ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan got its first competitive scare in Saturday’s 45-28 win over Colorado, when it faced its first deficit of the season.
The No. 4 Wolverines (3-0) rallied from a 14-point deficit and figured out what began as a puzzling pass defense. They’ll face another pass defense with stingy numbers when they host Penn State (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Penn State’s pass defense has been a standout in its first three games, including allowing Pittsburgh just 91 passing yards in a 42-39 loss Sept. 10 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. But Penn State is still a work in progress in many facets, working through injuries on its defense, adjusting to a new quarterback and trying to maximize the skill and talent of running back Saquon Barkley.
Here’s what Michigan will need to focus on in preparation for the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten opener for both teams:
1. Continued consistency — and resiliency — from quarterback Wilton Speight
Colorado literally knocked around Speight, sacking him three times, and Speight did postgame interviews with a heavy wrap around his shoulder and right elbow. Despite the physical toll, Speight stayed in until well into the second half and finished 16-for-30 passing for 229 yards and a touchdown.
2. Don’t underestimate Penn State
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh continues to reiterate that his team has to respect every opponent it faces. After Hawaii, UCF and Colorado, the Big Ten schedule is a different animal than the nonconference schedule, and it might be easy to get complacent after notching three double-digit wins, including two blowouts against mid-major opponents.
Penn State hasn’t been without its struggles, either this season or in recent seasons. The Nittany Lions needed John Reid’s last-minute interception to earn a 34-27 win over Temple last Saturday and have struggled so far against the run. Penn State was without seven defensive starters at points against Temple, including four who didn’t play at all, but defensive back Malik Golden leads the Nittany Lions with 18 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
3. Continue to stop Penn State’s run
Penn State’s run has been anemic in its first three games, averaging 111.7 yards, which is 13th in the 14-team Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also 11th in the Big Ten in total offense (387.7 yards) and simply haven’t been able to find their footing, even though they boast one of the Big Ten’s more promising running backs in sophomore Saquon Barkley (51 carries for 258 yards, six touchdowns). Michigan also needs to exploit Penn State’s offensive line, which has allowed 10 sacks so far this season.
4. Prepare to defend the pass — and continue to prepare with or without Jourdan Lewis
Lewis, Michigan’s All-America cornerback, has missed Michigan’s first three games with a muscle strain and back issues, and Harbaugh is hopeful Lewis will play this weekend. Michigan, however, needs to prepare for the possibility that Lewis could be out again, and needs to prepare for a team that will be pass-heavy. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has taken every snap this season (58-for-90 passing, 828 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions), and Penn State is second in Big Ten in pass offense (276 yards).
5. Find a physical and athletic balance on defense, and find it quickly
Colorado and quarterback Sefo Liufau exploited Michigan’s defense early, forcing the Wolverines into missing tackles and moving down the field by way of long passes and shifty receivers in the first half last Saturday. Like UCF and Colorado, Michigan’s previous two opponents, Penn State runs a no-huddle offense, but Harbaugh also noted Penn State has a physical presence up front and playmakers at wide receiver.