Michigan, now 8-1 overall and 6-0 in conference play, defeated Penn State (6-3, 3-3) by a charitable score of 42-7 on Saturday. The score could have been much worse, but there’s a reason cats don’t kill mice right away.
The Wolverines came into their game on Saturday off of a bye week and if there was any rust, it never showed.
And even if there was any rust, I imagine Don Brown would have simply scraped it off and stirred it into his morning coffee.
As the rest of the conference sputters and stutters, Michigan is the Big Ten’s only strutters. They continue to get better and are constantly expanding what they can do offensively and defensively. They aren’t looking for answers to old questions like some teams, they’re looking for new questions to ask in order to make themselves even better than they already are.
And right now, “even better” is a scary proposition for the rest of the Big Ten.
And by “the rest of the Big Ten,” I mean Ohio State.
Michigan’s schedule is essentially over. Their path to the Buckeyes is the real-life version of a video game warp zone. This week they travel to Rutgers where they are 39.5-point favorites. Yes, I know that we are supposed to throw the records out the window when rivals meet, but Rutgers lives in a place without any windows, so there’s nowhere to actually throw those records.
Next week, the Wolverines then host Indiana. Expect a 42-point win or so in that one. The Michigan defense will treat the Indiana offense like bears treat woods.
Then… then it is The Game. Michigan at Ohio State. The only thing that has ever mattered or will ever matter.
And the Wolverines may already be Big Ten East champs when the two teams meet.
But listen to me getting ahead of myself with Rutgers just five days away.
Even though Halloween was last week, let’s recap the slasher film that was Michigan and Penn State from Saturday.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 259 yards on 52 attempts, which is the most rushing yards allowed by Penn State since their 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor two years ago.
Running back Karan Higdon led the way with 132 yards rushing on 20 carries. He wasn’t unstoppable — fewer than half of his carries went for more than four yards — but he still ripped off a 50-yarder and is one of the toughest runners in the Big Ten. Fellow tailback Chris Evans chipped in 57 yards on 12 carries and quarterback Shea Patterson added 42 yards on 11 attempts.
The continued use of Patterson in the read option has made the offense better, and it has also made opposing defenses a step slower in defending the run. Patterson was responsible for the only two negative rushes on the day, and one was a sack.
Patterson completed 11-of-17 passes for 144 yards with two touchdowns. At this point, the Michigan passing game is like the classic car that sits under a tarp for 10 months a year. There’s no reason to bring it out just yet, but when it finally is time, everyone expects it to run just fine.
Patterson took a couple of shots downfield, connecting once with Nico Collins for a 47-yard gain. The bigger story was a long touchdown pass to Tarik Black that got negated due to a holding call. After missing more than a year, Black finally returned to action from a broken foot against Michigan State. Saturday would have seen him make his first catch in almost 14 months.
The fact that he blew past his defender and was open by six yards is a great sign for Black and the Michigan passing game. He is going to be a huge November call-up for the Wolverines. Right now they have three legitimate deep threats in Collins, Black, and Donovan Peoples-Jones. But more than that, they are also threats to move the chains on third-and-six.
When you add those three with the tight ends that Michigan has, it’s a tough matchup for anybody left on their schedule. And just when you think your pass rush has finally gotten through, you’ve just given up a 30-yard gain on a screen pass to a running back.
And then, of course, you’ve got an Ed Warinner offensive line that takes time to gel, but once it does, it gives everybody confidence and sets the tone for the entire offense. Individually, they may have question marks, but the offensive line is a unit, and they are operating like it at an increasingly impressive rate.
In terms of the offense as a whole, it was interesting to see the pistol and shotgun used in short-yardage situations. They even threw the ball on fourth-and two. This offense is so far beyond what it was at the start of the season. They may not be putting up huge yardage numbers, but why show all of your cards when you can win comfortably with just a few?
Michigan did lose backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey to a broken collarbone at the end of the game, which is not good. Keeping Shea Patterson healthy becomes even more important moving forward. After all, how many times has Michigan lost The Game over the last 12 years with quarterbacks who were dealing with injuries?
When Michigan Was On Defense
There are times when watching the Michigan defense is more like rubbernecking than football watching.
Saturday’s game felt like a Faces of Death VHS tape. I didn’t make it through the whole thing, but I have rewound the tape and will take it back to Video Connection in the morning.
Penn State rushed for 68 yards and passed for 118 on the day. As has been the case the past two outings, the bulk of the opposing yards against Michigan came on the final drive of the game. Penn State went 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown with their last possession, which I guess is like the Donner Party finding a cup of peanuts the day after they began to resort to cannibalism.
After going for 461 yards of total offense against Ohio State earlier in the season, Nittany Lion quarterback Trace McSorley was held slightly under that number, managing just 77 yards of total offense against the Wolverines.
Defensive end Rashan Gary returned to action for the first time in a month, which essentially gives Michigan another “trade deadline deal” to get them through the postseason.
The same things can be said week after week about the Michigan defense. They haven’t allowed 300 yards of total offense since the SMU game. In Big Ten play, they are allowing just 186.2 yards of total offense per game. That’s 132.6 fewer than anybody else, and less than half of what Ohio State is managing.
There are Michigan defenders running in all directions on every snap, but they all know exactly where they’re going. You could call them robots, but they violate the First Law of Robotics on every play.
One of the best things to happen to the Michigan defense this season has been the inclusion of linebacker Josh Uche as a pass rusher on passing downs. He is now second in the Big Ten with seven sacks, and all seven have come in the last five games. Against Penn State he had his third two-sack game of the year. He is simply too quick for some tackles. He can go the long way around, but he’s not just a speed rusher because he can get low and tuck inside a blocker (and then use his speed).
I am interested to see how he and Chase Winovich operate with Rashan Gary now back. I would expect Gary to slide inside on passing downs when he is completely healthy, giving the Michigan defense another new look for offenses to worry about.
Fifth-year senior cornerback Brandon Watson had an interception — his third of the season — and returned it for his second touchdown of the year. Given that it happened against Pick Six U, perhaps it should have been expected.
By the way, watching Watson this year has been a lesson in perseverance. This is his fifth and final season and he has started all of one game in his career, but he has been part of Michigan’s three-man cornerback rotation all season long and there is no drop off when he is in the game. He leads the team in interceptions and the corners in tackles (25) and is finishing his career the way coaches dream.
The Michigan Special Teams
If there was an area of disappointment for the Wolverines on Saturday, it was the special teams. So we should probably focus most of our energy talking about the troublesome Michigan kicking game.
Will Hart averaged 43.3 yards on his three punts. He has done better. Could this be a crippling development for the Wolverines? Possibly.
Quinn Nordin had a 50-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown, but a member of Michigan’s special teams was so slow to make a tackle that they were blocked in the back, which negated the score. Can such a slow place-kicking unit win a national title? That’s a question that will eventually have to be asked, and I don’t think Jim Harbaugh will like the answer.
Donovan Peoples-Jones added two good punt returns.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten and if they are going to lose to Ohio State in less than three weeks, then the Buckeyes are going to have to get a whole lot better to make it happen.
As I watch both teams, I try to envision what Ohio State can do to beat Michigan. If they can run the ball against Michigan State this coming weekend, that would be a positive sign. I’m not sure it will happen, however. And based on how much OSU has needed a running quarterback to succeed against the Wolverines in the past, even running the ball on Michigan State might not mean much.
Michigan’s offense also continues to pose problems, and it’s not like the Ohio State defense is only susceptible to juggernauts.
Right now, there are very few reasons to expect the Buckeyes to win this game, but Urban Meyer undeniably has a way with rivalry games, and this one is at home.
Still, the Wolverines are going to be able to take these next two weeks relatively easy and get healthy.
There is no reason for Michigan to not hit Columbus at full speed.
It will be up to the Buckeyes to then withstand the onslaught.