The 42-13 loss at Penn State represented the lowest point of the 2017 season. Just ask Chase Winovich.
“We competed well all year,” he said at Big Ten Media Days, “except for the second half at Penn State.
2018 will test the durability of Franklin’s rejuvenated program. No more Saquon Barkley, Daesean Hamilton or Mike Gesicki. Also, a new offensive coordinator replaces Joe Moorhead, who took the head job at Mississippi State.
Penn State’s dominant win was revenge for Michigan’s 49-10 drubbing the year prior. Can Michigan hold serve Nov. 3 in Ann Arbor?
PENN STATE OFFENSE LAST YEAR VS. THIS YEAR
James Franklin rode his star seniors against the Wolverines last year.
The onslaught began with Barkley’s explosiveness.
Winovich is washed inside, and Josh Mettellus takes a bad angle, which turns this play from a first down to a touchdown.
The safety woes persisted, as Tyree Kinnel whiffs a clean-up tackle, and Mettellus allows himself to get walled off by rising senior DeAndre Thompkins.
Michigan finally punched back, inching to within one just before the end of the first half. Back to back jump-ball wins by Hamilton and Gesicki set up a Trace McSorley touchdown run to regain the momentum.
Skip to 2:13 for Hamilton. Link for Gesicki at 3:04.
The immediate optimism amongst the Michigan fanbase is that those dudes don’t return. Barkley now suits up for New York Giants, Gesicki the Miami Dolphins and Hamilton the Denver Broncos.
What does return are seven other starters from last year, including Maxwell Award hopeful Trace McSorley, the entire offensive line and two of their top-five pass catchers.
McSorley eviscerated Don Brown’s defense last year like no one else has, perfectly utilizing the his legs and arm in Moorhead’s read-option scheme.
At 0:07 and 2:50, he allows his line to disrupt the Michigan front just long enough, and then decisively darts upfield for big chunks. He compiled 76 yards on 11 carries (seven yards a pop) and three touchdowns.
Watch him evade three defensive backs on this 13-yard third-quarter touchdown run.
For all the criticism of the Penn State offensive line, by the way, they are driving elite defenders out of the way here. Don’t sell them short.*
This doesn’t even address his prolific arm, which racked up 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns at 8.4 yards an attempt. At this point, he resembles 2015 Baker Mayfield, which is meant to be as scary as it sounds.
Sure, some of the throws were more “chuck-it and pray” to Gesicki than anything else. It’s more accurate to say he punished Michigan’s safeties with impunity, as shown on the aforementioned Hamilton catch near the end of the second half.
He combines athleticism with awareness on a key scramble at 3:35 of his tape. Don Brown dials up a blitz that springs Josh Uche and Khaleke Hudson free. McSorley splits them, keeps his head downfield and finds positive yardage with a sideline toss to Hamilton.
That’s a clinic on how to scramble. You listening, Michigan quarterbacks?
His main target this year will be redshirt junior Juwan Johnson. You may remember him from the Iowa game.
At 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, he looks like the jump-ball heir apparent to Hamilton. He totaled 701 yards on 53 receptions, gaining at least 60 yards in seven of 13 games.
In games against elite secondaries, his production understandably dipped. He combined for just eight catches for 85 yards in the three-game stretch of Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
After him, to quote Bill Connelly’s preview, “it’s all hands on deck.” Thompkins and Brandon Polk return nearly 600 yards receiving, while several four and five-star prospects are entering the fold.
Incoming offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, decidedly more a James Franklin disciple than a Joe Moorhead one, will need to find ways to replace the lost production with these pieces. In his play-calling debut in the Fiesta Bowl triumph over Washington, he got McSorley to complete passes to nine different contributors.
The biggest question mark is whether Miles Sanders is ready for a heavier load. The former four-star has averaged 6.7 yards a carry for 375 yards in two seasons of limited action. He saw extended minutes against Washington, but only gained 15 yards on six totes.
In took three years for Barkley to find room against a Michigan defense, gaining under 60 yards in both 2015 and 2016. Rahne is most likely going to need to rely on McSorley’s arm to generate points.
PENN STATE DEFENSE
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry does not get enough credit for his work in 2017. The defense ranked No. 12 per S&P, and held nine of 13 teams under 20 points.
The fear is that with only three returning starters, his unit will regress to its 2016 levels — it allowed 143 points in its three defeats.
Two of these players jump out as game-changers: defensive end Shareef Miller and Amani Oruwariye. Here are snippets from their “Enemy’s Best Shot” write-ups.
Miller: “The Nittany Lion finished 2017 with 37 tackles with 11 for loss, as well as 5.5 sacks. He always remains square to the ball-carrier, locking out blockers with his arms and reacting at just the right moment. His highlights against Iowa exhibit a player with that proverbial ‘nose for the ball.’”
Oruwariye: “He made the list off the back of four interceptions, which he earned through either excellent trail coverage, or simply outstanding concentration and body control.”
The latter snags an acrobatic sideline interception at 1:09 below.
Not to short change the rest of the defense, but the remaining pieces either saw little to no playing time, or were cogs rather than playmakers.
Defensive end Ryan Buchholz chipped in 17 tackles, including two for loss and 1.5 sacks. At 6-foot-6, 273 pounds, he fits the mold of a run-stopping anchor.
Senior linebacker Koa Farmer found part-time starting duties last year, and tallied 47 tackles with 5.5 for loss. Not thrilling, but nice.
The rest of this evaluation would just be projection. Top recruit Micah Parson slides in at defensive end, but is he ready? Junior Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor replace three tackles on the interior. Can they be as steady in the middle as Cothran and Cothren?
In the secondary, everyone besides Oruwariye is gone. John Reid returns from a knee injury, so is he back to full health?
Michigan mostly maintained its stellar defensive play last year despite replacing nearly everyone. The credit goes to Don Brown’s staff and tons of talent.
If you think Brent Pry is Don Brown, then expect a solid year from a very young group. Color me skeptical.
If Michigan’s fans want to be honest about last year, Penn State should have probably won by more.
Take away that they kneeled in the red zone in the final minutes. It took a McSorley misfire to David Long to keep the Wolverines in it. An early second-quarter drive stalled due to a Saquon Barkley drop off a wheel route.
The score easily could have been in the 52-13 range.
With McSorley at the helm once more, an offensive line that effectively moved Gary, Winovich and company a year ago and plenty of returning talent, Penn State will manufacture over 20 points, at least.
The question is: can Michigan form a cohesive offensive game plan coming off a bye week following the trip to East Lansing? History shows that may not happen.
In 2015, Michigan sputtered to a 29-26 win over 6-7 Minnesota after a bye week following “Trouble with the Snap.” Michigan obviously cruised after the 2016 bye over Illinois.
Last year, Jim Harbaugh had two weeks to prepare for Michigan State for a night game in the Big House, and John O’Korn and friends mustered 10 points.
Certainly, Shea Patterson is a huge upgrade and the rest of the offense should mature. The deciding factor in who wins this game is how Michigan prepares for the bye week, and how well can James Franklin’s young pups play on the road — potentially at night.
Jim Harbaugh has not been unbeatable at home, and this smells like an upset. 24-20 for the first loss of the year.