For the second straight week, the Michigan football team went on the road, played in an emotionally charged atmosphere and took care of business.
As with Indiana last week, this opponent presented challenges: Penn State’s noisy crowd, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a physical defensive line.
But the 12th-ranked Wolverines solved all of them. They escaped with another victory, setting up this week’s rivalry clash with Ohio State at Michigan Stadium.
Here are five things we learned Saturday:
1. The defensive line will be fine without Ryan Glasgow.
After last week’s game at Indiana, what was originally one of the strengths of the team looked like a glaring weakness. The Hoosiers rolled over Michigan for 307 rushing yards and 41 points before falling in double overtime.
The culprit, it appeared, was the loss of redshirt junior nose tackle Ryan Glasgow, who injured his pectoral muscle the week before against Rutgers. With Glasgow out for the season, the future looked bleak. The Wolverines needed to be better on the defensive front at Penn State, and they were.
Against the run, they stifled Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who managed just 68 yards on 15 carries — even though one of those carries went for 56 yards. Michigan’s biggest stands came on its first series and second-to-last series. Both times, the Wolverines held the Nittany Lions to only a field goal inside the 10-yard line.
But their biggest impact was in the passing game. They sacked Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg four times and hurried him plenty more, disrupting the aerial attack and making it nearly impossible for the Nittany Lions to come back. Michigan faces an even tougher test next week against Ohio State, but the resurgence in this area bodes well for the rivalry game Saturday.
2. Michigan’s penalties are an issue.
Some were unambiguous, such as the Wolverines’ four offside and two false start penalties. Some were controversial, such as redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers’ pass interference, after which Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh angrily threw off his hat and coat.
The Wolverines have had a significant problem with penalties in the past two weeks. Saturday, they committed 13 for 117 yards, giving Penn State six of its 14 first downs. Michigan dominated in many facets, but its miscues kept the Nittany Lions in the game for too long.
The most fixable issue is the four offside penalties from jumping the snap early. That might solve itself Saturday in front of a home crowd after two straight road games. At any rate, the Wolverines can’t afford to give Ohio State free yards.
3. The running game still has some things to work out.
Those things have seemed trivial over the past three weeks. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock’s emergence has made everyone forget about the running game. The Wolverines haven’t needed it.
But Michigan needs to re-establish the ground game soon. Junior running back De’Veon Smith was the leading rusher Saturday with just 39 yards on 13 carries. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson was second, despite getting only one carry. The Wolverines are now tied for 81st in the country in rushing with 161.4 yards per game.
No Michigan running back has hit the 100-yard mark since September, and the road doesn’t get any easier: At 30th in the country, Ohio State’s rush defense will give the Wolverines another tough test.
4. College football guarantees nothing.
When the Wolverines walked off the field Saturday, the stage seemed set. A contingent of Michigan fans greeted the team at the tunnel after the game. Some chanted “BEAT OHIO.” All that had to happen to set up a winner-take-all showdown for the Big Ten East next week was Ohio State beating Michigan State later that day.
But in college football, all that has to happen rarely does. With quarterback Connor Cook injured and not playing, the Spartans rolled into Columbus and knocked off the Buckeyes, 17-14, on a game-winning field goal as time expired.
So, Michigan and Ohio State will play their normal rivalry game Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Either could still make the Big Ten Championship against Iowa. But they’ll need some help: Penn State will have to upset Michigan State in East Lansing.
Who knows? Maybe that will happen too. Nothing is ever certain.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Jake Rudock will throw for 400 yards against Ohio State.
The days of Rudock playing against Indiana-caliber defenses are over. While he might not reach the milestone as easily as he did two weeks ago against the Hoosiers, he will have his chances.
The Buckeyes will provide more opposition, but they will also put up points, perhaps forcing Michigan to pass for most of the game. And if the Wolverines’ running game continues to struggle, it will give Rudock even more opportunities. Each of the past two Michigan-Ohio State games have been shootouts, and the Wolverines’ passing game has produced in both.
This year, the unit has never looked better. Rudock is the first quarterback in Michigan history to throw for more than 250 yards in three straight games. He’s clicking with each of his three top receivers — redshirt junior wideouts Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and junior tight end Jake Butt. Expect the group to have a big day this weekend.