Film Review: Michigan Changing the Handoff Point

At some point on Saturday, the Michigan vs. Purdue matchup turned into a battle of "who can out execute you" vs "who can out scheme you". Jeff Brohm utilized some wonderfully designed misdirection plays to get guys open in space, while Michigan was confident they could line up and wear the Boilermakers down via execution. But as the game wore on and the two teams continued to play nearly equally, Michigan pulled out a change up that allowed them to get a walk-in touchdown. In this post, I want to look at some little things that happen in the Michigan run game that impact the defense's reaction.

Bryon Fuller/MGoBlog

RB Lead vs FB Dive
I want to start by demonstrating that this sort of activity is not limited to a single game. In fact, the most basic way Harbaugh manipulates the handoff point is by running Lead Plays to the RB and FB dives to the FB.

The difference between the FB and RB isn't so much the area where the offense is attacking, rather, it's the timing of the play and how the defense must react. Michigan has continued to have success running FB Dive with Hill, so here's a play in which they run Lead Duo with Hill as a lead blocker (note Hill's excellent lead block as well).

What sticks out is how the LBs react. Yes, this play does go outside an additional gap compared to where the FB dive would go. But this formation is classic "Dive" formation for Michigan.

And both Inside LBs immediately attack at the snap to snuff out the Dive. Only it isn't a dive, and both LBs have immediately taken themselves out of the play and allowed themselves to be sealed inside. The FB Dive and Duo are core playcalls in Michigan's offense, but by running both from similar looks and the difference in timing between the FB Dive and handing it off to the RB, you've caused the defense to get out of position and allowed for enough of a gap for Michigan to pick up the first down.

See in this freeze frame how both LBs have stuck their noses inside, and taken themselves out of the actual run lane.

Counter Iso Under Center vs Gun
Here's another example, albeit in a different form. What Michigan is showing here is the same play (Counter Iso), but one comes from under center while the other comes from shotgun. For the offense, and the blocking, the play is the same. For the defense, and the tendencies they've studied on film and prepared for when an offense is under center vs when it's in Gun, this small change can really impact your reaction.

Here is the play under center.

And here it is a week later out of Shotgun.

Handoff vs Pitch
Last, let's look not at changing the ball carrier or at changing the backfield formation, instead, let's look at changing how the ball gets to the RB's hands.

Under Harbaugh, Michigan (and the 49ers, and Stanford) have always run a Lead G/T Sweep play that looks like this.

This play basically always includes a few things: typically three receivers (some combination of WRs, TEs, and FBs) lined up playside, either in a tight bunch or in a wing with a FB behind; either a guard or a tackle pulling outside an leading the RB into the hole (depending on defensive alignment or offensive personnel); a FB or H-back blocking the first off-color he sees (be it kicking him outside or sealing him inside); and a pitch.

Here's how it's diagrammed

A typically counter to this play is Counter H. This allows Michigan to line up in the same formation and give the same initial motion from the RB, but attack the opposite side of the field (it also can pull the same OL, which is a nice feature as sometimes a defender will see a puller and it can take a moment to diagnose the direction he's going; that hesitation can help set up the blocks well).

It looks like this (note the same trips alignment).

They can also run Inside Zone or really most of their playbook (Power, Duo, Stretch, Wham, etc.) from this look, but the Inside Zone aspect will become important.

Now against Purdue, Michigan has been lining up and formations that often result in Lead T. Purdue is reacting to this by flying up on the edge. Here's what you're getting, DBs setting hard edges and LBs flowing fast.

This would happen multiple times. So what do you do?

So what are we looking at here? A few things. Note the formation (common Lead T). Also note the split flow from the H-back that looks a lot like the path for Counter H. This is play is actually just Split Inside Zone, an inside zone play.

It is this, but with a pitch and a tweaked formation

So what is the defense seeing, because that's what allows for that huge hole to develop. The defense really sees two things, depending on what side of the red line they are aligned on (note, that isn't necessarily what they should be keying, but motion and pre-snap alignment draws their eyes based on tendency; also note that #5 has no idea what he's really looking at here, he defies conventional wisdom and just following the H probably because he was told "when they line up in this formation, the FB/HB will take you to the ball").

And here it is mid-pitch. One half of the defense is reading Lead T, the other half is reading Counter H. Neither is correct. All the offense has done is run split zone, but with a pitch, which results in the RB getting the ball deep, seeing a hole, and running downhill as quickly as he can.

And here's the end result

Changing the handoff point can really effect the defense, even if it doesn't have a large impact on the offensive play or play design. You can change the person you give it to in order to change the timing, change the backfield look to dictate a defensive formation or mess with their keys or counter your tendencies, or something as simple as a pitch can impact how a defense reacts immediately to a play. These are small changes, but they can lead to big results.


  1. Knowing next to nothing about this stuff, I look at that last screencap and just assumed "Oh look, the C and RG won a block for once." No idea that the look of the play design, timing, etc. could have as much effect (or more) as that. Great writeup.

    1. Design helped, the guys still executed though. We get on them when they don't, they deserve praise when they do, and here they did great.

  2. Thank you again. These are some of the best breakdowns anywhere. You explain everything clearly and in an interesting format. Plus Go Blue.

    What are your thoughts on the run game featuring inside zone. For no other reason than personal I love the gap running for the confusion it can create.

    I understand anything ran well can be devastating so I'm not trying to complain. Just my thoughts.

    1. Think they are running more IZ because it's easier to adjust post-snap for young OL. The rules are pretty much set, so the D can throw a variety of things at you and it's easier to react quicker. Gap schemes should continue to play a role, but I think they are more of the changeup.

  3. Another great article. I remember watching LSU when Fornette was there and they would run play where they tossed him the ball but the aiming point seemed to indicated inside or outside zone(rather than pitch or sweep). I thought it was interesting play and seems like a similar concept to that last play shown in your article.

    Really enjoy your work.

    1. Yeah, LSU would actually run split zone with the QB blocking the backside DE. Takes away a bit of the play action aspect of the offense, but gets the ball to the RB quickly and dedicates 11 guys to the run game (without using the QB as a runner). It was always an interesting wrinkle.


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