Changing the Narrative
Michigan upended Penn State in Happy Valley with a crossing route to Erick All. There's a lot to unpack in that sentence.
Reputations are forged fast in college football.
Erick All was a sure-handed tight end prospect until he dropped four passes in his first three games as a starter in 2020. By his own admission, he was down bad:
“After I dropped the first ball in the Minnesota game, I think it was just in my head. Thank God it’s out, because I was down bad for a little bit.”
Now a bitter disappointment, his improved play in the season’s last couple games did little to quiet doubts about his receiving ability and suitability as a starter for this season. Surely offensive coordinator Josh Gattis would deemphasize the tight end position altogether given the available talent at wide receiver, All’s struggles, and the long-promised move to speed in space.
Instead, All turned into Cade McNamara’s security blanket. Despite missing the Indiana game two weekends ago with an ankle injury, he’s second on the team in receptions and receiving yards, boasts the best PFF receiving grade, and ranks first in yards per route run.
Half of his receptions have netted first downs. He’s dropped a single pass among his 35 targets; only four other passes his way have fallen incomplete.
We hardly need to go over the end of Don Brown’s tenure as defensive coordinator. Michigan was predictable with Brown’s insistence on press man coverage, overmatched against top-flight receivers (and, in 2020, just about any receiver), and particularly prone to getting worked by crossing routes that picked off defenders.
Under coordinator Mike Macdonald and an overhauled defensive staff, Michigan has been significantly better at mixing up coverages, staying with receivers, and limiting big plays. They hadn’t faced a receiver of Jahan Dotson’s caliber until Saturday, however.
Dotson had four 100-yard performances in nine games heading into the weekend, including back-to-back 11-reception games covering 127 and 242 yards against Ohio State and Maryland, respectively, in the two weeks prior. He’d reached the end zone nine times. Meanwhile, Michigan’s #1 cornerback, Gemon Green, didn’t make the trip to Penn State because of an undisclosed injury.
Dotson finished with nine catches for 61 yards on 16 targets. That’s a mere 3.8 yards per target; he entered the game with a mark of 8.7 YPT. While he scored the game-tying two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, it required near-perfect execution on his part and quarterback Sean Clifford’s to make the play.
When Penn State needed a third-and-two on what would be their last offensive drive, Clifford looked Dotson’s way on a slant, only for DJ Turner II and Rod Moore — the latter a true freshman safety — to converge and jar the ball loose.
Clifford didn’t even target Dotson, by far his favorite target, on the ensuing fourth down. [EDIT: He couldn’t do that since Dotson was on the sideline, dinged from the hit he took on third down.] His pass fell incomplete. Michigan salted the game away on the ground.
The Wolverines could do this, of course, because Erick All made the biggest play of his career on the previous drive. After PSU took a 17-14 lead, Gattis seemed content to run the ball down their throats to get the go-ahead score, opening the drive with five runs covering 28 yards.
On second-and-nine, though, Michigan lined up with all three receivers to the wide side of the field and All with his hand in the dirt on the short side. The subsequent play felt like an out-of-body experience for this observer, who’d seen opponents rip open the M defense in this fashion so many times.
Michigan ran, in effect, mega-mesh. Each of the three receivers cleared out the wide side of the field, running crossing routes of varying depth. All ran a short crossing route in the other direction. Penn State played press man coverage. The defenders covering All and Mike Sainristil collided, spinning All’s defender 360 degrees.
All caught an easy pass and got on his horse:
Down goes Narrative.