In the first three Saturdays in September, Hawaii, Central Florida and Colorado each came into Michigan Stadium, each took a beating at the hands of the Michigan football team and each trudged off the field, quietly holding their helmets.
But then this Saturday arrived, and the Big Ten season began with Penn State. Non-conference tune-ups in the past, the Nittany Lions presumably brought a tougher test.
And yet they suffered the same fate, as the Wolverines steamrolled another outmatched visitor, scoring six rushing touchdowns and smothering Penn State’s offense in a 49-10 victory.
They have dealt similar fates to other Michigan Stadium visitors in the past two seasons. It happened first a year ago with Oregon State, Jim Harbaugh’s team’s first victim by a score of 35-7. Later came a ranked Northwestern team, which Michigan exposed and dispatched, 38-0. Just last week, Colorado came to town off two lopsided victories and threatened to knock off the Wolverines, yet still fell by 17.
Much like it did against those opponents, Michigan controlled the line of scrimmage and, with it, the game. The Wolverines finished with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss, bringing their totals to 16 and 34, respectively, in those categories in the past three matchups against the Nittany Lions.
The biggest mismatch between the teams came when the Wolverines flexed their muscles on third down. Michigan entered with the top third-down conversion defense in the country at 10.5 percent, and Penn State was among the worst in the offensive category at 118th.
Early on, the teams played to those rankings. The Wolverines sacked the Nittany Lions on four of the first seven third downs, tackling running back Saquon Barkley for a loss on another stop and halting Penn State on a fourth down as well.
“I thought for the most part our guys were there and swarming,” Harbaugh said. “They were coming two, three, four at a time. I thought it was impressive.”
That was all the opportunity the offense needed. Penn State had to punt in the first two minutes of the game. On that play, redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers caught a booming 61-yard kick and returned it 51 yards to the opposing 9-yard line. Even with a 15-yard sideline interference call, the Wolverines scored in seven plays, and they rolled from there.
“I think any time you shut down a team that early in the game, it kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game,” said senior linebacker Ben Gedeon. “I think we did a good job in the third quarter coming out of halftime as well.”
The offense made up for a lack of big plays with a series of long, methodical scoring drives. Its touchdowns in the first half came from one, two, three and two yards out. Freshman running back Chris Evans tacked on a three-yarder in the third quarter, and sophomore running back Karan Higdon finally broke loose for a 40-yard scamper in the fourth.
In all, the Wolverines picked up six rushing touchdowns from five different players: redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill, senior running back De’Veon Smith, Higdon (twice), Evans and redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac. True freshman tight end Devin Asiasi found the end zone for the first time with a three-yard catch from redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight.
Meanwhile, aided by the returns of senior defensive end Taco Charlton and senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis from injury, the defense continued to shine.
Gedeon patrolled the field with 11 tackles. The Wolverines broke up three passes, hurried Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley four times and hit him several more. Redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray added an easy interception in the open field for good measure.
Barkley was the lone bright spot for Penn State. He carried 15 times for 59 yards and caught five passes for 77 more yards, at least tying for the team lead in all four categories. He had 136 of the Nittany Lions’ 172 total yards, with the six sacks hindering the latter count. Chris Godwin scored Penn State’s only touchdown on an eight-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions’ only other points came on a short field goal in the third quarter, a play that said all that needed to be said.
After the Wolverines dominated the first half and took a 28-0 lead, Penn State forced a punt and moved down inside Michigan’s five-yard line, attempting to shift the score toward respectable. A two-yard touchdown run would have cut the lead back to three touchdowns with still 26 minutes to play.
Instead, the Nittany Lions lined up for a short field goal. They then called timeout to discuss going for the touchdown, but ran out the field-goal team again for the kick. Franklin said after the game he wanted to be sure his team scored some points off of that possession.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, faced the same situation on the first series of the game, a 4th-and-goal play from the one-yard line. Speight motioned to the sideline to go for it, and Harbaugh agreed. Hill punched it in on a fullback dive.
“He kind of gets a grin on his face, because I know his mindset is he wants to smash it in for a touchdown too,” Speight said. “It’s cool that we’re all on the same page.”
Last year’s game went similarly. Penn State came within striking distance four times but settled for three short field goals, stifled at the goal line by Michigan’s front seven. The Nittany Lions appeared to have improved in that area coming in, just as many of Michigan’s other recent opponents.
“When you got a D-line like we have,” Gedeon said, “it’s hard to even tell.”