Despite the overall narrative, the running game in the Harbaugh era has occasionally performed well against good defenses.
In 2015, the Wolverines bullied Northwestern’s No. 4 S&P defense for 201 yards. In that year’s Capital One Bowl against the No. 7 unit in Florida, De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson helmed a 225-yard overall performance on the ground.
Against another top-10 defense in Wisconsin in 2016, the backs ground out four yards a pop (sacks removed). Those outings get drowned out by frequent sluggish displays against rivals and in big games, including this year against Notre Dame.
After 320 yards against the Badgers, has the narrative been put to rest? On one hand, it’s hard to argue against the yardage. On the other, injuries have whittled the the Cheeseheads down to the No. 63 defense nationally per S&P.
Does the film show genuine improvement on the line, or merely more success against an overmatched foe?
DRIVE ONE, M 22-YARD LINE (11:52 FIRST QUARTER)
Shea Patterson zips an easy out pass to Nico Collins for seven yards on first down. With massive inexperience at corner, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard opts for a large cushion early.
Karan Higdon only gets two on the next play after Ben Bredeson loses a block off a pull. Jon Runyan and Zach Gentry seal the linebackers away from the run, but the defensive end disengages from Bredeson to wrestle Higdon to the turf.
Michigan runs right at 342-pound planetoid tackle Olive Sagapolu on third-and-short. Runyan and Bredeson double-team him and push him three yards back. When Pep Hamilton uses the beef up front on short yardage — rather than getting cute — first downs are automatic.
Sagapolu eats Patterson on a coverage sack. The quarterback has four seconds in the pocket before he scrambles, so the receivers are likely not getting separation.
Leonhard sends three rushers next, so Patterson waits for defenders to drop deep into their zones. He takes off when he thinks he has room, but Ryan Connelly is spying him.
Cesar Ruiz picks up a twist beautifully on third-and-medium, giving Donovan Peoples-Jones enough time to cut open on an out for a new set of downs. Grant Perry runs off a defensive back to give Peoples-Jones room to operate.
Higdon snags a Patterson pass behind him after another scramble, but look at the protection here.
That’s enough time to make a sandwich. Or knit a sweater. Or write an entire Film Focus.
Michigan runs two pulls to opposite sides on a short Higdon run. Mike Onwenu goes the right, while Bredeson goes to the left. Since linebackers are often taught to read the guard, this does draw defenders away from the play. However, the safety flies upfield to make the tackle, as nobody is able to get much push.
Wisconsin gives Oliver Martin 10 yards of cushion, which leads to a simple hitch route to move the chains.
Let’s talk about the Joe Milton formation. He gets seven blockers — five linemen, Sean McKeon and Ben Mason — for six defenders in the box. There’s a lane right behind Ruiz, but Milton tries to bounce outside. The hesitation gives defenders time to shed blocks and corral him for a loss.
While the package screamed quarterback run, the line execution is good enough to make it work. Milton, not a prolific runner in high school, tries to do too much instead of taking what he’s given.
Gentry sits on a hitch in a zone vacated by a blitz, and gets five yards. Patterson is unable to find anyone open, despite perfect pass blocking. He runs for minimal yardage to set up a missed Quinn Nordin field goal.
Drive: 13 plays, 56 yards, missed field goal (Game tied 0-0)
DRIVE TWO, M 14-YARD LINE (START OF SECOND QUARTER)
For weeks, defenders have crashed down on Higdon on runs out of the shotgun. From the Notre Dame Film Focus:
“Patterson’s unwillingness — by design or otherwise — to keep on read options allowed Notre Dame to fly toward Higdon.”
Hamilton and Harbaugh unleashed this on the Badgers after waiting six games.
SHEA PATTERSON 81 YARD RUN SHOWING OFF HIS WHEELS pic.twitter.com/mduuugDoPX— Wolverine Corner (@WolverineCorner) October 14, 2018
There was a late keeper against Northwestern for a critical first down, but this 81-yard jaunt has been set up all year for this stretch of games. Credit to McKeon for sealing the safety filling the lane, but you have to wonder if the injured D’Cota Dixon loses similarly loses gap discipline.
The line mashes the front two more times to give Higdon the first touchdown of the game.
Drive: Three plays, 86 yards, touchdown (Wisconsin scores to tie the game 7-7)
DRIVE THREE, M 25-YARD LINE (11:26 SECOND QUARTER)
An Ambry Thomas jet sweep — technically a forward pass — goes awry as Gentry and Mason miss blocks on the perimeter. Gentry is pushed back to force Thomas to bounce, and Mason flat-out whiffs on the safety.
An incompletion and a short hitch to Peoples-Jones forces a three-and-out. After large cushions early, the Badger corners are creeping closer to cut off the easy yardage.
Drive: Three plays, five yards, punt (Game tied 7-7)
DRIVE FOUR, M 32-YARD LINE (7:57 SECOND QUARTER)
Patterson finds space in a cover three zone by Wisconsin, hitting Collins for nine yards on first down. Typically, the outside linebacker is supposed to get the flat, but with Patterson hurting with his legs, he is forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Another short-yardage situation. Another conversion by Higdon.
Kirk Herbstreit aptly identified the problem man for Wisconsin on Nick Eubanks’ 21-yard catch.
Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel jams Eubanks at first, but gets sucked up to cover Higdon in the flat after play-action. He needs to sink deeper in the zone, but instead leaves Eubanks wide-open.
Patterson also does a good job at giving the receiver a chance for yards after the catch. If he hits Eubanks in stride, he goes right out of bounds, but by under throwing it, the play goes for seven more.
A blitzing defensive back splits a block by Mason and a pulling Onwenu, grounding Higdon for little. Patterson then waits too long, eating a sack rather than throwing the ball away.
He then hits Collins on a slant for 11 yards. Four receivers line up in a diamond formation on the left, and Collins is one-on-one at the bottom of the screen. After weeks of screen passes to the diamond, Patterson feigns that throw and shoots it to Collins instead.
Good design, but not enough for a first down. Nordin converts to retake the lead.
Drive: Seven plays, 44 yards, field goal (Michigan leads 10-7)
DRIVE FIVE, W 15-YARD LINE (4:00 SECOND QUARTER)
After the Josh Metellus interception, Hamilton dials up a play-action to score on sudden change. Instead, Van Ginkel hurries Patterson into a throwaway.
Next, T.J. Edwards — a first-team All-American last year — slices past a McKeon block to stop Higdon for no gain.
Michigan goes back to the diamond formation, and similarly tries to draw attention away from Collins. Patterson lofts a fade to his 6-foot-4 wideout, but the corner breaks it up.
Drive: Three plays, zero yards, field goal (Michigan leads 13-7)
DRIVE SIX, W 49-YARD LINE (2:09 SECOND QUARTER)
After great concentration by Peoples-Jones to snare a tipped ball for 17 yards, Michigan looks to be gunning for a late score in the half.
Patterson does his best John O’Korn impression, aimlessly scrambling into Connelly only to fumble and lose 15 yards.
The line is giving plenty of time to function. However, whether it’s receivers not breaking open or anxiety from the quarterback, the passing game didn’t click all night.
Two possessions in Wisconsin territory only lead to three points, as Nordin pushes a 54-yarder wide right.
Drive: Five plays, 13 yards, missed field goal (Michigan leads 13-7)
DRIVE SEVEN, M 25-YARD LINE (START OF THIRD QUARTER)
Connelly executes a delayed blitz to rush Patterson into a throwaway. This is just a good call by Leonhard, as the only way Ruiz picks this up is if he abandons another unblocked defender.
Higdon goes for five after Juwann Bushell-Beatty washes his man on a down block, while Onwenu seals his assignment on the edge.
A defensive holding on Collins moves the sticks.
Peoples-Jones takes a reverse with McKeon as the lead blocker. Against worse linebackers, this is a first down and much more. Against Edwards and Connelly, it’s only five yards, as Gentry and Ruiz couldn’t obstruct them on the second level.
After the line moves the front back four yards on a healthy gain for Higdon, they set him up again on third down for a solid run. He bounces and lets the safety barrel down on him and force a fumble with his helmet.
Cut upfield and live with a new set of downs. Instead, Will Hart punts it back to the Badg...
Wisconsin just had a “roughing the snapper” penalty... pic.twitter.com/bWSuLnhhmw— CFB Kings (@CFBKings) October 14, 2018
Covered in Inflection Point, but this was the proper call.
The offense has new life, but Patterson almost snuffs it out with a throw into double coverage. Higdon breathes new life into it again, as he busts loose for 25 yards into the red zone.
The left side creates an alley for him, but the 350-pound Onwenu huffs and puffs his way into the second level to impede the safety in run support. The difference between solid gains and big plays are those efforts by linemen downfield.
Two inside runs by Higdon and Chris Evans set up Patterson for another keeper. This time, he reaches paydirt as Van Ginkel plays the running back.
Hey, look— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) October 14, 2018
It’s a Shea Patterson rushing touchdown for Michigan. pic.twitter.com/pss99mB6bW
The drive is all on the ground and two penalties. Patterson would end up with only four more passing yards on the night, as Harbaugh rode his newfound line infused with the expertise of Ed Warinner.
Drive: 10 plays, 75 yards, touchdown w/ two-point conversion (Michigan leads 21-7)
DRIVE EIGHT, M 20-YARD LINE (7:31 THIRD QUARTER)
After a nine-yarder on first down, Higdon finds himself in the secondary again on a 17-yard spurt. Onwenu picks up Connelly on a run blitz to spring the run loose.
Higdon goes out with an unknown eye issue (contact lens?), and the difference is felt immediately. Despite plowing the Badger front back again, Tru Wilson trips for only two yards.
Hamilton decides to get cute again, or as Ohio State fans pointed out, put something on tape.
This play is called "Let's Give MSU, PSU, and OSU Something Meaningless To Work On." pic.twitter.com/Z7Uwex0eOB— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) October 15, 2018
With the speed Dylan McCaffrey showed on his touchdown later, this may be an actual look Michigan will deploy in bigger matchups. For now, no teams are respecting him on bubble screen fakes, so Evans gets swallowed for a one-yard loss.
Patterson minimizes damage with another throwaway to lead to a punt.
Drive: Five plays, 27 yards, punt (Michigan leads 21-7)
DRIVE NINE, M 20-YARD LINE (2:24 THIRD QUARTER)
Michigan demonstrated proficiency in both gap-blocking and zone-blocking Saturday night. On the first play of the drive, the excel in the latter, as the left side all execute reach blocks. This allows Higdon to properly bounce outside for 16 yards.
He jabs his feet inside, and jukes to the perimeter. This sets up the defense to get sucked into the traffic.
The Wolverines run it eight more times in a row, mostly finding three to five yards of movement. It’s a little like the 2010 Wisconsin game, where Bret Bielema called for 30 consecutive runs against Greg Robinson’s defense.
Drive: 11 plays, 63 yards, field goal (Michigan scores a pick-six, leads 31-7)
GARBAGE TIME NOTES
Michigan shockingly was able to turn to backups in the fourth quarter. Both of the quarterbacks took advantage.
This isn’t the first time McCaffrey has shown off the wheels.
How bad is it going for Nebraska?— Due# (@JDue51) September 23, 2018
Dylan McCaffrey keeps on a zone read and his 75 yards. Wooof. pic.twitter.com/hvwJkecITd
In limited action, he has 126 yards passing (two touchdowns) and 85 yards on the ground with a score. There’s little doubt he could cope in an emergency.
Regarding the third-stringer in true freshman Joe Milton, he made up for his earlier botched run with zig-zagging 23-yarder.
He only put up 366 yards rushing at Olympia High in Orlando (Fla.), so the added element of mobility is a new luxury.
The fact that Michigan is toying with the likes of Wisconsin in this way in tantalizing for the future.
Michigan needed time to work their way into a dominant effort.
In the first half, outside of the Patterson run, a lone missed assignment or unfinished block turned big gains into little ones. Higdon only had 11 yards at the break.
With everyone from the tight ends to the fullbacks to the line in sync, Michigan scorched earth to the tune of 238 second-half rushing yards. Ruiz threw around the dangerman in Sagapolu, and multiple linemen got their mitts on elite linebackers in Connelly and Edwards.
The passing game, despite superb blocking, never really took flight. As mentioned earlier, Patterson relies on his scrambling to get into a rhythm a la John O’Korn. Since he’s a far superior talent, he gets away with it more often, but his decisions and the lack of receiver separation left points on the field.
With that said, 31 offensive points is a lot in a game without perfect execution. Going into Michigan State, who statistically plays worse pass defense (No. 77 per S&P), an uptick in performance could lead to Patterson’s first 300-yard day in maize and blue.
He may need to, as the Spartans boast the No. 1 rush defense in America.
No matter what, this line is light years ahead of where it was in the opener.