanwhile the Sam linebacker did not notice McDoom’s change in course. The DB that picked up McDoom careened across the formation to follow the sweep action. This was just a beautifully drawn up play that netted McDoom the ball with a laughable amount of space:
This variation off of similar looks is one of the reasons I’m not concerned about Michigan putting these plays on film. The sheer volume of plays the offense has run this season is staggering. Long gone are the days of “this formation means this play is coming”, thank goodness. These continual evolutions in our formations and play calling means that the quantity of looks and plays a defense has to prepare for is staggering. Michigan’s offense is so multifaceted in its approach that a single look presnap can be entirely transformed through motion and shifts or even with different action after the snap as you saw above. As a result the defense doesn’t have the time to read keys and diagnose the action before its too late.
How about the defense? The opposite side of the ball added yet another dominant performance to the ledger. No completions in the first half. Just four completions for the entire game. I was forced to catch myself after audibly sighing following an Illinois first down, the folks in the seats next to me were guilty of the exact same reaction. That’s the point we are at with this defense; first downs are annoying things that happen… occasionally and are viewed as inconveniences, then we all laugh and the defense crushes someone. In the last three games, Michigan has surrendered 16 first downs (8 to Wisconsin, 2 to Rutgers, and 6 to Illinois). They’re averaging giving up 5 and 1/3rd first downs a game for October. What else can you say? Huzzah? Huzzah seems apropos.
Let’s take a look at Dymonte Thomas’s interception at the end of the first half. Don Brown dialed up a perfectly timed blitz that obliterated an Illinois screen with immediate rush off the edge. The pressure applied by Jourdan Lewis, Taco Charlton, and Ryan Glasgow forced Jeff George Jr to throw this ball off his back foot and well before the screen is set up. Thomas did a great job recognizing the play and put himself in position to get the ball.
Lewis and Mike McCray came downhill immediately at the snap. Meanwhile, Jabrill Peppers drew attention from George by threatening pressure, however dropped back into coverage at the snap.
Thomas played this really well and did not bite on the play fake. Meanwhile both Lewis and Charlton got through clean as Illinois worked to release for the screen.
The two shots above demonstrate just how quickly the rush arrived at the quarterback. George was forced to get rid of the ball off of his back foot and the pass sailed. Thomas was in perfect position to make a play on th ball. Of note, Glasgow had already broken off his rush before the throw. In the shot below you see how quickly he headed upfield.
This was another great defensive performance accompanied by a dominant offensive outing in the first quarter. The quick 21-0 lead enabled Michigan to completely control the tempo of the game, and as a result time of possession was 41:23. This included 12 minutes and 19 seconds of the fourth quarter (!!!). The defense held an opponent under 200 yards of total offense for the fourth straight game. Furthermore, the offense rolled up 561 yards and 29 first downs, all while being fairly darn respectful in the second half of the game. Now? Sparty. Win with character, win with cruelty. Go Blue!