We dissect the numbers from No. 4 Michigan’s 49-10 win over Penn State that are encouraging, concerning, and fascinating, and share what they mean for the future.
James Franklin didn’t want to be embarrassed.
Though Penn State trailed, 28-0, to start the second half, it had a chance to make noise. The Nittany Lions forced Michigan into a quick three-and-out and paved their way down to the U-M two-yard line. However, after back-to-back incomplete passes, it was fourth down. Franklin had a choice: he could go for the touchdown and cut U-M’s lead from four scores to three scores or kick the 20-yard field goal and cut U-M’s lead from four scores to four scores. Pretty simple choice, right? Go for the touchdown.
Yet Penn State’s kicking unit ran onto the field to the bewilderment of those watching. Okay, maybe not bewilderment because Franklin makes Andy Reid look like a game management whiz. Penn State lined up to kick the field goal, and, as the play clock ran down, Franklin called a timeout. Whew. Franklin finally got some sense into him and realized that he needed to go for this. Plus, there was no way that he would use one of three precious timeouts early in the second half to kick a 20-yard field goal rather than one from 25, which would have given his kicker a better angle anyway. There’s no way...
Oh my, he actually did it.
Then, on Penn State’s ensuing drive with about 6:30 left in the third quarter, Franklin opted to punt on 4th & 1 at the PSU 37 rather than be aggressive and try to cut into Michigan’s lead further. The Wolverines responded with a touchdown to make it 35-3.
Franklin had thrown the white flag. He had an opportunity to show his team that they would not surrender and would continue to fight for all 60 minutes. Maybe they could have put some pressure on Michigan in the second half. Instead, Franklin was more concerned about not being shut out and making the outcome look better cosmetically.
Franklin didn’t want to be embarrassed? Too bad.
When Franklin quit, his team did, too, and the Wolverines pummeled Penn State, 49-10. The 39-point margin of the victory was the largest in the history of the Michigan-Penn State series, usurping the Nittany Lions’ 29-point win over the Wolverines in 2008. The Lions were undoubtedly shorthanded, having to send in their fourth-string linebackers by the second quarter, but they were completely outclassed on the sidelines as well, even if the folks at PennLive would rather keep Franklin and then have Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh coached circles around Franklin. Harbaugh was aggressive in fourth-down situations, turning two fourth-down conversions into first-half touchdowns. He noticed that Penn State was overplaying Michigan’s outside runs and jet sweeps, so he dialed up the counters that saw the Wolverines’ running back sprinting through large gaps between the tackles. Michigan’s defense shut down everything Penn State tried, and the Nittany Lions moved forward only when Saquon Barkley did Saquon Barkley things.
It’s crazy to think how much Michigan has separated itself from Penn State in just two seasons. Harbaugh now has the Wolverines back in the upper echelon of college football, contending for a national championship. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions are now 0-6 against the AP Top 25 under Franklin, losing all six by an average of 24.8 points per game. That’s embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as Saturday’s result.
Michigan’s running game surged back to life against Penn State as five Wolverines combined to score six rushing touchdowns. Karan Higdon had the first multi-score game of his career, while DeVeon Smith, Ty Isaac, Chris Evans, and Khalid Hill each punched one into the end zone. It was the first time that five Michigan players ran for a score in the same game since Michigan trounced UMass, 63-13, in 2012 (Vincent Smith , Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Justice Hayes, and Taylor Lewan).
However, sharing the goal-line glory — all five scored a touchdown from no further than three yards out — was not the most positive takeaway from Michigan’s ground game. It was that each of Michigan’s four running backs — Smith, Higdon, Isaac, and Evans — gained at least 56 rushing yards, averaged at least 6.7 yards per carry, and posted at least one 25-plus-yard scamper. This truly was running back by committee with few flaws. Smith bruised his way through tacklers and flashed that one-cut-and-go vision that many desperately want to see from him more often. Higdon ran hard and behind his pads, looking decisive with his moves. Isaac saw the right side of the line cave in and impressively bounced to the outside into open grass. And Evans turned on the turbo boosters when a sprint draw gave him space in which to work. With all four clicking, the Wolverines accumulated 326 rushing yards — their most against a Big Ten opponent since 2012 Illinois (353) — and averaged a healthy 6.65 yards per carry.
Michigan was so successful on the ground against Penn State that, according to Wilton Speight, the Wolverines called the same run eight straight times in the second half, which elicited a chuckle from the quarterback. However, this was production that Michigan needed in this game. Penn State has for a long time been nicknamed Linebacker U, but, right now, it’s more like Linebackerless U. All three of its starting linebackers missed Saturday’s game with injuries, and this is after the Nittany Lions needed to replace three defensive linemen that combined for 45.5 tackles for loss in 2015. They are lacking talented bodies in their front seven, so it would have been a concern for Michigan if it could not pound the football against the Nittany Lions.
Michigan was able to however, which should give the Wolverines some confidence as they prepare to face Wisconsin’s run defense, which has been very stingy this season.
It’s not often that a quarterback’s performance should be described as just okay in a 39-point win over a conference foe, but it would be apt for Wilton Speight against Penn State. Speight completed 21-of-34 passes (61.8%) for 189 yards (5.6 YPA), a touchdown, and no interceptions against the Nittany Lions. It’s not awful, but it’s not great either because that 5.6 YPA sticks out like a sore thumb. That number symbolizes Michigan’s aversion to the long ball this past weekend. Of Speight’s 21 completions, the ball sailed further than 10 yards on only three and further than 20 yards on none according to Pro Football Focus. Almost everything was underneath on drags, hitches, slants, screens, and flares, and, even then, Speight wasn’t sharp. He missed a few open Wolverine wideouts, and his third-down completion to Khalid Hill in the flat was on top of Hill’s shoestrings. The one bright positive was that Speight again showed his ability to shrug off pass rushers in the pocket and extend the play, which would have led to a touchdown pass to Amara Darboh if DeVeon Smith hadn’t been flagged for a hold. However, this is the second straight game that Speight’s accuracy hasn’t been pristine on short and intermediate throws. It leads one to wonder if his right shoulder/arm is still battered a bit from that hit he took from Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie, especially since the few deep passes he did try against Penn State mostly were underthrown. It would have been better for Michigan if Speight had more of a bounce-back game with Wisconsin on deck because that will be the toughest defense Michigan has opposed.
Even if Wilton Speight has regressed some in the past two weeks, he has done a great job of taking care of the football, which many would say was the reason why he won the starting gig over John O’Korn. Through the first four games, the Wolverines have turned the ball over just two times. There was Speight’s interception on Michigan’s first offensive snap of the season and his fumble when he was rocked by Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie on a well-timed nickel blitz and missed blocking assignment. That’s it. Only four other FBS teams have given the football away fewer times than Michigan thus far (Western Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, and Nevada). If Speight and Michigan can continue to hold onto the football, they will be a very hard team to beat this season.
Penn State’s offense knew it was in for a long day after its first series. The Nittany Lions opened with a sack, a screen pass for one yard, and another sack that saw them punting from their own one-yard line. They lost eight yards on that first possession, and it didn’t get much better after that. So much so, in fact, that, when Michigan scored to go up, 28-0, with 45 seconds left in the second quarter, the Wolverines had more points (28) than the Nittany Lions had total yards (24). Penn State would pick up a few chunk plays before the end, but the Nittany Lions would finish with only 191 total yards on 3.47 yards per play. It was the fifth time in 17 games under Jim Harbaugh that the Wolverines held an opposing offense to less than 200 total yards.
It was complete domination by Michigan.
And it’s scary to think what it would have been like if Penn State didn’t have Saquon Barkley. The excellent running back tallied for 136 of his team’s 191 total yards, and, even crazier, he accounted for 66 of his team’s 50 total yards in the first half. Yes, that’s right. His teammates went backwards in the first two quarters. With Michigan’s defense swarming and Penn State’s offensive line struggling to execute, it was on Barkley to make magic happen and get yards. He tried, and he surely deserves better.
Michigan has one of the most disruptive defenses in the country, and that was on exhibition against Penn State on Saturday. In the Nittany Lions’ first three games, they had allowed only 18 tackles for loss and five sacks. Against Michigan, they allowed 13 tackles for loss and six (!) sacks. What was impressive, too, was that Michigan was getting to Trace McSorley early without needing to dial up many blitzes. The Wolverines sacked McSorley four times on his first 10 dropbacks, and ABC’s Todd McShay reported at halftime that four of Michigan’s five first-half sacks were on four-man rushes. When a defensive line can generate that type of pressure and still drop seven into coverage, offenses are going to have a very difficult time moving the ball.
However, it’s not just the defensive line that is disruptive. The entire front seven has been disruptive. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has a metric he calls “Havoc,” which is the percentage of plays in which a defense records either a tackle for loss, forced fumble, and pass defensed (INT/PBU). Michigan is 14th in Havoc by a defensive line. Michigan’s linebackers? Third. This has been a pleasant surprise for the Wolverines after all the questions about this unit entering the season. Jabrill Peppers has taken to his versatile role, leading the nation with 9.5 tackles for loss, while Ben Gedeon (23 tackles in his past two games) and Mike McCray (4.5 TFL, 4 PD, 1 FF) have exceeded expectations. As a result, Michigan’s defense has a whole is first in the nation in Havoc, posting a disruptive play (TFL, FF, INT/PBU) on over one-quarter of its plays (25.3%). Ridiculous.
One of the matchups that was highlighted by many who previewed Michigan-Penn State was the Nittany Lions’ offense against the Wolverines’ defense on third downs. The Nittany Lions’ third-down offense had been sputtering, ranking 117th in third-down conversion rate, while the Wolverines’ third-down defense had been smothering all comers, topping the national list. This went as expected. Penn State converted only one of its first 10 third downs and finished only 2-of-12 (16.7%) on the day. Some were short third downs, some were long third downs. But, ultimately, it didn’t matter because Penn State’s offensive line could not keep the pressure off of Trace McSorley. He was sacked four times on third down, and Michigan’s defense excelled at kicked the Nittany Lions off the field and allowing its offense to come back on and return to work.
The Wolverines remain the nation’s best third-down defense (6-of-50, 12.0%).
With Michigan’s 49-10 win versus Penn State and Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke, the Wolverines reclaimed college football’s best all-time winning percentage. Michigan is 929-330-36 (73.127%), and Notre Dame is 893-316-42 (73.062%). The Fighting Irish had taken the top spot from Michigan when the two rivals last met in 2014 — a precursor of the pain that was to come for Michigan fans that season. However, two years later, with Michigan off to a 4-0 start and Notre Dame sitting at 1-3, Michigan is back on top.
Of course, that may change next week if U-M doesn’t defend its turf against Wisconsin.