Hey, would you look at that, after six weeks of mediocre competition the Michigan football team is finally playing a good team.
Not only is the fifth-ranked Wolverines’ contest against No. 10 Penn State on Saturday their biggest test of the season so far — by a wide margin — but it also has tremendous implications for the Big Ten title race and the College Football Playoff picture.
At long last, Michigan has a chance to show what type of team it is. And with all of that on the line, here’s what to watch for as the Wolverines take on the Nittany Lions.
J.J. McCarthy playing in his first significant game:
It’s no secret that sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy hasn’t encountered much adversity thus far in his young career as a starting quarterback. Sure, his start against Iowa was a bit of a test, but Saturday’s game marks his first exam.
Regardless, McCarthy’s mindset is unaffected.
“I mean, this is a great team,” McCarthy said of Penn State on Tuesday. “It’s just a tremendous opportunity and I can’t wait to do it. I can’t wait to go out there and show what I could do against that great team.”
The Nittany Lions boast a strong defense with talent all over the field, featuring the nation’s No. 5 rushing defense. If Penn State can pressure the Michigan offense to play one-dimensional and force McCarthy’s hand and if he can’t show out, then the Wolverines could be in trouble.
Who can run the ball better?
Let’s revisit a statistic that was mentioned earlier — the Nittany Lions’ fifth-ranked rushing defense. Saturday’s contest marks a matchup of strength on strength: Michigan’s rushing offense against Penn State’s rushing defense.
But the Wolverines think they know what it takes to counter this test.
“I think we gotta be us,” junior offensive lineman Zak Zinter said Monday. “We gotta stick true to who we are, clean up the little details on the offensive line. And you know, we got special backs.”
With star junior running back Blake Corum in the backfield, Michigan has stampeded over each and every opponent it has faced. As the competition has ramped up, Corum’s numbers have only exploded — he averages well over 100 yards per game in conference play.
But that’s only half the story.
This year, the Nittany Lions can actually run the ball — something that they haven’t been able to do for years. The two names to watch for are a pair of freshmen in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. With that duo, Penn State has a backfield that is as fast as it is physical.
The combination of that running back talent combined with the Nittany Lions’ strong offensive line will facilitate the biggest test of the season so far for Michigan’s rushing defense. But it’s a test that the Wolverines are relishing.
“That’s exciting for us because we enjoy block destruction and defending the run,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said on Wednesday. “We’d rather play a game like that than (one) that spreads us out and makes us run all over the field.”
What it will come down to, though, is whichever team can run the ball more effectively. That team will gain a tremendous advantage and be in a position to win the game.
Will the pass rush continue its ascent?
Michigan has a strong rushing defense — that has remained constant all season — but the pass rush has been a huge question mark.
Lately, though, that question mark has been more of an exclamation point.
In their last two games, the Wolverines have sacked opposing quarterbacks 11 times. The pass rush was utterly dominant against Indiana last weekend, and strong in Iowa City the week prior.
The emergence of graduate transfer edge rusher Eyabi Okie, combined with strong play from fellow edge rushers senior Mike Morris and junior Jaylen Harrell, the defensive line has caused chaos in their opponents’ backfield.
On Tuesday, Morris spoke at great lengths about how his confidence has grown week after week.
“The more success I have, the more I’m believing in myself and the more confident I am when I go out there,” Morris said. “So I’m just getting more and more confident each and every week.”
That confidence is mirrored in the rest of his unit.
Confidence alone won’t sack Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford on Saturday, but there is something to be said about Morris and the rest of the defensive line’s rapid growth as of late. And whether or not that trend continues on Saturday will play a significant factor in the game’s result.
The bottom line:
A win on Saturday helps the Wolverines preserve their spot in the upper echelon of college football. But a loss could prove that all of their pre-season hype was just hollow fanfare.
There is so much at stake on Saturday, and the only thing left to do is watch and see what happens.