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Film Focus: Michigan vs Northwestern 2018

Yes, Michigan lost the first 17 minutes against Northwestern. The film shows an impressive, albeit grinding performance over the final 43.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a quick peek at the Maize n Brew Slack chat.

Recent history shows needing a comeback to beat Northwestern in Evanston doesn’t spell doom for the rest of the season.

The stats tell of a dominating effort in the final 43 minutes. When the Wildcats seized a 17-0 lead near the start of the second quarter, the Wolverines trailed 145-21 in total yardage. Over the next three quarters, Michigan out-gained Northwestern 355-57 and scored 20 unanswered points.

The film relays the same message: Jim Harbaugh’s offense slowly pounded the home team, while the defense suffocated offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s attack.

No full film this week. Searched high and low, and no full game video exists online. Format is a drive-by-drive analysis. H/T to Wolverine Devotee. Understand that these are highlights, but I will work to judge fairly. Obviously, lots of negative to point out.



Michigan starts on offense, promptly going three-and-out. After Donovan Peoples-Jones gains an easy five yards on a hitch, Ronnie Bell gets thrown for a loss of two on a jet sweep.

Michigan deploys two tight ends to the left, but outside linebacker Nate Hall beats a double from Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon to force Bell to bounce. A safety cleans up the play.

The line allows their only sack of the night on the next play. It’s really on the receivers, as Shea Patterson has five seconds to throw before stepping into the arms of Joe “The Gaz” Gaziano.


Slant-aggedon beings. Quarterback Clayton Thorson lines up in a four-wide shotgun look, and tries to clear space in the middle with two actions. First, a play-action fake to the running back to draw the linebackers. Two, an inside slant to draw away Tyree Kinnel. By beating David Long, the receiver has plenty of room for seven yards on first down.

Next, John Moten IV — who replaced medically-retired starter Jeremy Larkin in the backfield — beats Devin Gil on a flat pass. New set of downs.

JJ Jefferson then takes a tunnel screen 36 yards all the way to the one-yard line. This is both good offensive execution and bad fits by the defense. The Wildcat line cuts Michael Dwumfour to the ground, not allowing him to pursue to the sideline. Also, they draw screen-killer Devin Bush away with a flare route by Moten.

Despite this, Kinnel gets a one-on-one situation with Jefferson, but fails to sift through the traffic. Jefferson breaks a tackle from Lavert Hill, and only Long prevents the score.

Thorson plunges into the end zone on a sneak.


U-M BALL, OWN 14-YARD LINE (10:17)

Harbaugh sends out an unbalanced line to the left, and pulls Michael Onwenu to that side. Higdon gets stopped for a minimal gain, as Paddy Fisher flies into the hole. Defensive coordinator Mike Hanwitz sends seven defenders for six blockers, overloading the run.

Two incompletions lead to another punt. There’s time to throw, but few open receivers.


Two Thorson throws beat Michigan safeties early in the drive. First, Kyric McGowan finds separation on a corner route against Josh Metellus for 15 yards, and after a play, Flynn Nagel snags another slant for nine yards on Kinnel’s coverage.

After a personal foul and another first down, Northwestern makes its first mistake — offensive pass interference. Now second-and-25, Chase Winovich swims past a tackle inside and slams a run in the backfield for a loss of four.

A less aggressive player would contain to force the play back to the middle. Winovich instead pushes the Purple almost outside field goal range, but their 1-for-3 kicker converts from 45 yards.



Fast-forward to 2nd-and-2 at the Wildcat 49-yard line. First, Patterson play-action fakes, sets under great protection and launches a perfect strike to McKeon on the sideline. Alas, the the junior tight ends drops it. With a catch, Michigan is sniffing the red zone.

Next, Patterson tries a rocket screen — a throw straight to outside receiver Nico Collins. Two problems arise: One, Peoples-Jones barely impedes a crashing nickel back, and two, Collins is slow out of his cuts. He only gains a yard for a 4th-and-short situation.

Higdon fails to get the first down, as Fisher beats a pulling Onwenu to the gap again. The play call here is too fancy. Rather than risk a disciplined linebacker reading a play beautifully, use your 300-pounders in Ruiz, Onwenu and Juwann Bushell-Beatty to wedge forward with 265-pound Ben Mason behind them.


On 3rd-and-6, Don Brown calls for a matchup zone coverage, as Kinnel patrols the middle for any inside routes. Long passes the Northwestern receiver to him, but he’s a touch late on his break towards the pass. Move the chains.

Thorson is just in rhythm now. He uncorks a throw low and inside, which only his receiver can catch. When Metellus and Kinnel covered the slots early, Thorson looked extremely comfortable.

Long tugs at Bennet Skowronek to prevent a touchdown on a fade. A few plays later, Kinnel hesitates too long before filling his run lane, allowing a touchdown on the ground.



U-M BALL, OWN 21-YARD LINE (12:49)

I called for Mason on the last drive. Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton listened.* Look at how he unloads on Fisher to spring Higdon for an 18-yarder.

*They don’t know who I am.

The blocking scheme here is simple: hat on a hat. The purple jerseys are pushed two to three yards downfield.

After a Higdon run* and a Collins catch set up 3rd-and-short, Patterson gives the ball to Mason behind wedge-blocking for a first down. Easy call with all that heft up front.

*Watch Fisher take out his anger on Ruiz.

Hankwitz goes with cover-two on the next play. The way to beat that is with a corner route, and Nick Eubanks runs to the gap to catch a 21-yard pass from Patterson. After only one catch for 10 yards against Notre Dame, Eubanks chipped in two for 45 on Saturday.

The following reverse to Peoples-Jones exemplifies the difference Ed Warinner is making.

Look at that convoy. Bushell-Beatty works from the right tackle spot through Northwestern traffic to drive a safety out of bounds. Ruiz bounces off Gaziano, and locates a defensive back to push into the end zone. Jon Runyan is also in the mix.

How many times in 2017 did you see linemen not knowing who to block? With Warinner, the big boys are making more decisive decisions.

On top of this, it’s superb play design. Opponents key on the jet sweep whenever Ambry Thomas — or Eddie McDoom countless times before him — motion towards the quarterback. Instead, the motion draws the defense to one side, while Peoples-Jones is sprinting down the other boundary.

Mason neutralizes Fisher again to spring Higdon for the touchdown.



While the highlights skip to the third quarter, there are two plays that deserve mention before continuing.

Skip to 1:05 below.

The difference between a decent gain and a 30-yarder here is the block from Gentry. He engages with Fisher, absorbing a violent hit but managing to impede him just enough to spring Higdon free. Improved tight end blocking will be key against the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Defensively, Kwity Paye’s sack — discussed in Inflection Point — turned the tide for the defense.



After yet another slant to Nagel for a first down, Michigan pins Thorson for a two-yard loss. Rashan Gary and Carlo Kemp twist, finding themselves surrounding Thorson behind the line of scrimmage.

Northwestern then executes its best run of the day (nine yards). Dwumfour is stopped cold one-on-one and Moten scurries through the hole untouched. This goes back to Dwumfour versus Notre Dame, where he failed to maintain gap discipline.

Fortunately for the defense, nobody blocks Winovich. It doesn’t go well.

U-M BALL, OWN 26-YARD LINE (12:23)

The line is simply blowing the Northwestern front off the ball. Hankwitz’s only counter is devoting more resources to loading the box.

Case in point: Higdon goes for seven, more defenders creep towards the line and then Higdon gains two. Mason converts a first down behind another wedge.

A few plays later, Patterson scrambles for a first down. Other than displaying quick feet, this play displays an issue that plagued John O’Korn in 2017: abandoning reads too soon and relying on legs.

Don’t take this as Patterson equals O’Korn, but if he stays calm in the pocket he might have found Bell open early on his wheel route.

With that said, Patterson is already ahead of the curve in development, compared to 2015 transfer Jake Rudock.

The visual proof? Rudock took two months to hit receivers like this on deep routes.

On 1sr-and-goal, Tru Wilson squirts through the hole for six. Ruiz reaches the second level quickly after the snap, sealing a linebacker. He’s not perfect, but for a first-year starter at center, he is progressing every week.

Hankwitz overloads the line, sending eight defenders at six blockers to throw Higdon for a loss. Patterson then barely misses a fade throw to an open Grant Perry. The 11-play drive leads to a Quinn Nordin field goal.



Another slant. A short run. First Down. A sack.

This is the pattern for much of the second half. This time, Dwumfour gets the takedown.

He almost transports himself into the backfield, looking like Maurice Hurst en route to Thorson. If he can stay in his lane as a run defender, he’ll become consistently dangerous.


Three Higdon runs lead to a first down. The one on third down (12:13 in the highlights) show how much the line is winning up front. The Wildcats send nine defenders in the box, and the Wolverines have eight blockers. They need a yard, and get two.

Later, Hankwitz deploys six rushers on a 3rd-and-6. Hamilton uses just five linemen to block, as well as Higdon. Everyone picks up their assignment, giving Patterson the time to roll out and find Gentry for a first down on the sideline.

This is the Warinner effect.

The next play, Eubanks snares an acrobatic 24-yard grab to get into the red zone. Again, notice the clean pocket for the quarterback.

The drive stalls after Onwenu is too slow to pick up Gaziano on a pull, creating a three-yard loss. Patterson misses an open Collins on a slant, setting up Nordin to end the quarter with another short chip-shot.




The pattern persists until Josh Ross loudly announces he should be the starter at WILL.

Clean hit.

Also, outside of a couple slants, Thorson has no room to throw.

U-M BALL, OWN 37-YARD LINE (13:44)

This is the Higdon holding drive. What else is there to say?

One of the worst holding calls ever. The referees weren’t egregiously against Michigan, otherwise — some missed PI calls, throwing the rare flag for defensive holding — but this call is simply mind-boggling.

It throws the offense off schedule, forcing a punt after a high throw from Patterson.


The pressure is rattling Thorson. He actually has Skowronek open on a slant, but turfs it. The next play, he abandons the pocket, losing a footrace with Josh Uche.

Credit needs to go to Dwumfour and Paye for gap integrity, which prevented Thorson from stepping forward.

U-M BALL, OWN 33-YARD LINE (10:05)

This game-winning drive displays everything to like about the 2018 offense.

Michigan is finding ways to slow down aggressiveness from linebackers. On the first play, Perry’s motion forces a momentary read from Fisher and Blake Gallagher, giving Higdon enough time to build momentum to plow for a first down.

Against aggressive linebackers such as Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards and Michigan State’s Joe Bachie, these types of wrinkles can buy blockers time to latch onto their assignments.

Next, Hankwitz thinks he can use a linebacker to cover Gentry on a deep out. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch.

Patterson then bails out Ben Bredeson and Ruiz for beefing on a twist. Ruiz bites on the stunting tackle, running into Bredeson. The twisting end gets a free run at Patterson, who scoots for a first down, juking a lineman dropping into a short zone.

Later, he rifles the ball to Gentry on a seam route, just beating a breaking safety.

Finally, Higdon scores on another wrinkle. This is a split-zone run, as the line slants left. As Northwestern reacts to that, Mason crashes across to lead block for Higdon. Also, the end respects Patterson pulling the ball on a keeper, so the middle is wide-open.

Improved play design. Stronger run blocking. Mismatches with tight ends. Quarterback improvisation and arm strength. This drive emphasized the difference between 2017 and now.

The final three drives run out the clock, without much of a threat.


The slow start was a combination of Northwestern intensity, a new game plan that made Thorson resemble Kliff Kinsbury and too much frippery on run plays.

Once the offense imposed their massive size on the Northwestern front, Higdon started busting loose. Between Gaziano, Fisher and Nate Hall, this is a good Wildcat run defense. Michigan clearing four yards a pop is nothing to dismiss.

The passing game took some step back before emerging once again in the final quarter. Patterson’s airmailed some passes, and the receivers were mostly held in check by an undermanned secondary. Considering the offensive line picked up stunts well, give or take a few hiccups, and only ceded one sack, the passing game should have thrived.

Defensively, they just needed time to adjust to the curve balls thrown at them. Ross looks like the future at WILL, too.

The only recurring problems are safeties covering slots and defensive tackles holding up against the run. There are flashes of improvement, but consistency is a must. Thinking about the safeties covering the likes of Penn State’s K.J. Hamler or Ohio State’s Parris Campbell should give Michiganders hives.

At the end of the day, Harbaugh and company gutted out a conference road win despite spotting the home team 17 points. Surviving that can give a team a new lease on life.