clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film Preview: Michigan’s Counter run game, stingy man coverage, and methodical passing attack

This week Ohio State takes on Michigan in the greatest rivalry in sports and we’re here to take a look at some of Michigan’s most used concepts.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Ohio State Buckeyes will travel up north to take on their rival in the Michigan Wolverines this week and we’re here once again here to breakdown some of their bread and butter concepts as well as look at how the Buckeyes can attack them. With an unfortunate year off from the greatest rivalry in sports, it is exciting to be breaking the Wolverines down as an opponent. After a dismantling of Michigan State, the Buckeyes will look to make a final regular season statement and ruin the lives of people from Michigan again, but before you guys read all those articles tomorrow, let’s see what the Wolverines do on both sides of the ball.

Jim Harbaugh is in year seven as the head coach, the offense has finally started finding a real identity coming down the stretch. With Josh Gattis as the offensive coordinator, Michigan has put a focus on modernizing Jim Harbaugh’s philosophies. The marriage started off rocky, but this season they seem to have found cohesion due to the emergence of their two headed monster at running back. This has allowed them to play an old school brand of football with a high volume of running the football, while mixing in some modern passing concepts and RPOs. Overall, in a prove it year, Harbaugh has found his way again and it will be up to the defensive staff to build off last week’s game plan.

On defense, Michigan hired Mike MacDonald in the offseason to bring in some fresh ideas both on the field and in the recruiting trail. They’ve maintained their mix of running a 3-4 with their “Viper” position (our Bullet) defensively relying on their front four which includes a walked down David Ojabo on the defensive line to be the engine of the defense. What MacDonald has brought is a variety of coverages and a different energy to the defense that was losing its edge in the waning years of Don Brown. This defense in a lot of ways is like looking in a mirror with different variations, so the Buckeyes offense should have plenty of confidence attacking them.

With that being said let’s take a look and add some context to what Michigan brings to the table.


Michigan is a power run oriented football team and under Harbaugh they have relied on a mix of counter, power, and zone run concepts. Being a gap and zone offense gives them plenty of different looks to keep defenses and their keys honest. Today we’re going to look at how Michigan relies on different personnel and schemes to change the defensive looks they get when they are running the football. We are going to use the Michigan State film to get a look because they had quite a few different situations that we will see against them on Saturday.

The first play we’re going to look at today is a short yardage run situation because it shows a lot of what Michigan’s identity is. For the Wolverines they have second and one on a hash mark, they line up in a “full house pistol” formation with 12-personnel meaning both tight ends and the running back are lined up in the backfield.

The run-concept Michigan has called here to looks like it is a counter to Blake Corum (No. 2). The entire offensive line down blocks away from the play side leaving the defensive end of Michigan State free to the short side of the field. In a traditional counter look the guard would usually pull across the formation to kick out the defensive end in this case, the play side tight end (No. 88) kicks out the end, and the other tight end (No. 83) leads through the hole. Corum (No. 2) has a clear running lane and is able to gain the first easily. This play works because the linebackers for MSU begin to flow with the down blocks, by reacting away the counter is able to work. Michigan relies heavily on counter looks from heavy formations and this a significant part of their identity.

The next play we’re going to look at is another example of a “counter” look that Michigan State actually defends pretty well at the line of scrimmage. Michigan lines up in 11-personnel with the tight end motioning into a wing set meaning he is staggered off the line of scrimmage.

The offensive line down blocks away from the run action again to get the defense flowing one way. The guard (No. 65) and tight end (No. 83) pull across the formation to lead block through the gap created by the tight end’s kick out. The defensive end for Michigan does a great job squeezing the line and taking on the first blocker in the pulling guard. The tight end’s block is blown up by MSU’s linebacker forcing Hassan Haskins (No. 25) to run inside to the filling linebacker. Michigan State’s defense plays this as well as a team can, but Michigan rips off a big gain because of bad tackling. This example shows how to combat a counter run-concept, but at the end of the day football is won by who tackles better. Michigan will run this play a ton, this is their primary run-concept as they like to get their offensive linemen moving.

In the passing game, Michigan runs a lot of west coast passing concepts and they love to attack the middle of the field. This has been a weakness in the Buckeyes’ zone looks, but they have been able to combat this type of play well in man coverage.

Michigan lines up in empty with 11-personnel with Blake Corum (No. 2) in the slot to the trips side and the tight end (No. 83) to the short side. To the top side Michigan runs a flood concept which opens up the middle of the field as it takes defenders to the outside. The receiver at the bottom of the screen runs a clear out meaning he just runs vertical to make space. This play is designed to hit the tight end’s option route. An option route gives the tight end three choices, they can break out, in, or sit depending on the coverage look they get. With the middle clearing out due to players flowing towards the flood concept this opens up the in route for the tight end with the option. This is one of Harbaugh and Gattis’ go to route concepts for the tight end because it puts the defender into a tough position.


The Wolverines have a new coach in Mike Macdonald who brings a lot of pro-level concepts from the Baltimore Ravens that gives Michigan a lot of different looks. Under Macdonald, Michigan has mixed in a lot of blitz looks and they play a high percentage of man-coverage with a slight mix in zone. The strength of Macdonald’s defense is disguising what they are in, so C.J. Stroud will have to be at his best when it comes to identifying coverages pre-snap. We’re going to look at two ways Michigan lines up in man-coverage and how tempo can be a great tool to keep Michigan from getting settled in defensively due to their rotating personnel.

The first look we get is actually great due to Fox’s camera work, it shows the pass rush and their coverage. Michigan lined up in their standard 3-4 look with David Ojabo walked down and traditional defensive back personnel with their Viper walked out over the slot receiver.

They rush four and play man straight up across the board, Aidan Hutchinson (No. 97) mauls the offensive tackle for Michigan State collapsing the pocket, but Thorne does a decent job of evading the initial rush. The one high safety – who Joel Klatt so kindly circled – lines up favoring the field side with two receivers to it. The safety moves with Payton Thorne (No. 10) who moves left getting on top of the vertical receiver to that side. Thorne does not see him and forces the throw as the pressure from Michigan recovers and gets in his face. The other aspect of this play which is something to look at is Michigan State is in max protection, meaning a tight end and running back stay in to block leaving three receivers running routes. This frees up a safety and the two linebackers to spy Thorne as well as play the eyes of the quarterback in middle zones. This is a subtle thing, but this greatly limits the quarterback’s ability to scramble and Thorne makes the worst of a bad situation leading to an interception.

The next coverage look we will be taking a look at is how Michigan shows blitzes to open up the pass rush and disrupt passing lanes. As you can see by the alignment of Michigan they have five defenders at the line of scrimmage with their three down linemen, David Ojabo (No. 55), and their Mike linebacker (No. 12).

To begin this the reason a team will show a blitzer and not send them is to change the count of who blocks who on the offensive line. Kenneth Walker (No. 9) jumps inside to help with the blitzing backer who ends up not coming, this leaves their left tackle on an island with Aidan Hutchinson (No. 97) which is no easy task. The Mike linebacker retreats and disrupts the slant to the tight end (No. 97) of Michigan state. The cornerback to the field side and who the play comes to is playing off man coverage. He aligns at the sticks and retreats giving Michigan State an easy first if the receiver is able to catch the football. Ohio State’s receiving core will be challenged and it will be up to them to make Michigan pay for running man-coverage. Look for Ryan Day to utilize bunch formations, mesh concepts, and switch-concepts to confuse the Michigan defensive backs.

Lastly, we’re going to look at how Michigan struggled with tempo against Michigan State. In the next play we see Michigan doing a mass substitution. Michigan State had run a successful big play and Michigan was trying to get their goalline personnel on the field. The Spartans, knowing this tendency, got the ball quickly, and since they did not substitute they did not have to wait for Michigan. They ran a “Stretch Lead,” but when the other team has almost half their team running onto the field the play doesn’t really matter. What Ohio State did against Michigan State in their last game was utilize motion and tempo. By mixing up alignments with the same personnel, this can create conflict for Michigan’s defensive responsibility and in certain situations when Michigan likes to substitute you can catch them off guard like we saw in this example.


In conclusion, for the Wolverines to be successful on offense, they will need to establish the run early. Ohio State’s game plan against Michigan State was to shut down the run and make Payton Thorne beat them. The Buckeyes will play a similar game plan with a lot of Craig Young at cover safety to match the big personnel of the Wolverines. The mix of Hickman, Young, and whichever two linebackers are in the game will be the defensive players with the most responsibility. For the Buckeyes, forcing Michigan into throwing an uncomfortable amount of times and going away from their identity should be the key and they can do that by scoring a lot of points.

Defensively, they rely on their front-seven to wreak havoc on opposing gameplans. The offensive line will have their toughest task yet, not only due to the talent across, but with identifying their blocking responsibilities. If they can communicate their responsibilities well, they should be able to find success in the run game. Then protecting C.J. Stroud from their two elite edge rushers will be the difference. If he can have time the receivers will be able to do what they do.

This is what rivalries are for the biggest stakes and the most physical matchups of the season. With everything on the line, this game will come down to executing the little things better than the guy across the field over and over again. Both teams are out to prove to the world that they are the best team, but only one can. Ohio State’s offense versus that Michigan defense will decide the college football season. This Saturday we will find out who these Buckeyes truly are.