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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs Penn State defense

After a little struggling in the middle two quarters, the run game eventually hammered Penn State into submission.

Dustin Johnston

Halfway through the first quarter Saturday, Michigan seemed destined for a 42-7 type of game against Penn State.

After 76 yards fueled by eight runs on the opening drive, the offense bogged down for large stretches of the next two quarters — including a trio of three-and-outs. Seven minutes into the third, the score stood at only 14-0.

12 plays and 83 yards later, Zach Gentry snared a seven-yard touchdown pass from Shea Patterson to extend the lead to three scores. A maize and blue flood ensued, drowning James Franklin and the Nittany Lions under 21 fourth-quarter points.

Also buried? The memories of a sluggish middle portion of an otherwise dominant victory.


Defensive coordinator Brent Pry puts eight defenders in the box, as the right cornerback is lined up essentially as an outside linebacker on the edge. Karan Higdon gets slowed in the backfield by Shareef Miller, eventually falling forward for just a yard.

This is a product of some blockers failing to finish their assignments. Mike Onwenu struggles with his smallish defensive tackle, preventing him from getting to the second level. Zach Gentry is blown up by Miller, causing Sean McKeon to abandon a lead block. The untouched linebackers clean up the play.

Higdon breaks free next for a first down. McKeon blocks down, while Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson pull. Ruiz is able to push his man well back towards the first-down sticks.

Higdon’s 50-yard jaunt:

The formation is able to spread out the Penn State front seven. Pep Hamilton calls for three receivers and a flex tight end in Zach Gentry. With only six box defenders, Higdon knifes through the middle for a massive gain. Gentry flies across the formation to stone Miller, while Juwann Bushell-Beatty absorbs a linebacker.

The rest is underrated speed from the senior back.

Following a few grinding runs from Chris Evans, Harbaugh seemingly deployed his hammering fullback Ben Mason. The Nittany Lion end crashes down on a dive to “Bench” out of the pistol formation.

Shea Patterson perfectly pulls the handoff to waltz into the south end zone for a 7-0 advantage. Eight-play drive. All on the ground. Moreover, much of it on the punishing variety though out of the shotgun or pistol.

After a botched first play, the offensive line and lead blockers start off smarter and more physical than their blue and white foes.

Drive: Eight plays, 76 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 7-0)


Out of an empty set, Gentry motions to the left and is isolated one-on-one with PSU’s version of the Viper in Koa Farmer — who looks like a safety who had one too many sandwiches. Gentry beats him to the corner on a simple flat pass, where the receiver has run off the edge corner with a slant.

A short run by Evans is due to a late blocking pickup from tight end Nick Eubanks. Lined up as a wing, he comes across the formation and has to wall off the outside linebacker. Instead, he takes a beat to find someone, and by then it’s too late as Evans falls forward for one. Additionally, Bushell-Beatty isn’t able to fight off his double to get to the second level.

A safety doesn’t bite on the jet motion action from Donovan Peoples-Jones, crashing down on a Higdon dive for just three yards. Jon Runyan and Ben Bredeson bury their side to create a lane.

Patterson zips a slant between defenders to Peoples-Jones for a new set of downs. With the deep-ball ability of Nico Collins and Tarik Black, Peoples-Jones has shown plenty of possession-receiver acumen to be lethal in the slot.

Patterson airmails a screen to Higdon, which looked promising with two linemen erasing the two defenders on screen.

Higdon respond by muscling his way to six yards, but it could’ve been more with faster pulls from Onwenu and Bredeson. The former momentarily tries to help McKeon with Shareef Miller, instead of driving a linebacker out of the alley. Bredeson has trouble getting around the 350-pounder in the hole, getting to his defender late, as well.

Harbaugh tests the middle with a Mason dive out of the pistol for three. On fourth down, a linebacker makes a nice deflection on a hitch by Gentry.

Drive: Eight plays, 31 yards, turnover on downs (Michigan leads 7-0)


Hamilton — with the help of possible run-game coordinator Ed Warinner — calls the same off-tackle run to the right twice in a row. On the first, everyone gets to their man, but an unblocked safety flies upfield to hold Higdon to three. On the second, Higdon bounces outside, but then cuts past the same safety for eight yards.

Off play-action, Patterson converts a 47-yard bomb to a streaking Nico Collins to enter scoring position.

You can see Collins busting loose well before Patterson uncorks his pass. If Patterson leads Collins downfield, rather than inside closer to the safety, this could be a touchdown. However, 47 yards is 47 yards.

Higdon follows that up with a five-yard gain made solely by the line’s push. The Nittany Lion front is way undersized — no starters over 295 pounds — so the hefty Wolverine line could impose its will all afternoon.

Patterson bails out a pocket for no gain after no one gets open. The pass protection gives him enough time. On third down, Onwenu leans too far forward and whiffs on PSU’s Keith Givens. Higdon is blown up in the backfield to force a field goal...

...that is blocked.

Drive: Seven plays, 64 yards, missed field goal (Michigan leads 7-0)


Pry ups the defensive aggression on this drive. On the second play, Givens tries to fly upfield to pin Higdon in the backfield again. Warinner counters with a pull by Onwenu, who lines up right in front of Given, but a crushing down block by Bushell-Beatty. Higdon slices for six yards.

Pry dials up run blitzes by Jan Johnson and safety Nick Scott. The former overruns Higdon, while the latter grounds him after three yards. First down.

Hamilton counters Pry’s aggression, calling for a deep post to Peoples-Jones. It takes a last-second bat by the defensive back to prevent the touchdown, but the defense is off-balance.

Patterson steps up in the pocket to muster three yards for a manageable third down. An offsides by Robert Windsor makes it even more so.

The same run blitz from before stuffs Higdon for nothing to set up fourth-and-two. Mason barrels for a first down against a goal-line look from the defense.

A few plays later, Patterson works his way through the pocket to the right, and fires a 23-yard touchdown to Peoples-Jones in the corner. Michigan IMG Radio sideline announcer Jon Jansen has a good breakdown of the play.

Additionally, this is a throw Patterson didn’t make two weeks ago against Michigan State. His trust in his receivers and himself is growing by the week.

Drive: 10 plays, 48 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 14-0)


After a nifty punt return by Peoples-Jones, the Nittany Lions are on their heels. Pry tries to push Michigan back with a single edge zone blitz. He sends a nickel and a linebacker to swamp the right side of the line, and with Evans at running back, Patterson knows he won’t have an extra blocker. He fires a quick hitch to Collins for six.

Despite strong protection again on the next play, Patterson bails and ends up throwing it away. An ensuing draw plays loses three yards as he unsuccessfully bounces.

Drive: Three plays, -2 yards, punt (Michigan leads 14-0)

The offense gets the ball back just before the half. Patterson gets sacked after the defense identifies a screen well. Not bad protection, but just nowhere to go with the ball.


Higdon squirts ahead for just a yard on the first play. Gentry gets shoved backwards by Miller, which impedes the reads on a zone stretch to the right.

Evans gets a quick pass and jukes his way to five yards. This is a play that frequently went to the receivers before, but it’s a good way to get the shifty back involved.

A defensive back rakes the ball out of McKeon’s hands on a slant to force the punt.

Drive: Three plays, six yards, punt (Michigan leads 14-0)


With Pry clogging the interior with numbers and run blitzes, Michigan tries to test outside with a sweep. Despite a lead from Mason and a pulling Bredeson, the secondary forces the play back inside for just a yard.

After a Patterson keeper sets up third-and-one, a missed assignment from McKeon break Yetur Gross-Matos free to stone Higdon for nothing. The tight end acts like he’s working off a double, but he’s the outside man. He needs to account for the end.

Drive: Three plays, nine yards, punt (Michigan leads 14-0)


For all intent’s and purposes, this is the game-clinching drive. It features several elements of this offense at its best.

One, it lulls defenses to sleep with inside runs to eventually pop Patterson loose on a keeper — this time for 11 yards and a first down.

So far in the second half, Hamilton had called for four runs to his backs on eight plays. With Pry needing to make up for lack of size with aggression, this call takes advantage.

There’s Patterson papering over one of the few protection issues on the day, scrambling to his right and finding Peoples-Jones for six yards. While the tackle situation has ended up pretty solid, a mobile quarterback eliminates a few more sacks. Also, the receivers know how to adjust to his improvisation.

On the ensuing third down, you see a line creating a gaping hole on a loaded front. Runyan and Bredeson seal their side, while Cesar Ruiz and Onwenu’s size and short-area quickness get them far enough downfield to disrupt four defenders. Higdon sprints into the open field from there.

On a later third down, the offense adds a wrinkle with Evans on a flare. Two receivers run slants inside to clear defenders from the edge, as well as obstruct Koa Farmer’s pursuit. If Farmer has issues tracking down Gentry earlier, you know he’ll have no chance against Evans.

Lastly, the offense executes an RPO to perfection for an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown to Gentry.

Just to differentiate: an RPO is when the linemen block like it's a run, but the quarterback has the option to throw (key is not getting too far downfield to draw a flag). This is different than a play-action pass, where the linemen step backwards to create a pocket.

Either way, the promise of Harbaugh, Hamilton and Warinner merging to form a hybrid power-spread attack is being realized.

Note: The targeting reversal was probably the right call, though it sure looked like Oruwariye was aiming for the head. Even though he didn't hit it, the intent may have been malacious.

Drive: 13 plays, 90 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 28-0 after pick-six)


Patterson starts by checking down to Higdon for five yards. You can’t see it on the video, but Nico Collins is screamingly wide open. While his turnover aversion is nice, it costs some big plays at times.

He follows that up by moving the chains again with a seven-yard keeper. Kudos to the receivers for driving their men well downfield.

Speaking of receivers, welcome back, Tarik Black.

The holding needed to be called, since without Gentry grabbing jersey, that’s a sack or a scramble.

Runs from Evans, Patterson, Mason and Higdon make up for it, with Higdon punching it in from four yards out. Garbage time now.

Drive: Six plays, 53 yards, touchdown (Michigan wins 42-7 after garbage time ends)


This is a winning formula, at least in the Big Ten this year.

Pound away with Higdon. Punish over-aggression with Patterson keepers and play-action. Otherwise, don’t get too risky with quarterback play.

With that said, the defense gave the offense time to adjust to Pry’s aggressive scheme. Loaded fronts and double-run blitzes stalled momentum in the second and early third quarters.

It’s time to say this, though: Michigan has the conference’s best offensive line. One of the nation’s top pass-rushing units barely grazed Patterson, only getting to him once on a coverage sack. Add 259 yards on the ground, and it’s a third-straight dominating performance against quality competition.

With Tarik Black back, Patterson could start to rip it, as well. He’s erred on the conservative side with some deep balls, but he’s got enough weapons to punish better defenses now. It’s looking like he won’t have a Rudock awakening in November, though it doesn’t really look necessary at this point.

Michigan fans, it’s understandable to be brimming with confidence three weeks out from the trip to Columbus. This offense just pulverized three defenses better than the Buckeyes.