Tale of the Tape: UConn defense vs. Michigan

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest reason why the Huskies nearly won their biggest home game in program history.

As told by your average, cliché touting TV commentator, most, if not every, football game is decided in the fourth quarter.

Now, there’s no doubting that last Saturday UConn-Michigan made up its mind only just before the final gun went off. But, the sole reason that contest saw a full crowd in the stands during its final frame was because the Husky defense prolonged the game back in the second.

Check this out.

Between the whistles that ended the opening quarter and half, UConn produced a turnover, allowed zero passing yards and didn’t permit a single Wolverine third down conversion.

You should read that sentence one more time, because you’re likely never to see it written again about any team on any level. This kind of defensive performance by the UConn defense wasn’t unique to the second quarter, but it certainly was never timelier. As a result of its dominance, the Husky offense could play catch-up and take a halftime lead, which it eventually held until the final quarter.

Below, there are more diagrams and revealing pieces of information about schemes, critical plays and gameplans than we’ve ever had before in this space. So, you should get going.

Though, I’ll leave you with this one tidbit:

Last season, Devin Gardner made the rare, successful transition from playing wide receiver to moving under center as a quarterback. After reviewing the tape, it looked like last weekend he had almost reverted back to receiver and not told anybody. The senior signal caller put forth his worst game ever as a passer, but his remarkable running ability kept Michigan moving in the early stages.

Take a look at this second quarter play, where Gardner ought to be dead to rites up against an oncoming, perfectly positioned Ryan Donohue.

Tackled for a loss, right?

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Try again.

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14 yards and he moved the chains.

Keep it up:

Can we say everything? Especially after the last two weeks? No? Okay:

Interior defensive line

All Yawin Smallwood and Jefferson Ashiru everything

Improved secondary play and tackling

Gap discipline

To Fix:

The occasional, backbreaking run contain breakdowns

Defensive end pass rush

Quarterback tackling (getting picky here—it’s Devin Garder)

UConn’s gameplan

The Huskies took a few drives before fully revealing their cards, which showed their usual mix of 3-4 and 4-3 Over fronts, outside pressure on second downs to key Michigan runs and more change-up between man and zone coverage than we’ve seen from them all year. When they rushed five, the Huskies most often sent Yawin Smallwood up the middle to stymie any potential quarterback draw or Gardner scramble.

They also alternated these pressures with three-man rushes that gave Gardner a lot of time, but did generate a good number of incompletions.

UConn’s execution

Given that every game will bring about a few mistakes, it was excellent. Period.

Michigan’s gameplan

The Wolverines seemed intent on outmuscling the Huskies early and late with outside runs out of two-tight end sets, though they largely failed until the final drive. After a couple of these perimeter hand-offs, Michigan then would call for  play-action passes similar to what Maryland had success with, but, for the most part, couldn’t execute. Throughout the game, they ran Gardner out of multiple quarterback draws with pretty consistent success, except on the last series. After the quarterback’s early struggles throwing the ball, the passing game was mostly simplified to roll-outs, half-field reads or play-action deep shots .

Michigan’s execution

Subpar. Period.

(The play counts below include all those penalties)

FIRST DRIVE 8 plays, 47 yards, INTERCEPTION

UConn held its ground on the first Wolverine offensive play of the night, a Touissant run behind a fullback and two tight ends. Then on second down, one of those tight ends, Funchess, leaked out of the backfield against a busted zone coverage for a catch-and-run of 14 yards. The Huskies switched to a 3-4 front on the next play, and Pruitt was swallowed up by right tackle Mike Schofield blocking an eventual seven-yard inside zone.

The Wolverines next ran a jet sweep with back-up runner Dennis Northfleet, who raced 13 yards before being brought down by Byron Jones. Another stretch play right picked up three, and then Jones halted a wide receiver screen to Jeremy Gallon for just under a yard with superb block shedding and tackling. Then came Gardner’s interception on third down.

On the pick, the Huskies deployed their Dime package of three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. As you can see below, Gardner had plenty of time to throw against the incoming down linemen and Ashiru, who also rushed. The seven remaining Huskies were playing Cover 2 behind them.

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However, upon finally locating a receiver (he had all day and next week to throw), the Wolverine quarterback stepped up too far in the pocket, and too close to the linemen directly in front of him. The misstep forced him to adjust his throwing motion after he’d already begun his initial wind-up, which ultimately sailed the ball too high for the intended Gallon.

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As you'll recall, that ball was then tipped up into the air before it setteld into the arms of redshirt freshman Jhavon Williams for an interception.

SECOND DRIVE 11 plays, 69 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Gardner opened the second series with a poor decision on a read-option play that finished with Touissant getting dropped for one yard. Gallon and his quarterback next teamed to gain minimal revenge on Williams with a completed backside slant that picked up just over ten yards. The Wolverines earned a new set of downs on the following snap via a designed quarterback run that also had a pass option. Though he did pick up the needed yardage, Gardner’s questionable decision-making continued here, because he missed a wide-open Funchess, who potentially could have scored.

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After snuffing out a reverse and another read-option play, UConn had Michigan exactly where it wanted them on third and 13. This was the first play that Huskies blitzed on the night, but, more notably, people know this as the time when Byron Jones pass interfered and kept the Wolverine drive going.

The Huskies sent Smallwood up the middle to help protect against a potential quarterback draw, while five defensive linemen rushed alongside. As depicted in the first screenshot, you’ll see Smallwood broke through on his blitz and the teammates behind him covered Wolverine receivers with tight man-to-man coverage. Jones was matched up on Gallon, who ran a corner route, as safety Ty-Meer Brown stood back deep.

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Next, Smallwood hit Gardner as he released the ball though remarkably, the pass ended up still relatively on target and with good strength behind it. Gallon whipped his head around on time to see that the ball's trajectory (orange dashes) was headed back to his right, instead of the sideline he was running towards (yellow). Jones did not see this.

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The Michigan wideout nearly stopped dead while adjusting to reel in the slightly errant ball, which induced contact from his defender and drew a flag. It’s unfortunate for Jones, because while this type of penalty should always filed under "boneheaded", poor fortune is most certainly at play here. The veteran was in good position to defend a ball thrown to the intended route; just not the one that was fired unexpectedly off the mark. Tough break.

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All Huskies combined to execute great run defense against another stretch play out of a two-tight end formation. The Wolverines followed with a play-action pass from a similar personnel grouping and would’ve scored a touchdown on an accurate throw. Instead, Gardner rushed and threw too far in front of Gallon.

Then, Michigan actually cashed in for six points, despite the fact UConn knew exactly what was coming. Below you’ll see a five-man rush that involves the nearest cornerback blitzing, a twist by Reuben Frank and Jesse Joseph and eventually Yawin Smallwood coming in on a "green dog". This design is intended to create inside pressure and keep contain to all-together stop a quarterback draw— Michigan’s exact call here.

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Count below, and you’ll see three Huskies rushing up the middle and two on the outside. Therefore, this specialized rush has largely been executed. The only issue arose when Frank simply continued his stunt too far across the line, instead of upfield at Gardner. Thus, a hole opened up once the left guard (no. 60) got a hold of him, and Smallwood, occupied by the center, couldn’t make due with an arm tackle.

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Gardner then sprinted to daylight with only safety Ty-Meer Brown to beat. Edge: Gardner

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Michigan 7-0.

THIRD DRIVE 3 plays, -20 yards, PUNT

The first of three consecutive Michigan drives to end in a punt began with another poor Gardner throw. On second and 10, the Wolverines sent out a two-tight end set and ran what looked to be a naked bootleg by Gardner.

Smallwood generated great push on an outside rush to blow up the play’s initial run fake, while defensive end Tim Willman kept excellent, disciplined contain on the far side.

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Fully aware of the danger behind him, Gardner wheeled out quickly from Smallwood’s direction only to see Willman. He then realized this play was going nowhere fast.

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Gardner veered back towards the initial playside in an attempt to escape a certain tackle for loss by Willman. Now, the optimal choice here would have been to throw the ball away once outside the pocket, but he decided to keep it and allow further UConn pursuit to knock him for a loss of 16 yards.

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The Huskies recorded another quarterback sack on the next play, when Frank sped around All-American tackle Taylor Lewan to hit Gardner from behind. At the snap, Lewan took a single misstep in his blocking assignment and allowed Frank to gain the edge.

FOURTH DRIVE 5 plays, 16 yards, PUNT

Three straight Touissant runs moved the chains and set up a second and five, when Williams made his best play of the day— even including his interception. Here, the Wolverines picked up yet an outside Husky blitz and gave Gardner time to go deep for freshman receiver Jesu Chesson. Williams had no help on the play, but it didn’t mattered as he executed great deep ball technique by legally cutting off Chesson. The ball then landed incomplete, much like the inaccurate Gardner throw on third down that missed receiver Drew Dileo, and welcomed on the punt team.

FIFTH DRIVE 5 plays, 13 yards, PUNT

Following a 14-yard quarterback draw (pictured in the opening), two more Wolverine runs would have easily picked up a first down had it not been for a Funchess holding call. On a long second and 16, the Huskies sent five after Gardner, who threw to Gallon on a short curl. Gallon surprisingly dropped the pass after fighting tight coverage from Williams. UConn switched to a three-man rush on third down, and forced another incompletion.

SIXTH DRIVE 1 plays, 0 yards, INTERCEPTION

In an attempt to immediately respond to the Huskies’ first touchdown, offensive coordinator Al Borges called for a deep play-action pass. Gardner was again afforded ample time, but slightly underthrew the ball, which was picked off by Jones. Jones employed perfect inside technique on the play, though the taller Chesson did little to fight for the ball.

SEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, PUNT

The most underrated drive of the entire game opened with great field position for Michigan. The Wolverines had less than two minutes to answer UConn's recent go-ahead touchdown, and had they have scored here, they then would’ve been able to take the lead upon receiving the ball to start the second half.

Instead, the Huskies had other plans.

On the first play, Gardner struggled to scramble for three yards against a four-man line consisting of all pass rushers. Then, UConn essentially killed the Wolverine hopes of a score with a crafty blitz out of their dime package.

From a three-man front, Stephen (lined up over the center) slanted his pass rush to right occupy the middle of the line and open up holes on the left side for the blitzing Smallwood and Ashiru.

2nd_sack_1_medium

At the snap, Stephen successfully took the Michigan center with him as he moved right. This left Touissant, standing back in blitz pick-up, and the right guard Kyle Klis to handle the Husky linebackers, since right tackle Mike Schofield occupied Joseph.

Both Klis and Touissant turned to block Smallwood, who attacked the "A" gap or space between the guard and center. Neither erred terribly here, because the general rule in blitz pick-up for a back like Touissant is to take an inside-outside approach, meaning block the men up the middle first.

In addition, Klis is typically at least half responsible for that gap and had been busy double-teaming Stephen already for most of the night. So when Stephen slanted, he turned from looking left to straight ahead and saw the immediate threat of Smallwood. However, he should’ve recognized Ashiru’s pre-snap tip-off that he was blitzing, and then tucked that in the back of his brain. As mentioned, barring an expected drop back into coverage, Schofield was going to take Joseph so Klis could need to pick up Ashiru.

Meanwhile, Ashiru got "chipped" (or hit/partially blocked) by Funchess, who was running a seam route. Then, he took off clear for Gardner.

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Once in the pocket, the back-up Husky linebacker took a great angle on the mobile Michigan quarterback, and thus was able to still wrap him up when he scrambled. Smallwood shed his block easily, and came in to finish the job.

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Borges waved his first half white flag on third and 17 with a called Touissant run that concluded the drive.

EIGHTH DRIVE 3 plays, 9 yards, FUMBLE

In a reverse from their opening drive of the game, the Wolverines ran left on back-to-back plays to commence the second half. Had it not been for a great form tackle by Donohue against a Touissant cutback, Gardner’s fumble never would’ve taken place.

With that said, the Michigan signal caller did a poor job of securing the football as he attempted to plunge for a first down towards the offense's left. The other problem was that the monstrous Stephen stood on that side, matched up against back-up tackle Erik Magnuson, who had been brought in as an extra lineman. Stephen blew up the young man better than a firework on Independence Day, and drove him into Gardner.

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This penetration, combined with an ill-aimed push from behind by fullback Joe Kerridge, forced the ball out.

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Ty-Meer Brown was the first to spot the loose ball, and you know the rest.

NINTH DRIVE 3 plays, -7 yards, PUNT

An electrifying 38-yard Gardner scramble on first down was negated by Lewan’s holding of Angelo Pruitt back at the line of scrimmage. Pruitt then dropped Touissant for a loss of five on first and 20, before Williams flew in to stop a screen for the Michigan runner on the subsequent second down. Facing third and 25, Borges whipped out his white flag again by calling a simple quarterback draw.

TENTH DRIVE 9 plays, 75 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Gardner completed his first downfield pass since the first quarter on the second play of this series to move the chains. A stretch run left then went backwards thanks to excellent contain by Brown and a wrap-up courtesy of Smallwood. Michigan next picked up another first down off a play-action pass that went to Gallon for twelve yards. Two more outside runs gained eight yards and set up a critical third down.

Hughes and Paul Pasqualoni had their mind reader caps on once again, sniffing out another quarterback draw with the same blitz that is diagrammed above. This time, UConn executed it perfectly, but Gardner utilized his underrated strength to drag Frank for a first down

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The Huskies brought the same blitz again on the ensuing play, when Gardner threw behind Dileo for an incompletion. But, it didn’t matter, as Michigan scored on the next down with an old-fashioned speed option run to the right.

Aligned in a 4-3 front, the Huskies sent Smallwood up the middle on a blitz, and by the offense’ play design, had their playside defensive end go unblocked. In this case it was Pruitt, who stood as the defender against the Wolverines’ option play.

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Pruitt opted to crunch Gardner instead of play the pitch, but not before the lateral was made to an awaiting Touissant.

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Now, because Smallwood was sent on an inside blitz he was late to run over and make any sort of tackle. By this time, Touissant reached top speed and was already running through an open lane created via good second-level blocking by the linemen and quality blocks thrown against the UConn defensive backs. He's soon off to the races.

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Finally, the only thing stopping the Michigan senior from a score was the pursuing Husky secondary, which fell victim to a huge cutback. Most took a poor angle anyways, including Williams who, as the last line of defense, was juked clean out of his shoes. Touissant scored from 35 yards out and just like that, it was a one-score ballgame with lots of game to go.

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ELEVENTH DRIVE 10 plays, 49 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS

If the Wolverines’ final drive of the first half is the most underrated of the game, this next series was definitely a close second.

Ty-Meer Brown continued his excellent contain by coming down to set the edge against a leftside power-o run on first down. Over the following play, Gardner was nearly sacked by Joseph while rolling right, before he threw a dangerous pass over the middle behind Gallon that hit the turf. Third and 10 grew to third and 15 due to a false start by left guard Graham Glasgow, but Michigan earned a fresh set of downs regardless.

Gardner completed a 17-yard strike to Chesson, after having all the time in the world to throw against a three-man rush. The fourth quarter then commenced with successive pass plays, the first deflected by Smallwood for an incompletion and the second a nine-yard ball to Jake Butt. From third and short, the Wolverines called the same designed quarterback run with a pass option from earlier, and their veteran signal caller scampered again for a first (Funchess was double-covered this time downfield).

Michigan then missed a touchdown by just inches on a deep play-action pass, but was handed 15 free yards anyway courtesy of a Stephen "illegal hands to the face" penalty. The veteran made up for his error by absolutely destroying the Wolverine interior linemen on the next two plays, the latter of which was a Smallwood sack. On another third and long, Gardner scrambled for 15.

Facing a fourth and two, Michigan called for a quarterback draw and was denied by the combination of Melifonwu and Smallwood. Melifonwu hit Gardner short, but the quarterback was on his way to reaching for a first down before Smallwood forced the fumble and stopped him.

TWELFTH DRIVE 1 plays, 12 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Following Chandler Whitmer’s interception, Michigan marched right into the endzone on the shoulders of Touissant, who ran a stretch play behind two tight ends. All game, the Wolverines attempted to outmuscle the Huskies at the point of attack, and they would have been stopped again, had it not been for a containment error by Brown.

Here is the play with Brown’s assigned path to the ball diagrammed in.

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As you can see below, Brown instead knifed between the two tight ends and gave leverage to the charging Touissant.

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Touissant followed his blocking and as a result, enjoyed a clear path to the outside.

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Touchdown.

THIRTEENTH DRIVE 8 plays, 36 yards, FIELD GOAL

This gamewinning drive was more anticlimactic than most you’ll see, but nonetheless got the job done. On three of the series’ first six plays, Michigan ran the same stretch play they scored with for a total of 22 yards. Over the final two snaps, the Wolverines suffered from good pressure applied to the offense’s right side, and saw the drive die with an incompletion on another quarterback run-pass option called to convert a third and two.

Bottom line: Excluding the lack of victories in one-on-one pass rush situations, you could’ve sworn you were watching the 2012 UConn defense once again. They ran the varied pressures we’ve been waiting to see, and did a good job of capitalizing on Gardner’s passing struggles by adjusting mid-game to attack the run game downhill.

The biggest sign of encouragement was the strong play of the secondary, particularly the second-stringers like Williams. Otherwise, the Huskies have to patch up their occasional run contain breakdowns, because save for the 35-yard and 12-yard Touissant scoring runs, this unit held the Wolverines’ traditional run game (and total passing offense) to almost nothing.

Hail to the defense.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for all things UConn Football: @UConnFB_Andrew

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