J.J. McCarthy and the Michigan offense are working on reaching their potential heading into the top-10 matchup against Penn State. Sarah Boeke/Daily. Buy this photo.

The No. 5 Michigan football team is about to take on its first ranked opponent of the year in No. 10 Penn State. The game serves as the first real test of the Wolverines’ mettle, a barometer of where they truly are this season. 

Though the only story that matters coming out of the game is whether Michigan has won or lost, there are plenty of storylines floating around heading into Saturday. Here’s some of what’s coming out of the Wolverines’ camp:

Playcalling

With the departure of former offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss have assumed shared playcalling duties. Going into the season, there were questions about who was calling plays on what downs or drives and if the tandem would even work.

While not willing to address the first question, Moore and Weiss have produced enough in-game tape to at least partially answer the second. Michigan has the seventh-ranked offense in points per game in the nation with 43 and is one of three teams in FBS with a scoring differential over 30, with 31.7. 

On Wednesday, Moore answered the second question with his words as well.

“It’s been good,” Moore said. “There’s a flow. We understand how we’re doing it, we understand what the flow is, and it’s been good for us. So (we’re) just continuing to keep rolling.”

Still, there’s been outside criticism of playcalls and tendencies that Moore and Weiss have allegedly telegraphed. To that, Moore responds by simply tuning it out.

“(We) self scout every play, every game, so I already know the tendencies before the game even starts,” Moore said. “And to me as a good play caller, you’re trying to tell a story, so I think people call out things they think they see, but they really don’t know. So it’s opinions — that’s life. People (are) always gonna say something about you and you just go on and you just work and work.”

With a top defense and a stiff test looming Saturday, Moore and Weiss have the opportunity to bury the hatchet on their playcalling criticism, and it’s time to let their gameplan speak for itself.

Untapped potential

Part of the reason Moore and Weiss may have caught some flack is less to do with the calls and more to do with “clicking.” 

Sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy used the term first this year, claiming that the offense is “going to be really scary when it starts clicking,” after the Indiana game. But the issue is that it isn’t clicking yet, and the Wolverines don’t have much time to make it happen.

And it’s not just McCarthy that sees it. 

“(We) just feel like we can get better and everything we do — run, pass, play action movement — on just everything, every facet,” Moore said. “ … You can see group glimpses of it, it’s up and down, but it’s not exactly where we want to be and … we can take more strides to get there.”

But what’s going to unlock that potential? It starts with McCarthy.

“He’s progressing,” Moore said. “Obviously, this is really the first time he’s been a starter. … Just continue the progression, the patience, the poise that he has played with, the confidence that he has, and we just tell him to just be him.

“… So just continue to do the little things, … do the things that he’s been doing because obviously he has all the talent in the world.”

McCarthy missed on a few deep balls when Michigan had the chance to gash an opponent, and he’s admitted himself to not using his legs the right way at the right times. Still, he’s the most accurate passer in the nation at 78% and has truly impressive stats.

So it’s not all McCarthy. Moore spread the blame out, noting the necessity of receivers’ to run tight routes, him and Weiss to make the right play calls and everyone involved on the offense to do their own jobs.

If the Wolverines can click, sparks are going to fly. But even if they can’t quite get there by Saturday, there’s a chance they don’t have to in order to come out with a win.

“Really, you want to have an explosive play every play, but that’s not gonna happen, right?” Moore said. “But we’ve been pretty balanced. … Not as explosive as we want to be, but we’ve controlled the clock, we’ve done the things to help ourselves get to this point of 6-0, and now the goal is to take the next step offensively to do what we need to do to win this game.”

Jackson steps up in Hart’s hiatus

At the front of many minds is the health of Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart. After suffering a seizure on Saturday, Hart may not be on the sideline against the Nittany Lions. In his stead, current analyst and former Wolverine running backs coach Fred Jackson will take on the role.

After being a head coach at Flint Southwestern High School and a college coach after that, Jackson served as an assistant at Michigan from 1992 until 2014. Jackson knows the program, and football, as well as anyone.

“He’s super cool,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “I’ve known Fred Jackson, I think my first start ever as a high school varsity player was Pioneer versus Flint Southwestern. So (I) go way back with Fred Jackson. He’s great. … He knows all facets of the game, but especially quarterback play and offensive football offensive coordinator type of mind.”

With that type of mind, Moore thinks everything has stayed status quo.

“Fred is awesome; really nothing’s been different,” Moore said. “You know, we’ve had Mike Zoom in. He’s doing well as he’s put out, he’s Zoomed into the meeting. So gameplan has been the same. And Coach Jackson always has an input in the game plan, … so the game planning has been the same.”

Still, as most hope, Hart’s status is allegedly improving, and Michigan fans might see him on the sideline in the coming weeks.

“He’s back in Ann Arbor feeling better,” Harbuagh said. “(He) hopes to rejoin the team soon.”