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'Great kick-start': Focused Michigan rebounds, pummels WMU

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A shellacking of Western Michigan does not erase Michigan’s season-opening loss at Notre Dame a week ago, but it did give the Wolverines a chance to find a much-needed offensive rhythm and bolster the team’s confidence.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) congratulates running back Karan Higdon after Higdon ran for a 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

The Wolverines (1-1) had little resistance from Western Michigan as they routed the Broncos, 49-3, before 110,814 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

Quarterback Shea Patterson, making his first start in the Big House, was 12 of 17 for 125 yards and three touchdowns — to tight end Sean McKeon, and receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, which were the Wolverines’ first scoring passes to receivers since the Cincinnati game a year ago.

It was a big rushing game for Michigan. Karan Higdon had 156 yards on 13 carries and scored on a 67-yard run, and Chris Evans added two touchdowns on 86 yards rushing.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 49, Western Michigan 3

“There’s a lot of questions about our offense,” said Higdon, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Saturday. “We’ve got to take this game with a grain of salt. This is a great kick-start for us.”

Who was asking those questions?

“Just outside,” Higdon said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of people talking about us. Michigan is always a hot topic. “

Western Michigan avoided the shutout when Josh Grant made a 35-yard field goal with 2:34 left in the game. Michigan was more concerned with rebounding from a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame last week.

“We wanted a shutout, but we gave up a field goal,” said defensive end Rashan Gary, who had six tackles including a sack. “It doesn’t matter but I know how it is. We’ve got to make sure from all levels from the first string, second string, third string, everybody is playing up to that level. They got to move the ball a little bit, but we’re going to tighten up.”

Evans said the Wolverines took an all-in approach to practice last week and wanted to prove a point after the loss to the Irish.

“It was a little more focused, attention to detail,” Evans said. “We had to bounce back from a loss and that’s what we did. (Defensive coordinator) Don Brown said we owe them everything Notre Dame did to us. We lost to them. (The Broncos) were just the people in the way. We owed them a good performance because we lost last week.”

Michigan had 451 yards of total offense, including 308 yards rushing, with considerable praise for the offensive line’s run blocking. Western Michigan had 208 yards of offense, including 85 passing. Michigan’s defense stopped Western on 2 of 5 fourth-down conversions.

Evans said the Wolverines were focused all week in practice after the loss.

“We were not allowing all those smiles and stuff no more,” he said. “We’re strictly business unless we’re outside the lines after practice. Other than that, we’re strictly business because Notre Dame punched us in the mouth because we were laughing and took everything for granted. This week we were a lot more focused.”

Evans was asked when the team was laughing at Notre Dame.

“Not laughing. We weren’t like that,” he said. “Everybody was excited for the season, having a good time smiling and all that. We had to lock down and get focused.”

The entire team looked locked down in every phase, and Patterson carried on where he left off, looking comfortable and at ease running the offense. He displayed accuracy and the ability to elude and make throws on the run. His highlight was late in the third quarter when he threw into a narrow window, finding Peoples-Jones for an over-the-shoulder catch and a 42-0 lead.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh praised Patterson’s field vision and said that play illustrated how quickly his quarterback makes decisions because of that ability to see and take in the situation so well.

“He’s got really good vision of the field,” Harbaugh said. “That’s something I’m always asking for all the time. How are you seeing things? What are you seeing? It was really good. The throw to Donovan stands out in my mind as the one that puts an exclamation point on it because it looked like a zero blitz, all-out blitz in man coverage, free safety, thought we had the right play called.

“We were bringing Nico in from the outside receiver position from the boundary and thought that was going to be where the ball would go, and as the play developed I saw a linebacker drop off into that space and for (Patterson) to calculate that and change the channel, which if I was playing quarterback, that’s where I would have been going with the ball reading the initial coverage. Changed the channel and then go to the corner and throw it to Donovan and make that split-second decision and then make that accurate of a throw, you’re really seeing things well.”

Patterson said they had worked on that play all week.

“Donovan ran a heck of a route,” he said.

Michigan checked plenty of boxes in the first half on the way to taking a 35-0 lead, including its first passing touchdown to a receiver — a 44-yard reception by Collins for Michigan’s fifth touchdown of the half — since Sept. 9, 2017.

Among the other highlights in the first half, Michigan ran for 184 rushing yards, including 156 from Higdon, who also had a touchdown. The defense, which paid for a number of mistakes early against Notre Dame last week that put the team in a 14-0 hole, held the Broncos to 97 yards (2.6 yards per play). Noah Furbush had an interception and Khaleke Hudson blocked a punt. Will Hart averaged 56.7 yards a punt — he had a long of 61 — and gave the Broncos starting position twice at their 20 and once at the 13.

“I thought we played well start to finish,” Harbaugh said. “I thought Shea played really well again. He made some big-time plays. A couple throws he made out of the pocket were on the dead run getting out of trouble. Those are big-time plays. I thought he was really accurate again, playing cool. Making tight-window throws the second week in a row. He was more in control, more in charge. Look to expand that next week, take another step.”

McKeon and Patterson connected for the first touchdown, a 17-yarder, but it was the last of the half, to Collins that was more significant because it broke the Wolverines’ long drought of passing touchdowns to the receivers.

Harbaugh said last Monday he did not anticipate changing the starting offensive line, despite its struggles at Notre Dame, and the same group did start — Jon Runyan at left tackle, Ben Bredeson at left guard, Cesar Ruiz at center, Mike Onwenu at right guard and Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle.

Michigan planned to run against a weak Western defense that gave up 55 points to Syracuse in the opener, and that the Wolverines did.

Higdon took off for a 67-yard touchdown, and he got a huge assist from Bredeson, who blocked two defenders opening a hole. That was for the 14-0 lead. Evans scored on the next possession, which was set up by Furbush’s interception, on a 27-yard run.

Hudson blocked Western’s punt early in the second quarter and Joe Hewlett recovered it and ran for 10 yards to the Broncos’ 24-yard line. Michigan built a 28-0 lead on Evans’ second touchdown of the game on a 2-yard run.

The players and Harbaugh pointed to the past week of practice as the reason for such a sound defeat.

“There was a feeling everybody wanted to get rid of,” Harbaugh said. “Took nothing for granted. Worked really hard all week. That’s where we want to be as a football team, one week at a time. Put in the work and play start to finish.

“Our team started faster in this ball game and really played good. Special teams was another great contribution. Sound all the way on the teams. Fourth-down stops, we had a lot of things going our way today.”