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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs MSU defense

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The good? Nearly 200 yards rushing against the S&P No. 1 rush defense. The bad? Shea Patterson nearly turned the ball over a few more times.

Dustin Johnston

44 out of 49.

It’s the stat that emerges every year around the time Michigan plays Michigan State. It’s the amount of times the victor in the series has rushed for more yardage the last 49 games.

On the back of Karan Higdon, the Wolverines tallied 183 to the Spartans’ 15. The 168-yard difference between the rivals is the most in the series since 2013 — the year Brady Hoke’s team managed negative-48.

There’s a problem with solely hyper-focusing on yards on the ground, especially since Jim Harbaugh came to town. The more productive run game has decided the winner twice in the last four contests.

In 2015, both teams struggled to less than two yards a pop, with Michigan squeaking out four more total. In 2016, the Spartans amassed 219 to the Wolverine’s 192.

The real gauge for the series in the Harbaugh era has been quarterback play. Jake Rudock missed far too many deep throws to keep MSU within striking distance. Wilton Speight played one of his best games in East Lansing. Brian Lewerke stayed out of his own way, watching his counterpart John O’Korn throw three picks.

In 2018:

Shea Patterson had to clear a low bar to outduel Lewerke on Saturday. We turn to the film to see how well he and the offense performed over 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness in Spartan Stadium.

DRIVE ONE, M 25-YARD LINE (START OF GAME)

Under heavy pressure, Patterson misfires on an out route to Grant Perry.

Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel — son of that Tressel — send two linebackers on an inside blitz. This is the vaunted double A-gap blitz featured the last decade in East Lansing. Ben Bredeson picks up one, but Cesar Ruiz is late coming off a slant from the defensive tackle and fails to impede the other blitzer.

On second down, Patterson takes a keeper for six yards off read option to Higdon. Sean McKeon comes from the opposite end of the formation on an arc block on the perimeter, but whiffs on safety Khari Willis. Once Michigan starts sucking the safeties inside with interior runs, this play later punishes MSU’s aggressiveness.

Perry runs a hitch, sits in a zone vacated by a linebacker flying to the line of scrimmage and catches a seven-yarder for a first down. Despite pressure against an empty set, the line holds up to allow an easy pitch-and-catch.

On first down, both guards pull to lead Chris Evans to a four-yard gain. Since McKeon couldn’t slow Jacub Panasiuk, Bredeson is forced to shorten his pull. Evans runs into the second level without a convoy.

Ronnie Bell trips on Nick Eubanks’ foot to turn a big chunk into a three-yard run. McKeon walling off Kenny Willekes almost busts this one loose.

Patterson makes a bad read, giving to Higdon for no gain in the thick of the Spartan’s No. 1 rush defense. Macomb (Mich.) Dakota assistant coach James Light had a great summary:

If he pulls, he likely replicates the 81-yard jaunt against Wisconsin.

Drive: Six plays, 20 yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)

DRIVE TWO, M 16-YARD LINE (7:51 FIRST QUARTER)

Pep Hamilton uses Zach Gentry on a short hitch, essentially blocking for Evans on a flare. If Evans sprints to the corner, it might be a first down. Instead, he dances too much to muster only nine yards.

Ben Mason converts the second-and-short, but with a twist from previous weeks. Against Maryland, he motioned to the weak side of the formation, and ran straight into an overloaded front. Every other time, it’s a wedge play behind the beef of Ruiz, Michael Onwenu and Juwann Bushell-Beatty.

This time, he motions to the weak side, but takes a handoff towards the strong side behind zone-blocking.

Patterson then finds McKeon in the flat off play-action for eight. Hamilton is attempting to throw on first down to keep the Spartans from teeing off on the run.

With seven blockers for seven defenders, and the edge defender ensuring no quarterback keeper, Higdon rips through the interior for six yards. He bulls over Willis for the final yardage.

Willis makes up for it on first down, flying upfield to hold Patterson to four yards on another keeper. Perry gets caught in the traffic inside, and can’t get to the second level to obstruct the safety.

The first play out of the rain delay, nobody up front decides it’s a good idea to block Raequan Williams. He smothers Higdon for a two-yard loss.

Nico Collins recovers to haul in a tipped pass for a first down on third-and-eight. There’s a lot to say about this play.

First, impeccable protection on a complicated stunt from MSU. Operating out of a 3-3-5, they try to twist the tackle and a linebacker to get four rushers on the left side of the line. From Jon Runyan to Onwenu, everyone holds up to give Patterson time.

Next, what an effort from Collins. Lastly, Patterson doesn’t make a great decision here. Perry is tightly covered a few yards from the sticks. If complete there, it’s not a first down. Instead, he gets lucky it’s not intercepted.

With a new set of downs, though, he rebounds with a nice strike to Nick Eubanks for 25. McKeon stones Willekes from across the formation.

The line imposes their will on five straight runs, setting up third-and-goal from the six.

Patterson fires a rope through a tight window to Collins for the opening score.

Drive: 14 plays, 84 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE THREE, M 30-YARD LINE (12:41 SECOND QUARTER)

Hamilton calls the same play out of two different formations on first and second down. Mason takes a handoff out of an Ace formation with two tight ends for three yards. He turns the corner well for a 250-pounder, aiding by pulling guards.

After offsetting penalties wipe out a Patterson throwaway, Higdon manages only two out of a shotgun handoff. Same pulling guards, but more Spartans at the line of scrimmage.

Michigan State is all over a wheel route to Perry, which Patterson sails out of bounds.

Drive: Three plays, five yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE FOUR, M 49-YARD LINE (10:14 SECOND QUARTER)

McKeon rumbles for 16 yards on the first play of the drive, setting up first-and-10 deep in Spartan territory. Tressel sends six rushers, but Runyan releases to escort McKeon for a new set of downs.

The play looks very similar to the McKeon touchdown versus Minnesota last year.

Next play, Patterson steps up, scrambles to his right and steps out of bounds after five yards.

On second down, Bell motions to the right, and then suddenly motions right back to take a jet sweep. Michigan State is not fooled, as four defenders occupy the edge with just two blockers to help Bell. It loses five.

Hamilton is able to isolate Evans on the corner on third down, but Nyquan Jones tips the pass to force an incompletion. Evans has a step on his man, and likely gets the necessary yardage without Jones’ play.

Drive: Four plays, 11 yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE FIVE, MSU 43-YARD LINE (7:11 SECOND QUARTER)

Willekes stuffs Higdon for no gain on first down. He dekes a lunging Runyan to penetrate the backfield.

Patterson has to throw it away with a pressuring corner closing in on him. The MSU line slants away from the blitz, drawing Bushell-Beatty away from protection.

After a quick throw to Gentry on a out route for five yards, Jim Harbaugh calls for the punt. The throw seemed like a decision one makes when in four-down territory, but Harbaugh instead relies on his defense.

Good choice, but more on that in the defensive section.

Drive: Three plays, five yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE SIX, M 42-YARD LINE (4:07 SECOND QUARTER)

Onwenu is late on his pull to wall off Willekes. Higdon makes this irrelevant and shoots the Wolverines into the red zone.

After more poundings from the senior back on the next two plays, Andrew Dowell sacks Patterson. Donovan Peoples-Jones is open in the corner, but his quarterback hesitates for too long.

Sometimes, Michigan’s receivers don’t get open consistently (Notre Dame, Northwestern), but other times, Patterson is too safe with the ball. This was the latter.

Nordin shanks a knuckleball wide left, and three straight possessions deep into MSU territory end with zero points.

Drive: Five plays, 40 yards, missed field goal (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE SEVEN: Despite good field position, Michigan conducts another three-and-out to go into the half up 7-0.

DRIVE EIGHT, M 11-YARD LINE (12:51 THIRD QUARTER)

With the weather turning for the worse, Dantonio’s defense turns up the heat. First, Willekes erupts from his stance to shove Gentry three yards into the backfield. This upends Higdon for a two-yard loss and fires up the Spartans.

Two plays later, Evans loses a fumble. MSU ratchets up the aggression on third-and-long, and the draw play has no chance anyways.

Evans doesn’t tote the ball again for the rest of the game.

Drive: Three plays, -4 yards, fumble (MSU scores, game tied 7-7)

DRIVE NINE, M 11-YARD LINE (11:12 THIRD QUARTER)

A defensive end respects Patterson on the read-option long enough for Higdon to power for four yards.

Higdon makes a bad cut on the next play and loses a yard. Williams blows up Bredeson in the backfield, but if Higdon cuts behind them he falls for positive yards. Instead, he bounces and is strung out.

Patterson makes his worst decision of the day, throwing well-behind Perry almost into the arms of Willis. Perry rakes the ball to force an incompletion and prevent another short-field for the MSU offense.

The other benefit? Shakur Brown fumbles it and gives the ball right back to Michigan. This sequence flipped field position and kept Spartan points off the board.

Bushell-Beatty then accounts for one of the few protection blemishes on the day. Willekes beats him cleanly on the edge to down Patterson in the pocket.

Considering past performances against MSU, two sacks — one of them a coverage one — is stark improvement.

Willekes shakes Bushell-Beatty again, but passive coverage allows Patterson to zip a 10-yard pass to Perry on a curl.

Perry slants for 13 yards and a new set of downs. Collins runs off the coverage, and Perry works underneath to find open space.

This is the same play design Hamilton used for a first down in the Maryland game (also to Perry).

Higdon trucks forward for eight yards, as Bushell-Beatty gets revenge by washing Willekes down the line. Onwenu also crushes Williams to create a gaping hole.

The weather rears it ugly head, as the slick turf cause Higdon to stumble. This throws off the exchange with Patterson, as they both fumble to relinquish possession.

This is the fifth drive in MSU territory with no points.

Drive: Eight plays, 26 yards plus the fumbled punt, fumble (Game tied 7-7)

DRIVE 10, M 18-YARD LINE (5:16 THIRD QUARTER)

While Higdon only finds three yards on first down, the whole line created that gain. MSU ranks near the top of the country in line yards at 1.69. This means the defenders contact a ball-carrier before they cross two yards ahead of the line of scrimmage (meaning little push up front).

Tressel counters with eight in the box, and Higdon is forced wide for nothing.

Nobody breaks open on third down, and Patterson almost throws a pick off his back foot to Xavier Henderson.

Drive: Three plays, two yards, punt (Game tied 7-7)

DRIVE 11, M 21-YARD LINE (2:35 THIRD QUARTER)

A play that possibly flips the rivalry for the near future.

For all the mistakes he made Saturday, Patterson is a big reason the Wolverines won. Remember Jake Rudock missing deep ball after deep ball in 2015?

For all of his transition warts, Patterson is the best quarterback of the Harbaugh era. He lofts a perfect ball to Peoples-Jones, who is open but not by an absurd margin. If the eye test doesn’t convince you, his numbers should.

Rudock is having a cup of coffee in the NFL. Patterson is on pace to explode this last month, and earn himself some bread with that java.

Drive: One play, 79 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 14-7)

DRIVE 12, M 16-YARD LINE (2:02 THIRD QUARTER)

One play after Patterson make the play of his Michigan career, he almost blows it with a throw behind Peoples-Jones. Luck just happens to be on his side this afternoon.

After a solid five-yarder from Higdon, he spurts ahead for 14 to move the chains. The key block comes from Gentry, who buries Willekes on a down block. Michigan is getting stronger, and MSU is wilting late.

Three plays later, Harbaugh finds his team in fourth-and-two. After holding off on keepers since the first quarter, he unleashes it for a pivotal first down.

The Spartans brace for a Ben Mason thumping up the middle, which commits Dowell inside. Patterson runs into the open space for 11 yards.

Higdon ricochets off a tackler and muscles his way for nine yards. All blockers get a hat on a hat, especially Bredeson. He plants a linebacker at the first down sticks.

The line shoves the MSU front back for another first down. Unfortunately, Jacub Panasiuk tries to roll Ruiz’s ankles. Onwenu comes to his defense, and the refs call offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. This is how Onwenu responded later.

Panasiuk did not respond on social media.

Another Patterson 11-yarder makes it first-and-goal. He options off Willekes, which undermines his aggression.

Mason provides the exclamation point, and nails the coffins shut on the Spartans.

It doesn’t matter if nine are in the box. Ben “Inertia” Mason bulls his way behind a pile-driving line. He trucks the one free hitter.

Drive: 13 plays, 84 yards, touchdown (Michigan wins 21-7 after two drives run out clock)

FINAL THOUGHTS

With the weather on their side, the Spartans played far more aggressively than they had most of the year. In the preview, I showed how young corners were asked to play well off receivers to prevent big plays.

This led to smaller windows for Patterson, who almost paid for inaccuracy and bad decisions a handful of times. On the other hand, the play of the game was Peoples-Jones torching an overaggressive corner, and Patterson hitting him in stride for 79 yards.

While a little bit of luck goes into his numbers, he made the decisive plays when needed. Along with the throw, he converted two first downs on the game-clinching drive with his feet, perfectly executing read-option both times.

Regarding the line, it was a solid performance made more impressive by beating an excellent and spirited MSU front seven. Sure, sometimes tight ends lost assignments, or Bushell-Beatty lost to Willekes. Overall, it was a workmanlike performance where blockers knew where to go.

Going into the bye week, two things need to get resolved. One, receivers need to deal with press coverage and create separation more consistently. Two, Patterson needs to trust his reads and protection if he wants to limit future mistakes.

Continuing with the 2015 Rudock comparison, this is where Patterson should take flight. Coinciding with Rudock’s emergence into an NFL Draft pick was Jehu Chesson starting to torch everyone in sight. If Peoples-Jones repeats that development, this offense starts to look even scarier.

Encouragingly, no other defense even approaches what MSU presents up front. With 144 yards against the in-state rivals, Higdon is not only barreling towards 1,000 yards...

He could earn finalist honors for the Doak Walker Award.

November foes, beware.