STATE COLLEGE — Trace McSorley knew he was going to face man coverage. His receiving core did too. And every passing offense that has faced Michigan since Don Brown’s arrival in 2016 has known the same thing.
The difference, though, is that McSorley — along with wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton — were the ones to beat it. And they beat it badly.
For all the shine that this unit has received, for one night in State College, the Wolverines’ defense got punched in the mouth. It conceded 42 points — the highest total since Ohio State hit the same mark in 2015. And it gave up 506 yards, 282 of which came in the air.
“I think we just did a really good job of manipulating our matchups and taking advantage of them,” McSorley said. “Our guys did a great job winning versus man. We knew we were gonna get that. And we really kind of took to heart — the receiver group — if someone wants to try to man you up, say ‘Our guys are better than your guys.’
“That’s not a disrespect thing, but it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge that you’ve got to step up to and be ready for. And I think that’s something that our receivers really took to heart, like, ‘Alright we’re gonna get man coverage, let’s go.’”
That’s exactly what the second-ranked Nittany Lions did, none more so than Hamilton. The senior receiver finished with six receptions for 115 yards, and made a Michigan secondary that was ranked second in the nation before Saturday night’s contest look lost. And in large part, the result came from Penn State’s clinical assault on the Wolverines’ safeties.
That attack started on Penn State’s fifth drive of the game. Hamilton beat junior safety Tyree Kinnel badly before catching a pass for 27 yards. It was just a glimpse of what was to come.
On the Wolverines’ next defensive possession, McSorley went to Hamilton again. The ball was underthrown by an inch, but Hamilton left no doubt as to who would be coming down with the ball — adjusting his body to nab a 36-yard reception over Kinnel’s head and jumpstarting Penn State’s touchdown drive at the end of the half.
“I thought the play that he made on their sideline where he went up and, the ball was a little short, and he went up and caught it in traffic — they’re the plays you have to make in these types of games, especially against this style of defense,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “You’ve gotta be able to make them pay for playing so aggressive.”
The Nittany Lions did so for the rest of the game. Kinnel got beat once more. Sophomore safety Josh Metellus was beat twice for 49 yards. And it all came from the first-half ripple effect.
As Franklin explained, he saw a Wolverine squad on film that emphasized outside leverage and tried to funnel everything toward the safety. He’s not wrong. But with Hamilton’s early success on the deep ball, Michigan’s coverage made the field even wider.
From there, Penn State had the Wolverines right where it wanted them — implementing designed slants at halftime that were never meant to factor into its game plan.
“After I had a few inside fades on them, they started pressing me more,” Hamilton said. “They were just trying to slow down at least the timing. … Once we saw that, I was able to fake as if I was gonna go run an inside fade, and that would open the inside a lot more. That’s why we were able to connect on some slants.”
Those slants proved to be the body blows. The deep balls were the haymakers. And in the end, Michigan’s defense had a long fall to the mat.