After allowing season highs of 506 yards and 42 points to Penn State in last season’s blowout, the Michigan football team’s defense can seemingly rest easier. This Saturday, it doesn’t have to line up across some of the threats that keep defensive coordinator Don Brown up at night.
There is no whiteout crowd in Happy Valley, no DaeSean Hamilton or Mike Gesicki running the sidelines and, most notably, no Saquon Barkley to gash the Wolverines’ defense.
But some teams have indescribable characteristics that can cause fits. The 14th-ranked Nittany Lions are one of them.
“They don’t have Saquon, but they’re still Penn State,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Carlo Kemp. “They’re still super successful, super dangerous and they’re a couple plays away from being undefeated.”
And in Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, No. 5 Michigan will still face off against an offensive weapon it had no answers for last year.
McSorley threw for 282 yards and a touchdown in last year’s game, but carried the ball 11 times for 76 yards and three touchdowns. Sure, Barkley and the headaches he presented are now in the NFL. But running back Miles Sanders and McSorley are still executing run-pass-options as well as anyone in the country.
With a chance at redemption, the defense’s success is contingent on stopping McSorley.
“Terrific player,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Consistently plays really well. Always is a threat in the passing game, defending the passing. He’s running the ball a lot more this year, really effectively. He’s quite a quarterback. Their win-it factor shows up over and over. Big challenge for our team this week.”
With junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. likely spying McSorley and a weaker run game (read: not the best in the country), the Wolverines could see a more balanced, but still explosive offense.
“They got some key guys that they like to go to,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “Like No. 1, KJ (Hamler), he’s a fast guy, he creates space well himself and he has acceleration to take a five-yard play to an 80-yard play. And then on the outside they’ve got No. 84 (Juwan Johnson), we know he’s a good deep ball threat and a possession guy too. If they need a third-and-nine, they’ll go to him on a curl route or something.”
And like any powerhouse offense, it all runs through it’s quarterback.
“He keeps plays moving with his feet, extending plays really well,” Metellus continued, “and that’s one of those things that — as a defensive back in man coverage — you don’t want the play to extend because now you cover your man for six seconds instead of three or four. That’s what makes their passing attack hard to defend.”
Michigan has played quarterbacks that are also light on their feet this season. Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke all fit that bill, with only Wimbush finding any semblance of success. McSorley will be the most decisive and quick quarterback the Wolverines will see all year.
Michigan’s defense is boiled down to manning an assignment on a given play. It’s simple enough in practice, but failure in execution could be the difference between a stop and a touchdown.
“Just making sure you read your keys properly,” Kemp said. “Make sure you do your job, don’t try to do too much. If you have the quarterback, make sure you have the quarterback, because if you don’t, then you’ll look at him going that way.”
Kemp, whose face briefly shifted from a smile to a concerned look, pointed behind his back. He, and the whole Michigan defense, saw themselves chasing Barkley and McSorley often against the Nittany Lions a year ago.
Brown was adamant that last year’s defensive performance keeps him restless. Metellus knows he’s telling the truth, because he feels the same. Their frustration extends from a loss, and exposing a highly-touted defense.
Beyond that, feeling helpless is something Michigan’s defense has rarely confronted.
“I’m sure everyone on the defense felt they could’ve done something to improve the output of the game,” Metellus said.
With a second chance to tackle McSorley, the defense doesn’t need much more motivation than that.