ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan passed its first big exam of the season Saturday, and passed it with flair. In a matchup of two of college football’s traditionally vaunted programs, the Wolverines used muscle and grit to earn a 49-10 win over Penn State at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan got its best performance of the year from the running game, which took advantage of multiple injuries to Penn State’s linebackers. Also, its defense held nothing back against a Penn State offensive line that continues to have its struggles.
Michigan’s dominating day sets up a showdown between a pair of undefeated teams next week, as the Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) host Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Here are grades for Michigan following its win against Penn State, on a scale from one star to five stars:
Offense (5 stars)
Give five stars specifically to Michigan’s running game. Powered by De’Veon Smith, who broke free for a 39-yard run late in the first quarter that helped set up his team’s third touchdown, Michigan gained 326 yards on the ground, its highest rushing output since the season opener Sept. 3 against Hawaii, when it had 306 yards.
Against Penn State, Smith ran for 107 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, while Karan Higdon provided ample reinforcement with 81 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Wilton Speight continues to be steady and consistent. He finished with 189 yards on 21 of 34 passing against a pass defense that was second in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game.
Defense (5 stars)
Michigan’s defense could play no better against an offense that struggled to create yards on the run, and against an offensive line that had trouble protecting its quarterback — a dubious hallmark of James Franklin’s three seasons of coaching at Penn State.
Boosted by the return of defensive end Taco Charlton — also one of Michigan’s top pass-rushers on the defensive line — Michigan had six sacks, held Penn State’s rushers to 70 yards, held quarterback Trace McSorley to 121 passing yards, and had 13 tackles for a loss of 45 yards.
Jourdan Lewis’ return at cornerback boosted the pass defense, and safety Dymonte Thomas led the unit with eight tackles, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game the Wolverines may likely lose cornerback Jeremy Clark to a season-ending ACL tear.
Special teams (4.5 stars)
What little work the special teams units had, they were effective. There was one gaffe: Jabrill Peppers appeared to pop another long punt return early in the game, but his run was waved off due to a sideline interference penalty against Michigan. Harbaugh blamed logistics, joking that “it’s really tight over there on that sideline. There’s not a lot of room.”
Special teams didn’t necessarily make a huge impact on Saturday’s win, but gets an “A” for effort, remaining steady in its responsibilities. The Wolverines punted just once, while Peppers had 54 yards on two punt returns, and allowed 67 yards on kickoff returns.
Coaching (5 stars)
From the start, Michigan didn’t hold back in its Big Ten opener, sacking McSorley twice on Penn State’s first drive. That pace became indicative of the Wolverines, who not only exploited Penn State’s offensive line but took advantage of its injury-riddled linebackers and found plenty of movement in its running game.
That imbalance was crucial for the Wolverines, who appeared to be relying solely on its passing game in some of its double-digit wins. Now, Michigan needs to find consistency in its run game.
Overall (5 stars)
Harbaugh reiterates every week that each Big Ten game will be akin to a championship game, that there’s more value in the intraconference contests. Michigan’s rout of the Nittany Lions proved that philosophy. By halftime, the Wolverines held a 28-0 lead and one would have to wonder if the Wolverines would keep the pressure on the Nittany Lions. They did, continuing to play their starters until late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan continued its physical level of play and got its players plenty of reps. Necessary reps, in fact, as Saturday’s game against Wisconsin is expected to be another measuring stick for the Wolverines.