Inside the Playbook - Michigan's Counter Game - Part 1 - Scheme and Run Tags

 While the most utilized run scheme for Michigan throughout the duration of 2021 may have been Inside Zone (specifically, split zone), it was Counter that ended up as their most effective play. This post is going to look at how Michigan utilized a few counter schemes and a number of tags in order to execute the play at a high level. We’re also going to look at a few variations that they included to break tendencies, and a few other plays that serves as protection for the rest of the playbook.


The Counter Concepts

There are really four core calls for Michigan’s counter scheme: Counter OH/OF, Counter OT, Counter CH, and “Gift”.


Counter OH/OF

Counter OH and Counter OF are effectively the same play, with the difference being the initial alignment of the wrapper. F = Fullback and tends to be deeper in the backfield. H = Half back and typically aligns off the OT or TE. In each instance, they align opposite the play direction. But otherwise, the tags and calls are the same between the two plays.

Strong Side Counter OF from Pistol with a Frontside Handoff
Weakside Counter OH with a Backside Handoff

The typical way this play is executed (more on this later) is for the opposite guard to pull across the formation and kick out the defensive End Man on the LOS (EMOL) that tends to serve as the defenses force player. The “wrapper” will come from the opposite side of the formation and lead up to the playside linebacker, serving as a lead blocker for the ball carrier. The front side of the defense will then execute down blocks and combo blocks to attempt to seal the rest of the defense inside. Michigan ran this play from a variety of formations, running it both to the in-line TE and away from the in-line TE.

Counter OF:

Counter OH: 


Counter OT

Their second most favored Counter scheme was Counter OT. Counter OT, in theory, is generally the same play as Counter OH/OF, but the opposite tackle subs for the H/F to become the wrap player. So now, the opposite guard is kicking out the EMOL, while the opposite Tackle is wrapping to the playside LB. While this play used to be executed with a back accounting for the backside EMOL with a block, that block is now often substituted for a read. Again, they would run it both to the in-line TE and without an in-line TE.  

Counter OT - Note here the Guard logs the EMOL. We'll talk about that more in Part 2:


Michigan primarily used Counter OT against odd fronts and when they wanted to utilize the QB as a run threat. 

Counter HF

This was only used against Wisconsin when Michigan wanted to avoid pulling OL. It basically substitutes the use of a second back as the puller to replace the Guard in Counter OF. More details here.


Gift is Harbaugh/Greg Roman vernacular. It can also be called “Long Trap”, but is essentially an offshoot of Counter OH. Here, a playside TE (either off the LOS or On the LOS) will bluff block the EMOL and then work vertical to the playside LB. The opposite guard will kick out the EMOL, so on paper, the assignments are exactly identical to Counter OH, with the only difference being how the TE gets into his block.

Gift (note the center is pulling here, we'll get back to this in the next section):

This was used as a tendency breaker, as the H aligns to the play direction. 

The Tags

Run tags are line calls that allow the play to deviate from its baseline to more optimally block the defense. They can be slight changes in assignment, swapping assignments, or adding to the play.


Guard or Center Pull

The most common tag that Michigan executed is making Counter OH become Counter CH, as in, having the Opposite Guard and the Center swap assignments. This is done based on the alignment of the defensive line based on technique.

If there is a backside 1 or 2 technique, the guard will be the puller and the center will block back. But if that defender is a 3-technique or a 4i, the path becomes really far and really flat for the Center. There are a few reasons that isn’t optimal: 1) the defensive lineman can attach himself to the butt of the puller and skim by the block, chasing the play down from the backside (pun intended?); 2) Because the center has to get so flat, any collision or misstep can result in him and the puller impacting, disrupting the front side of the play; 3) Because the Center has to be in such a hurry to block back, and be so flat, many times the defensive lineman can give up some ground and actually beat that block from the Center, allowing him to start closing down gaps playside.

Tagging to pull the Center on Counter OF (Counter CF) - Note here the Center Logs the DE, we'll talk about that more in Part 2:

Depending on how well you execute, the Center pull can also have more optimal impacts, or in other words, there are benefits to pulling the center other than trying to mitigate suboptimal aspects of pulling the guard. The primary is that the Center pull gets to the point of attack quicker than the guard, giving the defense less time to react. Reactive defenses that adjust to playing a puller can struggle to execute their assignments when they read a down block but aren’t able to react to the puller reaching them so quickly.

Tagging to pull the Center on Counter OH (Counter CH):

However, this can also be a downside for the Center, as he has less time to react than a guard would as well. So this point of strength really depends on how well your center can execute (Michigan was blessed with a Center that executed this at a high level). Other challenges include the center having the snap and then execute a pull, which can often be difficult. It can also have challenges against defenses that feature a lot of line movement and slants, because if a backside 3-technique slants across the BSG’s face, it is going to be challenging for the playside to build a strong enough wall to avoid gaps starting to close on the interior.

Tagging to pull the Center on Counter OT (Counter CT) - Note there is a backside RPO, we'll talk that in Part 2:


Frontside Arc Block

The primary time the frontside Arc block is used is in “nub” formations. What is a nub formation? Nub is an offensive formation that doesn’t have a WR on that side of the ball. In other words, everyone on that side of the ball is “attached to the formation” or “attached to the offensive line.” This can be just a single TE, or it can be a TE-Wing combination.

Nub formations have several benefits, but from a run game perspective it: 1) allows you to extend the surface (surface is the number of blockers attached to the formation on that side of the ball, so OG-OT-TE-Wing would be a four man surface) which can impact run fits; 2) It often puts a CB into the run fit, or otherwise well defines how the defense intends to fit the run (account for run gaps) on that side of the ball. Offenses like CBs in the run fit generally, because to paraphrase an NFL coach “CBs suck at tackling at our level just like they do at yours.”

As I said, the nub formation will often force the defense to declare who of the DBs is in the run fit, and that defender typically has to align at LB level. This forces them up in the box and identifies them as someone that needs to be targeted by the blocking scheme. But rather than trying to block a DB with an OL and a DL or LB with a TE, the arc block allows you to account for playside numbers while maintaining Big-on-Big blocking (i.e. you’re not asking an OL to try to block an athletic CB in space).

There are three other primary reasons you’d use a front side arc block. Even without a nub formation, a lot of teams that play 2-high, cover 4 defenses will have the safety responsible for the playside alley. The arc block allows the offense to account for that safety spinning down without forces an OL or wrapper to find a new target that isn’t there pre-snap. This method can also be used by teams that will trade efficiency for explosiveness will do this, trading blocking a backside player to block up the front side.

The second primary reason is a 6-technique DE. One of ways defenses found was best for stop gap schemes was to put a defensive lineman right over top of the tight end. This makes it very difficult for the TE to pin the defender inside and prevents a front side double team. So rather than force the TE to try to execute that block, you have the TE arc outside of him. To the DE right above him, this simulates two things: a potential reach block, to which he needs to react to and widen, or a route release, of which he’ll want to widen to benefit his pass rush. Either way, it often will widen the DE to help the kickout block, while still blocking up the playside.

The third reason is if there is a defender aligned in the three outside gaps (so D-C-B gaps to the TE). In this case, the double team will come on the B gap defender, between the PST-PSG. This means the TE alone is responsible for moving the C gap defender. This can be a challenge to provide a good path for the kickout block to the D gap defender. So rather than rely on the TE to get great movement, you can block out on the D gap defender with the TE, and let the kick blocker work behind the combo block, which should do better in clearing the path to the defender.



West Coast Offense people call it “Bonus”, Option offenses call it “load”, I tend to call it “Lead”. Regardless of what you call it, this is just gaining another blocker at the point of attack. Wisconsin in their heyday thrived with this concept. Michigan dabbled in it in a few ways.


WR Load

Here, Michigan motions in a WR from the opposite side of the field and wraps him playside. Defenses at the college level often have a relatively limited way of reacting to “jet” motion, especially in one-high or two-high. If you understand how they will react, and if that reaction often results in spinning down playside defensive backs, you can tend to use this “motion” to widen this playside support and account for them in the blocking scheme with the WR, so that the core of the formation can execute their standard assignments. So in essence, you’re trying to craft a bit more explosive version of the play, often bringing another defender down, but making their ability to support the run.


Wing/FB Bonus

Bonus is effectively doing the same thing as load, but just utilizing another blocker from the backside of the play and brining them playside. This does not induce same defensive reaction as WR load because the defense isn’t reacting to the jet motion, but it does work to add another blocker to the point of attack to account for defensive backs spinning down or otherwise finding ways to get defenders playside. A typical defensive reaction is to match pullers with LBs so they can “bracket” the lead blocker (a defender on both sides of lead blocker means the defense is “gapped out”, or in other words, regardless of which way the ball carrier goes, there is a defender). By adding a second lead blocker, you force the defense to account for another puller, often with someone farther to the backside of the play.

Bonus Counter OH (with short motion from F):


This does have it’s downsides, here’s two examples of Illinois in short yardage situations, first with Bonus, and then scrapping the Bonus tag to prevent the backside of the play from collapsing.


Short Counter

“Short” is typically an odd front response and can be executed with and without a TE. One of the main challenges of the Odd front is how to deal with the NT above the Center. Because he can either direction, it becomes difficult to block him with a single block from the C. That generally means you want to bring the OG in for support, and combo block the NT to the BSLB.

What this means in an odd front is that the PST will have a single block against a 4i or 4-technique. A 4i-technique with an OT may be manageable, but it isn’t always a great blocking angle to get a lot of movement and clear a path to kick out an athletic OLB. A 4-technique has the same challenges at a 6-Technique vs a TE, a head up position provides him a two-way go and makes it a lot of work to be able to torque him inside and seal him.

So rather than live in ambiguity if that block can be executed and rather than allowing the more athletic OLB work in space vs a pulling OL, you “bluff” the DE causing him to freeze and prepare to take on the block, then work out to the OLB quickly and have the OL kick the 4-technique DE. This presents new challenges for the defense, especially if they want to spill with the OLB, because now the DE needs to spill. Additionally, if ILBs are scraping hard over the top, this can punish them for over-pursuit.

So “Short” Counter effectively becomes the A-Gap Power of the counter world.

Here it is with a TE


Michigan doesn't really have that type of runner at QB, but all these same things can be applied to QB Counter (we'll talk about read elements in Part 2).

For instance, Bonus Q Counter OT:

Or more succinctly, the Bill Snyder Playbook

There is also a variation of Counter OT that is used more commonly in the Big 12, where the PST locks on the end and both BSG and BST wrap.

For ISU, this is used against Odd fronts. It prevents the LBs from tracking the F going across the LOS and trying to equate numbers

 For what it's worth, Oklahoma is the preeminent go-to for Counter OT examples (search counter GT because a lot of people call it that).

Next Time 

Next time we are going to talk Post-Snap modifiers, include run reads, RPOs (this will probably feature some OU as well out of their Counter OT scheme), and ways that Michigan protected their counter scheme (Play Action, Sweep, Reverse, Insert, etc.). Then in part 3, we will try to look at some of the nuances of their execution to show why they were so good.


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