Just last fall, it was Michigan celebrating a lopsided victory over Penn State. The Wolverines were the toast of college football, poised to contend for a national championship.
What a difference one year makes.
The two teams have seemingly switched places. The Nittany Lions recovered from that loss and went on to win the conference title. Michigan ended the year with three losses in four games — and has now dropped two of its last three.
“We’ll find out a lot about this team, about this program over the next few weeks,” said fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn.
That’s certainly true. But we discovered a lot about the Wolverines in their 42-13 loss to Penn State, as well.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday night’s game.
1. Wolverines rebuilding, not reloading
Urban Meyer won a national championship in his third year at Ohio State. So did Nick Saban.
It’s safe to say now that Jim Harbaugh won’t do the same. And, given everything we knew about this team, perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise.
After all, Michigan brought back just two starters on offense in redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight and senior offensive tackle Mason Cole. On defense, fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst were the only returning starters.
It’s exceedingly difficult for teams to replace that many departures — and even more difficult to replace them with players who are in their first and second years, like Michigan has been forced to do. The depth from players who are now upperclassmen — those who joined the team in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes — is severely lacking.
No matter what the Wolverines said in the offseason, it was always going to be tough to keep things running as smoothly as they had last year (at least through November). And now, with two losses in conference play and the Big Ten Title and College Football Playoff both out of sight, one thing has become very clear: this is a rebuilding year for Harbaugh and Michigan.
2. Matchups won the game for Penn State
In the third quarter, Michigan’s 6-foot-4, 248-pound middle linebacker found himself in pass coverage on Saquon Barkley.
Predictably, things didn’t end well for Mike McCray on that play. But that isn’t his fault — that’s just better work by Joe Moorhead, Penn State’s offensive coordinator.
Moorhead put his players in positions to make plays all night, whether that was feeding Barkley the ball, giving receiver DaeSean Hamilton favorable matchups out of the slot against Michigan’s safeties or allowing McSorley to make easy decisions with run-pass options.
Michigan, meanwhile, was unable to do the same on offense. The Wolverines’ last-ditch attempt on fourth-and-eleven ended with O’Korn on the ground, only one of the seven times he was sacked on the night. Because O’Korn had to sell the play action, he had his back turned for most of the play, and Michigan didn’t leave any extra blockers in to help with pass protection.
He never even had a chance.
3. Quarterback play wasn’t the problem
O’Korn’s performance as the starter this year has come under criticism, and rightfully so. Before Saturday, he was averaging under five yards per attempt as Michigan’s pass offense scuffled along. On Saturday night, though, he played much better than he had against Michigan State or Indiana.
O’Korn completed 16-of-28 passes for 166 yards, approaching six yards per attempt — and that number should’ve been higher, as several of his passes were dropped. O’Korn consistently made plays with his feet, as well, ripping off several scrambles and picking up first downs when things broke down in the pocket.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. But it was still a step forward — and if O’Korn remains the starter going forward over redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, it’s the type of performance he’ll need to replicate for Michigan to win games.
4. Michigan’s defensive line needed to play better
The Wolverines needed to make big defensive plays to have any chance at pulling off the upset. And while David Long did make a big interception and Lavert Hill recorded a crucial pass breakup on fourth-and-seven, the defensive line was uncharacteristically silent. None of the starting defensive linemen — Hurst, sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary, redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich or redshirt junior defensive tackle Bryan Mone — recorded a sack.
The Nittany Lions managed to stay away from Hurst and Gary most of the game, while Winovich’s effectiveness was limited — perhaps due to an injury he suffered that took him into the locker room. Either way, Michigan desperately needed a big game from its fearsome defensive front to slow down the Penn State attack, and that didn’t happen.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Brandon Peters starts seeing time next week
Asking the redshirt freshman to brave the hostile road environment at Happy Valley might’ve been too tall of a task. But now, Michigan may have no choice but to roll the dice with Peters. The Big Ten title is out of reach. So are the playoffs. O’Korn won’t be back next year, and Speight’s future remains unknown.
The Wolverines have nothing to lose by giving Peters time in the upcoming weeks in preparation for a larger role next year. After all, Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland are hardly Murderers’ Row, and Michigan can still give O’Korn a majority of the snaps while still integrating Peters into the offense.