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Reaction Roundtable: Michigan 33, Minnesota 10

With a second straight rushing explosion, Michigan’s offense has found its identity entering the final stretch.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.

Drew Hallett: For the second time this season, Michigan played in a wet, slippery night game in Michigan Stadium. This one, however, was a much more enjoyable experience for the Wolverines than the first. Michigan ran roughshod over Minnesota to the tune of 371 rushing yards in a 33-10 victory on Saturday. The Wolverines have now won two straight games, and for the second straight game, the rushing attack is clicking.

Josh LaFond: Man, is it ever! The offensive line wasn’t just opening up holes on Saturday, they were being true road graders. Karan Higdon yet again had a monster performance on the ground rushing for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. I’ll save you the trouble of opening up your calculator because that’s an average of 12.5 yards PER RUSH. As I said, the holes were everywhere, and Higdon found them.

Michigan had identity crisis with the run game until the Indiana game. Prior to that, Michigan couldn’t decide if they were going to be a primarily zone running team — which was being incorporated with the addition of offensive tackles and tight ends coach Greg Frey — or if they were going to stick with the run-it-down-your-throat power and gap schemes that most are familiar with. The coaches chose to go with the route of gap and power, and because they did, it’s paying off in a big way for Michigan.

I also want to say one last thing about that. On Saturday, watching the “big uglies” up front move people and the backs find the holes, that felt like — for me at least — for the first time in a long time, like Michigan football.

Kevin Bunkley: And Chris Evans just missed the 200-yard mark for the game, but I was so glad to see him bounce to the outside on two touchdown runs. Reminiscent of his game-tying run in the Orange Bowl last season. He just outran everybody once he cut around the corner on both sides of the field. I about lost my mind when he broke those two tackles inside the 10-yard line to push into the end zone. Michigan has been waiting for a stable of backs to dominate a game, and we finally saw it on Saturday.

Either of you think it was because they shifted the offensive line around yet again?

Drew: Before I answer your question, Kevin, I want to drop in a few stats:

  • Michigan recorded 371 rushing yards on 37 carries vs. Minnesota for a 10.0 YPC, which broke a single-game school record for rushing average.
  • When sacks are removed, Michigan ran for 394 yards on 34 carries (11.6 YPC!!).
  • Karan Higdon ran for 200 yards and Chris Evans rans for 191 yards vs. Minnesota. It’s the first time in school history that two Wolverines ran for at least 191 yards in the same game (if only Evans had rushed for nine more yards).
  • Karan Higdon had a 77-yard touchdown run and Chris Evans had two touchdown sprints for 67 and 60 yards. It’s the first time in school history that Michigan registered three runs that gained at least 60 yards in the same game.

Translation? This was a historic rushing performance by Michigan.

Now, to answer your question, Kevin, this was not because Michigan shifted the offensive line again. True freshman Cesar Ruiz earned the start at right guard with Michael Onwenu absent with an injury, but this pummeling likely would have occurred with Onwenu in, too. As Josh alluded to, the revitalization of Michigan’s rushing attack has been the result of the Wolverines’ shift from zone-blocking schemes to gap schemes with heavy doses of power and counter. Michigan’s line and tight ends appear to be much more comfortable with those play designs (plus, having a behemoth like Onwenu or Ruiz pulling into your gap is a nightmare for defenders), and the running backs have demonstrated their patience in hugging the puller’s hip, vision in seeing the backside when it’s open, and their burst by breaking into the second level.

Michigan now knows that they are a power running team, and this is the first time that it feels like the Wolverines’ offense will resemble what Jim Harbaugh implemented at Stanford. Better run defenses will have their chance to slow it down (Minnesota was 82nd in Rushing S&P+ before Saturday), but Michigan’s rushing attack appears legit.

As such, Michigan correctly relied on its ground game for much of the evening. The Wolverines called 34 runs and just 16 passes, three of which resulted in sacks, and did not have to put much pressure on the arm of first-time starter Brandon Peters on a cold, wet night against a solid pass defense. What were your thoughts on Peters’ start?

Josh: I thought he did okay. Brandon Peters was 8-for-13 (61.5%) for 56 yards (4.3 YPA) and a touchdown, which isn’t all that inspiring. It also appeared to raise some concerns within the fan base, and I do not believe that those concerns are warranted.

Listen, folks, I get that some of you think Peters’ game against Rutgers was another version of John O’Korn against Purdue, but it’s not. On Saturday, Peters made what I thought were really good reads, didn’t take unnecessary risks, and managed the game well. Sure, he underthrew a few passes, but keep in mind that he wasn’t all that fresh in the game. Michigan ran the ball — as Drew said earlier — 34 times, and there was no need to pass the ball in that situation. So naturally, when he was asked to throw the ball on a cold, wet night, when his throwing muscles have stiffened up due to not being used even on the sideline in that weather, underthrows are understandable.

Jim Harbaugh said as much in the post-game presser when he admitted — and I’m paraphrasing here — “I wish I had let Brandon warm up on the sidelines when the defense was on the field to stay fresh.”

My tweet on Sunday morning echoes this sentiment:

Take a breathe because Peters is going to be just fine.

Kevin: I wasn’t thrilled about the one sack he took where he didn’t see the guy coming right into his grill, but Michigan was in such control of the game that it didn’t affect their offensive scheme. And I have to applaud Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton for scoring the first touchdown with a dump off to the tight end like I begged them to do this week. More, please!

Drew: Brandon Peters was fine. Not great. Not bad. Fine.

He looked his best on Michigan’s opening drive thanks to a wonderful script by Jim Harbaugh, Tim Drevno, and Pep Hamilton. They gave him easy throws and reads as he connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones for eight yards and Sean McKeon for four. Peters’ best throw may have been his one to Eddie McDoom near the goal line, but it was called back due to an illegal receiver downfield penalty on Juwann Bushell-Beatty. But then Michigan dialed up a perfect throwback screen to McKeon, who rumbled 20 yards into the end zone for a score. The staff seemed to have more trust in Peters to execute these calls, and Peters did just that. It was a great first drive for the offense.

After that, though, Peters slipped a bit. As Josh mentioned, Peters began to have some underthrows -- the one that sticks out was to Peoples-Jones across the field on the first play of the ensuing drive. It may have been a result of Peters trying to place the ball to Peoples-Jones rather than fire it there or his arm stiffening up in the cold, and based on Harbaugh’s post-game presser, he thinks it had more to do with the latter.

However, it’s not as if Michigan had Peters throw in optimal down and distances. After the first drive, eight of Peters’ 10 throws were on 1st & 15 or passing downs (2nd & 8+; 3rd & 5+; 4th & 5+). And Michigan didn’t need to. The Wolverines ran the ball so well that it would have been foolish to ask Peters to throw in those conditions against a defense that’s better against the pass than the run and risk falling behind schedule.

So what does that mean? It means that we still do not know much about Peters. We will learn more next week in his first road test at Maryland. However, when Peters has been in there, Michigan seems to have a competent, functional offense. There’s that.

Now let’s shift to the other side and talk about the star of Michigan’s defense.

Kevin: Khaleke Hudson? That guy?

Thirteen tackles, 11 by himself, 6.5 for a loss, two sacks, and that beautiful forced fumble that basically shut off Minnesota’s last remaining will to try to win.

We’ve read about what the Viper position in Don Brown’s defensive scheme was supposed to look like. We hoped Hudson, a bigger, more physical version of Jabrill Peppers, could pull it off. At last, nine weeks in, he was the fastest guy on the field. The only way he could’ve done any better was if he hadn’t somehow missed blocking Minnesota’s punt, but he was too damn fast for his own good!

Drew: Hudson had by far his best game of the season. His 6.5 tackles for loss were the second most in a game by a Wolverine in school history, falling just shy of the seven Larry Foote had against Iowa in 2001. (Also, Hudson now leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 12.5. Not too shabby.) Hudson was all over the field, and he benefited from facing a one-dimensional offense like Minnesota’s. The Gophers have had an inept passing offense all year, and with Demry Croft taking the snaps, they have been trying to complement their ground game with a mobile quarterback. This meant lots of read-options. However, Michigan game planned for it very well, sending Hudson to attack the mesh point while often having another defender blitz or scrape over the top behind him. This meant Hudson was able to hunt without worrying about the option or the repercussions too much because he knew that he often had help behind him.

And, boy, as you can see from Hudson’s line and Kevin’s excitement, Hudson hunted.

Josh: Kevin’s man crush, Khaleke Hudson, went OFF yesterday. Good god he’s good. I said in my depth chart series before the season started that he might be an even better fit at VIPER than Jabrill Peppers was, and I stand by that today. Hudson was everywhere and made his impact felt from the first defensive snap.

Drew: Let’s not get too carried away regarding Hudson and Peppers now, but continue:

Josh: As for the rest of the defense, they’re still legit despite the egg laid against Penn State. There are so many playmakers all across the board, and with the young guys like Aubrey Solomon, Lavert Hill, David Long, Ambry Thomas, Kwity Paye, Devin Bush, and so so many others, I’m excited to see what this defense can do not only the rest of the season, but how they’re going to develop going into next season as well.

As long as Don Brown is here, this defense is going to be really, REALLY good.

Drew: This defensive performance was like every other defensive performance when Michigan faces an inferior offense. The opponent hits one or two big plays and has one head-scratching touchdown drive, but otherwise, Michigan mauls them. Minnesota gained 70 yards on a 10-play touchdown drive in the first quarter, using misdirection to soften Michigan’s edges and Demry Croft’s legs to break the pocket. Minnesota’s other 11 drives? 94 yards on 46 plays (2.04 YPP). Per usual, Don Brown adjusted, and the Wolverines’ front controlled the line of scrimmage for the remainder of the game. Maurice Hurst was a monster in the middle, while Khaleke Hudson, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich contained the edges. And Michigan’s corners again proved how valuable they are, holding star receiver Tyler Johnson to just one reception for 29 yards on five targets. Though this Michigan defense has its weaknesses (Michigan’s safeties are vulnerable in man coverage and sometimes hit the wrong run gaps), Minnesota was not the offense that would exploit them, and Michigan won how I expected them to*.

*Except for the record-breaking rushing performance, of course. Didn’t see that one.

Kevin: And there’s one thing we can get behind after this victory: I’m done with home night games for a couple seasons.