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What we learned against Penn State: Michigan’s (still) not ready for the big stage

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Positives are hard to come by in demoralizing blowouts.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Michigan fans are angry, and rightfully so. They’ve been through this before. Brady Hoke had early success in Ann Arbor before his teams began collapsing. Is it happening again?

You can break it down and try to diagnose the problem with this year’s team. You can say that Hoke had great recruits that never developed. Then Harbaugh helped them reach their potential the last couple years, and Michigan went 20-6 over that span. But when he was hired in late December of 2014, the program was in disarray and even he couldn’t salvage the 2015 recruiting class. Those are the guys who would be juniors right now. There’s a void. Too much youth on this team. The future is bright.

But that all sounds like an excuse for not winning right now.

Harbaugh is paid like one of the top coaches in the nation, second only behind Nick Saban, who has won four national titles with Alabama. Michigan fans have watched Urban Meyer step into Columbus and dominate from Day 1. When Ohio State lost all of that talent early to the NFL Draft in 2016 and had a young team the following season, they still made the College Football Playoff. That’s the expectation from this fan base for Harbaugh. There are no excuses.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Lesson 1: Michigan’s (still) not ready for the big stage

Two of Michigan’s last three games have come under the lights. First, a sloppy affair in Ann Arbor that saw the Wolverines only put up 10 points on rival Michigan State in the team’s first loss. Now, a trip to Happy Valley — and a 29-point blowout to division foe Penn State — has left Michigan with a second loss, one that eliminates the Wolverines’ hopes at a shot for a conference title.

It all begs the question: What now?

Michigan looked good against Florida in the season opener. Not flawless, but good. They played well enough to send the season’s expectation through the roof.

Everyone came back down to the ground the next week again Cincinnati, which some wrote off as a hangover from the big game in Week 1. But the troubles lingered.

Now we’ve seen seven games and there are still a lot more questions than answers. Most fans, I think, expected there to be some hiccups throughout the season, due to the team’s inexperience, but when they recur over and over, week after week, they are not merely hiccups — these are pure struggles. And perpetual struggling through seven games wasn’t expected.

It’s not that this team hasn’t showed toughness or grit. After the Nittany Lions put up a quick 14 points to start the game Saturday night, I’m sure more than a handful of Michigan fans expected to see the game get out of hand quickly (knowing how the offense had played this season). And yes, Penn State ended up pulling away in the second half, but Michigan battled in the second quarter to make it a one-point game before PSU added a touchdown just before the half. That’s not to say playing well for a quarter counts as a moral victory, or any type of victory at all, but there were certainly opportunities for Michigan to keep itself in the game.

The problem is that the players aren’t developing. Even given the fast Penn State start, by Week 8 Michigan should have been able to compete for more than two and a half quarters.

But now here’s the situation: Five games left, three very winnable and two challenges. Can the Wolverines salvage the season, show that the team is growing and give promise to what lies ahead, or will we see more of the same?

Lesson 2: If the defense is off, good luck

Penn State is an experienced, talented team who was playing at home under the lights. Their running back is the frontrunner for the Heisman. They only lost a few starters from a Big Ten championship team a season ago. There are playmakers everywhere. I get all that. But Michigan has relied on its defense to keep them in every game so far this season — until Saturday.

The Nittany Lions were too much. Coming into Saturday, Michigan was surrendering an average of 223 yards per game. PSU put up 506. And it started right off the bat with a 69-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley on the second play from scrimmage.

Linebackers were out of position on simple zone reads. No adjustments were made when Barkley continually found himself matched up with Mike McCray. Michigan had no answer in the second half for Trace McSorley keeping the ball on quarterback runs.

Plainly, for the first time all season the Michigan defense looked outmatched. And maybe they were, but I think all Michigan fans expected more. Hell, I’m sure even many Penn State fans expected more.

One thing’s for sure this year: If the defense is outmatched, the offense isn’t going to win any games.

Lesson 3: Time to play Brandon Peters

This is certainly a sad realization, but Michigan’s title hopes in 2017 are now gone. What does that mean? Is it time to play for the future? The Wolverines’ roster pretty much already has them doing that with so much youth garnering significant playing time. But what about at quarterback?

Let me be clear: I don’t think playing Brandon Peters is going to fix any of the problems that ail this team. I also don’t think John O’Korn played particularly poorly against Penn State (that doesn’t mean he was stellar, either).

When Wilton Speight struggled early, people called for a change. That change came in Week 4 — unfortunately due to an injury — and other than a promising second half in that very game from O’Korn, there’s been very little that has seemed to warrant his starting position.

That said, the passing game is a complete mess and O’Korn’s performance has only been part of it. The play-calling has certainly been a major factor. The pass protection has been poor (surrendering seven sacks on Saturday). The receivers have had difficulty creating separation. These are not things that Peters will fix by taking the snaps under center moving forward, but sitting at 5-2 with both losses coming against East opponents, it no longer seems to make sense to start a fifth-year senior.