No. 5 Michigan (6-0) ranks 29th in total offense and will be facing a team in No. 10 Penn State (5-0) that ranks 38th in total defense. It feels like an even matchup at just about every position heading into the tilt, but will that be the reality once the dust settles?
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh feels Penn State is their biggest challenge yet, with a defense that plays well across the board.
“They’re a really good run defense, maybe the best we’re going to play,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “The secondary is really good, too. Some real big-time players.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said recently that the Michigan offense hasn’t scratched the surface yet, that the offense is going to be dangerous, and things are trending in that direction slowly but surely.
Heading into the Penn State game, McCarthy leads the nation in completion percentage at 78.3 and has been the best in the nation in the red zone, completing 22-of-25 passes with four touchdowns. As good as those numbers are, McCarthy knows Michigan must land more haymakers on offense and score as much as possible.
“Everything is a process, and this entire season is just continual growth week to week, but I feel like we should be not getting stopped offensively,” McCarthy said. “With the talent we have and the scheme, we shouldn’t be stopped.”
McCarthy’s coming off his first 300-yard game of his career, going 28-of-36 versus Indiana for 304 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Penn State’s passing defense ranks 102nd in passing yards allowed, but rank 7th in team efficiency defense. Penn State’s passing yards allowed ranking must be taken with a grain of salt, the defense is being thrown on north of 45 times per game. That’s due to the fact they have the 5th ranked rushing defense in the nation.
While Michigan will want to stick to what they do well, including run the ball (20th overall in rushing offense), McCarthy and Michigan’s passing offense will have to make plays in this one.
“It’s a great challenge for our guys, our receivers are excited about that challenge,” Harbaugh said. “That’s kinda the vibe I’m getting. We’re going to have to get prepared and be really on point, but early in the week here, that’s kinda the rallying cry. There’s confidence there that they want to test themselves, I’ll put it that way. But they’ve got some really, really top-notch guys on all sides of the ball.”
Penn State’s defense leads the nation in pass breakups with 51, and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. leads the nation with 10 pass breakups. Then there’s safety Ji’Ayir Brown. Brown had six interceptions last season and leads the team in tackles this year with 25.
The secondary has done a great job for PSU, and that’s due in part to the defense being able to stop the run and make the opposition one dimensional. Once a team gets into predictable passing situations, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz loves to send an array of blitzes at opposing quarterbacks. The good news for Michigan is McCarthy has handled the blitz phenomenally so far this season. Six of McCarthy’s nine touchdowns have come against a blitz.
Michigan doesn’t want to play scared, and they’ll try to establish the run. However, if things come down to Michigan’s passing offense putting the game on their shoulders, well, they’re chomping at the bit to step up and deliver.
“This is a great team, being able to play them in The Big House is a blessing for sure with the maize out and all the fans that are gonna be showing up and bringing that energy,” McCarthy said. “It’s just a tremendous opportunity — and I can’t wait to do it, I can’t wait to go out there and show what I can do against that great team.”