X’s and O’s

In this week’s edition of X’s and O’s, WNUR’s Nick Scoliard analyzes Michigan’s successful Hail Mary play from last Saturday’s game.

You knew it would come to this.

Somehow I picked the week Northwestern plays Michigan to do the postgame, the Sportsvoice, and start my new column. It’s like the football gods want me to agonize over the game as much as possible. But I sucked it up, and watched the 50 yard pass to Roundtree at least 50 times. That’s not even an exaggeration. I have been looking at this play non-stop to figure out what went wrong. Here’s what I have so far (Black lines are Michigan assignments, purple lines are Northwestern assignments):

The situation: 18 seconds, Michigan down by 3, Northwestern had just given up about 20 yards by punting it right to Jeremy Gallon. The Wolverines come out in shotgun trips right. Roy Roundtree’s route is in yellow, and the defender, Daniel Jones, has man coverage on him (red). While I thought in the beginning that the ‘Cats were in a Prevent coverage, it looks much more like a Cover 2 with two linebackers in middle zones. The one safety on the top of the screen has a zone similar to Jared Carpenter, who is on the bottom left of the screen, but it wouldn’t fit in the picture. I’m going to say something no one has said about this game: I like this play call. The Wolverines need only 30 yards to get their kicker in range. If they were in the Prevent, a 30 yard pass would be incredibly easy. In this Cover 2, most plays would be stopped short of the field goal range. Notice how I said most. The Wolverines line up in a play that would screw with the Cover 2. If the ‘Cats had called a Cover 3 with only one linebacker in a middle zone, Northwestern wins the game. I honestly believe that they would win if they had one more safety on the field. There are 4 receivers; all have a man and basically a safety. The bottom receiver, Drew Dileo, fakes a drag and runs a go down the left sideline, taking the left side safety. Jeremy Jackson, in the inside slot of the trips, runs an “out and go”, taking the right side safety with him. The wide out, Jeremy Gallon, runs a drag, making sure the middle zones stay close to the line. What does that leave but one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, one on one in the open field with Daniel Jones. Although you have probably seen this play replay over and over in your mind while you cry yourself to sleep at night (Ok, maybe that’s just me), but let’s go through it anyway.

Northwestern has a 3-man rush against the O-line, while Vincent Smith runs a blitz pickup and has a short dump option for Gardner. I will say the D-line gets great pressure, leading to Gardner heaving up a desperation throw before getting slammed.

Usually in a Cover 2 zone, the safeties, you know, cover the deep ball. But here we are, Roundtree v. Jones mano et mano, dueling for the ball. As I said before, Michigan’s play beautifully split up the safeties, and if Northwestern had just one more, or if one of the linebackers were playing much deeper, this never would have happened. But alas, here we are.

Daniel Jones makes one of the best downfield plays on a ball I have ever seen. He does exactly what he needs to; getting his hand on it, disrupting the pass, kind of touching Roundtree, but not to the extent that would get called on a play like this. Jones extends his hand right above Roundtree’s, and disrupts the ball. However, as I kept looking, there’s something else to notice: the ball was thrown badly. Both Jones and Roundtree are well above the ground, yet the ball looks like it would go over their hands. The play Jones should have made would be, basically, to interfere. He could have grabbed the arm a little, pushed his arm forward, whatever. 15 yards and a first down are much better than letting up the pass. Instead, Jones makes an incredible play on the ball, but….

It bounces right to Roundtree. Honestly, the bounce was all luck. Short of interfering, Jones makes the best play on the ball he could have, but it bounces right back to Roundtree, who makes a great play on getting the deflection. It’s one of those “throw it up” passes that always has luck involved like Seahawks-Packers on Monday Night Football, Giants-Pats in Super Bowl 42 (so many holding penalties……). The offensive play matched up perfectly to the defensive play, and no matter how great the play made by Jones was, the luck went in Michigan’s favor.

OK, I need to stop grieving, so let’s go through a well-executed play: The go-ahead Siemian-T. Jones touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter.

The situation: On one of their last drives of the quarter, Colter gets hurt on a rush for a first down. Siemian comes in and after a 20 yard completion, a loss of one yard by Mark, and a Michigan personal foul penalty, Siemian had the ‘Cats at the Michigan 15 with 4 to play. They come out in the shotgun, trips left. Michigan is in a dime Cover 2 package. The dotted line shows Mark’s motion before the snap. The motion helps the offense tremendously:

Jordan Kovacs comes off the line and into a zone. J. T. Floyd comes in to get closer to Mark. What this means is that Kovacs was probably going to blitz from that side, and Floyd would play safety and spy on Mark in case he ran a flat route. Instead, Kovacs drops back to coverage, and Floyd comes in to play Mark closer. However, because of the motion, Kovacs is not in a great position when the ball is snapped. He’s playing 5 yards closer to the line then the other safety, Thomas Gordon. That means that a passing lane opens up to the right of Gordon. So when the ball is snapped and Gordon plays off the go route by Christian Jones, T. Jones is one on one with is defender, Kenny Demens, who is actually a linebacker. Siemian sees the T. Jones one on one with a linebacker, throws a perfect pass right out of reach of Demens, and right in the hands of Tony Jones.

Siemian made a great play here, reading the defense and putting it right where Jones could get it.
OK, I’ve been covering this game a lot, but now it’s finally over, and after watching the Hail Mary 50 times, I never have to watch it again, thank god. Next, the ‘Cats travel to Michigan State for a much much needed win.

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