A talented running back can present a major problem for a defense.
Penn State poses two such obstacles for Michigan.
Last season, the Nittany Lions’ offense was one dimensional, averaging the second fewest rush yards per game in the Big Ten. This year, they’ve rejuvenated their ground attack — thanks to a pair of true freshmen.
Penn State boasts a dynamic duo out of the backfield with Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Singleton has rushed for 463 yards and five touchdowns while Allen has garnered 303 yards and three scores himself. The pair have carried the offense to this point and played a large role in getting the team to a 5-0 record.
Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston is keyed in on slowing the duo down and ensuring the Nittany Lions’ undefeated season ends in Ann Arbor.
“They are very effective at running the football,” Elston said. “That’s exciting for us because we enjoy block destructing and defending the run. We’d rather play a game like that, then (where they) spread us out and make us run all over the field.”
Elston is in his first season on the Wolverines coaching staff, and his defensive line has embraced his philosophy so far. He implemented a defensive line rotation that went 11-12 deep rather than relying on a couple players to dominate. It has worked well to date, with nine different players recording at least half a sack.
The line has stood out as a bright spot when the defense has raised concerns elsewhere on the field. Whether it can continue to be a dominant force against Penn State is a different question.
“They have a really good offensive line,” Elston said. “It’s very well coached. Arguably the best that we’ve seen so far.”
Slowing down the Nittany Lions on the ground, a group that’s averaging 192.6 yards per game so far, will be pivotal for Michigan to emerge with a win on Saturday. Stymying the rush makes Penn State’s offense predictable and more likely to stall out on offensive possessions, thus creating additional opportunities for the Wolverines to possess the ball.
Ideally, the Nittany Lions want to control the line of scrimmage and smash the ball down Michigan’s throat. But the Wolverines believe that their constant cycle of defensive lineman can counter the attack and seize that control as the game goes on — just as it did against Indiana.
“I think a team like Indiana who has fast paced tempo, they can hurt themselves with wearing out their offensive lineman,” Elston said. “They’re five guys playing the entire game. If they have 80-something snaps and the guy across only has 20 or 30 snaps, it’s gonna be a big impact.”
That freshness was evident against the Hoosiers. After giving up 193 yards in the first half, Michigan held Indiana to just 29 total in the second half and pitched a shutout in the process.
This weekend, the Wolverines are up against a much more formidable opponent, and will face as stellar a run game as they might see all year. The undefeated showdown has major implications on the trajectory of both teams, and their rosters are relatively similar in terms of talent.
In a matchup that even, where the skill positions can cancel each other out, it comes down to who wins in the trenches.
But winning in the trenches is a war of attrition.
And while Michigan is prepared to endure some battle scars, it believes — despite Penn State’s running capabilities — it has the upper edge.