Saturday, September 24, 2016

No. 4 Michigan's efficiency on both sides leads to a statement win against Penn State

                         Photo Credit: The Blueprint Michigan

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

On a perfect day, under a cloudless sky, the Michigan Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten East) methodically eviscerated the visiting Penn State Nittany Lions (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten East) by a score of 49-10. 

A highly efficient Wilton Speight and a hard-running De’Veon Smith set the tone early for the offense, while a tenacious Michigan defense consistently harassed Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley. 

Michigan’s offensive line opened up big holes for Smith and the other runners in what may have been the most impressive ground attack so far this season. Defensively, by halftime Michigan held Penn State to 2.1 yards per play – a completely anemic attack.

Michigan’s swarming defense made an early statement in Big Ten play, thoroughly stifling the Penn State offense. The Nittany Lion offense had been effective so far this season, averaging 36 points per game against Kent State, Pittsburgh, and Temple. In shutting down Penn State, the Michigan defense looked every bit the potential playoff caliber unit. Even more encouraging to Michigan fans, defensive back Jourdan Lewis was back and looked to be at full strength and capability.

Michigan’s near-perfect day began by forcing a Penn State punt on their opening drive. Penalties and sacks dropped Penn State to the .1 micron line. Penn State punter Blake Gillikin proceeded to blast a 61-yard punt, completely out kicking its own coverage, leaving Jabrill Peppers literally bumbling and stumbling to the ten yard line. A sideline interference call took 15 yards off the return, but Speight and Smith got Michigan to the doorstep, where, on fourth-and-one, Khalid Hill punched through for the opening touchdown.

After the touchdown, Penn State had its most promising drive of the half halted at midfield. Coach James Franklin made an inexplicable call to go for a fourth down conversion on fourth and five from the Michigan 42-yard line. Lewis sniffed out the pass play, and proceeded to drop DeAndre Thompkins for a four-yard loss.

The Michigan offense got down to business when it got the ball back. On a drive highlighted by some seriously tough running by Smith, the senior running back slammed home a two-yard run to put Michigan up 14-0. At that point, Penn State was on its heels and reeling from the early Michigan onslaught. By halftime, Michigan was up 28-0 and Penn State had 50 yards of total offense. It was a truly dominating half of football.

The second half started off promising for the Nittany Lions, as they forced a Michigan punt and aggressively stormed into the red zone for the first time. In a move sure to leave Penn State fans completely befuddled, Franklin chose to kick a field goal on 4th and Goal from the Michigan two-yard line. Keep in mind that Franklin, down 7-0, elected to go for it on 4th and 5 from the Michigan 42 in the first quarter. To review, Franklin went for it on fourth down early in the game down seven, and kicked from the two yard line down 28-0 in the third quarter.

After the field goal made it 28-3, the Michigan offensive line took over, gashing huge holes in the Penn State defense for Smith, Ty Isaac, and Chris Evans. The Michigan drive culminated in a three-yard touchdown run by Evans, the fourth rushing TD of the day for the Wolverines.

By the time Penn State managed a touchdown, it was with 11:22 left in the fourth quarter. Saquon Barkley proved that he is one of the best backs in the conference with some nifty runs, and Michigan aided the Lions offense with two pass interference penalties. Penn State had cut the Michigan lead to 35-10. Too little, too late, and Michigan added two more rushing touchdowns, for a grand total of six on the day. When the final whistle blew, Michigan secured a 49-10 victory.

Frustration in not-so-Happy Valley, as Penn State fans certainly hoped for a better showing. The offense was ineffective, especially the offensive line, which was consistently blown up by the Michigan front. Maurice Hurst was a disruptive force, and would be a deserving recipient of a game ball.

If today’s game was a gauge of where these programs stand, Michigan took a step forward in their pursuit of a conference title. For the Wolverines, a big time matchup with the upstart Wisconsin Badgers awaits next week. After the Badgers' impressive road victory at Spartan Stadium, next week’s game is setting up to be a heavyweight battle between two potential top 10 teams.

The Nittany Lions need to regroup for an inter-divisional game with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. There will be renewed grumblings on campus, but the season is still young, and PSU has time to fulfill its bowl aspirations.

Game Notes:

Early in the game, Penn State junior linebacker Brandon Smith was ejected for what could charitably be called a dubious targeting penalty. Smith appeared to be going for the ball, and showed no signs of targeting Michigan receiver Grant Perry. There have been calls to tweak the targeting rule. This was Smith’s first career start. A former walk-on, an exception should be made for players who are not intentionally trying to hurt or inure an opposing player.

Late in the game, fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark was injured during a kickoff return. At the postgame press conference, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was visibly upset, describing the locker room as “down” due to Clark’s injury, which Harbaugh described as a “season ender.” There will be further tests, but early prognosis is an ACL injury.

Jourdan Lewis was back on the field and healthy, playing at top form. This is great news for Michigan, but not if he gets injured on a meaningless play. On the same play Clark was hurt, Lewis returned a kickoff and was hammered by the Penn State coverage. 

The score at the time was 35-10. Harbaugh may want to reconsider using his star corner to return kicks when the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt.

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