Michigan skated through its first two games before receiving a test against Colorado last Saturday. The Wolverines spotted the Buffaloes 14 points and — to paraphrase Jim Harbaugh when he tripped entering his introductory press conference a year and a half ago — a lesser athlete would have gone down.
It remains to be seen over the next 10 weeks, but this year’s Michigan team may be the closest to the Michigan of old that we’ve seen in a decade. This isn’t RichRod’s Michigan. This isn’t Brady Hoke’s Michigan. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan absorbed early blows, shrugged them off, and still won by 17 points, holding Colorado to barely 100 yards of offense over the final three quarters, 70 of which came on one play.
|Michigan Stadium – 3:30p.m. EST – ABC
|Penn State Head Coach:
||James Franklin (3rd season)
||40-28 (16-13 at PSU)
||Joe Moorhead (1st season)
||Brent Pry (3rd season)
||7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
||UM 28 – PSU 16 (2015)
|Record in Ann Arbor:
|Jim Harbaugh vs PSU
|Last Michigan win:
|Last Penn State win:
|Penn State Schedule to date
Time will tell just how good Colorado is, but it was an important early challenge for Michigan and the Wolverines passed. Now the real season begins. Michigan opens Big Ten conference play tomorrow against Penn State, and although they opened as 16-point favorites, the margin for error will shrink.
For the first time this season the narrative leading up to the game doesn’t center around an opposing coach’s comments towards Harbaugh or previous animosity toward Michigan, although the Penn State beat writers are trying their hardest. They’ve been hard at work sending zingers Harbaugh’s way and submitting applications for the Onion.
No matter how much they try to distract from what’s happening on the field or try to convince themselves that their program is headed in the right direction with better leadership than Michigan, their doing so signals that they have plenty to worry about this Saturday.
Penn State is 2-1 with wins over Kent State (33-13) and Temple (34-27) and a 42-39 loss to in-state rival Pittsburgh. Kent State and Temple stand at 105th and 56th in S&P+ thus far, but Penn State hardly won convincingly. Kent State — whose only win is over Monmouth — was down just 16-13 at halftime and within two scores until Penn State put the game away with two minutes left. Temple — whose only win is over Stony Brook — hung with the Nittany Lions all game and was within as few as three points midway through the fourth quarter.
According to the final score, Penn State played Pitt close — and they did — but they were playing catchup all game after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-7 before scoring just before the half. They made it a game late in the fourth, but Pitt’s lead was too much to overcome.
Let’s be honest. Penn State is an average football team. But that doesn’t mean they have no chance tomorrow. They have plenty of athletes even if they don’t have a lot of depth. Let’s take a look at the matchups.
|When Penn State has the ball
After a second straight 7-6 season in 2015 that saw Penn State pose one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten — 108th nationally — James Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan. He turned to Joe Moorhead, who guided Fordham to a 38-13 record over the past four seasons. There, he was known for his up-tempo offense that averaged 453.2 yards and 36.8 points per game over the past two seasons. While Penn State has featured a statue at quarterback the past few seasons in Christian Hackenberg, Moorhead’s offense is a spread with a run-pass option that utilizes the quarterback’s ability to run.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley may not be the perfect fit to run Moorhead’s offense — he has just 63 rushing yards, sacks removed, with a long of 17 — but Moorhead is determined to make it work regardless. McSorley is the Big Ten’s second-leading passer through the first three games of the season, averaging 276 yards per game. In terms of total passing yards, he leads the conference with 828. He is completing 64.4 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
In the loss to Pitt, McSorley completed 24-of-35 passes for 332 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. However, is that a reflection of Penn State’s offense or the weakness of Pitt’s secondary. The Panthers allowed 540 passing yards in a 45-38 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday. Yes, the same Oklahoma State that lost to Central Michigan — and threw for just 288 — the week prior.
McSorley has some talented receivers to throw to, most notably junior Chris Godwin, who ranks second in the Big Ten with six catches per game. His 1,101 receiving yards a year ago ranked second in the conference behind only Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge, which was good enough to earn second team All-Big Ten honors. He has 18 receptions for 220 yards and a touchdown so far this season. Senior DaeSean Hamilton and redshirt sophomore DeAndre Thompkins are the other two talented receivers. Hamilton has 12 receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown, while Thompkins has seven for 166 yards — a team-leading 23.7 yards per catch. Junior tight end Mike Gesecki has caught nine passes for 158 yards and a score.
Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley is one of the best in the Big Ten. In 2015, he rushed for 1,076 yards — behind only Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson — and seven touchdowns as a true freshman. He’s averaging 86 yards per game so far this season on 5.1 yards per carry and has already found the end zone six times. However, there’s not much proven depth behind him. No other back has more than eight carries and true freshman Miles Sanders is the second-leading running back with 27 yards on three carries. By contrast, Michigan has six rushers — including Eddie McDoom and Jehu Chesson — with more than 27 yards, and Jabrill Peppers has 24.
The offensive line has struggled mightily in recent years but hasn’t let up as many sacks in the early season as it did a year ago, though it hasn’t faced a stellar defense yet. Redshirt junior Brendan Mahon is in his first season at left tackle after starting 20 games at left guard and right tackle the past two seasons. He’ll have a tough task against Rashan Gary and Co. Next to him is redshirt freshman left guard Ryan Bates, who will be facing the best defensive line he’s seen to date. Senior center Brian Gaia was the only lineman to start all 13 games last season. Fifth-year senior right guard Derek Dowry has nine career starts under his belt, while redshirt junior right tackle Andrew Nelson has 24. As a unit, they’ve allowed five sacks, which is equal to what Michigan has allowed.
|When Michigan has the ball
While the Penn State offense is still a work in progress under new guidance, the defense has been the side of the ball that has carried the team the past few years. But in the third year under Brent Pry, it’s not quite as stout as it once was. The Nittany Lions rank 77th nationally in scoring defense (27.3 points per game), 46th in total defense (345 yards per game), 92nd against the run (176.3 yards per game), and 23rd against the pass (168.7 yards per game).
Pry’s defense has been banged up already and suffered a major loss when fifth-year senior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the season with a torn ACL against Temple. The other two starting linebackers, redshirt junior Brandon Bell and junior Jason Cabinda, both missed the Temple game with injuries and may not play tomorrow eight. That leaves sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen and redshirt junior Brandon Smith — who had a combined one start heading into the season — to handle the linebacker spots.
That’s an area that Michigan will look to exploit. Even with Wartman-White, Bell, and Cabinda, the Penn State defense got gashed by Pitt for 341 rushing yards on 6.1 yards per carry. Michigan’s running game hasn’t been outstanding, but there are enough playmakers — especially when the jet sweeps with McDoom and Chesson and the wildcat snaps to Peppers are added — that Michigan could have success on the ground this week.
The defensive line lost three starters to the NFL who combined for 45.5 tackles for loss, most notably Carl Nassib, who led the Big Ten with 15.5 sacks and ranked second with 19.5 tackles for loss. Redshirt sophomore Torrence Brown and redshirt junior Garrett Sickels are the starting ends. Sickels started 12 games last season and has two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks so far this year. Redshirt freshman end Shareef Miller leads the team with two sacks. Redshirt freshman Kevin Givens and redshirt junior Parker Cothren are the tackles.
The secondary features the two leading tacklers, junior free safety Marcus Allen and fifth-year senior strong safety Malik Golden. Allen was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last season, but Golden started just four games. This season, they have combined for 39 tackles, 3.5 for loss, an interception, three passes defended, and a fumble recovery. The corners, sophomore John Reid and junior Christian Campbell, are first-year full-time starters. Reid has a pair of takeaways, but the secondary as a whole allowed Temple quarterback Phillip Walker to complete 25-of-34 passes for 286 yards last week.
Redshirt junior kicker Tyler Davis has made all five field goal attempts so far with a long of 40, while freshman punter Blake Gillikin ranks third in the Big Ten with an average of 44.3 yards per punt. He has downed seven of his 14 punts inside the 20 with three touchbacks.
The return game has been average, ranking 61st nationally in kick returns and 74th in punt returns. Miles Sanders and redshirt sophomore safety Nick Scott are the main kick returners, averaging 23.4 and 22.4 yards per return, respectively. Reid is the punt returner, averaging 8.8 yards per return. One area in which Michigan might be able to exploit is kick returns as Penn State ranks 122nd nationally with an average of 30 yards allowed per kick return.
This game just has the makings of a big Michigan win. The Wolverines faced adversity for the first time this season last week and showed they can overcome it. Now, with that added confidence, they’ll kick off conference play with a convincing win. Like Michigan’s previous opponents, Penn State will load the box to stop the run and force Wilton Speight to beat them. But the Nittany Lions won’t be able to get consistent pressure on Speight and he’ll approach 300 yards passing. Watch for another big game from Jake Butt, who will capitalize on Penn State’s linebacker inexperience.
On the other side of the ball, Moorhead will try to keep the PSU offense moving quickly, getting the ball out of McSorley’s hands quickly and utilizing his feet. Michigan may give up a few big plays and some points, but it won’t be consistent. McSorley hasn’t faced the type of pressure Michigan will bring and will make a couple of mistakes. Michigan’s defense leads the nation on third down, allowing opponents to convert just 11 percent, while Penn State’s offense ranks 118th, converting just 27.3 percent. That doesn’t spell success with Don Brown bringing the heat.
|Michigan 48 – Penn State 20