Michigan wasn’t expected to win Saturday night at Penn State, but they were expected to compete.
The Nittany Lions came out swinging and jumped to a 14-0 lead. The Wolverines withstood the hot start to get back into the game at 14-13, but that breath of life was actually just Michigan’s death rattle as Penn State would go on to score the final 28 points in a dominating 42-13 victory.
Penn State made a statement both for themselves and for Michigan about where each respective program stands in the Big Ten hierarchy this year.
This is your 2017 Wolverines. It wasn’t a wakeup call so much as it was a knockout blow.
I didn’t think Michigan would win, but I did think it was certainly possible that they could pull off the upset.
After watching the game Saturday night, however, I can’t think of a scenario realistic enough that would have the Wolverines winning this game if they played again.
Sure, Michigan would have a better idea of how Penn State would attack Don Brown’s defense, but would Brown do anything about it? He sure didn’t seem interested in fixing the issues at the time they were happening.
And is the Wolverine offensive line suddenly going to be able to protect quarterback John O’Korn or create enough space for the running game? I’m not asking them to do both, I’m asking if they would be capable of an either/or.
This game left the Michigan coaching staff with an understanding of where things stand, but it also left people questioning Jim Harbaugh, and doing so in October, rather than November when they normally question him.
Yeah, the loss sucks, but this season was always about beating Ohio State and that goal is still very much alive, even if it doesn’t look like it after Saturday.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan put up 269 yards of total offense against the Penn State defense, which was fewer yards than Pittsburgh, Georgia State, Iowa, and Indiana all managed against the Nittany Lions. It wasn’t a lot fewer, however, as Penn State has played a lot of bad offenses this season.
The Wolverines managed just 103 yards rushing. They actually gained 152 yards, but lost 49 yards to seven sacks. Karan Higdon rushed for 45 yards, Ty Isaac managed 36 yards, and Chris Evans chipped in 17 yards. That’s 98 yards rushing on 25 carries by Michigan’s running backs. None of those 25 carries went for a loss, which was the most impressive offensive statistic of the night for the Wolverines.
They probably ran the ball well enough to not get blown out, but the offensive line didn’t cooperate so much on passing downs. And to be honest, it’s not like they were all that great run blocking either. Michigan’s two most explosive running plays came from John O’Korn scrambles.
And to be honest one more time, O’Korn wasn’t the biggest problem for Michigan, it was the offensive line.
Yes, O’Korn held the ball too long at times and his pocket awareness can only be seen through time-lapse photography, but he still completed 16-of-28 passes for 166 yards. He threw no touchdowns or interceptions, but was harassed all night long.
I really like freshman wide receiver Tarik Black, and when he was lost for the season with an injury last month, I knew it would be a blow. His absence, however, isn’t a valid excuse for the lack of production from the receivers.
Jim Harbaugh brought in five possible wide receivers in the 2016 recruiting class and they have turned into Eddie McDoom, who is mostly a jet sweep guy, and Kekoa Crawford, who is more inconsistent than targeting calls. That’s still better than what Harbaugh inherited from Brady Hoke, however.
Losing Tarik Black was bad, but you can’t rely on freshman receivers to keep your passing game afloat. Your boat is already taking on water before it’s even launched if you’re relying on rookies.
Despite the issues on offense, they wouldn’t be so magnified if the offensive line could protect the quarterback or move an opposing defensive line even a little. They accomplished this a bit early in the season, but then conference play started.
The 271 yards rushing against Indiana last week looks like the aberration here as the Wolverines managed just 139, 102, and 103 yards rushing against Purdue, Michigan State, and Penn State, respectively.
The lack of a running game wasn’t new, we’ve talked about it here for a while now. A couple of big runs would mask the problem, but the Wolverines were never able to find those masks against the Penn State defense.
Right now, there is no reason to expect Michigan to be able to win a game on the ground against a competent defense, and amazingly it has been that way for a decade now.
Michigan has played 37 ranked teams since 2008 and rushed for 200 yards just six times. The good news is that four of those 200-yard games have been under Jim Harbaugh in 10 attempts.
For a comparison, Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes have faced 21 ranked opponents since 2012 and rushed for 200+ yards 15 times. They aren’t doing much better than Michigan over the last 10, however, as they have reached 200 yards six times.
When Michigan Was On Defense
I spent too much time talking about the offense and should have saved more rage for Michigan’s defense.
Here’s an example of a place where my rage would be pointed.
No clue what No.10 is looking at here, and No.14 looks like the sideline is made of Lava. pic.twitter.com/A15TxynKdj
— Kyle Morgan (@NoHuddleScouts) October 23, 2017
For the first time all season, the Michigan defense allowed 300 yards of total offense. In fact, it was the first time under Don Brown that an opponent hit 500 yards against the Wolverine defense, and just the second time under Jim Harbaugh.
Penn State rushed for 224 yards and threw for 282 yards. Running back Saquon Barkley rushed for 108 yards on 15 carries, with his first carry going for 69 yards. He was held to less than 3 yards per carry the rest of the game. Quarterback Trace McSorley picked up any slack on the ground, rushing for 76 yards and three touchdowns.
Much like Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke found success against Michigan’s defense, McSorley ran the read option well and also scrambled effectively.
McSorley completed 17-of-26 passes for 282 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Michigan only sacked him twice.
Six of McSorley’s completions went to PSU’s best receiver, DaeSean Hamilton. Penn State wisely kept putting Hamilton in the slot and matching him up against Michigan safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus. Hamilton went for 115 yards on his six receptions, most of which came from the slot.
As bad as this matchup was for Michigan, it was world’s better than Don Brown sticking with linebacker Mike McCray on Saquon Barkley in pass coverage. Barkley caught three passes for 53 yards with a 42-yard touchdown. The Wolverines were fortunate that was all the damage Barkley did through the air.
This was the first time I have ever seen a glitch in Don Brown’s matrix.
Penn State had an extra week to prepare and they made the most of it. They only had seven third downs. They had answers to questions that Michigan hadn’t even asked yet.
They made Michigan’s defense look like Michigan’s offense.
Penn State scored touchdowns on four of their five red zone trips, and the only reason they didn’t score on all five is because the game ended with the Nittany Lions having the ball at the Michigan 6-yard line and James Franklin having a battle with his conscience on whether or not to punch it in.
How was Penn State so effective in the red zone? The quarterback run sure helped. McSorley rushed for 36 of his 76 yards inside the red zone. The Wolverines just weren’t able to account for him, and now this appears to be a pattern that could bode well for Ohio State and J.T. Barrett down the road.
The Michigan cornerbacks were solid all game long, which is why Penn State came into this game intent on attacking the safeties and the linebackers.
In many ways, the Nittany Lions provided a blueprint for beating Michigan’s defense, so long as you have a quarterback who can move and a dynamic running back. Which, again, bodes well for the Buckeyes.
The Michigan Special Teams
In what is a disappointing trend for Michigan punter Brad Robbins, he only put one of his six punts inside the 20-yard line. Michigan has struggled to pin teams deep, which makes what their defense has been able to do this season even more impressive.
There isn’t much else to say about the special teams, other than kicker Quinn Nordin missed an extra point.
Freshman cornerback Ambry Thomas had a nice 43-yard kickoff return.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan didn’t end up wasting a national championship-caliber defense because of a bad offense this year after all, because this was no championship-caliber defense.
It turns out, this was a defense just as stubborn as Michigan’s offense.
Penn State kept going to the well and Don Brown never bothered to take the bucket from them. He just kept asking if they were still thirsty and if they needed anything else.
“Yes, can you please put Mike McCray on Saquon Barkley?”
“Consider it done. Now drink up.”
It also means that John O’Korn isn’t the biggest problem here, but he also isn’t any kind of a fix.
I think redshirt freshman Brandon Peters needs to get some snaps. Penn State probably wasn’t the place to do that, but this week at home against Rutgers absolutely is. I’m not saying he should start, but you should always want to get your backup quarterback some snaps. He is only one snap away from being the starter, and with Michigan’s offensive line, it’s almost inevitable at this point.
The internet has been pounding their keyboards since Saturday with digs and memes directed at Harbaugh, and I get it, but I don’t agree with it.
That being said, head coaches who don’t grow and adjust eventually wither and blow away.
When Urban Meyer came to Ohio State, he talked about how he preferred to huddle so that his quarterback could communicate with every single one of his teammates and they could look into his eyes before each play.
And then he hired Tom Herman and the huddle went away.
Then, after two years of pitiful pass defense, Meyer brought in a new defensive coordinator to give him the kind of aggressive defense he had been begging for. In the first year of that new defense, the Buckeyes won a national title, shutting down all three Heisman finalists in the final three games of the season.
College football is constantly changing. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t see a need to change with it, he should probably look harder. Even Nick Saban had to give in, and he recruits with a wedding registry gun.
Michigan is 5-2 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. Their season is far from over and Jim Harbaugh is not Butch Jones.
There will be a time and place for the Wolverines’ obituary, but a blowout loss on the road at night against the revenge-minded No. 2 team in the nation isn’t it.
There are certainly problems here, but there is time to get them fixed, and Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland have a way of healing any gaping wounds and stifled pride.
Michigan’s season now comes down to their final two Big Ten games — at Wisconsin and home against Ohio State. If they go 2-0, then this season was a success. If they don’t, then things went about as expected.
And anyway, the real concern should be what happens next year at quarterback. Having no better options than Wilton Speight four years into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure is more of a fireable offense than anything that could happen this season.
The Road to The Game
Sept. 2 Michigan 33 – Florida 17 (1-0)
Sept. 9 Michigan 36 – Cincinnati 14 (2-0)
Sept. 16 Michigan 29 – Air Force 13 (3-0)
Sept. 23 Michigan 28 – Purdue 10 (4-0, 1-0)
Sept. 30 BYE
Oct. 7 Michigan State 14 – Michigan 10 (4-1, 1-1)
Oct. 14 Michigan 27 – Indiana 20 (5-1, 2-1)
Oct. 21 Penn State 42 – Michigan 13 (5-2, 2-2)
Oct. 28 Rutgers at Michigan (Rivalry Game)
Nov. 4 Minnesota at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Maryland
Nov. 18 Michigan at Wisconsin
Nov. 25 Ohio State at Michigan