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Michigan Football Rewind: Trying to Find Some Positives

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Following Michigan’s collapse against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, nearly all the commentary on the Wolverines’ performance is going to focus on the negatives because, frankly, there is a wealth to say. Seven games into the season, and the Michigan offense is still clearly struggling to find an identity. Losing Wilton Speight and Tarik Black obviously hindered the offense’s ability to play at its best, but even so, every single game so far has featured questionable play calling, a lack of game control, and poor execution. So, in light of this overabundance of pessimism, for this film review, I decided to turn my attention to the positives. This article will be an analysis of Michigan’s most successful offensive series against Penn State and how they will help further construct the Michigan offense for the rest of the season.

The two offensive series I am looking at are the only two that ended with points on the board for the Wolverines throughout the game, both in the first half. But before diving into film breakdown, it’s important to contextualize these two drives. The first came only ten minutes into the game. Michigan was already down two scores and the team looked absolutely lost. After consecutive touchdowns against the Wolverine defense and three-and-outs by its offense, the team needed a massive momentum swing.

Thankfully, David Long provided just that with a clutch interception and return while deep in Michigan territory. Then, finally, for the first time all season, the Michigan offense carried the team and put up points to keep the Wolverines competitive. It was a drive Michigan fans have been waiting all season to see. Then, two possessions later, the offense did it again to bring the score difference to only 1 point. This tenacity by the Michigan offense in such a hostile environment is a notable improvement on its own. The Wolverines finally looked like a two-dimensional team. Even though the game went downhill from there, the comeback before halftime is something Michigan will absolutely be able to build off of for the rest of the season.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Now, to the film breakdown:

The first noticeable aspect about these two drives is the formation simplicity throughout them. Most plays were run out of the Power I formation, featuring fullbacks Khalid Hill or Henry Poggi in the backfield, along with a running back. Out of this formation, Michigan featured several play designs: inside runs to running backs and fullbacks, outside handoffs, and check down passes to a fullback or tight end. Karan Higdon’s rushing touchdown during the first successful drive of the day came out of the Power I with an excellent block by Khalid Hill (view below).

The reason to make a note of these formations is the fact that throughout the season, Michigan’s offense has continually looked more complex than it needed to be or its players could handle. Simplifying it brought success and allowed some creativity out of it, like the quick screen to Eddie McDoom in the red zone. Although simplifying an offense understandably leads to less confusion amongst the defense, it does allow the offense to create success due to familiarity. No doubt Michigan will begin to again add complexity into its offense during the next few weeks against Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland. Having a base formation to now build an identity out of will be key for the Wolverines to do just that.

Another improvement over previous weeks was John O’Korn’s versatility in playmaking ability, most notably his run game. Michigan fans have witnessed O’Korn’s capability in escaping pressure before, but against Penn State, they also saw his skill in running for positive yards. This side of the offense had not been seen in a few years, as Wilton Speight was much more of a true pocket passer. But, O’Korn can and will run for 10+ yards when a lane emerges, as he did in the video below. Later in the game, the Michigan offense even started implementing run-options with O’Korn and Higdon. I would like to see much more of this play scheme in the games to come.

But, not only did John O’Korn showcase his running ability against Penn State, he also demonstrated, once again, that he has deep-threat potential. Yes, he has had some bad long passes this season, most noticeably last week when he overthrew a wide-open Donovan Peoples-Jones. However, O’Korn did have a great 24-yard pass to Kekoa Crawford during the second scoring drive (see video below).

He placed the ball exactly where only Crawford would be able to make a play on it. Notice, too, Crawford’s handwork early in his route that allowed him to get so open. All around, this play showed a glimpse of what Michigan’s passing attack has the capability to be. O’Korn has hit the deep ball well before, like in his 37-yard pass to Tarik Black against Florida. These sideline fades will be the big-play-caliber passes O’Korn will need to continue to make as the season wears on.

Now, to end on a sober note after finding hope in the improvements of scheme and John O’Korn’s play ability. Even though the Michigan offense was able to create successful drives and swing momentum at a key time against Penn State, the unit was far from dominate. The back-to-back-to-back failed rushing touchdowns on the first drive exemplify the struggles perfectly. Last season, every time Khalid Hill was handed the ball, he seemed to score. Now, the Michigan offensive line could not get a push against Penn State to get Hill a touchdown, even from the one yard line. Throughout the game, Michigan averaged only 2.5 yards per rushing attempt. This has been the same story all season: a struggling run game fails to create a necessary complement to allow the passing attack to get hot. Penn State has a good front seven, but at some point, the Michigan offensive line needs to step it up and impose its will.

Thankfully the Michigan Wolverines play Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland for their next three games. The season has been a rollercoaster since Wilton Speight suffered his injury early against Purdue. These next games will hopefully allow the Wolverines to find their footing and build on their shifting identity. Many fans will call for Brandon Peters to get the starting nod moving forward, but there was improvement on Saturday with O’Korn at the helm. And there are worse and more urgent problems than him. Michigan will just need to keep fixing them every week.