It’s clear by now that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is always looking for even the slightest edge on his opponent. As early as his first spring practice at Michigan, he talked about trying to get one mile per hour faster, one percent better.
That competitive drive spreads to his game plans, where the one thing opponents can expect is the unexpected.
The Wolverines picked redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight to start at quarterback in Week 1 and stuck with him for the first two games until the outcome was well in hand.
Then, on the third play from scrimmage Saturday against Colorado, Harbaugh inserted third-string quarterback Shane Morris for a single play, with redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers at running back — and used Morris as the lead blocker on Peppers’ 7-yard carry.
Why? The short answer is because he could, just to throw off the Buffaloes’ strategy.
“I think people expected us maybe that we might rotate quarterbacks in the first game, but we didn’t, or the second game, so didn’t think they’d be expecting it as much the third game,” Harbaugh said. “There’s some things that Shane does well, some things that (backup) John O’Korn does well. We wanted to highlight them and give them a chance to do some of those things.”
A few moments later in the first quarter, Harbaugh reached up his sleeve again. On Michigan’s third series of the game, the Wolverines already trailed Colorado, 14-0, and faced second-and-10 on the Buffaloes’ 48-yard line. Perhaps because Speight was still feeling a hit from the previous drive, Harbaugh put in O’Korn at quarterback for one play. O’Korn handed off to fullback Khalid Hill and then jogged off the field.
Even after playing 17 ball carriers and 16 pass catchers this season, Michigan’s coach still has more in his bag of tricks.
“We always have those options going forward, and it’s good for your opponent to know that you have those options going forward,” Harbaugh said. “(I) like them to think that all things are possible.”
Michigan’s next opponent — Penn State, which visits Michigan Stadium on Saturday — must now account for all of them in its game-week preparation.
Harbaugh often tries to throw curveballs leading up to games. In each of his two years at Michigan, he did not announce a starting quarterback until the first snap of the season opener, and he said he expected his opponent to do the same. This year, he has not yet released a depth chart before any of the four games.
And then game day comes, and he always seems to have an extra wrinkle — like, for instance, using a third-string quarterback as a lead blocker.
“I’ve never seen a team switch three quarterbacks in during a game,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. “That’s different. I’ve seen two quarterback systems — I’ve never seen three, and especially one lead blocking for one of our plays.
“But it’s interesting. I like his methods. I like what he does. It’s really cool to watch to see how our offense executes at times. It’s really unique, and I don’t think a lot of people are doing it like we are.”
Most of Harbaugh’s alterations require corresponding adjustments. If he changes running backs, the opponent must prepare for different plays. If he changes formations — which he does on almost every play — the opponent must put in new personnel. If he changes defenses, the opponent must block differently or run plays differently.
“It’s hard to prepare against because there’s such a wide variety of things, so you have to predict each week what’s going to happen almost, like, ‘All right, they did this, but I could easily see them doing this this week versus us,’” Hurst said. “And there’s stuff that we obviously haven’t shown yet, and stuff that the offense hasn’t shown yet, so it’s just confusing for a team. It’s something they have to prepare for every week.”
On offense, the Wolverines can play any one of four running backs, five wide receivers, three tight ends and two fullbacks. On defense, Harbaugh has chosen a defensive coordinator whose tendencies seem to match his own — the players say that Don Brown, nicknamed “Dr. Blitz,” can deploy a new blitz seemingly every third down.
In the coming weeks, Michigan could roll out even more tricks. Peppers, who can play almost anywhere on the field, still has not played significant offensive snaps (which he did not do until the Michigan State game in Week 7 last season). Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis could return as soon as this week and be another two-way player. And Harbaugh could have any number of other gimmicks in mind to fluster opponents.
“We’ll probably install 15 or 20 different new plays a week or have some different twists to plays that we already run,” said senior tight end Jake Butt. “But that’s all just to make sure that we will succeed on Saturdays.”
This week, Harbaugh matches up against an opponent that will have the same goal of keeping its opponent off balance. The Nittany Lions have unveiled a no-huddle spread offense this season to try to jumpstart their productivity, one Michigan hasn’t seen before.
And while Harbaugh acknowledged the difficulty of stopping such an attack, he hinted that he might have some changes in place as well.
“Those are real options for us, to change things up,” Harbaugh said. “You like to do that. You don’t like to just go out and show the same alignment and assignments and techniques game after game after game. You can count on changes, adjustments being made.”