There is no sugarcoating what is at stake for the Michigan football team in Saturday’s matchup against No. 14 Penn State.
Win, and the team’s floor — barring shocking upsets against Indiana and Rutgers — is a New Year’s Six bowl game. Lose, and that scenario becomes a lot more difficult. Coupled with the desire to avenge last year’s 42-13 beatdown in Happy Valley, the fifth-ranked Wolverines (7-1 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) simply have more to lose than the Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2).
Michigan is coming off a bye week riding a seven-game win streak, while Penn State visits Michigan Stadium after escaping with a 30-24 home victory against Iowa.
The Daily breaks down what to watch for in the third game of the Wolverines’ self-proclaimed Revenge Tour.
Containing Trace McSorley
Alternatively, this could just be titled “Devin Bush Jr. needs to have a career game.” Sure, a defense that surrendered 506 yards and five rushing touchdowns a year ago is a call to arms for all 11 guys on the field. But last year, McSorley and now-New York Giant Saquon Barkley did much of their damage from over-pursuing defenders and pure speed. It was a particularly tough night for Mike McCray, who was burned on two of the Nittany Lions’ scoring drives by the duo.
For Bush, spying McSorley effectively is priority number one. McCray wasn’t an answer last year, and Josh Ross or Devin Gil shouldn’t be the replacement. Miles Sanders has displayed All-American ability and could present similar problems, but he’s not Barkley. Thus, eyes are cast squarely on the quarterback. Imagine this scenario: Chase Winovich and Kwity Paye seal the edges, leaving a running gap open up the middle with Penn State receivers streaking up field. Except you don’t have to imagine, because Barkley did it out of the wildcat and McSorley succeeded with it too last season.
McSorley is also a capable passer, of course. Speedster K.J. Hamler is the prototypical slot receiver that can catch the ball and fly behind Michigan’s linebackers. Six-foot-4 Juwan Johnson and 6-foot-5 Pat Freiermuth have combined for five touchdowns themselves. McSorley is a serviceable quarterback, but his 110 rushing attempts this year make the message clear: keep him from taking off.
Keeping the Michigan offense on the field
Michigan ranks seventh in the country in time of possession, averaging around 34 minutes per game on offense. For a Wolverines offense that can be maddeningly slow, it’s easy to dismiss the number. Defensive coordinator Don Brown can tell you why he loves it.
“There were a couple points against Michigan State I’m like — I’m sitting with the guys and Bush is here and Khaleke (Hudson is) here and I’m like ‘Dude, that’s five minutes off the clock,’ ” Brown said. “And that’s huge when you can go out there and just sell your soul to get off the field, and you’re rewarded by the offense just dominating the clock. That’s a big deal.
Don’t have to score, but field position and giving you the rest so you can be 100 miles an hour, that’s a big deal.”
Brown even put on his research cap on to dissect the impact even further.
“I did this study last year on us, and when we are below 70 snaps — in the sixties — we’re pretty good now,” Brown said. “When we get into the high seventies, eighties, that’s when trouble starts. That’s when fatigue’s done, concept is out there and it’s a bad deal.
“In the last seven games, we’re somewhere high-forties to mid-sixties, which is a heck of a deal. I think if you asked a couple Big 12 defensive coordinators, they’d take it and run.”
Penn State averages nearly 84.9 defensive plays per game, and 92 its past three games. Keeping Michigan’s offense on the field seems easier said than done, but it could be the key to topping a team that lost some playmakers.
Tarik Black is back
On Tuesday, senior wide receiver Grant Perry offered some encouraging, but curious insight regarding the health of Black, who is eyeing his first game action of the season after fracturing his left foot. He also missed the last 10 games last year from a broken right foot, earning him a medical redshirt.
“Coming back from an injury like that, there’s going to be some cloudiness coming back on the field, definitely some doubts,” Perry said. “He’s definitely overcome that gap and he’s back to being Tarik.”
What does being Tarik mean? Based on limited anecdotes from one spring game and three games over a year ago, it means being a playmaker that can spread the field that much more. Black can catch the deep ball, and can also play inside like he did when catching his first and only touchdown in his career debut against Florida in 2017.
Coinciding with improvements made by counterparts Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins, and tight end Zach Gentry, the various formations that the Wolverines can employ with Black in the lineup could leave opposing defensive coordinators sweating.
Penn State has the offensive weapons to expose holes in Michigan’s defense. But its offense is still worse than last year, and the Wolverines’ defense is the same, if not better. McSorley doesn’t have the same parachute to get out of tricky situations.
Michigan’s offense, on the other hand, has trended upward week over week. Penn State’s defense has allowed at least three touchdowns in four straight games. And yeah, Shea Patterson in Ann Arbor is an improvement over John O’Korn in Happy Valley, to put it mildly.
Prediction: Michigan 28, Penn State 17