Every Tuesday at The Grotto in downtown Ann Arbor (6pm start time) and Thursday's at Royal Oak Taphouse (6:30pm), former Michigan QB Devin Gardner joins me to break down the previous Michigan football game. Here is what we learned from the Nebraska game.
Play 1 - 13:23 1st Quarter - After picking off Adrian Martinez and taking possession at their own 36-yard line, the Wolverines run a play-action pass immediately, satisfying two fan cravings 1) throwing on first down 2) going for it all following a turnover. However, as Gardner noted, so often, going for the jugular leads to a bad decision by your QB, who is determined to throw downfield whether someone is open or not.
In this play, Michigan keeps six in to block and has a seventh, senior tailback Karan Higdon (No. 22), release late after faking the handoff. Nebraska rushes five, but that leaves six to defend three. By the time Higdon joins the route, quarterback Shea Patterson has already made the decision that no one is open, so he checks down to his running back for a seven-yard gain. Gardner loved that he did that, because it was the smart decision, allowing U-M to survive for another play. And sure enough, five plays later, the Maize and Blue score.
Play 2 - 12:48 1st Quarter - The very next play is a 46-yard Higdon run. The fact that this is read-option (if only in formation, as Patterson has no intention of holding onto the ball) freezes both linebackers momentarily, especially the backside LB. Left guard Ben Bredeson (74) kicks out to the defensive end, center Cesar Ruiz (51) combo blocks to take out the backside linebacker (No. 7), leaving Higdon in a one-on-one situation with the frontside linebacker (No. 5), who opens his hips to the outside, expecting Higdon to take it to the edge. Higdon sees this, cuts back inside and is now off to the races, with another nifty move back outside when he sees WR teammate Donovan Peoples-Jones (No. 9) seal the cornerback, even if only temporarily, from keeping containment.
Play 3 - 9:08 1st Quarter - Almost the exact same play, Higdon scores from 44 yards out on this outside-zone run. This time, Michigan uses junior tight end Zach Gentry (83) to block the backside linebacker but ends up on the frontside linebacker, deceived by Patterson's play-fake and caught way out of position. Watch Peoples-Jones come down and "crack" block the safety. He doesn't see it coming. It's a nice, legal block. The outside corner (No. 23) takes a terrible angle, loses containment, and allows Higdon to get outside of him for a sprint to the end zone.
Play 4 - 8:07 1st Quarter - This is an early play that demonstrates the Huskers' desire to be anywhere but Ann Arbor on Saturday. NU slants protection to the left but is gap blocking down to the right, essentially trying to outflank the Wolverines while rolling to the left. Defensive end Rashan Gary begins his pursuit and realizes the left tackle has his eyes inside and is no threat to block him. This leaves the running back (No. 22) to chip Gary and hold him at bay long enough for Martinez to make a decision and get rid of the ball. But Devine Ozigbo (despite being 235 pounds) wants no part of Gary and watches as he bears down and sacks his QB.
Play 5 - 5:35 1st Quarter - Nebraska brings five, but two - a linebacker from depth (after SMU had so much success with this a week ago) and a safety from depth - come so late that the offensive line is already committed. Higdon does a nice job sticking his facemask into the first blitzer but can do nothing about the second. This is on Patterson to know a man is coming free and to get rid of the ball. Michigan's QB recognizes that even though the middle of the field is clogged, no one is picking up Gentry on a crossing route (his guy is coming on the blitz with the intention of getting to the QB before he can get the pass off). Patterson throws to a spot, trusting his TE to be there.
Also, not really sure how this wasn't a personal foul hit on the QB, as No. 14 launches himself and goes high.
Play 6 - 3:15 1st Quarter - Second time that Nebraska says, 'Yeah, we'd like to go home now.' Fullback Ben Mason will get the ball with seven yards of head steam. Tight end Sean McKeon (84) comes in motion to block the frontside linebacker but the safety (No. 23) decides that he'd rather grab a hold of McKeon (who is not paying attention to him) then get hit in the face by the 254-pound Mason. Not that I blame him - No. 23, Dicaprio Bootle is 5-10, 190 - but good lord, at least pretend to trip on the turf.
Play 7 - 3:09 1st Quarter - Devin Bush is fast. Faster than your tight end and left guard. That is all.
Play 8 - 11:24 2nd Quarter - Quick, decisive throw to pick up the first down. Key here is again watch Higdon recognize where the pressure is coming from and where he must help, coming across the pocket to put his face into outside linebacker Alex Davis (6-5, 255 pounds). Well done sir. He takes a hand to the face for his troubles (another no-call).
Play 9 - 4:53 2nd Quarter - This is why I love watching film with former players. I thought this play was made by a host of guys that recognized the reverse but Gardner pointed specifically to sophomore end Kwity Paye (No. 19). As you see Paye disengage from his blocker at the 22-yard line, look at the angle he takes. A lot of defenders would cut upfield, towards the ball carrier, thus losing his advantage. Paye runs right down the 22-yard line, extending the distance the receiver has to run to get to the edge. This additional time allows safety Josh Metellus (14), and linebackers Bush (10) and Devin Gil (36) to track down the ball carrier.
Play 10 - 1:45 2nd Quarter - Michigan runs a slide protection to the right and Nebraska is blitzing from the left. This has sack written all over it (sometimes the other team makes a good call). Mason is going out on a route so he's not an extra bodyguard. If there is fault, it lies with left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. (75), who recognizes too late the coming defender (though in all fairness, he was engaged with a defensive lineman).
Play 11 - 0:10 2nd Quarter - On 4th-and-7, Jim Harbaugh goes for the throat with a home-run throw to Nico Collins. He's interfered with. No pass interference. There should have been one untimed down to end the half. Patterson did underthrow the ball some. If he leads his receiver, it's a touchdown. It happens, Gardner noted ("Guys aren't perfect every time.")
Play 12 - 12:37 3rd Quarter - Fifth-year senior FB John Wangler makes a rare appearance. This is blocked pretty well. Ruiz cannot get out to the backside linebacker because he gets stuck in the wash, and the backside LB makes the play. That's often how it happens, and the difference between a seven-yard gain and a 30-yard gain.
Play 13 - 9:21 3rd Quarter - Peoples-Jones' punt return for a TD. Great block by Brad Hawkins (20) to essentially "box out" the defender without hitting him in the back, which is not easy. "When you only play on special teams, or most of your snaps come on special teams, you want to hit someone," Gardner said. Peoples-Jones also gets nice blocks from Jordan Glasgow (29), Jacob McCurry (43) and Khaleke Hudson (7).
Play 14 - 5:23 3rd Quarter - Dylan McCaffrey's 75-yard run may have been negated by a holding call but was still impressive as he outran a 6-2, 215-pound linebacker. Because Patterson so rarely keeps on the read-option play-calls, the unblocked defender (the same OLB, No. 4), bites and attacks Higdon, creating the space for McCaffrey to get outside of him.
Play 15 - 3:35 3rd Quarter - Really nice play-action deception here, with good blocking up front, and McCaffrey patiently waiting for his WR to come open. Quite often, young QBs force throws when they come into the game instead of showing the restraint. But this is McCaffrey's third game of the season and he knows that if he trusts the play to develop, his wideout will eventually release free.
Play 16 - 14:30 4th Quarter - Football is a game of inches, the cliche goes, and that was proved evident here, as McCaffrey's pass sails just over the outstretched fingers of the Huskers' DB. That same Nebraska corner originally tried to throw freshman WR Ronnie Bell off his route by physically pushing him to the sideline. Receivers are taught to give themselves a five-yard cushion on the sideline so it was imperative for Bell to recreate that gap, which he does on this play, so that McCaffrey has a window to throw the ball into.
Join us at Royal Oak Taphouse this Thursday to break down the film and ask Gardner questions in-person.