Penn State rode into Ann Arbor this past Saturday with a 5-0 record and a No. 10 ranking. They left with their first loss of the season. Michigan moved to 7-0 on the year, handing the Nittany Lions a dominating 41-17 defeat that wasn’t as close as the score would like you to believe.
It was the kind of encounter that should have ended with yellow police tape surrounding the crime scene and about 40 different chalk outlines of Penn State’s defensive line strewn across the field.
At some point, a gruff and tired detective shows up, lifts the yellow tape just enough to duck under it, and asks the officer on duty for a quick rundown.
“Michigan ran for 418 yards,” he tells the detective. “The poor bastards never stood a chance.”
The detective scans the carnage. Tattered clothes blowing in the wind, would-be evidence being scattered and lost forever.
“Maybe that will make it easier to forget,” he thinks to himself as he tilts his head to dodge a page of last week’s newspaper flitting on the breeze.
But it was the familiar taste of copper in the air that never remains far from the job and snaps the memory back like a rubber band against angry skin.
“I’m getting too old for this shit,” the detective mutters, lighting up a cigarette that he promised himself earlier in the week he’d never smoke.
“I can quit next time,” he says to nobody in particular, already reaching for the flask in the inside pocket of his jacket, careful not to step in the gore.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 418 yards on 55 attempts (7.6 ypc) and threw for 145 yards. If the Nittany Lions remain ranked this season, the 563 yards of total offense for Michigan will be the most against a ranked opponent since their 603 yards of offense in a 42-41 loss to Ohio State in 2013.
Sophomore running back Donovan Edwards led the team with 173 yards rushing on just 16 carries (10.8 ypc), while Blake Corum went for 166 yards on 28 carries (5.9 ypc). Quarterback JJ McCarthy added 62 yards rushing on six carries, which came via both scrambles and read-keepers.
The Michigan offensive line dominated this game. It looked like they had six or seven linemen on each play, and that’s not including the tight ends. On Edwards’ 67-yard touchdown run, the play actually went to the short side away from the strength (left side) of the offensive alignment, but center Olu Oluwatimi and right guard Zak Zinter pulled and picked off a pair of defenders who had no real interest in making the play. Edwards followed a hole so large and empty that there is now a Spirit Halloween there.
In the rare instances where the Penn State defenders actually filled gaps properly, the offensive line found guys to block. Corum showed the patience that we’re now used to seeing from him. His vision is elite and he can contort himself into any kind of form necessary to avoid a tackle.
There is some thought that he won’t be able to hold up to this continued amount of touches, but those concerns may be going away because of the upcoming schedule.
Between carries and catches, Corum has touched the ball 117 times the last four games. That’s nearly 30 per game. But now he’s going to have a week off thanks to the bye, and he shouldn’t be needed as much in the upcoming games against Michigan State, Rutgers, and Nebraska.
These next three games will also give Edwards more opportunities to continue building trust with the coaches. He is not as good as Corum yet, but just because Dr. James Andrews isn’t doing your knee surgery doesn’t mean you’ll never walk again.
JJ McCarthy completed 17-of-24 passes for 145 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns. He was sacked once. The interception was a pick six on a pass that was batted in the air and knocked around before ending up in Curtis Jacobs’ hands for the eventual touchdown return.
McCarthy only threw six passes more than five yards downfield, and completed just 2-of-5 attempts that went at least 10 yards downfield.
There are still concerns about just how routinely McCarthy can hit tight windows. He also threw a pass completely up for grabs under pressure and was very fortunate that the ball ended up in Blake Corum’s hands.
For all of the talent that McCarthy has, there are times when you can see why the Michigan coaches try to keep him under wraps a bit.
The Wolverine pass catchers averaged 8.5 yards per reception and picked up half of those yards after the catch.
Last week I wrote about a couple of tendencies that the Michigan offense was showing. Mainly, that they ran the ball all 11 times they were lined up in the Pistol, and they threw the ball 29 of the 30 times they were lined up in the shotgun (with the quarterback and running back lined up next to each other evenly).
Expectedly, the Wolverines broke this tendency almost immediately. They threw the ball the first time they lined up in the Pistol, and they ran it the second time they were in the shotgun.
Of the 32 times they lined up in the Pistol (I may have missed one or two), they ran the ball 28 times. So while they broke the tendency early, there’s probably not enough evidence to expect a pass — or to even be worried about the damage a completed pass could cause. When you’re averaging nine yards a completion, it’s okay to gamble a bit more defensively.
As for the shotgun tendency, after running out of the shotgun the second time in that alignment, they threw the ball the next 16 times with the QB and RB lined up evenly. They ran it the last two times late in the game when running out the clock.
And if the running back is lined up a bit behind the quarterback in shotgun, it’s still very generally a run.
The concerning thing for everyone else should be that Penn State had to know this and it still didn’t matter.
Michigan does some really good things with their running game, including using McCarthy as a legitimate threat. He could go for 100 yards on anybody if he would ever need to. But asking him to carry the ball the 10-12 times to make that happen is also asking him to recover the two fumbles that will invariably come from such a task.
When Michigan Was On Defense
When Michigan was on defense, Penn State’s offense was pushed back more often than Chinese Democracy.
The Nittany Lions rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries, with 62 of those yards coming on one keeper by quarterback Sean Clifford. Dynamic freshmen tailbacks Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 35 yards rushing on 12 attempts. The longest carry between them was nine yards.
Singleton had been a weapon for Penn State this season, often making his offensive line look much more competent than they were in this game. But this is still a Nittany Lions offense that was held to 98 yards rushing at Purdue to open the season, so let’s not go crazy.
Clifford completed 7-of-19 passes for 120 yards and was sacked once. He did complete a 48-yarder to Harrison Wallace. More downfield shots need to happen against this defense, provided an offensive line can give a quarterback time to throw the ball.
Clifford eventually left the game and was replaced by true freshman Drew Allar, who completed 5-of-10 passes for 37 yards. He was also sacked once.
Overall, you could call this a pedestrian effort by the Penn State offense, but pedestrians eventually get where they’re going.
There was no single standout defender for Michigan, which is pretty much what you want to see against an offense like this. Everybody just did their job and kept Penn State from doing theirs.
Defensive end Mike Morris did a good job setting the edge and keeping things contained, not that Penn State tried to actually get to the edge that often. They much preferred to simply run into Michigan’s defense, mistaking a woodchipper for an open game of Red Rover.
Michigan held Penn State to 4-of-12 on third downs, and limited the Nittany Lions to just six minutes and four seconds of time of possession in the first half. The Wolverines had two drives in the first half alone that utilized more time of possession than all of Penn State’s first half T.O.P.
As dominant as Michigan was on offense, they were no different on defense. It was a complete team effort.
The Michigan Special Teams
Brad Robbins didn’t put any of his punts inside the 20-yard line, but that tends to happen when you never actually have to punt.
Michigan didn’t do anything notable in the return game, and didn’t give up any notable returns either. The Wolverines are one of just four teams in the Big Ten to not allow a kickoff return of 30 yards or more this season. Penn State returned four kickoff returns and had a long of just 19 yards.
Kicker Jake Moody made all four of his field goal attempts, but nothing longer than 37 yards.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that for as good as Michigan was on offense, they still had to kick four field goals in the red zone. When Penn State’s defense had no choice but to get closer to the line of scrimmage because the field was compressed, things became much more difficult for the Wolverine offense.
Michigan averaged 1.8 yards per play in the red zone. Yes, there are fewer yards to gain, but it shouldn’t be that few. McCarthy was 2-for-4 passing in the red zone for six yards. He was also sacked once. So on his five drop backs in the red zone, Michigan gained a total of one yard.
The Wolverines are ninth in the Big Ten in red zone touchdown percentage, converting just 26 of their 39 trips (66.7%) into touchdowns. For comparison, Ohio State has scored touchdowns on 27 of their 29 red zone trips, for a national best 93.1%. (The Wolverines are 49th nationally.)
It also means that none of that is going to matter right now, and likely won’t until Michigan takes the field in Ohio Stadium in 40 days.
The Wolverines can win out doing what they’re doing. They weigh on opponents like a Sunday night after two weeks off of work. The stress eventually becomes too much for each opponent and they fold in the second half. It’s basically Jim Harbaugh’s dream becoming realized.
Michigan is outscoring Big Ten opponents 77-31 in the second half, and that includes a pair of fourth-quarter Iowa touchdowns that were as much charity as anything you’ve donated this year.
Both Ohio State and Michigan are going to be heavy favorites in every remaining game this season leading up to their matchup on November 26. The hype is only going to increase. The stakes will only get higher.
This is everything a fan of this rivalry could hope for.
Let’s just hope Michigan doesn’t cancel again.
The Road To The Game
Sept 3 — Michigan 51 – Colorado State 7
Sept 10 — Michigan 56 – Hawai’i 10
Sept 17 — Michigan 59 – Connecticut 0
Sept 24 — Michigan 34 – Maryland 27
Oct 1 — Michigan 27 – Iowa 14
Oct 8 — Michigan 31 – Indiana 10
Oct 15 — Michigan 41 – Penn State 17
Oct 29 — Michigan State
Nov 5 — at Rutgers (Rivalry Game)
Nov 12 — Nebraska
Nov 19 — Illinois
Nov 26 — at Ohio State