Michigan shouldn’t sneeze at 45 points after last year.
Michigan scored just 26, 22 and 22 offensive points in non-conference games against Florida, Cincinnati and Air Force in 2017. After the offense produced just 10 points in South Bend, it averaged 43.5 points of offense against Western Michigan and Southern Methodist.
At the very least, the Wolverines possess a competent enough offense to score against overmatched foes. Despite piling on points, the unit made a multitude of mistakes.
DRIVE ONE, M 25-YARD LINE (START OF GAME)
Michigan starts off with a healthy 6-yard run by Chris Evans — who replaced Karan Higdon at the last moment — after the right side of the line completely caves in the SMU interior. The Mustangs game plan early is simple: load the box with as many defenders as possible to force Michigan to pass.
On the first play, Michigan has seven blockers assigned for nine box defenders, and even the safeties fly upfield to stop the run.
Shea Patterson then fires a quick flat pass to Evans in an attempt to get the jitterbug in space. After making the first man miss, SMU flies to the ball after a 3-yard gain. On fourth down, a Mustang linebacker slices into the backfield after a whiffed down block by Zach Gentry. Three-and-out based on bad run execution.
Drive: Three plays, seven yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)
DRIVE TWO, M 15-YARD LINE (11:37 FIRST QUARTER)
Shea Patterson turfs an out-route to Grant Perry after Cesar Ruiz fails to pick up a delayed blitz. With the pressure, Patterson can’t step into his throw. Additionally, Michigan properly chooses to send Evans out of the backfield on safety valve passing routes, taking away one more pass blocker.
Evans shows improved ability to stop rushers in their tracks, slamming a stunting end at the line of scrimmage on the next play. Unfortunately, Patterson tries to fit a pass between two defenders in zone coverage. Fortunately, an interception is tipped into the hands of Oliver Martin for a first down.
The offensive line dominates another loaded front, but a defender disengages from Sean McKeon just in time to slow Evans for a yard. Karan Higdon probably plows through the tackle for more yardage.
Patterson dumps to Evans for a short gain, and can’t find a receiver and technically gets sacked on a scramble. Patterson is looking a little like John O’Korn early: Not trusting what he sees downfield, so prolonging plays aimlessly with his legs.
Drive: Five plays, 23 yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)
DRIVE THREE, M 15-YARD LINE (6:45 FIRST QUARTER)
Ambry Thomas jets around left end for an 11-yard first down on the opening play. For perhaps the fastest player on the team, the jet sweep is an effective play, but the concern is limiting him in the same way Michigan limited Eddie McDoom. Jim Harbaugh has stated that Thomas possesses downfield abilities, as well, so wait for those down the road.
Evans pushes his seven yards, but again, Gentry fails to finish a block that could spring a larger run. So far, that’s three runs stunted by shoddy tight end blocking.
Another Evans run goes for just two yards, and Ruiz finds himself trying to block two guys at once. Rather than finish one block, he passes the tackle to no one in particular, slowing Evans for a minimal gain. The line then perfectly executes on third-and-one to move the chains.
Despite his early blocking struggles, Gentry excelled as a receiver, reaching high for a catch to move the Wolverines into Mustang territory. Also, watch the blitz pickup by Wilson.
Good down blocking by Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Gentry, as well as a thunderous pull by Mike Onwenu, create a gaping lane on the edge for a 9-yard run by Evans.
SMU sends a defensive tackle and a linebacker directly at Ruiz at second-and-short, bulldozing him into the backfield and stopping Evans for a loss. Four straight short runs, made so by eight or sometimes nine Mustangs in the box, set up the Patterson interception.
While Patterson probably needs to throw the ball sooner, this one’s on McKeon, who sits in the end zone while the defenders steps in front for the pick. It’s at least an incomplete pass if he works back to the ball. Side note: good protection.
Drive: 12 plays, 73 yards, interception (Game tied 0-0)
DRIVE FOUR, M 43-YARD LINE (13:21 SECOND QUARTER)
A 4-yard run sets up second-and-six, which turns into a pass play that falls apart due to an Bushell-Beatty inexplicably blocking no one. A defender slants past him to force a Patterson scramble for a short gain.
Patterson hits Gentry up the seam for a 24-yard gain, despite Ruiz missing another delayed blitz. Patterson holds steady with a rusher crashing down into his face.
Patterson shows off his arm strength on the next play, hitting Grant Perry for another first down after throwing across his body.
Wilson goes around right end with a wide open alley to the end zone, but hesitates just long enough for the safety to stop him for only seven yards. A decisive move towards the pylon may result in a score here.
A series of short runs grinds Michigan to the goal line, eventually leading to Ben Mason punching in a score on fourth-and-goal.
Drive: 11 plays, 57 yards, touchdown (Game tied 7-7 after an SMU touchdown)
DRIVE FIVE, M 40-YARD LINE (5:16 SECOND QUARTER)
Let’s skip ahead to Donovan Peoples-Jones’ first touchdown of the day.
DPJ!— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 15, 2018
Donovan Peoples-Jones breaks the tie, gives @UMichFootball the 14-7 lead. pic.twitter.com/yFbbFUDbVH
This play epitomizes the difference between last year’s and this year’s passing games. In 2017, confused pass blocking combined with inexperienced route running to paralyze John O’Korn’s decision-making. Basically, all the parts malfunctioned to cripple the entire team’s ability to throw the ball.
This year, while some pass protection woes exist, when it does hold up, wide receivers streak open. This play has just that, as no one is within a few yards of Patterson. This gives him time to hit a wide-open Peoples-Jones, who does the rest.
Drive: Five plays, 60 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 21-7 after a Josh Metellus pick-six).
DRIVE SIX, M 23-YARD LINE (13:55 THIRD QUARTER)
The first drive of the second half starts with another healthy Evans run undone by poor tight end blocking. This time, Sean McKeon barely gets a push on his defender, who ends up with the tackle.
SMU simply makes the right blitz call, stopping Evans for a short gain after Ruiz drives a tackle out of the same gap. Evans maybe should bounce this outside, but he would still have to avoid a box safety. Just a good call by SMU.
After Wilson whiffs on a blitz pickup, Patterson dumps it off to Gentry, who rumbles for 11 yards and a new set of downs.
A holding call negates a good decision by Patterson to step up in the pocket and eat up a ton of yards in space vacated by linebackers. He cuts the down-and-distance in half with another smart dump off to Wilson for 11 yards.
Gentry finds himself wide-open again, setting up Michigan in the red zone after toasting the slot defender. Pep Hamilton has to exploit this mismatch in the passing game with impunity. There are simply very few cover men who can stick with a 6-foot-8 receiver with agility.
The throw was right where it needed to be.— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 15, 2018
The catch was something special.
Shea Patterson and DPJ hook up for their second @UMichFootball score of the day. pic.twitter.com/s2DJT1Cjk4
If the first touchdown showed off his speed, the second touchdown exhibits Peoples-Jones’ strong frame, which allows him to box out smaller defenders. Patterson places the ball perfectly on the back-shoulder fade, and the passing game is really starting to click.
Drive: Eight plays, 62 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 28-13 after an SMU touchdown and missed XP)
DRIVE SEVEN, SMU 41-YARD LINE (1:36 THIRD QUARTER)
Miss the first two Shea Patterson-to-Donovan Peoples-Jones @UMichFootball TDs?— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 15, 2018
Don't worry, here's another! pic.twitter.com/6xN58lXctq
The safety bites up with Gentry streaking up the seam once more. Since the Mustangs have been burned several times by that, they don’t expect Peoples-Jones to use his 4.4 speed to get behind them. After that, it’s an easy pitch-and-catch.
Drive: Two plays, 41 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 35-20 after an SMU touchdown)
DRIVE EIGHT, M 25-YARD LINE (10:43 FOURTH QUARTER)
After the passing game torched the Mustangs, they could no longer afford to load the box. With less obstacles in the way, the running game erupts with a 35-yard jaunt by Evans, followed by a 12-yard run by Wilson.
There’s so much to love with this run. First, Evans takes just enough of a hesitation step to set up blocks by Ruiz and Bredeson. Next, Bredeson works off a double with Jon Runyan to impede the two linebackers that moved with the jet sweep motion. Lastly, Evans accelerates into the open field, only slowed by a hamstring issue at the very end.
Wilson succeeds on the same Onwenu pull play from the third drive, only gaining more yards by fighting through tackles.
The drive stalls, leading to a Quinn Nordin field goal.
Drive: Six plays, 48 yards, field goal (38-20)
DRIVE NINE, M 32-YARD LINE (6:13 FOURTH QUARTER)
Determined running by Wilson and O’Maury Samuels compensates for some complacent blocking on this drive. Wilson eventually adds the final touchdown by wrestling through a few tackles.
Another note: O’Maury Samuels gives off a very Higdon-esque vibe with his running. He runs square to the defender, but has an ability to weave and accelerate out of cuts. Don’t sleep on his future.
Drive: Eight plays, 68 yards, touchdown (Michigan wins 45-20)
There’s two ways to look at the slow start. One, early struggles from Patterson and the offensive line failed to take advantage of an SMU defense that has now allowed 40-plus points in each of their first three games.
The other way is that Michigan’s game plan unraveled early, as it was centered around a healthy diet of Higdon runs and easy play-action passes. Once Higdon left just before kickoff, it took time to adjust against loaded fronts.
In many ways, this game represented the Central Florida game from 2016 — the infamous Scott Frost “outhitting” affair. Michigan ran for less than three yards a carry that day against eight, nine, sometimes 10-man boxes. Wilton Speight threw over those for over 300 yards, leading to 51 points.
Once Hamilton and Harbaugh unleashed Patterson, the offense started to click. Even so, the running game was usually one block away from springing several bigger runs. Going into Nebraska, you want to see Ed Warinner and friends clean up some of the assignment issues.
Overall, when you make plenty of mistakes, but still tally 45 points, you’re happy.
Note: I improperly worded a statement regarding Zach Gentry. The intention was to state that though he struggled as a blocker, he made a nice catch on a high throw. This was not clear in the original text, so it has been edited.