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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs Western Michigan

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The offense racked up yardage and points against an overmatched defense. How much of the improvement was for real?

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan’s defense is probably very bad.

Last year, the Broncos ranked No. 122 in rushing defense per S&P, and while the pass defense was top 50, they lost their best corner Sam Beal to the NFL.

After Syracuse dropped 55 points on them in the opener, anything less than dominance from the Michigan offense would have been alarming.

49 points and 308 rushing yards later, Michigan cleared the 1-inch hurdle. How much of the outburst translates to future success in 2018?

DRIVE ONE, U-M 28-YARD LINE (START OF FIRST QUARTER)

Michigan dials up a simple pick-play to get Zach Gentry open in the flat on first down. Donovan Peoples-Jones lines up tight on the top of the screen and runs a hitch toward the linebacker. This acts as a block, giving Gentry plenty of room to move the chains.

Some discombobulation leads to a timeout and a Juwann Bushell-Beatty false start to throw the offense behind schedule.

Karan Higdon only musters three yards on 1st-and-15, mostly due to the defensive end not respecting the possibility Shea Patterson pulls the ball on a read-option. With six defenders for five blockers, it leaves a free hitter to take down Higdon.

Bushell-Beatty can’t get to the linebacker on the second-level on the next play, limiting the gain to two yards. An incompletion forces the punt, and boos from the home crowd.

Drive: Four plays, nine yards, punt (0-0)

DRIVE TWO, U-M 19-YARD LINE (10:52 FIRST QUARTER)

Ambry Thomas take a forward pitch (technically a reception) around the right side for five yards. The play is decently blocked, though Nick Eubanks fails to seal his defender. It causes Thomas to hesitate for a beat, turning a potential first down into a healthy initial gain.

Patterson impressively converts on the next play. The right-hander rolls out to his left off play action, beats a defender not fooled by the fake with his feet and instantly gathers his feet under him to rifle one to the sideline to Oliver Martin. Martin is skilled at working his way back to his scrambling quarterback and keeping his feet inbounds.

The pressure on Patterson is more a result of the end not falling for the fake, rather than a breakdown in pass protection.

The line is able to beat the Bronco front on the next few Higdon runs despite being outnumbered. A defender disengages from Michael Onwenu just in time to slow Higdon down on first down, and the same thing happens to Sean McKeon on the next play.

Everyone executes well on Higdon’s 43-yarder, but as many have already pointed out, the biggest block came courtesy of Ben Mason.

After a short run into a loaded front — another disengagement off an Onwenu block — Michigan springs McKeon free on a crossing route. His advanced speed for a tight end couples with a de facto pick from Gentry gives him the space for the first touchdown pass of the season.

Drive: Seven plays, 81 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 7-0)

DRIVE THREE, U-M 33-YARD LINE (4:11 FIRST QUARTER)

Ben Bredeson springs this by clearing two Bronco defenders out of Higdon’s path. The senior running back does the rest with speed.

Also, accommodations to Jon Runyan Jr. and Onwenu for double-teaming the next closest defender. While his well-documented deficiencies in pass blocking, Runyan is a heady run blocker with increased strength from 2017.

Drive: One play, 67 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 14-0)

DRIVE FOUR, WMU 46-YARD LINE (1:31 FIRST QUARTER)

Higdon opens the drive with a 19-yard run with perfectly executed run-blocking. Gentry kicks out the one free-hitter off the edge, and Higdon shakes some arm-tackles to burst into the secondary.

Watch the Western safety on Chris Evan’s touchdown. He properly recognizes to fill the alley created by the Michigan line, but sees his ankles turned to goo by a subtle Evans juke in the hole.

Drive: Two plays, 46 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 21-0)

DRIVE FIVE, WMU 24-YARD LINE (12:02 SECOND QUARTER)

This drive should have lasted one play, but Patterson felt too much pressure to comfortably loft into McKeon’s mitts off a wheel route.

Bredeson allows his defender to spin into Patterson’s eye-line, forcing a hurried overthrow. Another plus for Runyan is walling off his rusher, and providing a wide-enough base to deter a blitzing corner for a few beats.

Western starts devoting eight defenders and some aggressive safety run support to try to slow the running game. Higdon breaks a tackle to render this moot on a second-down run for nine yards.

After some tough sledding on two straight short-yardage runs for a first down, Michigan calls for another crossing route to free a pass-catcher — this time its Peoples-Jones. He uses his laser-timed 4.4-speed to outrun a Bronco, getting stopped right at the goal line.

Bredeson gets enough of a shove on a run blitzing linebacker, and Chris Evans creates enough space on a jump cut to stumble for a score. Full disclosure: the line needs to recognize these blitzes faster. Against Wisconsin, or even a decent defense like Northwestern, this is a one-yard loss.

Drive: Six plays, 24 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 28-0)

DRIVE SIX, WMU 49-YARD LINE, (7:02 SECOND QUARTER)

Another one-play drive.

The good: Patterson throws a very catchable deep-ball to a wide-open Nico Collins. Collins also runs himself open with a slick cut on a corner post. Also, Patterson has all the time in the world.

The question: Michigan utilizes a max protect scheme here, holding Gentry back to assist on the right side. Michigan may not be able to get away with that against better secondaries, so the starting five linemen need to handle five rushers themselves.

Drive: One play, 49 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 35-0)

DRIVE SEVEN, U-M 14-YARD LINE (3:17 SECOND QUARTER)

A short gain on play No. 1 occurs due to a few issues. Runyan and Onwenu crash into each other on respective pulls to the left. Higdon still could cut upfield for a healthy gain, but he keeps with the outside run, bumping into Runyan’s backside. The linemen are executing the basic plays, but working through issues on more complicated ones like these.

A motion causes the defense to hesitate on a solid second-down gain for Higdon. Next, Patterson evades a free rusher to find Peoples-Jones for a first down. This is a busted assignment from Runyan, who slides right when there’s a blitz from the left.

The drive stalls from there with the Wolverines up five touchdowns.

Drive: Six plays, 25 yards, punt (Michigan leads 35-0)

GARBAGE TIME OBSERVATIONS

Rather than go through every play of the second-half, which functioned as a glorified scrimmage, here’s some stray observations.

  • Patterson’s third touchdown pass is why Harbaugh brought him to Ann Arbor.

Places the ball where no one else but Peoples-Jones can grab it. It didn’t even require pass protection.

  • The pass-blocking from the running backs is improving. Specifically, it got Tru Wilson on the field.
  • The backup tackles could make noise this year, but will definitely lock down jobs next year. Jalen Mayfield impresses with his run-blocking here.

James Hudson would flash ox-like strength later.

They have better bodies than Runyan, and better athleticism than Bushell-Beatty. Eventually, they will see significant snaps.

  • This is the second straight week of smooth play from Dylan McCaffrey. If Patterson graduates or leaves for the NFL, the offense will be in good hands next year.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It’s hard to gather too much from a beatdown of a middle-of-the-road MAC team, but we can still take away some good things.

One, Higdon and Evans are a good one-two punch. Evans can juke people in a phone booth, while Higdon will always be able to square his shoulders and plow for extra yardage. With good run-blocking, he could reach 1,000 yards by October.

Two, the offensive line is starting to execute basic plays in the run game. Between mediocre to bad defenses in Southern Methodist and Nebraska, they have time to build on concepts before bigger challenges await in Northwestern and Wisconsin.

Lastly, Patterson can paper over pass-blocking issues with his ability to throw on the run and his aptitude with quick reads.

However, the talent gap last Saturday made up for some missed assignments late in the first half, and throughout the second half. If Harbaugh and Ed Warinner are going to pull the lever on Runyan and Bushell-Beatty for the younger tackles, they have a few weeks to evaluate progress.

This is an “ask again in three weeks” assessment of the offense. If they can replicate last Saturday against Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano in Evanston, the substance will start to meet the hype.