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Michigan Wolverines Football: Offensive Line a Strength, But First-Half Missed Opportunities Continue
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7 Nov 2018 03:13 PM EST

-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Michigan running back Karan Higdon rushes against Penn State. (Image Source: Getty Images)

It’s no longer just the Michigan defense that’s consistently winning the line of scrimmage but the offensive line as well. Is it possible the unit that began the season as the biggest question mark has now developed into a strength?

Left tackle Jon Runyan in particular, seems to be really coming into his own and developing into one of the offense’s best players. For the second-straight game he’s received high grades from Pro Football Focus, rated second only to Shea Patterson among Michigan’s offense. Along with guard Ben Bredeson, they give the Maize & Blue a strong left side. A left side they leaned on early and often against Penn State.

Karan Higdon gained 10 yards on the second offensive play, as he ran behind Runyan and Bredeson, which he better after a huge hole opened up the middle on the very next play. Shot into the open field, Higdon scampered 50 yards all the way to the PSU 15-yard line. The drive ended when Patterson scored (again, around the left side) after he faked a handoff to Higdon.

Over the past few games, the rushing attack has come on strong late, after the opposing defense was worn down. Not against Penn State. They didn’t wait on Saturday, as the first drive went 76 yards on eight plays. All runs.

A message was sent.

The Wolverines would go on to run the ball 52 times for 259 yards, right at 5.0 yards per carry. By running the ball on 75 percent of the snaps, Jim Harbaugh dictated the style of play, the tempo, and controlled the clock (37:56 to 22:04). As talented as the defense is, they greatly benefit from an improved offense, particularly late in games.

In addition to Runyan, center Cesar Ruiz has been coming on and his athleticism fits in well with the offense. Also, tight end Sean McKeon does a really nice job of run blocking. He gives a great effort despite his slim frame. An underrated blocker.

Higdon finished with 132 yards, his eighth-straight 100-yard game, as he’s on the cusp of ending the 1,000-yard rusher draught.  

The pass protection was also on point as Patterson was sacked just once, by a PSU defense that came in averaging 3.5 sacks per game, best in the Big Ten. Shaka Toney (5 sacks) and Shareef Miller (4 sacks) were shutout, and while Yetur Gross-Matos did pick up his seventh sack, he wasn’t nearly as impactful as he was against Indiana or Iowa. The lone sack came on Michigan’s final possession of the first half with less than a minute to go when the Wolverines were trying to set up a screen pass.

When the season started many wondered if Michigan could win big this season in spite of their O-line, now they’re doing so in part, because of it.

Missed Opportunities in the First Half…It’s a Thing

— (Drive #2) With the ball on Penn State’s 48-yard line on Michigan’s second drive, the Wolverines dialed up a screen pass which appeared to be perfectly set up for a monster gain. Both Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson were ahead of Karan Higdon, ready to block, however Shea Patterson’s pass floated high over the head of his target. It felt like an opportunity to get into position to take a double-digit lead early.

Three plays later Patterson’s fourth-down pass to Zach Gentry was deflected, as they turned the ball over on downs at the PSU 40. Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a pass on fourth-and-two, but on the previous play (third-and-five) they ran Ben Mason up the middle for three yards…presumably to set up the fourth down? Seems like the pass play to Gentry could have been called on fourth-and-five, so if that’s the play call, why not just throw twice on third and fourth down?

— (Drive #3) On the ensuing drive, Patterson connected on a 47-yard pass play to Nico Collins down the field. I won’t say should have, but it certainly could have gone for an 84-yard touchdown. Collins was open early and Penn State safety Nick Scott was late coming over. The pass was underthrown and should have been in the air much sooner, which probably would have allowed Collins to race to pay dirt. The sophomore receiver also seemed to slow down too much as he ended up having to reach for the underthrow. The drive ended when Quinn Nordin’s field goal attempt was blocked. Could have been seven, should have been at least three, and the Wolverines got no points on the drive.

— (Drive #5) After Michigan took a 14-0 lead on a 10-play drive that took up 5:06, the defense forced a three-and-out, and Donovan Peoples-Jones returned PSU’s punt 28 yards to the Penn State 38-yard line. Great field position and the PSU defense had to get back on the field quickly. Perfect spot to put the game away. Instead a three-and-out gave the ball back to the Nittany Lions.

This is not a new theme, as they started in Michigan State territory and failed to score three times in the previous game. The inability to take advantage of good field position might be the biggest problem this team has right now.

For the third-straight game, Michigan’s halftime lead was smaller than it should have been. So far, they’ve been able to overcome this with dominant second halves but that doesn’t mean it’s not a potential problem that needs to be corrected moving forward.

Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.

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