There wasn't much to learn from the Michigan football team’s 49-10 rout of the injury-decimated Nittany Lions, but the game clarified a few question marks that had emerged throughout the non-conference schedule. No. 8 Wisconsin comes to Ann Arbor next week, and the Wolverines will want to make sure that most of those questions have answers.
Here are five things we learned from Michigan’s first Big Ten game of the season:
1. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t afraid to go for it on fourth down.
On the Wolverines’ first drive of the game, redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill punched in a one-yard touchdown on fourth down. While going for it on fourth-and-goal isn’t all that unexpected, Harbaugh proved that he wasn’t afraid to go for it more often throughout Saturday’s game.
Later on, while Michigan was up by 21 points in the second quarter, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight rushed for nine yards on fourth-and-7. The more questionable part of it was that the Wolverines were on Penn State’s 24-yard line, making it a reasonable spot for a field goal.
Overall, Michigan went 2-for-4 on fourth-down attempts. After the game, Harbaugh noted that they just wanted to go for it on fourth down because it’s starting to happen more and more often in college football. Fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen, despite doing kickoffs and extra points, never attempted a field goal Saturday.
2. The Wolverines can stop a talented back.
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the best running back Michigan has faced all season. At times, he was the only player having any kind of success on offense, recording 136 of the Nittany Lions’ 199 total yards of offense.
Still, the Wolverines kept him out of the end zone and held him to 59 rushing yards on 15 carries. Penn State opted to target him as a receiver after realizing that challenging Michigan’s defensive line was not a good idea. Even then, the Wolverines limited him to just 30 receiving yards in the second half.
3. The secondary is dinged up again.
Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis made his season debut on Saturday after missing the first three games due to multiple injuries. Though it’s sometimes hard to quantify his impact on an opponent’s passing game, the All-American posted two tackles (one for loss) and one pass breakup. He was a little rusty, but still stayed glued to his man for most of the game.
Unfortunately for Michigan, fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark had to be carted off the field in the fourth quarter after collapsing with an apparent leg injury on a kick return. After the game, Harbaugh said that it could be a torn anterior cruciate ligament, effectively ending Clark’s season.
4. The running game is improving.
After a lackluster performance against Central Florida two weeks ago, the running backs made an emphatic statement. Four ball carriers notched more than 50 rushing yards on Saturday, combining for five touchdowns. Hill also punched one in for good measure.
Senior running back De’Veon Smith led the group with 107 yards on 12 attempts — his first time breaking the century mark this season. Sophomore Karan Higdon helped out with the best game of his career, notching two touchdowns, one that came off a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley continues to prove that not just one back will get the majority of carries, and so far, it’s working.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: De’Veon Smith will rush for two touchdowns next week.
Though Wisconsin has only allowed one rushing touchdown this season, they’re due to let a bruising back get the best of them. Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette and Michigan State’s LJ Scott couldn’t find the end zone against the Badgers, even though Fournette had 138 rushing yards.
Smith isn’t likely to rip off a 50-yard run, but his sheer tackle-breaking ability will allow him to punch in two scores, matching his season total to date.