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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs Nebraska defense

Let’s not move the goalposts on Michigan’s performance last Saturday. Nebraska was the No. 20 rush defense entering Ann Arbor. Michigan pulverized them.

Nebraska v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget, but Nebraska’s defense looked decent before last Saturday’s 56-10 drubbing in Ann Arbor.

They ranked No. 20 nationally in rush defense, ceding only 93 yards a game. They tallied 10 sacks combined against Colorado and Troy, good for second in the country through three weeks.

Michigan’s offensive line, looking to put the three sacks and 1.75 yards a carry against Notre Dame behind them, obliterated the Blackshirts to the tune of 285 yards rushing, and only got Shea Patterson sacked once.

The film showed a comprehensive step forward in technique and power from the Wolverine front.


Shea Patterson finds Karan Higdon for a 7-yard dump off after play-action. Nebraska sends five rushers against six Michigan blockers, giving Patterson enough time in the pocket to make a sandwich.

Higdon breaks free for his first big run with perfect execution by all involved. First, Jon Runyan blocks down on the closest tackle, helping wall off all interior penetration. Ben Bredeson pulls, and seals off the defensive end. From there, Higdon draws the linebacker towards the outside, and beats him with a cut upfield. Wide receiver blocking turns a 20-yard run into a near touchdown.

Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinnander responds by shifting nine defenders in the box, leaving a free hitter to take down Higdon after a short gain.

Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton look to solve the problem with inertia, also known as 258-pound fullback Ben Mason. He gains seven yards by plowing through a tackler. Also, Michigan is utilizing three tight ends, motioning Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry to the same side to overwhelm the edge.

Michigan follows the same formula the next play for a first down. The line pushes the Husker front back two or three yards on the next play as Mason plunges in for the score.

Nebraska isn’t trying many complicated stunts or blitzes, so Michigan’s line is winning with brute strength and decisive running.

Drive: Six plays, 64 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 7-0)


Higdon’s touchdown is the same play as the first big run, except Donovan Peoples-Jones hammers a linebacker on a crack block.

Another defender gets sucked inside, and Higdon makes him pay by beating him to the corner.

Drive: One play, 44 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 14-0)


With Nebraska’s linebackers facing a barrage of runs from Higdon and Mason, they overflow on a play-action fake by Patterson. McKeon runs a flat route across the formation, and has plenty of room to zoom for a 15-yard first down.

The next play is a loss where Higdon gets greedy, bouncing outside rather than taking what the defense gives him upfield. O’Maury Samuels then runs for no gain after a fake before the jet sweep fails to suck any secondary defenders inside.

While a blitz breaks free late on the ensuring play, the line and Higdon pick up the rush and blitzes just long enough for Patterson to find Gentry wide open on a crossing route. Last year, receivers failed to break open after several seconds, but this year, a smart quarterback is finding open targets with two-to-three seconds of protection.

After some short runs, Tru Wilson breaks free on a 26-yard jaunt into the red zone. While Chinnander sends seven defenders at the line, one of them gets occupied defending a potential keeper by Patterson. The other six blockers win their assignments, giving Wilson all the room he needs.

Mason streaks into the end zone untouched on the next play. After whiffing on some assignments last week, the tight ends wash the entire right side of the defense inside, creating a gaping hole for the touchdown.

Drive: Eight plays, 66 yards, touchdown with a missed PAT (Michigan leads 20-0)


Two incompletions and a bubble screen for no gain leads to Michigan’s first three-and-out of the afternoon.

Patterson’s first throw sees great protection again, but the receivers fail to create separation. Nebraska’s secondary scouted the short passing game well, reacting quickly to eliminate the Wolverines’ attempts at easy yards.

Drive: Three plays, zero yards, Ambry Thomas recovers fumble on punt (Michigan leads 20-0)


Patterson goes for it all in the sudden change situation, firing a deep post pattern to Oliver Martin. The Husker corner grabs Martin’s elbow, but no flag is thrown.

Michael Onwenu gets pushed back a bit into the backfield on the next play, forcing Higdon to wait too long for a lane to open. The defense gets the extra beats to converge on him, as he gets only three yards.

The Huskers twist their tackles on the next play, and as Juwann Bushell-Beatty waits for one to run into his gap, he misses a charging defensive end. Patterson misses Gentry on a crossing route after getting hurried.

Nordin bails the offense out with a 50-yard field goal.

Drive: Three plays, three yards, field goal (Michigan leads 23-0)


When Nebraska botched a pass play, the culprit usually was defensive backs biting too hard on run fakes. This happens on the first play, allowing Nico Collins to run a corner route past an opening vacated by a safety.

Despite press coverage, he creates about three yards of separation from the cornerback.

Higdon falls forward for a short gain on the next play. Bushell-Beatty fails to impede a slanting defensive end, instead moving to the second level too soon.

Peoples-Jones then fails to draw defenders outside on a jet sweep fake, and since the defensive end doesn’t fear a Patterson keep, he flies towards Higdon. Again, this is a short gain. If Patterson can keep defenses honest by pulling on the occasional zone read, then defenses will get a tad less aggressive.

Michigan converts on third down. Good protection. Simple curl route by Peoples-Jones. Too easy.

Harbaugh and Hamilton called for more straight forward runs to finish the drive, rather than ones filled with motions, fakes and frippery. They use Higdon and Mason as sledgehammers to move to the 5-yard line.

Patterson gets four seconds of protection, giving Gentry plenty of time to shake off the coverage and catch a touchdown without anybody around him.

Drive: 10 plays, 59 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 30-0)


Higdon immediately moves Michigan into the red zone on the first play of the drive.

First, Runyan, Bredeson and McKeon crash the entire left side of the Husker front inside, opening up a huge hole. Next, Cesar Ruiz works off a double-team to stop a linebacker cold. This leaves Higdon one-on-one with a defender, who he beats with yet another one-step cut upfield.

McKeon pulls across the formation left to right on the next play, double-teaming a defensive tackle with Bredeson (also pulling). The only thing stopping Higdon from his second touchdown is the turf tripping him.

Mason bulldozes for his third score on the next play.

Drive: Three plays, 34 yards, touchdown (Michigan leads 39-0 after a safety)


This drive contains Michigan’s only allowed sack of the day.

Runyan and Bredeson both block a defensive end, but Nebraska sends an outside linebacker on a blitz. Rather than passing off the block and sliding outside to pick it up, Runyan lets the blitz go unstopped all the way to Patterson.

The only other major play of note is the final deep throw to Collins. The corner grabs his hand and forces him to the ground. Somehow, this is also not pass interference.

With Michigan up five scores, it doesn’t really matter.

Drive: Eight plays, 35 yards, turnover on downs (Michigan leads 39-0 at halftime)


Michigan cruised behind backups in the second half. Here are some observations.

  • Maybe it’s the No. 23, but Samuels looks like a young Chris Perry. Nothing flashy, but hits the hole hard, always gaining an extra yard or two with his thick base.
  • Dylan McCaffrey was robbed on his 75-yard touchdown run.

Martin’s hands are inside the shoulders of the defender, which is textbook technique. It’s actually such good blocking the defenders arms flail out with nowhere else to go.

Also, to state the obvious, McCaffrey’s speed is eye-opening. The acceleration looks similar to another Harbaugh quarterback.

Outside Luck’s shoulder shiver, the skills on display are identical.

Speaking of skills:

That’s just a perfect pass, hitting Ronnie Bell in stride.

  • Regarding Bell, his touchdown is one step towards solidifying the future depth chart. As Michigan only secured one wide receiver commitment in the 2018 recruiting cycle, as well as losing Kekoa Crawford, Eddie McDoom and Nate Johnson, he needs to be a hit.

Right now, Peoples-Jones, Collins, Martin, Bell and Tarik Black are your depth chart in 2019 — Grant Perry graduates this spring. Bell’s long touchdown alleviates some concerns.

  • In summation about the offensive line, they passed the eye and paper test. The stats already tell the story of their dominance, but after watching the film, few people missed assignments. Sure, Runyan missed a blitz once, and a few guys failed to reach the second level.

However, the Cornhuskers rarely found themselves tackling backs in the backfield, which insinuates few breakdowns from the line. This credit has to go mostly to Ruiz, as the center is making the line calls. He also handled a solid defensive tackle duo in Ben Stille and Mick Stoltenberg.


The film reflected the final score.

In 2015, Michigan beat several teams with innovative run plays introduced week by week. Against Northwestern, we saw the first fullback trap to Joe Kerridge. Against Michigan State, the first jet sweep to Jabrill Peppers.

Against Nebraska in 2018, the first two big Higdon runs represent a new wrinkle: tight ends down blocking with a guard pulling outside. How does Hamilton and Harbaugh, as well as Ed Warinner, build on this?

Against Northwestern, who despite several problems on offense still fields the nation’s No. 24 S&P defense, they probably need to add another wrinkle in the run game.

More impressively, I counted only three pressures on Patterson’s 22 drop backs. Against a pass rush as productive as Nebraska’s coming into Ann Arbor, that’s an accomplishment.

If the offense stubs their toe in Evanston, this game will be a positive blip. If the dominance continues, it’s the start of a potential trend for the rest of the season.