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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs Maryland defense

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Once Michigan started converting yards into points, it was game over for the Terrapins.

Dustin Johnston

The Michigan offense has taken massive steps since stubbing its toe against Notre Dame in the opener.

Obviously, the Irish boast a top-5 S&P defense, while the Terrapins have the No. 57 unit. With that said, the stats tell the story of massive growth on the line.

The front five allowed three sacks and seven TFL’s in South Bend. Last Saturday, a top-25 pass rush (2.75 sacks a game) failed to take down Shea Patterson, only hurrying him once. The Terps also possess a top-25 rush defense, which the Wolverines pounded for 171 yards on 4.3 yards a pop.

The numbers tell the story of a burgeoning offense succeeding against better and better defenses. The film tells the same story.

DRIVE ONE, M 15-YARD LINE (START OF GAME)

A perimeter block from Zach Gentry springs Karan Higdon for 18 yards on the first play. This is one of the few runs that breaks for double-digit yardage. Gentry had an up-and-down day as a blocker, though a stellar day through the air.

With Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh responding with an aggressive run blitz, Pep Hamilton dials a play-action pass off a split zone look, which sends Ben Mason open in the flat.

You may remember what happens next.

Most players with 6-foot-3, 254-pound size simply can’t do what he just did. Since Harbaugh unleashed him against Nebraska for short-yardage conversions, he has added useful elements to his game each week (power, burst, catching and a decent vertical).

Gentry draws a down-block assignment with Byron Cowart, a former five-star strong-side end who effectively bull rushes. The strength disparity pushes Gentry into the backfield, which strings Higdon out until he falls forward for a yard.

Patterson zips a ball to Grant Perry for six yards to set up third-and-three. The pass is behind, but since Buh decides not to put a nickel on Perry, it’s an easy pitch-and-catch.

Jesse Aniebonam blows up the third-and-short run by Higdon by beelining to the ball-carrier. Patterson is executing a read-option, but doesn’t sell a potential keeper. While he converted late against Northwestern, defenses still don’t trust he’s a consistent threat.

Drive: Five plays, 40 yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)

DRIVE TWO, M 20-YARD LINE (8:48 FIRST QUARTER)

Michigan deploys an empty set for the first time to perfect execution. The line absorbs a three-man rush, giving Patterson enough time to hit Gentry on a curl route over the middle for 12 yards.

Patterson throws two straight incompletions, with no receivers getting separation. The offensive line gives him several seconds to read the defense.

Perry snags a slant for a first down, finding tons of space after Gentry runs off two defensive backs with a fly route.

Watch Perry motion behind Gentry. It’s a play design very reminiscent of what the Seattle Seahawks drew up in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots. While Malcolm Butler picks off the Russell Wilson pass, this video explains how much preparation was needed to stop this very difficult-to-defend play.

Higdon pushes the pile for three yards on the next play, which could have been more if Juwann Bushell-Beatty kept his paws on Cowart. Since the rest of the line pushes the Terrapin front back three yards, Higdon can waltz to positive yardage, otherwise.

Following an offsides, Higdon runs away from a weak side blitz for an easy 12 yards. Props to Nico Collins for a stock block on the cornerback. He needs to win those battles with his huge frame.

Jon Runyan Jr. fails to finish a block on Cowart on the ensuing first down, but just like before, the rest of the line plows the front for four yards. A batted pass and an inaccurate, but completed, flat pass to Sean McKeon set up fourth-and-one.

Michigan lines up with Ben Mason offset, differing from their usual I-formation look in these situations. The issue is with the play-call, as Mason gets the handoff on a side with three blockers for four hitters. Maryland slants right into Mason’s gap, stuffing the run for a turnover on downs.

Harbaugh and Hamilton tried a different look. They may just stick with the tried and true old one going forward.

Drive: 10 plays, 56 yards, turnover on downs (Game tied 0-0)

DRIVE THREE, M 45-YARD LINE (3:01 FIRST QUARTER)

Patterson patiently waits in the pocket for four seconds while Gentry streaks open on a deep crossing route on first down. Not only is it hard to cover the 6-foot-8 flex one-on-one, but he can find the soft spots in Maryland’s Cover Three zone. 31 yards.

Buh has his corner crash down on Higdon for a three-yard gain on the next play. Michigan has been one block away from breaking huge runs, and this time, Collins whiffs on a perimeter stock block.

An incompletion and a quick flat to McKeon force fourth down and a Quinn Nordin field goal.

Drive: Five plays, 39 yards, field goal (Maryland scores to lead 7-3)

DRIVE FOUR, M 27-YARD LINE (1:04 FIRST QUARTER)

Michigan runs stretch left to Higdon, and Bredeson gets dumped by his defender in the backfield. This limits the run to two yards.

This leads to Patterson’s only turnover in a deflected interception.

This isn’t a great drive for Bredeson, whose assignment spins off him to flush the quarterback out of the pocket. While the throw is a forced jump ball to Gentry that gets tipped, it’s a pretty blasé turnover. You expect a loping tight end to win that battle, and instead, the defender makes the play.

Drive: Two plays, two yards, interception (Maryland leads 7-3)

DRIVE FIVE, M 5-YARD LINE (14:20 SECOND QUARTER)

This drive was covered extensively in this week’s Inflection Point.

To reiterate, this drive featured all of the 2018 offense’s potential. There was:

  • The offensive line pushing the nation’s No. 18 rush defense back three yards each play.
  • Karan Higdon, and Owen Schmitt impersonator Ben Mason, refusing to shy from contact.
  • Accurate deep-ball from Patterson to Collins for 51 yards.
  • All the time in the world for Patterson, including maligned left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. stoning former No. 3 overall recruit Byron Cowart.
  • Creativity with a reverse-turned-pass by Grant Perry, despite an NCAA 14 arm strength rating of 40.

Runyan winning a battle with a former five-star was not a sentence anyone predicted to be written.

Drive: 11 plays, 95 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 10-7)

DRIVE SIX, M 36-YARD LINE (5:15 SECOND QUARTER)

There’s a positive and negative way to view the running in this game. I mentioned the pros earlier: the Wolverines averaged more than four yards per carry against a top-25 rush defense. Additionally, Mason and Tru Wilson are able to spell Higdon to prevent hits from wearing out the starting back.

On the negative side, the pattern of one unsustained block persists, as Ruiz fails to impede an incoming linebacker on a second-down two-yard gain by Higdon.

In the first half alone, the senior saw 12 runs of four yards or less. Bill Connelly of S&P ranks Buh’s defense at No. 4 in big-play avoidance (20 yards or less), but regardless, Michigan cannot botch these chances at big plays against Wisconsin, Michigan State or Penn State.

On the bright side of that coin, Michigan averages only 5.5 yards per third down, best in the country.

The offense slowly matriculates down the field, almost busting a big play off a screen fake.

Michigan has been setting up this play for weeks. Remember the frustrating rocket screen to Collins? Why weren’t they to Donovan Peoples-Jones, you might ask? The answer is the latter is far more dangerous streaking down the seam on plays like these. If Patterson’s throw is true, this is an easy touchdown.

Patterson makes up for this with a 22-yard score to freshman Ronnie Bell.

Field-level angle.

Some say Patterson got lucky by not throwing a pick. Others say it was just brilliant improvisation. It’s probably somewhere in between.

Sure, a better defensive back breaks on the ball to at least bat the pass away. However, credit goes to Patterson for recognizing a flat-footed defender and perfectly leading Bell — despite scrambling to his left and needing to twist his body to fire.

This is who Harbaugh, heck, the Michigan fanbase signed up for when Patterson traded Oxford for Ann Arbor. He’s a mad gunslinger who sometimes tosses tipped interceptions (see drive four), and other times he whips one across his body to make the score 17-7.

Drive: 12 plays, 64 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads at halftime 17-7)

DRIVE SEVEN, M 44-YARD LINE (11:48 FIRST QUARTER)

Higdon is thrown for a three-yard loss after Aniebonam slices past Gentry. The tight ends have overall improved as blockers, but this is just a tough assignment for Gentry. The Terrapin racked up nine sacks in 2016, and, when healthy, is a terror.

Gentry makes up for it on the next play with a 19-yard gain on a seam route. Hamilton dials up another empty set, while Buh responds with eight in coverage. While Michigan certainly pass protected well Saturday, Maryland rarely stunted or blitzed, which allowed Patterson to get comfortable.

Speaking of which:

That’s five Terrapin rushers for seven Wolverine blockers. Only a questionable holding on Wilson prevents the touchdown from standing.

Nice acting from the defender. What does this remind me of?

Michigan settles for another Nordin field goal.

Drive: Eight plays, 43 yards, field goal (Michigan leads 20-7)

DRIVE EIGHT, MARY 43-YARD LINE (5:26 THIRD QUARTER)

What a sequence to start the drive.

First, Buh only sends three rushers again to give Patterson enough time to crochet a sweater. The pass eventually finds Higdon in the flat, who is a small step out of bounds from scoring.

The play is technically offset due to the following penalties.

Peoples-Jones looks like he’s blocking the defender in the back, and it likewise does look like targeting. Regarding Peoples-Jones, I would want to see another angle to see if the two were tussling before the camera found them. If the defender is wrestling with a block, and gets turned around, it’s not a penalty.

Citing from Rule Nine, Article Six from the NCAA Rule Book, an exception to blocking in the back exists:

“When a player turns his back to a potential blocker who has committed himself in intent and direction of movement.”

Peoples-Jones responds to the crushing hit with a touchdown off a Patterson escape.

Buh shows six rushers, eventually sending five. A free hitter almost gets to Patterson, who spins out and finds the receiver. With series after series of three to four-man rushes, the changeup confuses Ruiz and the line call.

The rest is Peoples-Jones following a convoy to the end zone.

Drive: Five plays, 43 yards, touchdown (Maryland scores, Michigan leads 27-14)

DRIVE NINE, M 19-YARD LINE (11:23 FOURTH QUARTER)

H/T to Due# on Twitter for cutting this video already.

This drive belongs to Wilson. Truly, it does. Also Jared Wangler.

There’s the much ballyhooed clip going around of him blocking two defenders on one pass play.

There’s him following Ruiz on a pull for 28 yards. The Terrapin linebackers react slowly, as Wilson to this point on the afternoon has mostly featured as a third-down pass blocker.

He even serves as a safety valve for Patterson on a scramble, drawing a facemask.

Lastly, Wangler slips open in the right corner of the end zone for a tumbling touchdown. This drive highlighted two players, one a former walk-on and the other a little-used fifth-year senior that languished on the sideline for years.

Moreover, Maryland didn’t account for them. Future defenses should, since Harbaugh is going to use all the bullets in his bandolier.

Drive: Nine plays, 81 yards, touchdown (Michigan pick-six, Maryland touchdown leads to a 42-21 final)

FINAL THOUGHTS

It seems Maryland thought it could create pressure on Michigan with just their defensive line. Since Runyan and Bushell-Beatty held up well against Aniebonam and Cowart, this gave Patterson all the time he needed to dissect the secondary.

The quarterback finished 19-of-27 for 282 yards and three scores.

Likewise, the Terps played the running game straight up, rather than twisting or stunting to create tackles for loss. While it prevented many big plays, it physically wore them down late (evidence: the Wilson drive).

Michigan showed some wrinkles, particularly the failed screen-fake and go to Peoples-Jones and the gadget play by Perry. While they were slick plays, did the Wolverines really need them to best Maryland, or should they have saved them for Wisconsin and beyond?

Overall, it was 35 offensive points and 463 total yards against the S&P No. 57 defense. If that doesn’t seem impressive, remember that Wisconsin ranks No. 55.

It’s been a slow build since the debacle at Notre Dame. Very quietly, the Wolverines boast the No. 25 offense nationally per S&P.

The next three games will test if that number is for real.