De’Veon Smith ran left on the first play. De’Veon Smith ran right on the second. Wilton Speight threw on the third. Jim Harbaugh threw convention out the window on the fourth.
Three plays were all it took for the Michigan football team to reach into its bag of tricks and runs circles around Illinois for an easy touchdown drive. Some coaches may have waited until later in the game. Some coaches may have waited until next week at Michigan State, a more formidable opponent than the Fighting Illini were in a 41-8 blowout Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Harbaugh, of course, does not coach by convention. He didn’t hesitate to use three quarterbacks, play a defensive player at two positions and even roll out the now-famous “train” formation on the first series.
“Our coaches dial up plays for us that work,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh. “I think us driving down like that is like a statement — we always want to start off the game executing, not getting three-and-outs, going down and putting points on the board.”
The Wolverines began their first drive with the power running attack, which may well have been enough to win the game on its own. Smith ran over left guard for seven yards and then over right guard for nine. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight threw behind fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson for an incomplete pass — and then he came out of the game.
In came redshirt junior quarterback Shane Morris for the fourth snap. He tossed right to redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac, then promptly ran right as a 6-foot-3, 213-pound lead blocker.
On 3rd-and-4, freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom entered the game, which looked like a return to the predictable. Michigan has run the fly sweep to McDoom almost a dozen times this season and hardly used the speedster for anything else. On this play, McDoom went in motion before the snap, and everyone in the stadium prepared for the same play. Instead, before he reached Speight, McDoom cut back to the outside, caught a pass in the flat and ran it for 33 yards.
The Wolverines weren’t done yet. In the red zone by that point, they inserted redshirt sophomore all-purpose man Jabrill Peppers as the wildcat quarterback — the third player to take the snap in a six-play span. He gained four yards. Sophomore running back Karan Higdon nearly broke one for a touchdown on the next play but tripped up at the 9-yard line.
Peppers made a cameo at running back and ran a flair route for five more yards, and then he switched back to quarterback and gained another yard.
Then came the train.
Michigan’s oddest formation — quarterback/lead blockers included — may be the “train” look it unveiled Oct. 1 against Wisconsin. It starts with nine players in a line behind junior center Mason Cole while Speight walks down the line calling the snap count. The nine players then move quickly into their positions and run the play. This time, Speight emerged from the train in an empty-backfield set and found senior tight end Jake Butt for the 3-yard touchdown.
“It’s a process — you evaluate what our players can do well, and put them in a position to do well,” Harbaugh said. “You’re looking at the opponent and trying to find something that will work. So that’s a weekly process.”
Every week, the Wolverines have tweaked something new — more so than last year, when they didn’t use Peppers on offense until the Michigan State game in Week 7. Now, that game has come around again, and while Michigan has already shown plenty, it doesn’t appear that the ideas are drying up.
By now, the players don’t see the different formations as extraordinary. Peppers on offense? “That’s just a really good athlete playing the position like a running back would, or a wide receiver, or a dual-threat quarterback would.”
And the train formation? Speight admitted that’s a little bit out there. But, he said, “It’s pretty simple when you break it down and you rep it all week — it’s nothing to freak out about or anything.”
Either way, the third-ranked Wolverines are not done. After Michigan’s sixth home date in seven games, Harbaugh implied that his team can still do more as it heads into the final stretch of the season with three tough road trips left.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “Never like to think the hay’s in the barn or you’ve arrived. Just keep forging onward.”