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Film Focus: Rutgers 2018

What were the Scarlet Knights doing early to keep the game close?

Michigan v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

It’s important to note Michigan didn’t take the prep for Rutgers seriously. The evidence is all around us:

  • Jim Harbaugh referred to Chris Ash as “Rob” in the postgame presser.
  • This is how the team celebrated the 42-7 road victory.

Jim Harbaugh frequently has his Wolverines high-five each other after wins. Rarely do the players sound this sarcastic and apathetic about it.

Who are they, the SCLSU Muddogs?

This is all relevant when analyzing the relative catastrophe that led the No. 4 team in College Football Playoff to tie with the No. 123 per S&P+ in the first quarter.

Yes, the Scarlet Knights crossed 100 yards rushing in the first 15 minutes. Yes, the offense turned it over on downs. No, the game was never in doubt.

Once the indifference wore off and the team adjusted, it was game over. Since this is a film focus, let’s talk about the good, the bad and the first quarter from last Saturday.

Mercifully, this isn't a drive-by-drive breakdown like most weeks. H/T to Wolverine Devotee for the balanced highlights. A few other plays not in the video will be sprinkled in here.


After Raheem Blackshear takes a flat pass for just three yards, freshman back Isaih Pacheco enters for a crack sweep. It gains 21 yards for three reasons.

  1. Chase Winovich doesn’t see the crack block coming, and is stoned by the wide receiver.
  2. Devin Gil tries to cut upfield too early in pursuit, and ends up taking a bad angle.
  3. David Long is drawn inside while covering a wide receiver faking a slant.

If one of those three defenders gets to the edge, Pacheco probably only gets a handful. Instead, first down.

On the ensuing second down, offensive coordinator John McNulty dials up a screen for potentially big yardage. Instead, Blackshear drops it.

Instead of catching Don Brown with aggressive blitzing, McNulty has his outside receivers run inside routes away from the perimeter. This simultaneously draws edge defenders away and creates traffic for the linebackers to avoid.

Another screen fails, and a punt gives Michigan its first chance to score.

Karan Higdon starts off with two nine-yard runs to move the chains. Both are sprung open by decisive tight end blocking — an inconsistency in 2018 — from both Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry.

On the first, McKeon comes across the formation, identifies a linebacker and seals him inside. Higdon cuts off his rear into the second level. On the second, Gentry fires off the ball and drives his assignment backwards. With Ben Bredeson leading the charge from there, Higdon bounces outside.

Later on, Oliver Martin finds the corner on a jet sweep for 11 yards. Again, tight ends are the key here, as Nick Eubanks and McKeon create a crease — the latter by washing the defensive end inside.

Chris Evans then takes a quick throw outside, jukes a corner and gains enough for a new set of downs. Quickest analysis ever: Get him in space.

Three plays set up fourth-and-short, which is typically automatic for this offense — No. 4 in the country per Bill Connelly. Higdon gets upended by Avery Young to turn it over on downs.

Brian Cook of MGoBlog clips a picture from BTN’s end zone camera, which shows a bad missed cut from Higdon.

Cut towards Cesar Ruiz, and that’s an easy first down.

After a three-and-out (Tyree Kinnel filling running lanes well), the offense gets its second chance.

Tru Wilson enters for Higdon, and promptly busts loose for 15 yards. Part of this is Rutgers puts seven in the box, as opposed to eight or nine before. It’s possible they keyed on Wilson for passing downs due to his pass-blocking acumen. The other part is Wilson naturally finds the hole and cuts at the exact right time behind Mike Onwenu’s pull.

Two throws to Gentry and Evans garner first downs to enter the red zone. No rusher is within three yards of Shea Patterson — just another data point in a vastly improved pass-blocking unit.

Also encouraging, Gentry beat a cornerback one-on-one over the middle. Having a 6-foot-8, 262-pounder outrunning defensive backs is just scary for the opposition.

Four runs later, Higdon is in the end zone for the game’s first touchdown. There’s nothing cute of clever about these four plays. Simply, the line bullied Rutgers’ front backwards.

7-0 Michigan

It’s time to talk about Pacheco’s 80-yard touchdown.

This is a full-house backfield, similar to one’s seen previously with Matt Canada at Maryland. Blackshear motions out of the backfield to a wingback look, which draws Brad Hawkins into the box to matchup with him. Kinnel replaces him deep pre-snap.

Blackshear comes back around a fake sweep. This throws several defenders off. First, Chase Winovich flies outside to account for Blackshear. This is acceptable, since someone has to do that.

The next two missed assignments turn this into the score. Kinnel also works his way to the perimeter towards Blackshear, leaving a gaping hole and no safety net to step Pacheco. With Rutgers zone-blocking, Gil overcommits with the line’s movement, and gets pinned by the right tackle.

Pacheco cuts upfield, and outmaneuvers Hawkins all the way.



Patterson buys several seconds with his feet, and then dumps a seven-yard pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones for a first down. His scrambling has meshed well with his receiver’s all year, as they know how to work back to him to give him easy options downfield.

A little later, Pep Hamilton calls for an RPO, which gets Ronnie Bell wide-open in the flat to move the chains.

The run draws a potential safety defender inside, leaving Bell free. RPO led to a touchdown against Penn State, and Hamilton is building more looks to diversify the passing attack.

Patterson finds Martin near the goal line on a flood route — Eubanks goes deep, Gentry goes shallow and Martin gets the intermediate throw.

Now at the doorstep, Higdon punches in the score with ease.

14-7 Michigan

McNulty send Blackshear a similar motion to the one used on the touchdown run. Instead, Artur Sitkowski throws it back to Blackshear, who doesn’t fool Brandon Watson one bit.

McNulty tries to repeat another play with a screen pass to Blackshear. Devin Bush predictably sifts through the trash and throws him down for a loss to force a punt...

...that Khaleke Hudson tips to create great field position.

Nico Collins saunters behind the Rutgers secondary for a 21-7 lead.

The deep safety, for some reason, thinks he needs to cover the deep half that has no wide receivers on it. Easy pitch-and-catch.

21-7 Michigan

Devin Gil had a rough day, particularly early. He was partially responsible for both of Pacheco’s big runs, and with Blackshear in the Wildcat, he loses gap integrity again.

One play later, Rutgers gives the same look, and he makes the right read.

Don Brown’s defense eventually forces a turnover on downs, as Sitkowski makes the fatal mistake of thinking he can outrun Rashan Gary on a bootleg.



While some of Patterson’s best throws Saturday were on the run, he also fared well stationary in the pocket. After four seconds of protection, he fires a 21-yard pass to a place where only Gentry can grab it.

Just as I praise him for his pocket patience, watch him place a deep sideline toss to Peoples-Jones through an NFL window...on the run.

Keep in mind, winds in Piscataway were gusting up to 30 mph. He’s demonstrating elite arm strength, putting enough velocity on the ball to negate the air interference.

Finally, he slaloms through the pass rush to find Martin for a three-score lead.

Let’s talk about the passing game. On this play, the pass protection is good enough to make up for the fact that only one receiver (Martin) goes downfield. This highlights their massive improvement — only 1.5 sacks a game (No. 31 nationally), 4.9% sack rate per drop back (No. 39.

In the rare instances when the line misses a block, Patterson is able to extend plays long enough for a bevy of highly-ranked receivers to get open.

That is why this is the No. 7 S&P+ passing attack nationally. The Wolverines don’t pass often, but its deadly when they do.

28-7 Michigan

Defensively, there are really only two more plays to talk about. One is Bush’s roughing the passer penalty.

Apparently, this is for the following NCAA rule:

“Forcibly driving the passer to the ground and landing on him with action that punishes the player.”

How is Bush supposed to adjust mid-air to not landing on the quarterback? It may be a penalty, but it’s an unrealistic rule.

A drive later, it’s McNulty calling for a quarterback throwback off a halfback toss.

The defense was lulled to sleep by drive after drive of runs, tosses and simple dropbacks by Sitkowski. Giovanni Recsigno entered, and promptly pitched to Pacheco.

It’s understandable for everyone to key on the one guy who’s hurt them, so no one covers Recsigno. If Rutgers had anything else going for them, this would be a great play call to jumpstart a drive. Instead, Blackshear muffed a Wildcat exchange to give the ball away on the next play.

After four Wilson runs for 32 yards, Patterson hits Nico Collins on a back-shoulder fade off an RPO.

The line blocks about a yard downfield, and Patterson zips another NFL throw from the pocket.

Between the RPO additions, fade routes and healthy diet of Wilson runs, Harbaugh and Hamilton are experimenting with different offensive looks over an overmatched opponent.

35-7 Michigan


One more play to talk about.

This is a textbook double team from Bredeson and Ruiz. Not only do they drive the tackle out of the hole, but Bredeson is able to work to the second level and get in the way of the linebacker.

From there, it’s a bad fit by the Rutgers safety, and that’s all she wrote for Evans.



Michigan toyed with an inferior opponent, but not without some warts.

McNulty threw some curveballs at the defense, including the Blackshear motions to mess with run fits. Add in the trick play and the crack sweeps, as well as some Michigan apathy, and that’s how you get Rutgers outgaining both Penn State and Michigan State the last two weeks.

The offense executed decently against loaded fronts, but Higdon was off on his reads. Once Patterson started ripping the secondary on the regular, it was game over for a defense that can’t multi-task.

All things considered, including three-straight emotional wins over ranked teams, this was a business-like performance.