I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that Rich Rodriguez does not read my blog. I realize that I’m playing the role of “master of the obvious” but if there were any doubts before, there are surely none after what I saw on my trip to Madison this weekend. In a shock to nobody, Michigan got destroyed by Wisconsin. For the eleventeenth weekend in a row, the maize and blue were dominated in the second half. In the last four games, Michigan has been outscored in the second half 99-19. As much as I would like it to be, that is not a typo. However, while the second half has been horrific, Michigan has been ultra-competitive in the first half. In the last four games, Michigan has outscored its opponents 64-57. If not for some highly questionable and infuriating play calls on the goaline, that first half scoring margin would be even greater. It was just three weeks ago that Tate and Co. couldn’t score on four plays from the one yard line against Illinois. As you may recall, I was furious that Rodriguez and, Offensive Coordinator, Calvin Magee, didn’t call even a single quarterback sneak. For those of you who have watched more than 20 minutes of football in your lifetime, you are no doubt firmly aware that a QB Sneak is the easiest way to get one yard. It is very difficult for a defense to keep a quarterback—intent on falling forward immediately after receiving the snap—from gaining a yard. Stopping it on two consecutive plays is virtually impossible. For whatever reason, this advantage was not used against Illinois and it quite likely cost Michigan the football game.
Michigan lost for a number of reasons on Saturday. A few that come to mind are giving up; 229 yards on the ground, 50% on 3rd down, 28 first downs, seven drives of 60+ yards, and 6.2 yards per play. Sometimes teams can point to one play that cost them a football game but Michigan had no such luxury on Saturday. It would’ve needed to reverse about 37 plays to get anywhere near a victory in Madison. However, much like the Illinois game in which ineptness at the goaline cost momentum and, eventually, the game, we might have seen a very different game had that same ineptness not been permitted to sabotage Michigan again against the Badgers. After the Michigan defense forced Wisconsin to punt from its own three yard line, the “M” offense was able to take advantage of a short field by marching down to the Badger-goaline. After a Brandon Minor two-yard run on 2nd and goal, Michigan was faced with a 3rd and goal from the one yard line. Instead of calling the play with the best chance for success—the QB Sneak—Rodriguez and Magee put Forcier in a shotgun formation some five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Unbelievably, the play call was a “quarterback keeper.” Not surprisingly, he was cut down for a one yard loss. I cannot even begin to comprehend the logic that goes into forgoing a one-yard QB sneak for a six-yard equivalent of a QB sneak. It doesn’t make sense. So, I’ve developed a formula to help coaches make decisions facing “3rd or 4th and 1” situations. It goes: QB Sneak > QB keeper in the shotgun formation. If you’re a coach, feel free to use this formula. I just ask that you make sure to credit me.
I’m fully aware that it has become chic for fans to throw out the “Tate Forcier is too small to run a QB sneak” excuse. I’ve read it online many times and I actually heard a Michigan fan behind me at Camp Randall yell the same sentiment. Large groups of people thinking the same thing does not always guarantee success. That’s how the whole “Earth is flat” and “Salem Witch Trials” things happened. Tate is indeed small. However, the “QB Sneak” is an equal opportunity success play. It does not discriminate against size, race, or age. If you can say, “hut” or “hike”, and you can fall down, then you can run a QB sneak and do so successfully. If you’re looking for evidence, look no further than the fact that just three plays before Rodriguez put Tate in the shotgun on 3rd and goal from the one, he called a QB Sneak on 3rd and 1 from the seven. And guess what? First down! The moment that Tate took the snap and fell forward, the previously referenced Michigan fan behind me yelled out, “What are you doing? You can’t run a sneak with Tate!” There’s no word weather he fully understood the irony of him yelling that precisely as Michigan was, indeed, running a successful QB sneak with Tate. I’m guessing, “no”, but stranger things have happened.
I might be old school but my first inclination on any 4th and 1 or “any play from the one yard line” is the QB sneak. No team or coach—unless the coach is Gary Moeller—should ever run a play other than a QB sneak in those situations. This is something football fans learn before the age of ten. I have no idea why Rodriguez or Magee would’ve avoided that play-call three weeks ago against Illinois. “Four sneaks from the one” is about the surest way of scoring a touchdown in football. It seemed as though they learned their lesson when Tate dove forward to pick up the first down on the 3rd-and-1 play on Saturday but they went right back to ignoring the surest possible way of scoring just three plays later. The score would’ve put Michigan up 14-7 with the added confidence that comes from two offensive scoring drives. Michigan had struggled to put the ball in the end zone all year and doing so twice against a stingy Wisconsin defense on the road in the first quarter very likely would’ve changed the arc of the game—certainly not to the extent of the goaline play call failure in the Illinois game, but it would’ve changed it nonetheless.
I am willing to be patient while Rodriguez’s implementation of the spread takes longer than expected. I realize how dire depth issues are defensively. Nobody has been more patient than me on that front. What I’m not willing to be patient with are tactical mistakes—especially at the goaline. Bad coaching decisions are a part of football. Everyone from Bill Belichick to Urban Meyer makes mistakes. However, when a trend develops, I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. Three weeks in a row—goaline play calls against Illinois, not kicking the field goal in the fourth quarter against Purdue, and goaline against Wisconsin—have left me fuming. Those aren’t the only poor decisions that have been made, either. The list is growing quite long. Attempting a bad angle field goal the play after Forcier’s QB keeper was stopped—the same bad angle that Jason Olesnavage missed earlier in the season—instead of going for a touchdown is an additional example. Another is Rodriguez's decision to waste 30+ seconds before the half against Illinois only to call a timeout after it was too late to do anything. This is becoming a trend.
Rodriguez has developed an offensive system that exposes weaknesses in defenses. With elite-level talent, that system can be massively successful. Look no further than what Urban Meyer has accomplished at Florida. However, even when the system is performing optimally, big games will be decided by sideline decisions. While a substantial portion of the Michigan fanbase is freaking out that the spread doesn’t work with walk-on or true freshman quarterbacks (duh.), I’m starting to get a little concerned by Rodriguez’s game-management skills. If, by chance, he’s looking for a way to improve those skills, I’ll offer up this piece of advice: run the frickin’ quarterback sneak when you're on the one yard line.