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Film Focus: Michigan offense vs Notre Dame

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Among the various negatives, the tape also shows an offense that moved the ball decently between the 20s.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

A 24-17 road loss to open the year. An offense out-gaining the opposition despite various struggles on the offensive line. A supposedly stingy defense with a few too many breakdowns.

When perusing the box scores, these statements reflect two games of the Jim Harbaugh era: Utah 2015 and last Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Notre Dame. Against the Utes, the Wolverines failed to crack three yards a carry, relying on the arm of transfer quarterback Jake Rudock to tighten the margin to a one-score contest late.

Sound familiar? In South Bend, transfer quarterback Shea Patterson led a brief fourth quarter surge after quarters of a mostly ineffective run game — only this time it was less than two yards a carry.

Like many stats, the message to take from this depends on your mood. You either see a program spinning its wheels, failing to improve from its place four years ago, or you remember the team opened with a loss in Salt Lake City ended up 10-3.

The film from Notre Dame, likewise, carries a mixed message.

This series will go drive-by-drive in its evaluation of Michigan’s performance from the previous game.

DRIVE ONE, MICH 35-YARD LINE (13:35 1ST QUARTER)

Pep Hamilton/Jim Harbaugh/whoever dials up three straight runs to Karan Higdon to start the night. All of them occur in the shotgun with three receivers split wide, as well as Zach Gentry operating in the slot or as a tight end off the line.

The first goes for eight yards, as five blockers occupy five defenders in the box, with the sixth hesitating with a Shea Patterson read-option. The Irish’s defensive coordinator solves the problem the next two plays by adding a seventh man towards the line of scrimmage.

The short runs lead to a first down, but Michigan continues to run into a loaded front, culminating in Higdon failing to convert a third-and-three after Jon Runyan loses leverage over Daelin Hayes.

The one Patterson pass was a quick throw to Nico Collins on soft coverage. This worked for chunks of yards all night.

Drive: 6 plays, 22 yards, punt (Notre Dame leads 7-0)

DRIVE TWO, MICH 27-YARD LINE (7:02 1ST QUARTER)

Donovan Peoples-Jones opens with a jet sweep for seven yards. The whole line does a fantastic job caving the Irish front to the right, leaving only one defender paralyzed in space while reacting to the motion. If Peoples-Jones trusted his tight end blocking for a little longer, this may have broken for more. For what it is, he cut forward for healthy yardage.

With Notre Dame corner Tony Pride providing an eight-yard cushion to Peoples-Jones, Shea Patterson takes advantage on two straight throws: the first a quick hitch for a first down and the second a comeback route off play action for six yards.

After a long incompletion, Patterson connects with Gentry on a quick out route for a first down. Early, Notre Dame opted to put middle linebacker Te’Von Coney on the tight ends, and Gentry’s athleticism won out, showing off a fancy swivel step to break free.

Hamilton and Harbaugh drew up two plays very similar to the first two passes of the drive, only longer. Sophomore Oliver Martin for eight on the quick throw and Grant Perry on a deeper out for a first down.

Higdon squirted ahead for four more, although Patterson’s unwillingness — by design or otherwise — to keep on read options allowed Notre Dame to fly toward Higdon. With Michigan running into fronts without enough blockers, this contained otherwise decisive, strong running from the senior back — who finished with 72 yards on 21 carries.

With the Wolverines on the 25-yard line, blitz and stunt pickup woes rear their ugly heads. On 2nd and 6, Notre Dame shows six rushers for five blockers, dropping the left-side linebacker into zone coverage. Cesar Ruiz slides the wrong way, necessitating down blocks by Mike Onwenu and Juwann Bushell-Beatty. A free rusher forces an errant throw.

This leads to the first sack given up by Runyan.

Chris Evans and Ben Bredeson execute a perfect pick up of the defensive end cutting across the grain of the line. It’s Runyan’s job to pass off his man and await the looping defensive tackle. He fails to recognize this, and Patterson fails to escape, forcing a punt.

At least three points left on the field.

Drive: 10 plays, 47 yards (Notre Dame leads 14-0)

DRIVE THREE, ND 41-YARD LINE (1:02 FIRST QUARTER)

Higdon almost broke two runs the first two plays. He follows a inside pull by Bredeson, but he cuts through a gaping hole just a smidge too late to limit the gain to four. Onwenu gets just enough of a hand on a blitzing linebacker the next play to give Higdon enough space for a first down.

The coaches mix up run and pass well the next few plays, allowing Patterson to march the Wolverines to the 2-yard line. However, with a line starting to get push, he calls for a play-action pass on second down. Stud defensive tackle Jerry Tillery disposes of Runyan, leading to a drive-crippling sack.

A contested catchable pass to Gentry is dropped, leading to a field goal. Four points left on the field.

Drive: 11 plays, 31 yards (Notre Dame leads 14-3)

THE KICK RETURN!

DRIVE FOUR, MICH 2-YARD LINE (0:40 SECOND QUARTER)

Nothing to see here. Team runs out clock before halftime.

DRIVE FIVE, MICH 25-YARD LINE (START OF THIRD QUARTER)

Everything about the first play works. The line provides plenty of time, Nico Collins streaks open, and Patterson hits him for a 52-yard gain. Beautiful, and potentially a sign of things to come in future games.

With the corners reacting with a soft cushion after the big play, Peoples-Jones takes advantage with a quick out with yards after the catch for another quick first down. After the brief flurry, the next three plays go pear-shaped.

Runyan gets sucked way too far inside on 1st and 10 from the 16-yard line, allowing a free runner to force a short incompletion to Perry. He then fails to chip a rushing end on his way out towards a screen, leading to an easy deflection. Good coverage forces another incompletion. With a field goal, though, the Wolverines make it a one-score game...

Another three points burned to ash. For those counting, that’s 9-to- 13 points of wasted opportunities.

Drive: Six plays, 48 yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10)

DRIVE SIX, MICH 49-YARD LINE (13:11 THIRD QUARTER)

After a Brandon Watson interception, the offense seemingly has life again. After a four-yard loss on a toss to Higdon — and Runyan in the area — it would be easy to blame the maligned lineman. However, Higdon needs to cut this run upfield to cut his losses.

A run and two throws lead to a turnover on downs.

Drive: Four plays, six yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10)

DRIVE SEVEN, MICH 20-YARD LINE (10:16 THIRD QUARTER)

Another three-and-out.

The main play to point out here is a botched speed option by Patterson on 3rd and 3. Runyan and Bredeson seal the left side of the line, but Patterson fails to get the defensive end to commit to him before the pitch.

With the end barreling toward Evans, he should’ve kept it and picked up the first down.

Drive: Three plays, six yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10)

DRIVE EIGHT, MICH 25-YARD LINE (3:07 THIRD QUARTER)

The first two plays here attack the perimeters at a time when Clark Lea is shooting blitzes and stunts towards the inside.

Higdon beats an intentionally unblocked defender to the corner, with Hamilton betting Notre Dame’s eyes would be pointed inside. Patterson beats another blitz at the interior with a quick throw to Peoples-Jones in the flank for the first down.

Patterson steps away from pressure for a first-down scramble. His three sacks failed to tell the story of a quarterback who bought time with his legs all night.

The next play, however, he made his worst mistake with a interception after throwing off his back foot.

Not all the blocking problems were Runyan-related. Ruiz mostly acquitted himself well at center, but he let Coney split him and Higdon. Coney, not known for his quick feet, burns Ruiz to the gap.

Drive: Four plays, 23 yards (Notre Dame leads 24-10)

MCCAFFREY TIME and the MISSED TARGETING CALL

DRIVE NINE, MICH 4-YARD LINE (14:03 FOURTH QUARTER)

After Patterson left with cramps, Dylan McCaffrey entered his first game in a hostile environment. All things considered for the redshirt freshman, he handled the pressure well.

He calmly drove the offense into Irish territory, looking like a proto-Andrew Luck in the process. He did what good freshman quarterbacks do: dink and dunk, taking what defenses give them.

4-of-6 for only 22 yards won’t inspire the masses, but he looked like a future solution behind the center.

With that said...how is this not targeting?

Official justifiably ejected Josh Metellus for bashing a receiver in the noggin with his shoulder, but the safety here launches his helmet in Sean McKeon’s. No call.

Drive: 14 plays, 52 yards (Notre Dame leads 24-10)

THE COMEBACK

DRIVE 10, MICH 20-YARD LINE (5:07 FOURTH QUARTER)

The rest of the offense appears at the 32:05 mark below.

A 15-yard pass interference penalty kicks off the first desperate, late-game drive. The Notre Dame defense also could have drawn an illegal hands to the face flag for jerking McCaffrey’s skull.

After only two runs in the second half, the Wolverines finally utilize Evans in his ideal fashion: passes out of the backfield. Evans is simply too athletic for Notre Dame linebackers Coney and Drue Tranquill on these two throws.

In this summer’s Tale of the Tape, I suggested attacking these defenders on passing plays to tight ends and backs. The Irish defense adjusted to the former by placing more athletic safeties on Gentry and McKeon, but Hamilton waited too long to attack with his junior jitterbug back.

Also, the offense executed at a leisurely pace.

With that said, the line gave Patterson all the time he needed on this penultimate possession. While Notre Dame only rushed four, it’s progress from last year’s line occasionally allowing pressure with three-man fronts.

Higdon’s touchdown exhibits the pile-driving promise of the 2018 run-blocking line, as it pushed the Irish front two or three yards forward.

Drive: Seven plays, 80 yards (Notre Dame leads 24-17)

FINAL DRIVE, MICH 25-YARD LINE (1:48 FOURTH QUARTER)

Let’s talk about the game-ending fumble.

People seem to be blaming Runyan for this sack. However, this is a Ruiz problem. Instead of working down the line to physically communicate to his peers they need to pass off defenders, he tries to chase the looping tackle — which is quick-twitch end Khalid Kareem lining up inside.

Ruiz will never win that footrace, and as Runyan notices Kareem screaming off the edge, he abandons his block on Jerry Tillery. With Patterson stepping up in the pocket, Tillery eats him alive and forces the fumble. Game over.

The final play is a product of players trying to do too much: Ruiz by chasing a twisting tackle and Runyan by abandoning his initial block to make up for the mistake.

Drive: Four plays, 12 yards (Notre Dame wins 24-17)

FINAL THOUGHTS

Michigan left 9-to-13 points off the scoreboard, potentially turning this game from a 24-17 defeat to a 26-24 triumph.

Runyan deserves the blame many have thrown in his direction, but he proved himself to be a very capable run blocker for large stretches. His pass-blocking issues, on second viewing, stemmed more from a lack of cohesion with his teammates than lack of athleticism or ideal size.

You have to call balls and strikes, though, and he found himself at the center of several bad plays.

This situation contains light at the end of the tunnel. No pass-rusher provides an athletic mismatch until Maryland’s Jesse Aniebonam, which means they have four games to tighten up the schematic cohesion between the front five. Ruiz needs to headline this development.

Once the line stabilizes, the skill players will thrive. The receivers and running backs carried the load toward 20 first downs. Patterson looked solid, albeit a tad conservative, in his first start. Higdon looked a step away from breaking big runs against a solid front.

Better days exist for the fourth offense of the Harbaugh era. With a few pieces finding their footing early, they probably needed a tomato can to work out the kinks. Without that benefit, a talented defense exploited their foibles.