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March 24, 2011

You Can't Go Home Again

We're going to return to old-fashioned Michigan football. You've been hearing a lot of that the last couple of months, and it sounds awfully good to win-starved fans. But there are a couple problems. First, exactly what this means is a subject for debate. And second, pulling it off in the modern era is a lot easier said than done.

When some people say "old-fashioned Michigan football," they mean Bo Schembechler football. Others mean Lloyd Carr football. When it comes to the running attack, these are two very different things.

Bo Schembechler football was option football. It relied on a dominant running attack - if Bo's team had a game in which it couldn't run, it was almost certainly going to lose. That didn't happen very often, though. Bo's system concentrated heavily on running, employing a wide variety of blocking schemes, including the option threat, which gave the offense an extra blocker by forcing the defense to account for the quarterback in its run schemes. Bo's passing schemes were simple and generally predicated on surprising a defense that was expecting the run.

Several things had changed by the end of the 1990s. First, Michigan had given up on the option and begun to recruit pro-style passers. Second, Michigan began using simpler and less diverse running schemes, and devoting more time to installing a sophisticated passing offense. Third, scholarship limits and widespread improvements in strength training evened out the size disparity between Michigan and most of its opponents, the vast majority of which it could simply overpower with brute strength in the 1970s and 1980s. And finally, defenses began to more aggressively employ 8- and 9-man fronts, to outnumber the run, figuring they'd rather let the quarterback beat them than bleed four yards at a time.

Under Carr, Michigan still thought of itself as a power running program. In reality, it wasn't. Michigan's season statistics go back on its archive to 1998. During that stretch - 1998 to 2007 - the Wolverines averaged 161.5 yards a game per season. Only one of those squads - the 2000 team, which featured one of the most talented offensive lines in the history of college football - averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game.

But at least they showed up in big games, right? Not really. I figured that games against Ohio State and in bowls were a useful measure of big game opponents, since Michigan played the Buckeyes and a bowl team every year. The box scores go back to 2001. During that time, Michigan averaged just 92 yards rushing a game against Ohio State and its bowl opponent.

That's not to say Michigan was bad under Carr. Far from it - the team consistently won at a high level, and it seemed to play its best with its back against the wall. But Michigan was not a great power rushing team under Carr. It was, for the most part, a great passing team, relying on its line of NFL-bound passers and receivers to pull out games.

Now, whether you prefer the Schebechler-style offense or the Carr-style offense is a matter of personal preference. Each had its strengths and weaknesses. Schembechler offenses were outstanding at protecting a lead by running over exhausted opponents in the fourth quarter, but if they had to execute the two-minute offense to win, they stood almost no chance. Carr's teams were terrible at protecting leads but brilliant at unleashing its passing attack and scoring quickly when falling behind. (I once saw a statistic showing that Carr won at a vastly higher rate when trailing by single digits going into the fourth quarter than when leading by single digits, which is incredible.)

The Carr-era struggles with running reflected a different landscape in college football. Schembechler, in his latest years, spoke fondly of the West Virginia offense because it was an updated version of his option attack, with the same strengths and weaknesses. By using the threat of the quarterback as a runner, the spread option offense made it harder for defenses to outnumber the running game. The flip side is that option-style quarterbacks were much less proficient at passing when defenses expected them to pass - a situation Michigan found itself in all too frequently the last few years, due in part to its horrendous defense.

Now, here is the bottom line. The pro-style offense has many advantages, but a dominant running attack is not one of them. Of the ten leading rushing offenses in college football this past season, how many of them used either the spread option or the classic option? All of them. How about the top ten rushing offenses the year before? All of them, too.

For better or worse, a pro-style offense these days means, well, an offense like the pros have. How often do you see NFL teams average more than 200 yards rushing a game? Not too often. Pro-style offense means accepting that, when the defense decides to overload the run, you have to pass the pass. Now, a handful of college teams occasionally have very strong running games in pro-style systems. But such teams are fairly rare, and they almost always have dominant passing games to prevent defenses from gambling to stop the run. The choice most teams face is to employ some form of option football or get most of their yards through the air.

Almost every football coach at every level will tell you that his team's trademark is toughness and physical play. What many of them want to believe is that they can become a team that simply lines up behind center and knocks opponents off the ball play after play through sheer willpower. Some Michigan fans may recall Carr promising, through gritted teeth, "We are going to run the ball or die trying." Carr was as tough as they come, but against stronger competition he usually just died trying, or gave up and started passing the ball.


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