ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Penn State is the most injured team in the Big Ten on defense. So it should be no surprise that Michigan’s offense dominated the Nittany Lions.
From the first play from scrimmage on Saturday, the Wolverines imposed their will on the wounded Nittany Lions and made their Big Ten opener look like a cupcake game on the schedule. After a 49-10 victory, it’s hard to choose what Michigan did best, and whether it did anything wrong.
Here are some thoughts and analysis on Michigan’s performance after rewatching the game.
There really wasn’t a weakness on either side of the ball for Michigan, but if you had to pick a category of the stat sheet that didn’t pop it would be the passing game. Speight went 21-of-34 for 189 yards and a touchdown, but it was a case where numbers ineffectively assess a player’s performance. As the game unfolded, he commanded the offense. The Michigan offensive line didn’t allow a sack, but Speight, using underrated agility, evaded a couple of possible sacks, like this one.
Speight didn’t throw any deep passes, something offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said he does exceptionally well. Michigan could have issues running the ball this Saturday against Wisconsin, so throwing deep passes might be necessary against the No. 8 Badgers.
Overall, Speight didn’t need to be flashy to beat Penn State. The rushing attack produced 42 points, so there shouldn’t be questions about Speight throwing for only 189 yards. That’s all that was needed. He made the correct check-down throws, threw the ball away when needed, and, most importantly, didn’t make any mistakes.
Hello, run game
The run game hadn’t performed exceptionally well before Saturday, aside from a promising performance by Chris Evans against Hawaii. Penn State was beaten up and lost its third- and fourth-string middle linebackers to a targeting ejection and an injury. But that doesn’t change just how good Michigan looked running the ball. Five running backs scored a touchdown in the game and the Wolverines rushed for 326 yards, the most in coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. Michigan ran up the middle with De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac, outside with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans and into the end zone with fullback Khalid Hill (two TDs).
Three running backs (Smith, Higdon, Isaac) had more than 70 rushing yards each. A strong push from the offensive line allowed a lot of these runs, such as the one below.
In the photo below, look at the running lane for Smith, who only has to evade one defender. The offensive line, and a great block from WR Amara Darboh, pushes everyone away from Smith’s path. The 39-yard run set up another Michigan score.
You have to give a lot of credit to the skill of the Michigan backs, but the offensive line showed significant improvement against a defense that didn’t give them much of a challenge.
At full strength, this defense could be the nation’s best
There’s no downplaying that Michigan’s offensive performance had a lot to do with how damaged the Penn State defense was, but how about the Penn State offense? The Nittany Lions were only missing tight end Nick Bowers and receiver Dontez Ford. They still had their star running back, Saquon Barkley, who finished with only 59 rushing yards, his lowest total of the season. Barkley had scored a touchdown in each game this season, including four against Pitt, but he did not score against the Wolverines.
Penn State QB Todd McSorley had a very average day, finishing 16-for-27 with 121 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He only had five passes for more than 10 yards, and two of them were due to Barkley’s shiftiness. In fact, McSorley had the same number of plays go for negative yardage (nine) as those that went for more than 5 yards.
The Michigan defense controlled McSorley the entire game. The Wolverines had a monstrous 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.
Penn State averaged 3.6 yards a play and only ran 55 plays, 29 fewer than Michigan’s 84. On third down, Penn State went 2-for-13, converting only about 15 percent of the time. Michigan, meanwhile, went 11-for-16, a whopping 69 percent conversion rate.
This is a Penn State offense that had averaged more than 30 points a game this season. On Saturday, PSU did not score until the third quarter. The Nittany Lions brought an offense into Ann Arbor that had averaged 387 yards a game. They left Ann Arbor gaining only 199 yards total, and 146 of those yards came on two drives combined in the second half.
While you can’t completely gauge how good Michigan’s offense was against a defense as poor as Penn State’s, the defense was certainly impressive in shutting down an offense that averages 30 points per game. It’s college football, and high scoring is almost always the trend, so being able to shut down high-powered offenses is Michigan’s best chance to get to the College Football Playoff.
A lot of people question Michigan’s secondary with the loss of Jeremy Clark. His backup should be Brandon Watson, who had multiple tackles in last year’s spring game, including a pass breakup. He’s also been a key defender on special teams in his first two seasons. His style of play is similar to that of Jourdan Lewis, but he’s not as strong as Clark. He’ll likely get his first serious playing time this Saturday.
All in all, Michigan continues to do what it needs to do and win games by a large margin. This week, the Wolverines might be forced to squeak one out against the No. 8 Badgers, who bring a scary defense but a vanilla offense that Michigan should, again, use to showcase its defense.
Michigan has so far lived up to the hype, playing its very best last Saturday.
Other cool stats that matter going forward
- Michigan ran the same play nine times, according to Speight. Talk about not opening the playbook.
- The defense is first in the country in tackles for loss and tied for the most sacks in the country.
- The defense is first in the country in fewest third-down conversions allowed per game, and second in third-down conversion rate. They’re also ninth in fourth downs forced per game.
- Michigan limits opposing quarterbacks to a 49.1% completion percentage, good for No. 7 in the country.
- Michigan’s total defense is ranked No. 7 in the nation.
- The offense ranks No. 5 in the country in points per game with 52.
- Michigan converts 64 percent of its third downs, sixth in the country.
- Michigan’s rushing offense ranks No. 17 nationally in yards per carry at 5.4.