It took one offensive drive for angry boos to cascade Michigan Stadium, and then the next one to make it seem like it never happened.
After Shea Patterson completed a 10-yard out to senior tight end Zach Gentry on the game’s first play against Western Michigan, the offense followed with a false start, two short runs and a stifled screen pass. The Michigan offense from last week appeared to show up again in its home opener.
Then, the Wolverines’ defense stymied the Broncos on the following drive to get the ball back. Senior running back Karan Higdon charged down the field on a 43-yard run to get into the redzone, setting up a 17-yard touchdown reception for junior tight end Sean McKeon.
From then on, boos turned into sustained cheers. Higdon broke off a 67-yard touchdown run a drive later. After an interception by linebacker Noah Furbush the next defensive possession, junior Chris Evans converted a 27-yard score of his own. Michigan (1-1 overall) threw Western Michigan (0-2) around like a ragdoll and didn’t stop en route to a comfortable 49-3 win.
“Obviously there’s a lot of people talking about us, Michigan is always a hot topic,” Higdon said. “I think we took that today and threw it back.”
Just in the first half, Higdon carried the ball 13 times for 156 yards and a score, while his counterpart Evans had two touchdowns. The tandem combined for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
“All those holes, you could drive a car through it,” Evans said of the run blocking. “People in there with nobody to block, because everybody was taken care of and the running backs try to make everyone’s job easier.”
Rushing success against porous defenses is familiar for the Wolverines. But Saturday afternoon’s contest was also a game of firsts.
Patterson’s touchdown throw to McKeon was his first in his Michigan career. With 7:02 remaining in the second quarter, Patterson rainbowed a ball right into the hands of sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins for a 44-yard touchdown — the first collegiate score for Collins, and the first for any Michigan wide receiver since Sept. 9, 2017. And with 6:21 in the third quarter, Patterson connected with sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones for his first collegiate receiving score.
During garbage time in the fourth quarter, redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey replaced Patterson under center and threw his first career touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Jake McCurry for his introduction into the endzone.
But throughout the afternoon, it was squarely Patterson who inspired confidence amongst an oft-questioned passing offense. Even when facing pressure, the junior quarterback, who finished the day 12-for-17 with 125 yards and three touchdowns, made plays with both his arm and legs to convert first downs that were unimaginable only a year ago.
“Our o-line had a heck of a game,” Patterson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen holes open up that wide. Just the way that we ran the ball opened up so much more in our passing game. Got the safeties to come down and play in the box and expect the run.”
Added Higdon: “He stayed poised, he stood tall in the pocket whenever the offense needed to throw the ball we got plays out of him.”
The relative improvement of the offense overshadowed another picturesque output by the defense. After Furbush’s interception, junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson led the way with a blocked punt and six tackles. Junior defensive end Rashan Gary also recorded six tackles and his first sack of the year, amongst the unit’s eight tackles-for-loss.
Overall, the defense allowed just 208 total yards — 2.8 yards per play — to a Western Michigan team that put up 42 points and 621 yards only a week ago.
“I love wearing that hard hat,” Gary said of the pressure he faced from the Broncos’ offense. “You can double-, triple-team me. I’ve got Devin Bush coming off the edge, I’ve got Chase Winovich coming at him, Khaleke Hudson, I can keep going and not leave one person out.”
The sizable margin maintained by the defense allowed Jim Harbaugh to experiment with his team. Under new redshirt rules that allows players to play in up to four games while maintaining redshirt eligibility, the entire offensive line was replaced on McCaffrey’s drive. Junior walk-on running back Tru Wilson also saw game action, adding six carries for 54 yards in the No. 3 spot.
“Good to see our young offensive linemen get the snaps they did,” Harbaugh said. Good for (them and McCaffrey), getting a lot of guys out there playing — I think 74 players played in the game and did things, too.”
But there was still time for boos to rain down in Michigan Stadium. With 2:34 remaining, and after a blocked field goal was wiped away from an offsides call committed by the Wolverines, the Broncos converted one on the following play to the dismay of the Michigan faithful in attendance.
It was a blemish on an otherwise flawless bounceback display by the Wolverines, albeit against a weaker Western Michigan team. And if nothing else, Saturday’s game was one step closer to fixing the issues that have continually plagued Michigan.