The nation’s 117th ranked rush defense.
A running back coming off seven consecutive 100-yard games.
Saturday afternoon in Piscataway was set to be a showcase for senior running back Karan Higdon — an exposition of Michigan’s offensive might against lowly Rutgers. Two plays in, that expectation appeared destined to be fulfilled, as Higdon rattled off back-to-back nine yard runs.
Then, a strange thing happened. Higdon was stuffed — repeatedly. For the rest of the day, he gained just 28 yards on 13 tries — good for 2.2 yards per carry. Junior Chris Evans wasn’t much better, with 14 yards on five carries before a breakaway 61 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines gained 193 ground yards on the day — the exact same total as the Scarlet Knights’ 111th-ranked rushing attack did on seven fewer carries.
And yet they strolled — as expected — to victory, 42-7. So how did they do it?
Well, the headline may have spoiled it but the answer is simple: Shea Patterson.
“Shea was really playing tonight,” said coach Jim Harbaugh postgame. “Just does everything you ask him to do. You ask him to throw the ball, he throws it. … He made some throws that were just unbelievable.”
Patterson has shined with his legs the past few weeks, using designed quarterback runs to carve apart a trio of ranked opponents.
Against Rutgers — likely not wanting to risk injuries in a near-certain win — Harbaugh didn’t have his quarterback run a single time.
“Yeah, we weren’t really,” Harbaugh said — perhaps on the brink of admitting Patterson simply didn’t need to run against Rutgers — before pausing. “We’ve been running the ball quite a bit the last couple weeks. Couple different type of plays where he can zone read and come out throwing the ball. So it was a nice extra wrinkle for us, get him moving out of the pocket instead of running the ball as much.”
Added Patterson: “I don’t think it was necessary.”
With the win bordering on a formality, Patterson got the opportunity to flash what he can do with his arm. If there was any debate over that part of his game, he quickly put it to rest, rattling off his second highest yardage of the season on a nearly perfect afternoon, as he completed 18 of 27 passes for 260 yards and three scores.
Despite his subpar day, Higdon punched in Michigan’s first two touchdowns, each from a yard out. After that, it was all Patterson. His first touchdown — and the Wolverines’ third — came on Scarlet Knights’ blown coverage, as sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins got wide open in the end zone.
The next one was a display of every ability that makes Patterson so special. He got good protection but couldn’t find a receiver open downfield. Rather than throwing a pass into double-coverage, he took advantage of the time his offensive line gave him before using his mobility to roll out when the pocket began collapsing. Then, exhibiting his arm strength and accuracy, he fired a perfect dime on the run into the hands of sophomore receiver Oliver Martin in the corner of the end zone.
“It was good protection,” Patterson said. “We had two guys out on routes. The first one was Nick Eubanks, he had double coverage. Oliver did a heck of a job, just playing with me. Stuff broke down and I was able to get out of the pocket and Oliver made a great catch.”
Sure, Oliver made a great catch. So did Collins on Patterson’s next touchdown, a perfectly thrown fade. As did sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones two weeks ago on his 79-yard touchdown against Michigan State.
But seven different Wolverines have caught touchdown passes this year. And a lot of them have been great catches. It’s no coincidence that Patterson is the one constant.
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