What to Watch For: No. 2 Penn State

Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 4:55pm

Fifth-year senior quarterback John O'Korn has struggled since becoming Michigan's starter, but will need to bury those performances in the past against Penn State.

Fifth-year senior quarterback John O'Korn has struggled since becoming Michigan's starter, but will need to bury those performances in the past against Penn State. Buy this photo
Matt Vailliencourt/Daily

This week’s focus is all on fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn and the No. 19 Michigan football team’s offense. 

The Wolverines are No. 1 in total defense, but No. 98 in total offense. It’s clear where the problem lies.

Michigan (2-1 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) scarcely beat Indiana last week and now faces a superior opponent in No. 2 Penn State (3-0, 6-0).

Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines take on Penn State this weekend as nine-point underdogs.

1. Can O’Korn connect with his receivers?

When O’Korn lit up Purdue, it seemed as if the then-backup quarterback would do just fine. But in two games since beating the Boilermakers, O’Korn has completed just 47 percent of his passes for 256 total yards and zero touchdowns.

He notably overthrew freshman receiver Donovon Peoples-Jones on a wide-open go route last week. That is not only a pass that he is expected to make, but a type of pass that Speight had been able to before he got injured. O’Korn admitted this week that he needs to hit those open receivers.

If he can land just two or three passes in the 20 to 30-yard range — which he couldn’t against Indiana — it will force Penn State’s secondary to play back a bit, which should help open the Wolverines’ run game as well.

2. How far can the running backs carry the Wolverines?

Junior running back Karan Higdon stole the show against the Hoosiers, but all season long, the running back trio — which also includes fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and sophomore Chris Evans — has been the backbone of Michigan’s offense. Higdon leads the team with five rushing touchdowns, and Evans and Isaac trail him with two and one, respectively.

Michigan has depth at running back and a handful of nifty plays in its back pocket. Sophomore receiver Eddie McDoom contributes with his jet sweeps, fifth-year senior Khalid Hill consistently gets the short gains and even the highly anticipated redshirt freshman running back Kareem Walker got into the mix against Indiana.

But Penn State surely knows all of this and will be prepared to stop the run. If the Nittany Lions pack the line of scrimmage with players, then only time will tell how far all these running backs can really go.

3. Was the offensive line’s performance against Indiana a one-time thing?

Michigan’s offensive line played an all-around consistent game for the first time against the Hoosiers. The question is whether or not the offensive line can hold up again.

With the left side of the line sured up by senior tackle Mason Cole and sophomore guard Ben Bredeson, the fate falls on redshirt junior right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty and sophomore right guard Michael Onwenu. Bushell-Beatty started last weekend and played the entire game.

Pass protection was better than ever, as O’Korn wasn’t sacked — the first time this year that a Michigan quarterback didn’t get taken down.

Indiana’s defensive line, though, is likely not as threatening as Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions have accumulated 17 sacks and 51 total tackles for loss this year.

Can Michigan’s offensive line keep up with Penn State’s aggressive defense? We’ll find out on Saturday.

4. Switching it up. You know about Barkley and McSorley, but keep an eye on these other players for Penn State’s offense.

Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton has been the beneficiary of quarterback Trace McSorley’s relentless throwing arm over the past few years, and the trend has continued into this season.

The fifth-year senior averages 61 receiving yards per game, and has four touchdown catches. Behind running back Saquon Barkley, Hamilton should be McSorley’s next most-targeted receiver. Finally, with an average of 16.6 yards per catch, Hamilton often finds himself on the receiving end of some of McSorley’s biggest throws.

Tight end Mike Gesicki also has four receiving touchdowns for Penn State this year and has amassed a total of 176 receiving yards. Gesicki stands tall at 6-foot-6, which should be a big red flag for Michigan’s undersized backfield.

McSorley and Barkley are the Nittany Lions’ biggest playmakers, but Gesicki and Hamilton can be just as dangerous.