Michigan came into Saturday’s game with 45 red zone trips on the season, but only 25 resulted in touchdowns, a trend that ultimately doomed them in East Lansing two weeks ago.
Penn State entered ranked sixth in the nation in red zone defense having only allowed 10 touchdowns in 34 opponent’s attempts. Against Ohio State (the No. 3 red zone offense), the Nittany Lions only allowed one touchdown in six trips by the Buckeyes.
On paper, it was an unfavorable match-up for the Wolverines, but for only the second game this season — a 63-10 victory over Northern Illinois being the other — Michigan attempted zero field goals inside the red zone.
How did Michigan correct this issue against such a formidable opponent on the road?
On Michigan’s first scoring drive, a 15-play, 90-yard masterpiece eating up 7:30 of game clock, running back Hassan Haskins had just earned a first down setting up the Wolverines from the Penn State 21-yard line.
One yard away from the red zone, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis took advantage of the real estate and dialed up a shot to the end zone. Quarterback Cade McNamara delivered a perfect strike to wide receiver Roman Wilson on a skinny post route splitting through the Penn State zone defense.
Michigan is a VERY run-heavy team on first down, and on five of their previous seven first down plays, the Wolverines had run the ball. Gattis set this touchdown up by passing on their two most recent first down plays, so Michigan’s first down play-calling to this point was: run, run, run, run, run, pass, pass.
Analytically, Penn State is thinking, “They can’t possibly pass again in this situation.” Safeties creep up a few more steps, hesitate, and McNamara manipulates them further with his eyes. By the time they realize where Wilson is, it’s already a touchdown.
Gattis was methodical with his first down play-calling knowing that the Wolverines were going to take a shot at the end zone as the offense approached the 20-yard line.
The calculated chess moves to set up the first touchdown were well executed, but what about when the team is down near the goal line? All four buttons on Gattis’ controller cannot be “HASKINS RUN” from the 5-yard line and closer.
From the Penn State 1-yard line on first-and-goal, even the announcer Sean McDonnough said, “Expect Haskins here.” But no, Gattis was already two steps beyond this. He dials up a tight formation quick seam route to Wilson (again), catching fans, commentators, and most importantly, Penn State off-guard.
These tendency breaking calls will be a massive weapon down the stretch for the Wolverines because until last week, there were nine games of evidence Michigan would rather die than adapt, rendering the offense ineffectively predictable.
Now, with the viable threat of the run or pass, the Michigan offense can maximize its potential near and inside the red zone.
Against Maryland, expect the old vanilla attempts inside the goal line facing the No. 77 run defense in the Terrapins and the clash with Ohio State looming the following week.
But against the Buckeyes, expect Gattis to be back in his bag with intermediate shots from outside the red zone and a plethora of tendency-breaking plays saved exclusively for The Game inside the red zone.