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Michigan offense sees improvement happening

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    Michigan's Chris Evans breaks free from Western Michigan defenders. The Wolverines' ability to move the ball on the ground was a welcome sight for UM fans.

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    Michigan's Nico Collins catches a pass during the first half of Saturday's 49-3 win over Western Michigan.

    BLADE/LORI KING

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    Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) celebrates with teammates after a Wolverines touchdown against Western Michigan.

    BLADE/LORI KING

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ANN ARBOR — A few short days ago Michigan’s offensive coaches lacked creativity and the season, only one game old, was doomed.

But last week’s output against Western Michigan — 451 yards, 49 points, and a spirited passing game in just 53 snaps — gave considerable evidence to those who talked all off-season about an offense that would look nothing like recent seasons. Especially noteworthy was an offensive line that sparked runs of 67, 43, 27, 27, 19, 18, 17, and 16 yards.

“Those holes, you could drive a truck through,” said junior tailback Chris Evans, who rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns. “There was nobody to block because everybody to block was taken care of.”

More of the same is expected for No. 19 Michigan on Saturday against 0-2 Southern Methodist, which ranks 124th out of 130 in scoring defense and 109th in total defense. Western Michigan wasn’t much better, but in 2017, the quality of the opponent didn’t matter. The end result often was an underwhelming performance.

Noticeably different through two games this season is a quarterback that can deliver accurate passes. Shea Patterson is 32 of 47 for 352 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Last week, he connected with Nico Collins on a touchdown that ended an ignominious streak — 364 days since a Michigan receiver caught a touchdown pass.

Michigan’s 2018 football schedule

Jim Harbaugh devoted several minutes of his postgame news conference, Monday’s news conference, coaches show, and weekly radio appearance to explaining Patterson’s positives:

■ “I thought Shea played really well again. He made some big-time plays. Some of the throws he made out of the pocket, or on the dead run, getting out of trouble, those were big-time plays.”

■ “I thought he was accurate, really accurate again. Playing cool, making the tight window throws for the second week in a row. I thought he was more in control, more in charge.”

■ “That throw to his left to Oliver [Martin]. That was high-level.”

“It lifts the sour taste out of our mouth,” Patterson said. “We came out, set the tone, and started early. We just wanted to start the game fast and dominate — not just win.”

A notable trend was exposed in the game, with Michigan gaining 135 of its 184 first-half yards on 10 plays out of the shotgun. On six plays behind center, the Wolverines rushed for 49 yards — and 43 came on one run.

The offense was unrecognizable at times — passes on the run, jet sweeps, running lanes that were wider than the intersection of Stadium and Main. Some plays were entirely new, according to players.

“There’s a lot of questions about our offense, and I think we put a close to that,” said senior running back Karan Higdon, who rushed for a game-high 156 yards, including runs of 67 and 43 yards. “There’s obviously a lot of people talking about us. Michigan’s always a hot topic. I think we proved that we could throw it back.”

The Michigan offense didn’t just prove its abilities to itself and its legion of doubters, but also to a defense which has had their back during two seasons of scoring struggles. Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Don Brown, and others told everyone to wait and see. They all said the offense was improved and looking sleek despite its troubles in the opening loss at Notre Dame.

All it took was some practice time and two games for Winovich to declare Patterson the best Michigan quarterback during his five-year career.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t good watching the offense move the ball and scoring how they were scoring,” Gary said. “It makes it more fun for us. They score, ‘OK, let’s get another three-and-out to give them the ball back and watch the show.’ It was great watching the offense doing that. The offense is only going to get better because everybody getting into their groove now.”

The next test doesn’t come until Sept. 22 against Nebraska, an unranked opponent but one that carries name appeal and would beat back some of Harbaugh’s critics, albeit temporarily.

In the meantime, Michigan aims to continue an upward trajectory and prove there’s innovation on offense, not the time-travel disaster that’s still fresh in numerous minds.

“Really pleased with how our players are improving,” Harbaugh said.

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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