clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What We Learned: Penn State Week

This season has exceeded expectations so far. Michigan owns a perfect Big Ten road record, has seen massive improvement at multiple positions, and can compete with anyone. And it's only Jim Harbaugh's first year. How's Michigan doing it? Can they keep it up for The Game?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports


Michigan enjoys traveling. After Michigan posted only a 9-19 record in Big Ten road games in the prior seven years, fans entered 2015 a little scarred about road games in general. But that was then, and this is now. And now, we just saw Michigan sweep its conference road slate for the first time since 1997, which was a pretty good year. Yes, this is the first season that they've had MSU and OSU at home in that span, but it's still quite an accomplishment because winning in the Big Ten never is easy.

It will be tough for Michigan to make it 8-0 in Big Ten road games under Jim Harbaugh, as they must travel to East Lansing and Columbus next season. In the past, these were considered unwinnable games, and rightfully so. But that was then, and this is now. And now, Michigan has Harbaugh and his elite staff. Now, Michigan has an enviable quarterback situation for the foreseeable future. Now, Michigan has offensive line guru Tim Drevno to continue developing a front that makes holes big enough for Mack trucks to drive through. Now, Michigan is mentally tough, physically capable of playing all four quarters, and obsessed with winning just like the way their head coach is.

Michigan's passing game is really, really good. To have a successful pro-style passing game, a team really needs three basic things: an offensive line that gives a quarterback time to throw, a quarterback that can hit an open target, and receivers that can run good routes to get open and make catches. Michigan had all three this week.

Pass blocking: Coming into Saturday's game, Penn State's defense led the nation with 42 sacks. Now, you typically can give the edge in the trenches to the home team because of crowd noise. Beaver Stadium can get very loud, so this is further amplified. Despite this, Rudock was sacked only twice on Saturday. And, if you played a drinking game that meant taking a shot each time the play-by-play announcer said, "Rudock...plenty of time...," you would have passed out by halftime and missed a great second half.

Quarterback play: Well, let's just say Jake Rudock is making all the throws right now. In fact, if you look past when Penn State hid an extra man in coverage that led to a great interception, he played a near-perfect game. Jake Rudock went from a September punchline to a November nightmare in the eyes of Michigan's biggest rival, as evidenced by the contrast in these two tweets.

Receivers: Before this season, the perception was that Michigan lacked speed at receiver. Jehu Chesson's transition from "guy who catches the occasional ball" to "a taller Jeremy Gallon" has been nothing short of sensational. He has burner speed, and the deep threat he poses opens things up for others. Jake Butt is Mr. Reliable, catching anything thrown in his general vicinity. Amara Darboh doesn't have track speed, but he has moves to make the first guy miss. He reliably turns short gains into chunk plays that move the chains. Add in the semi-frequent contributions by A.J. Williams and Grant Perry, and Rudock has plenty of weapons.

You can believe Harbaugh when he says he's got a plan. It's not fluff. When Indiana ran all over Michigan for 307 rushing yards a week ago, Harbaugh told reporters that they would fix it.

Fast forward to Saturday, and things started the exact same way as they did in Bloomington. When Saquon Barkley ripped off his first carry for 56 yards, Michigan fans everywhere said, "Here we go again." But that was then, and this is now. After that 56-yard gash, Penn State rushed for only 14 more yards the rest of the afternoon. Twenty-one more carries, 14 yards total. Those 0.67 yards per carry weren't quite good enough for Barkley to demand for more touches to the media after the game like Ezekiel Elliott's 2.8 yards per carry apparently were.


MSU won't have an inevitable decline as long as Dantonio chooses to stay there. When Jim Harbaugh took the Michigan job, Michigan fans assumed MSU's days as a conference power were numbered, myself included. Well, the reality of the situation is that Mark Dantonio has created a tried and true method for a winning program. It revolves around having a chip on his shoulder and feeling disrespected. It is the ultimate motivator for MSU, and it is embedded in the players well before they arrive on campus.

MSU finds kids from Michigan and Ohio that are talented but do not have scholarship offers from Michigan or OSU. When these kids get to East Lansing, they already hate Michigan (unanimously) and OSU (a little bit also) for overlooking them. These kids always will be in large supply as long as Harbaugh and Meyer remain in their posts. While Michigan and OSU do take a few in-state kids each year, they both recruit nationally in large part also. As Michigan and OSU take in kids from across the country, Dantonio relishes the opportunity to take in the "disrespected" local talent.

They also routinely find ways to win games they shouldn't. They had no business winning in Columbus as a 13-point underdog without Connor Cook and in front of the largest audience the Horseshoe ever has had. But they came out and dictated tempo, forcing OSU to play their style. It was a huge upset, but OSU, the reigning national champion, was massively outcoached the whole game. This is why MSU isn't going downhill any time soon.

OSU players don't handle losing well. Maybe it's because they aren't used to it, but come on, this was a crazy scene. You've got Ezekiel Elliott throwing the coaches under the bus publicly, complaining about carries (in a game he averaged under 3.0 YPC, mind you). You've got Cardale Jones AND Elliott, two of the team's upper-class leaders, announcing they won't be back next year. This example of looking toward the draft and not focusing on Michigan can rub off on teammates. I personally believe this plays strongly into Michigan's hands for this upcoming Saturday.

It's only human nature for Michigan to want this win more. OSU's expectation for the season was a repeat national championship. That is almost certainly out of reach now, so it is likely hard for them to be as ready for this week, even though it is The Game. The Game is a huge deal, but come on, OSU. You can have only so many pairs of gold pants in your closet before you have to start donating them to Goodwill. Or start selling them for tattoos.

On the other hand, Michigan wants this game more than anything. They mirror Harbaugh's personality, which is obsessed over winning. The four-year seniors never have won this game, and they want nothing more than to get this huge win to validate what already has been an awesome season.

OSU fans don't handle losing well. You would think that Meyer has earned a little leeway in town. The loss dropped him to 48-4, an average of 12-1 in his four years. So certainly he has earned the right to turn things around, and everyone understands that. Right? Right....? Well, not according to this:

Living in Ohio, I had the privilege of listening to a little sports talk radio after the game. It was entertaining to say the least. Lots of ripping of the play-calling, saying Meyer is nothing without Tom Herman at his disposal, and some takes so hot that they would burn up your phone. I highly recommend streaming some Columbus sports talk radio whenever OSU loses a game. It never fails to be entertaining.

And then also there is...whatever this is: