They don’t call it Happy Valley for nothing, and the Michigan football team was all smiles as it left State College on Saturday.
Behind a stalwart performance from the Wolverines’ defensive line and a strong game from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, Michigan kept its Big Ten title hopes alive. The Daily breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly from Michigan’s 28-16 win.
For the third straight game, the Wolverines were able to lean on their quarterback. Rudock became the first player in school history to throw for more than 250 yards in three consecutive weeks, passing for 256 and adding two touchdowns in the win.
Rudock has looked like a different quarterback of late, displaying improved poise and polish since he was knocked out of the Minnesota game. Against the Nittany Lions, Rudock was the most reliable offensive player on the field.
His first touchdown to junior tight end Jake Butt exploited a hole in the coverage, and he continues to spread the ball around to his receivers. Rudock’s three top targets, Butt and redshirt junior receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, had 66, 69 and 68 yards, respectively, and Butt and Darboh both scored touchdowns.
When you consider Rudock’s performance against Utah in the season opener, his growth has to be among the most impressive of anyone on the team this season.
The run game continued to underperform against Penn State, unable to gain any kind of momentum against one of the nation’s top defensive lines.
Until the game’s final drive, Chesson was the team’s leading rusher with one carry for 20 yards. Junior running back De’Veon Smith eventually surpassed him by rushing for 23 yards on Michigan’s clock-killing four-minute drive, but it was alarming nonetheless how little push the Wolverines were able to develop at the line of scrimmage.
Redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson didn’t get a carry for the first time since the Michigan State game Oct. 17, but Smith’s lack of production was more disconcerting.
Smith dove over the pile for one rushing touchdown, but as the quality of opponents has gone up, his production seems to have dropped off. His bruising run style works well against overmatched opponents, but his tendency to initiate contact sometimes means taking big hits, too.
With Johnson’s status unclear, and Smith’s effectiveness in question, the Wolverines gained 39 of their 87 rush yards yesterday from two players who aren’t running backs: Chesson and redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. That isn’t a sustainable output if Michigan wants to continue to pound the ball.
Football, unlike daily fantasy sports, is a skill game. But as the Wolverines learned Saturday, you can’t control everything.
With Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook out for a critical game at No. 3 Ohio State, all signs pointed to what would have amounted to a division title game in Ann Arbor next Saturday. All the Buckeyes had to do was beat a banged-up Spartans team, and Michigan and Ohio State would play for a spot in the Big Ten Championship.
And yet, even with a distinct edge in star power, the Buckeyes couldn’t earn the win.
Michigan State’s backup quarterback, Tyler O’Connor, did just enough in Cook’s absence to guide the Spartans to a win, as they relied on their defense to keep the game tight before kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired.
It didn’t kill the Wolverines’ Big Ten East hopes, but it did severe damage to them. Now, Michigan’s only chance to make the conference championship is if Penn State can pull off an unlikely win in East Lansing next week and the Wolverines can fend off the Buckeyes at home.
So, yes, Michigan technically still has a shot to win the Big Ten. But Ohio State’s loss made the implications of next week’s edition of The Game much less substantial.