STATE COLLEGE — At first, it looked like it was going to be another long day for the Michigan defensive line.
On the second play from scrimmage in the Wolverines’ 28-16 win Saturday, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley took his first carry of the game 56 yards to the nine-yard line, reopening a gash that Indiana’s Jordan Howard created a week ago.
Indiana piled up 307 rush yards against the Wolverines on Nov. 14, a blueprint of sorts for how to attack a defense that had been among the nation’s best for most of the season. And with redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow out for the second straight game with an injured pectoral muscle, Barkley’s first carry gave the appearance that the Nittany Lions were on track to follow that blueprint.
Naturally, Penn State looked to Barkley on the next play — a one-yard gain. Then it gave it to him again — a one-yard loss. One more time, they went to Barkley, and it went for a three-yard gain.
The Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal, and in a three-play sequence, the Wolverines sent the message that there would be no repeat performance in store. They allowed just 14 more rushing yards the rest of the game.
“Personally, our defensive line, I always feel like we have something to prove,” said junior defensive end Taco Charlton. “A lot of the game depends on how we play, and we thought the last couple weeks we’ve been slacking.”
But stopping the run was only part of the Wolverines’ rebound performance on the defensive line Saturday. Run game aside, the Nittany Lions boasted a quarterback in Christian Hackenberg who is considered among the most gifted in the Big Ten.
And from the get-go, the Michigan pass rushers made their presence known to Hackenberg. The Wolverines sacked him four times Saturday, battering the junior quarterback every chance they got.
On one sequence in the second quarter, senior linebacker James Ross sacked Hackenberg for a loss of nine yards, but had it called back due to a defensive holding penalty. On the very next play, Charlton sacked him for a loss of 10, taking the Nittany Lions out of field-goal range.
“You could tell he was, towards the end, in the fourth quarter, he was flinching at the end of his throws, kind of trying to duck out of the way,” said redshirt junior defensive end Chris Wormley.
And for good reason. Penn State’s offensive line, maligned as it has been this season, didn’t have much of an answer for the Wolverines’ defense. They gave Hackenberg solid protection on a smattering of throws, but the throws were often overthrown and rarely amounted to much of anything. Most of the Nittany Lions’ 207 yards came via five big plays, totaling 150 yards between them.
To be fair, those 207 yards include the yards lost on Hackenberg’s sacks, and Penn State also gained a bevy of additional yards via penalties. But by and large, Michigan’s defense was able to dictate its own terms. Each time the Nittany Lions got into the red zone, they could come away with just three points, a trend the Wolverines’ defense has been following all season long.
“This team is tremendously tough,” Ross said. “We rely on each other, and we’re a band of brothers when we go on the road, and if you give us an inch, like we said (after the) Minnesota game, we’re going to take it. Put the game on the defense’s shoulders, and we’re going to do everything we can to hold it out.”
Saturday, that’s exactly what they did, earning their redemption by reclaiming their identity.
“I think there’s that breaking point that every team has,” Wormley said. “And when you have big plays, especially in the fourth quarter — Hackenberg flinching at the end because he doesn’t want to get hit again — it’s just those plays that just add up and pile up that can really make a team break and make their will go away.
“And especially for a defense, we thrive off of that.”