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September 9, 2010

Welcome To the Pat White Offense

So, this is it: The Pat White offense. Everybody has been saying that Rich Rodriguez finally has the quarterback to run the system he wants, which is sort of true. But what exactly is the Pat White offense? And how does it work?

Basically, it's a kind of spread-out version of the old wishbone offense. The basis of the system is that it uses the quarterback as a runner, or a potential runner, forcing the defense to use a player to guard him. That means the defense might be able to stop the running play by beating the blockers, but it can't stop the running play by outnumbering the blockers.

You often hear the comparison between the wishbone and the spread option offense. The comparison usually implies that the spread option is a fad, like the wishbone, that will be stopped when defenses adjust. But the spread option is different in a couple crucial ways.

First, it uses misdirection and has a better ability to threaten the entire width of the field on any given play. Great defenses were able to out-execute the option by using speed to string out the option plays down the sideline. Once linebackers saw which way the play was headed, they could sprint down the line and beat their blockers to the point of attack.

The spread option is different because the tailback runs one way, while the quarterback can potentially keep the ball and threaten the backside of the defense, which punishes over-pursuit. Of course, the defense can still out-execute the spread - it happened plenty often in 2008 and 2009. But the variety of the offense makes it harder for linebackers to just run past blockers as they did against the wishbone.

Second, the spread option offense offers a much better passing threat than the wishbone. Both offenses are run-based, and their passing game relies on forcing the defense to over-commit to the run and leave receivers open. But wishbone teams forced into passing had to "break the bone" and run a completely different system. Spread option teams have an easier time integrating the passing game.

One alarming fact that stood out during the Connecticut game was Denard Robinson's 29 rushing attempts. The statistic has been repeated constantly by nervous Michigan fans and gleeful opponents. You can almost imagine Ferris Bueller's principle, Ed Rooney, reporting the news to Michigan's head coach.

Ed Rooney: So far this year he has carried the ball 29 times.
Rich Rodriguez: 29 times?
Ed Rooney: twenty-nine times.

Why did Robinson carry the ball 29 times? Easy: Because Connecticut's defense forced him to run the ball 29 times. UConn frequently aligned heavily shifted to the front side of Michigan's offensive line, leaving a wide open hole for the quarterback to run straight ahead. It also had the defensive end follow the running back on nearly every running play, essentially choosing to put the ball in Robinson's hands. (Indeed, he should have kept the ball even more often than he did.)

The better question is, why did Connecticut choose to put the ball in Robinson's hands so frequently? Lacking any sources on the Husky coaching staff, I can only guess. My conjecture is that UConn's coaches studied the film of 2009. They saw that Tate Forcier was Michigan's best quarterback by far, and that his weakness was a predilection for keeping the ball too often, leaving him vulnerable to a defensive beating. So they crafted a game plan predicated on making Tate Forcier run the ball as often as possible, and wound up with Denard Robinson doing it instead.

In any case, I think the panic about Robinson's excessive ball-carrying is a little overwrought. The seminal thing about Connecticut's defensive game plan is that it did not work. At all. Michigan had one punt and zero turnovers. Ask yourself this. If you were designing a game plan against Michigan, would your goal be to make Robinson carry the ball as often as possible? Or would you try to force less dangerous players to get the ball? I predict most defenses who have seen what Robinson can do pick door number two, and his rushing attempts per game drop.

In the meantime, we have a pretty good facsimile of the Pat White offense. One common characteristic of that offense is that it employs fairly limited downfield passing. On Saturday Michigan faced 17 "passing situations," which I define, somewhat arbitrarily, as 2nd down and 10 yards or more, or 3rd down and 5 yards or more. On those situations, Michigan only called 8 downfield passing plays. The other plays included one handoff, three screen passes, and 5 quarterback draws.

The combination worked because the Robinson threw the ball very accurately, moving the chains over and over. The threat of his running also forced Connecticut into basic zone defenses with gaping passing lanes, but the success of the pass made his running more effective.

The big question is how the offense develops over the course of the season. Future opponents, starting with Notre Dame, will have better film to scout, and will come up with better plans to take away Robinson's strength. How he adjusts to better-designed (and more talented) defenses will be a major key to the success of the offense.

But… Robinson was also making his first-ever start at quarterback. He has room to improve, and he's already broken the all-time Michigan record for total offense in a game. He was also playing in a swirling wind that made downfield passing difficult. Even so, he demonstrated an ability to read defenses well and deliver the ball more accurately than Pat White on his best days (and a lot more accurately than White on his worst days.)

One final point. Numerous commentators have stated that this offense - the Pat White offense - is what Rich Rodriguez "really" wants to run. I disagree. I think that what Rodriguez really wants is to combine what he had with White at West Virginia with what he had at Tulane with Shawn King - an option run game and a pro-style downfield passing game. Rodriguez even has a true freshman quarterback on his roster who has the ability to eventually run that kind of offense.

In the meantime, this is what fans expected when Rodriguez came to Michigan. Spread and shred. Option plays, quarterback draws, and lots and lots of running yards.


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