The Games

Game 8 Traverse City West @ Benton Harbor Sept. 30th

I’ve been to Benton Harbor’s football field a few times in my life, but only once for football. When I was a senior in high school we traveled there to play Lake Michigan Catholic. Catholic doesn’t have a football field of their own so they have always made do with surrounding schools, that particular Friday their home field was over the bridge in Benton Harbor. The field was having a rough fight with a grub or something from what I remember, making the turf very loose. So loose to the point where I distinctly remember my friend Jamin holding up a large chunk like a piece of carpet that had just slipped out from under him during our warm up. Probably unfairly that has been the lasting image in my mind when thinking of Benton Harbor football. I’m sure you know the field is no longer in disrepair and neither are the Tigers for that matter. For a team and city whose struggles have been well documented, last year’s magical season was just what they needed. I recently attended a clinic and listened to Elliot Uzelac speak about last year and even in his stories it’s hard to believe. Makes you wonder when Disney will make that movie, seriously. For those that might not know about this story, ESPN did a great feature on them and it’ll get you up to speed (ESPN). 

Turning the attention to the product of the field it’s a little odd to write about this game, because I have talked so much about Uzelacs offense in a previous post when discussing the St. Joe Bears run game. To quickly recap, Uzelac teams run the outside zone. The best way to visualize zone plays is to pretend all of the offense live linemen are on a train track. They all move the same direction and if anything gets on their track they block it. If the linemen can gain the defenders outside shoulder then he works to pin him inside, if not he continues to push out stretching the defense. Eventually the runningback finds his own hole. The outside zone is a staple run in the NFL but can be difficult for high school kids to run. It demands offensive linemen to be able to move laterally and some of the blocks that are required can be super difficult, so the Uzelac spin on this came a long time ago and ultimately helps the line take advantage of angles while still maintaining the overall integrity of the play. The wrinkle is called pin and pull. One lineman blocks down and the other pulls around easier blocks for both. This being a blocking scheme can be used out of multiple formations

Benton Harbor already had a good running back in Jeremy Burrell who will be a senior this year, but they also added transfer Darius Clayton who looked fantastic for the St. Joe Bears last year. It was fun to see the change in the Tigers raw product offensively at our scrimmage last year to what they were able to run at the end of the season.
Defensively Benton Harbor last year had to be very basic due to coach Uzelac being hired late in the year, he really only had time to install an offense. Moreover most new coaches will often pick one side of the ball to install in their first offseason in an effort to not overload their players. Thinking players can be slow players and no one wants that. The 4-4 they ran is great because it’s an easy to learn run stopper with eight men in the box. I’m curious to see if they add any new looks to their 4-4 defense from last year which did a great job of swarming to the ball (watch last year’s highlight of their win over Lakeshore, their first win over the Lancers since 1984, and you’ll see what I mean). The 4-4 defense is an old scheme that’s still more prevalent than say a true fifty front defense (not a three man front that becomes a fifty, but a fifty run with the old personnel meant to stop the run), but spread offenses and elaborate formations have made it difficult to maintain somewhat. The defenses of old were built to stop the run and deal with the pass. Now that offenses gear themselves up with pass formations while looking for over adjustments in order to run the ball, defensive dinosaurs are often revamped to survive. 

Enter the much larger school, division two, Traverse City West who can run a couple of different looks on offense. In the videos I’ve seen (they were from a senior heavy team last year that under achieved so you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt) they have the ability to go from a double tight full T team to a shotgun spread look, with some in between. I think it’s sort of a misnomer that people assume plays are the hardest things for a defensive coach to plan for when in reality it’s the formations. Reads and rules are generally the same when a play starts but where a person lines up before the action is a serious ordeal. I once listened to a very intense Michigan State coach explain the alignment assignments against various formations in their 4-3 defense for well over an hour. Meticulous would be an understatement in describing to the finest detail where he wanted linebackers to line up. The shifting of formations changes the character of the offense and it forces player decisions on the defensive side. Defensive linemen that can generally with stopping a power run team aren’t always the best runners and that makes it difficult to keep them on the field against space crating spread teams that emphasize that. Two formations that Traverse City West runs that I’m particularly interested in seeing Benton Harbor adjust to in an unbalanced T formation and a simple trips look. These are decision making offensive formations that create a plus one if unadjusted. Plus one meaning if you were to draw the offensive formation and then add a vertical line down the center cutting the formation in half, how many players are on either side of the ball? If one side has more than one and the defense doesn’t adjust there’s your plus one. As a junior varsity play caller it was fun to see how many I could add to the point of attack with out the opposing defense adjusting (shifting, motions, pulling linemen, any sort of lead blocker all do this). So will BH shift their linemen to account for the extra gap created when facing the unbalanced line? Many teams won’t move if they feel the short side of the formation is exposed in the process. Lots add a man to the box on that side especially if they don’t have a wideout. I feel it’s best to have linebackers mirror the backfield in those instances and by adding a guy they can. If the BH kids recognize it in time, always a big key there) I imagine they will slide. 

The other formation can be trickier. Trips is not fun for defensive people and there are talks being given all the time on how teams should adjust to it. The question that starts the conversation for me is how does the offense want to use the formation? Can they throw the ball or for the matter even have the intention to throw it? I found it slightly comical while calling plays how much attention a sudden pass formation could garner, even when our team hadn’t attempted a pass yet. So if I feel like that team throwing the ball isn’t particularly threatening I’ll most likely have the defense ignore it as best we can. Slide a linebacker that way maybe a few feet, call their potential bluff, and go from there. If the team can, will, and wants to throw the ball then the can of worms spills out all over the place. Who do you move that way? Walk a safety that way and an outside linebacker type player (the case for BH in their 4-4) and you might lose an edge player. Most spread teams love to run to a wide trips side because that’s where the space is created. Worse yet in losing the safety you’ve now created essentially man to man coverage for the cornerback opposite the trips. I’ve seen some teams walk a middle backer out to the extra receiver and keep their safety over the top, which is a move most often used in an obvious passing down. You can’t do it for the whole game because the lack of manpower in the box will likely get your team run over (the number of offensive players in the box versus the number of defensive players shouldn’t ever be more than one at best). The increase in wide receiver plays have also made the formation rough to manage because the numbers game is once again played. Most people I’ve heard talk on the subject of taking away screens use their alignment to take away the play. Line up right on top of the three receivers and most teams won’t run the screen, but what they did do was firmly take a player away from the ball. BH often runs a safe secondary coverage called cover three where three people are responsible to stay deeper than anyone on the field. You can still run this against trips but it puts a lot of pressure on linebackers being to decipher the play and acting accordingly because of all the space created. BH has the athletes to take the safety out of the middle and run man to man coverage across the board if they are truly afraid of the pass which I don’t think they should be, even though running with no safety isn’t exactly my cup of tea. It requires athletes capable and even then it’s unlikely to have a mistake free game. Mistakes in man to man usually mean long touchdowns, but I’m not sure people are running away from some of the athletes BH has out there. From what I’ve seen I think TCW wants to establish a running game anyway but this is just one of the fun things I’m looking forward to watching. 

The best food in Benton Harbor is probably Larks BBQ. I’ve had it a few times out of their food truck and have always been satisfied. I love BBQ, honestly if you find me at either place and would like to engage in a serious BBQ conversation I will be all for it. I hope to see a reader out there, enjoy your Friday. 

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The Games

College Game Georgia Southern @ Western Michigan University Sep. 24th

Saturday’s for a high school coach usually start really early. There’s the game from the night before that needs to be broken down and analyzed. Positives and negatives need to be identified for growth and repair. It’s really an important time as a coach to help give your team the best chance at winning moving forward. Plus there’s a new opponent to worry about and their game film to dissect. I used to do that until I started to feel nervous about the upcoming opponent (there’s always something to worry about). Then it was break time filled with college football and sometimes if the weather was nice I’d walk back to the high school and watch a rocket game if I knew a family that had a player. 

I don’t have to worry about game film anymore. My biggest worry with football now is how often my kids will want to visit the concession stand. I’m taking my family and most importantly my two girls to their first college football game. Western Michigan Univ. is a great place to watch a game. It’s usually doesn’t feel overly crowded and I don’t mind the walk down memory lane that is the path to the stadium. The product on the field is much better then when I was in school. PJ Fleck has done a great job of recruiting and it shows, the Broncos are the favorite to win the Mid American Conference this year. I picked this game specifically not totally because I’m a Western grad but because the Georgia Southern Eagles are in town. Oh I get it you want to pick a game Western is most likely going to win. Wrong! I picked this game because Georgia Southern led the nation last year in rushing yards with a really cool option attack out of the shotgun. In fact GS crushed the Broncos last year in Georgia to the tune of 413 total rushing yards. 

Now this is a college game and professionals will be covering it so I’m going to try to keep this brief. If you’d like to know more I’ll include all sorts of links for you to read and watch, but I just feel like there is someone out there more qualified to breakdown this game. 

Georgia Southern has been an option team for a long time. Paul Johnson brought the flexbone here many years ago before his days at Navy and Georgia Tech. The coaches that followed continued to run the flexbone with great success until the university decided to be more mainstream. The spread offense didn’t fit GS very well and the program struggled for about four years until the option came back. In walks Willie Fritz an uber successful coach running this unique offense at Sam Houston (a great breakdown of some key components to that offense here). Fritz wasn’t a flexbone guy and so the early criticism was actually pretty funny in hindsight. “16 of the last 17 years he’s had a winning season” due in large part to this unique offense that he is now taking to Tulane (they probably don’t have the personnel to run the option this year so it might be rough, have patience Green Wave fans). Georgia Southern’s new head coach Tyson Summers has already said several times that he is keeping the offense so all this writing isn’t totally pointless. If you’ve been to this site before you may have read about option style offenses before and it’s important to know that the GS option functions very differently. For starters their offensive linemen block zone and not the ultra fast down blocks employed by the under center option guys. The zone schemes are meant to go just like the Oregon Ducks inside and outside zone schemes (you can watch the videos or even better you can read it straight from the man himself). GS puts their spin on it by instead of having two potential ball carriers a lot of their plays have three, by using a pitch man. There’s a ton of different pitch men by using a ton of different formations coupled with a variety of different motions. This for football nerds makes it a super entertaining offense to watch

So I’ll be in Waldo Stadium rowing the boat as best I can and hoping for an entertaining game my kids will love. If you happen to be in the area give us a wave and cross your fingers my kids will be willing to sit in their seats for at least a quarter. 

The Games

Game 7 Bangor at Hartford Sept. 23rd

This week I’m staying close to home. I’m heading up to Kalamazoo with my family to watch Western Michigan play on Saturday and it’ll be my family’s first college football game. Since I have two young girls that I’m hoping will have a great time and ultimately fall in love with my favorite sport, I’ll need my energy. Friday’s game where Bangor travels to Hartford’s homecoming is an easy game to attend with a ton of questions. At the time I’m writing this I haven’t seen or heard much of Hartford. I know they have their second coach in as many years and we’re looking to change both the offense and defense this year. A quick walk through the local grocery store though and I have a bit more information, one of the perks of living in a small town. Hartford is sporting a three man front on defense which could help against the spread teams like the one they’ll be facing Friday. Hartford is also showing a bunch of different things on offense and it sounds like it might be option based. With there being a new coach there just isn’t anything for me to watch on the Internet to see for myself and I’m not going to peek in on a practice, that’s just weird. 

Bangor is a bit more of a known thing for me even though they have some major questions as well. For starters long time Bangor standout athlete Jondell Jones graduated leaving a really big hole for the Vikings to fill. Who is going to play quarterback in their spread system? Who replaces their biggest offensive weapon of the past few years? They had a freshman take several snaps at the position last year who made solid decisions and proved to be an effective passer, but he just isn’t old enough to be the runner Jones was. Defensively Bangor could look very similar to Hartford sporting a 3-5 that can morph into several different looks depending on what the offense is showing them. A decent amount of turnover will take place at other positions giving way to a pretty new look Bangor for this season but remember Bangor always has speed on their team and this year should be no different. 

Historically speaking this game leans heavily in Hartford’s favor. Since the new millennium Hartford has made the playoffs twelve times whereas Bangor has gone to the postseason only twice. Head to head you have to go back to 2005 to find the last time Bangor won this matchup. 

So while the game is a bit of a mystery, the one thing I’m most looking forward to is the brat tent Hartford has during the homecoming game. I love grilled outdoor foods like this and Hartford’s spread is fantastic. For the longest time I’ve never gotten a chance to go through the line because of coaching. Come to think of it almost all of the homecoming festivities will be new to me. I’ve never seen the parade, the halftime crowning of homecoming royalty, and really anything band related for the most part. I was always so busy in the past I missed these moments and it’ll be a different experience to say the least. If you’re coming to the game come say hi, after all that’s what homecoming is all about. 

The Games

Game 6 St. Joe @ Lakeshore Friday Sept. 16th

The local media every year releases lists of games to watch for the upcoming season. It’s the thing to do when everyone is aching for the football season to start. Every year you’ll see “The War By The Shore” or “The Battle of Cleveland Avenue” on the list. The Lakeshore Lancers’ rivalry with the St. Joseph Bears goes way back and it is the premier game in my area no matter who’s playing. It might be the one local matchup that I’ve attended multiple times. When I started going hall of fame coaches Denny Dock and Ike Muhlenkamp were roaming the sidelines. Later Elliot Uzelac (I know Wikipedia is a terrible source but these things are hard to find) would guide the Bears to the playoffs before heading to Benton Harbor to work magic last year. It’s crazy to think I’ve talked to these amazing coaches and walked away with the same thought of how incredibly nice they were. I used to intentionally not find a partner at the old Southwest Michigan football camps so that I could warm up playing catch with coach Dock and get more instruction. He taught me several things about playing the role of quarterback that I feel were invaluable. Coach Muhlenkamp spoke at my high school several times and was really fun to talk to casually, the few times I got the opportunity. Lastly, I recently watched Coach Uzelac explain his memorable season at BH during a clinic. It is also where I can help shed some light on this year’s rivalry game. When Elliot Uzelac took the job at St. Joe it was impressed upon him to sort of groom the younger staff members maybe in hope that they could take over when he left. Mission accomplished, defensive coordinator Gandalf Church stepped in and everything has continued to flow just the same for the past several years. The mindset of playing good defense while controlling the game with a power run style is so ingrained in this program it’s really like Uzelac never left. If you don’t believe me watch last years game against Benton Harbor and you’ll see the same offense against the same defense. The teams were almost mirror images of each other except for the fact St. Joe played way better in that game. You can see the staple power play as discussed previously on this site but even better you can see a staple of Uzelac teams in the outside zone. The best way to visualize zone plays is to pretend all of the offense live linemen are on a train track. They all move the same direction and if anything gets on their track they block it. If the linemen can gain the defenders outside shoulder then he works to pin him inside, if not he continues to push out stretching the defense. Eventually the runningback finds his own hole. The outside zone is a staple run in the NFL but can be difficult for high school kids to run. It demands offensive linemen to be able to move laterally and some of the blocks that are required can be super difficult, so the Uzelac spin on this came a long time ago and ultimately helps the line take advantage of angles while still maintaining the overall integrity of the play. The wrinkle is called pin and pull. One lineman blocks down and the other pulls around easier blocks for both. This is a blocking scheme that can be used out of multiple formations. The one negative for St. Joe this year is their standout freshman running back from last year transferred to Benton Harbor. Darius Clayton didn’t look like any freshman I’ve ever seen and he was electric many times in somewhat limited action for the Bears. He was dominant in their first playoff game last year despite only carrying the ball ten times. I don’t doubt the Bears ability to run the ball, it will just lack some of the explosiveness without him back there. 

The success of Bears football is through the ground game and playing solid defense. The D looks like a 4-4 a lot but it’s really a 4-3 with the safety walked down against heavier formations. You can really see the 4-3 aspects versus true spread formations and by the way they spill the ball carrier to the sidelines instead of being super contain conscious (although they have moments where the outside linebacker like spots keep contain really well in the 4-4). The big thing people will be looking at on this Bears D is University of Michigan commit defensive end Corey Malone Hatcher. Several recruiting sites have him listed as the fifth best college prospect in the state. According to scouts he should be the best individual player I will see all year. That alone makes the Bears team really intriguing to watch. 

The Lakeshore Lancers are a bit of a different story and it’s hard for them not to be. Denny Dock is considered by most around these parts as an offensive guru. He ultimately ran a bit of everything on offense and the crowd in Stevensville grew accustomed to being dazzled by a new wrinkle every week. I know I loved being wowed as a kid by just how big that playbook must have been for his teams. When he stepped down in came his defensive coordinator to take the reigns and the games took on a more conservative approach. I went to Lakeshores playoff game against Coldwater in 2014 during Bryan Keim’s first season as head coach and it was interesting to say the least. The game was a great defensive struggle, power run game against power run game. Lakeshore controlled the game on the ground and used the power play (there it is again) to grit out first downs. The unique part I felt was the crowd’s reaction to it all. There seemed to be a lack of interest almost with the ground game and the fans were growing restless even with the lead. Perhaps it was just where I was sitting (Lakeshore playoff games usually draw a decent crowd) but the offensive style change wasn’t being well accepted from my perspective. Keim has done well against St. Joe in his two seasons, but he did lose a close one to Benton Harbor last year that generated some grumbles from the faithful. There isn’t much out there showing Lakeshores offense (so maybe changes have already been made since the last game I’ve watched) but you would have to think they are feeling positive about their team this year based solely on the return of junior quarterback Joel Brawley (that is if he’s still playing qb). He looked good as a sophomore and one would have to think his game will continue to develop. The team rests on the defense and the aggressive 4-3 style similar to what St. Joe is running and it’s on that side of the ball where this game is won or lost. Since Keim has been there they’ve held St. Joe to a high of twenty four points and the last few years to just a few scores. Points against for the Lancers is way down since he has been there and with videos like these it looks like it’ll continue (if you’re interested in the new thoughts on tackling the Lancers video is very hawk like). 

Before the game I’m planning on heading to Silver Harbor Brewing Co. to try as many small plates as I can. They’ve got a pretty unique menu and I love trying new food! Good food before a good game, I don’t see how it can get any better. 

The Games

Game 5: Lowell @ East Grand Rapids Friday September 9th

Big time matchup in the state of Michigan this week! Lowell at East Grand Rapids is exciting on so many levels but other than the obvious reasons noting the success these schools have had, I picked this game for much more deeply rooted reasons. It might sound silly but I feel connected to these schools even though I don’t live anywhere near them and have only watched them in person a handful of times. Let me explain, first with East Grand Rapids. Back in the early nineties it was tough for smaller schools to make the state playoffs due to a point system that was difficult for me to understand at the time. All I remember is sitting with my dad at the kitchen table and scrolling through the newspaper looking for certain schools and whether or not they had won, while my dad did the math in a notebook that could have been a prop in the movie A Beautiful Mind. I was about nine or ten years old when my dad revealed his two loss team didn’t make it, so instead he took me to local playoff games. It was one of my most fondest memories and it’s something that is so deeply rooted in me heck at the age of thirty I’m doing it again (my dad also plans on coming with me to most of these games). That year we followed the local big school the Lakeshore Lancers, mainly because he liked to cheer on his former coach. We traveled to Grand Rapids to watch Dylan Karczewski run all over the place in a supremely monumental effort I still remember quite vividly. That guy was easily one of the fastest people I had ever seen. Later that year we went to the old Silverdome to watch EGR lose a heartbreaker. East Grand Rapids in a way represents the kindling that helped my early fire for football grow a little out of control. 

If EGR helped me as a fan Lowell helped me as a student. Once again with my dad watching the state championships in 2009 the hype was surrounding quarterback Devin Gardner of Inkster and his recent commitment to the University of Michigan. The most athletic looking player on the field hands down but the game would be lopsided in favor of a tough Lowell team and one offensive play. No joke one play ran multiple times from just a handful of formations ran the clock and controlled the game in such a way the outcome felt inevitable almost from the outset. The midline option ran with a close single back kept falling forward chewing up yards and there was nothing Inkster could do to stop it. Hopefully as your reading this you’ve  never felt the helpless feeling of “we can’t stop them” during a contest and if you have, you can see why I latched on to a play that I saw dominate a game. I spent the next year engrossed in the midline option, including watching Lowell head coach Noel Dean explain the play at a clinic. Without getting too crazy, the midline option is a play where a defensive tackle, preferably in a three technique (outside the offensive guard), is left unblocked. The runningback runs right down the middle of the center who is usually double teaming the one technique (the other defensive tackle inside the opposite guard) on his way to pin the backside linebacker. The quarterback reads the defensive tackle and if he does anything but crash down he gives it to the back for a decent gain. If that defensive tackle crashes down the qb pulls the ball and runs off tackle to the side of the read. A personal highlight of mine of mine was later in life installing it and running it for just about an entire drive capped with a pull read ran correctly by our young qb who scored untouched. Kind of sad but man that was a proud moment I’ll never forget. It’s a simple concept that’s fun to teach. Google search it and you’ll see a whole slew of ways to run it. 

So the nostalgia is flowing through this game making it an easy choice for me to select for this week even though it almost didn’t happen. Scouting these teams one needs to remember this is division two football and they can do a lot on offense and defense due to their roster sizes. With that said EGR has a new head coach, but considering he is home grown and was the team’s offensive coordinator for the past few years I can only imagine it’ll look pretty similar to years past. On offense they switch from a spread look to a heavy I formation running game. The quarterback, who will be a senior this year, looked athletic with room for improvement (He doesn’t always point his shoulder when throwing on the run. It’s not a big issue because he’s athletic enough to make it work, but as he progresses he can become even more accurate with this little change. Just saying.). The big schematic thing to know is they love to run the power play. Many high school teams run this (it’ll especially be important next week) and it’s easy to see why. It’s an old simple concept that most people will relate to it as a counter play (35 and 34 counter trey if you played with my crew back in the day). Chris B. Brown traces it back to the seventies with Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers but the play was made famous by big John Riggins in Washington. It’s an easy enough idea to follow; there’s a double team at the point of attack, a kick out block on usually the end man on the line of scrimmage, followed with a lineman pulling through the hole to seal any one left usually a linebacker. It can be run out of just about every formation you can think of. It’s an old school play that EGR leans heavily on from what I’ve seen (or been able to find more like it which isn’t much.). On defense they are running a 3-4 like what we discussed last with Farmington Hills Harrison. Lowell is still running the ball with a quarterback read it just looks to be out of the shotgun more. What caught my eye after watching highlights of their win over EGR last year is the defense. It’s a loaded box heavy pressure defense paired with cover zero a lot, meaning no safety help, everyone is man to man. That’s a scary D to run but hey it worked for them last year. 

The pregame meal is going to be a game time decision. It’s a bit of a drive for me to get up there and there are a lot of really nice restaurants in Grand Rapids. I’m probably going to get something small to eat on the way up and eat the highlight meal after the game. If you’re attending this game find me, I’d love a recommendation on where to chow down.