Penn State might be undefeated at 6-0, but you can forgive the program’s critics for not being very impressed so far. Of the four Power Five teams that the Lions have defeated in 2017, none of them have blown anyone’s doors off, and that includes an Iowa squad that was one play away from upsetting Penn State in the Big Ten opener.
To those critics, the season really starts for Penn State on Saturday when it faces Michigan for the first time since last year’s blowout loss at Ann Arbor. A lot has changed since then, and that’s why the Lions will be favored despite their offensive line issues that have made it hard for Saquon Barkley to get going in their last two games.
Even with Barkley in check, though, Penn State had an easier time than Michigan over the past two weeks. After losing starting quarterback Wilton Speight to injury against Purdue, the Wolverines had a miserable time trying to pass the ball in a loss against Michigan State and a narrow victory over Indiana. The Lions might have the best defense that Michigan has faced thus far, so there have been a lot of questions this week about how Jim Harbaugh’s team is going to move the ball on Saturday.
To answer those questions and more, we’re joined by Josh LaFond of SB Nation’s Michigan blog, Maize N Brew! Thanks to Josh for his insight leading up to this exciting matchup.
Black Shoe Diaries: Ty Isaac and Chris Evans appeared to be Michigan’s lead backs during the first four games of the season, but the last two games have been the Karan Higdon show. Is he the new bell cow after his 200-yard performance in Bloomington?
Maize N Brew: I think going forward he’s got to be the lead running back. Isaac has struggled holding onto the ball and fighting through defenders for the majority of his career. Meanwhile, Evans hasn’t lived up to the hype that he had going into this season.
Higdon, on the other hand, hits the hole with more explosiveness than any other running back on the team. He fights for those extra yards and he has the vision to make the cut that turns two yards and a pile of dust into a big play.
BSD: Three games at the helm for John O’Korn have yielded nearly identical passing stats to the three games that Wilton Speight started. With O’Korn having faced much stiffer competition, does that make him the more impressive quarterback? Are fans concerned with his touchdown-to-interception ratio?
MNB: I don’t know if he’s the more impressive quarterback. Speight has his fair share of problems but what he always seemed to do was make the right read, even if he couldn’t necessarily get the ball there. O’Korn, on the other hand, is known for missing wide open guys and forcing the ball into tight windows (see Michigan State game). There’s not really an impressive quarterback on this roster yet, and that’s the scary part.
Now as far as touchdown-to-interception ratio goes, that fits in with what I was just saying. The forced passes, the incorrect reads… that’s what causes the turnovers. Now last week, yes, he did a good job of not forcing it as much as he did two weeks ago against Michigan State in that 14-10 loss. But still, the reads weren’t always correct.
BSD: Grant Perry has led the Wolverines in receptions and receiving yards so far, but he was shut out against Indiana. Do we see more of Donovan Peoples-Jones going forward after he caught four of O’Korn’s 10 completions during the win?
MNB: Since true freshman receiver Tarik Black went down towards the end of the game against Air Force earlier this season, the receiving corps haven’t been the same. It seems like they’re still searching for their identity as far as that’s concerned and no one has really emerged yet.
Perry is the best receiver on the team, but being 5’10”/5’11” he’s not necessarily the guy you want lined up wide. Peoples-Jones, on the other hand, is one of the only big-play threats on offense. He’s got the height, he’s got the speed, he’s got the hands, and he’s got the potential to be a collegiate superstar.
The reason I wanted to share that is because both of these guys are fantastic options. I don’t think either of them will get phased out — or at least not purposely — of the passing game; they’re too talented and this offense needs them too badly. Last week was just another indication of them still searching for that passing game identity.
BSD: Rashan Gary hasn’t been the most productive member of the defensive line this year, but he was a beast last Saturday with a sack and two-and-a-half tackles for loss. Does he have the most upside out of anyone on Michigan’s defense? How important is Gary to Michigan’s goal of shutting down Saquon Barkley and the Penn State rushing attack?
MNB: Man, he had a day Saturday, whew! All year Rashan has been so, SO close to making the play just to get edged out by his fellow lineman who comes up with the sack, fumble, or tackle for loss. The reason he hasn’t put up the gaudy numbers is because frankly, teams have been doubling him to a seemingly absurd rate. Because of being doubled so much, that’s freed up fellow defensive end Chase Winovich to have a MONSTER year to this point. So, in my opinion, Gary has the most upside out of anyone on the defense and the team for that matter. His breakout is coming, you can bet on that.
As far as containing Saquon goes, geez, that’s a tough gig for anyone. I don’t know if Gary is the most important guy in containing Barkley, but he’s one of them that’s for sure. He’s a part of one of the best defensive lines in all of college football, and for Michigan to win Saturday, they will all have to work together to get push on that Nittany Lion front to hopefully bottle him up before he can hit the second level.
BSD: The Michigan passing game has gone through serious struggles over the past two weeks, and that’s why many fans will be favoring the Nittany Lions on Saturday. However, can Lavert Hill and the Wolverine secondary make this game just as tough for the Penn State offense?
MNB: That’s a great question, man. Let me start by saying this: Going into the year, the Wolverine secondary was one of the biggest question marks… not anymore. Hill has stepped into the shoes that were worn by Jourdan Lewis and has become that next great Michigan shutdown cornerback. He’s a ballhawk who isn’t afraid to get in your face and play physical, and that’s just what Michigan needed.
Lavert has taken the majority of his reps this season lined up across from the opposing team’s top receiver. He did that once again last week when he took about 80 percent of his snaps covering Indiana’s leading receiver — and maybe the best wide receiver in the Big Ten — Simmie Cobbs. Cobbs ended the day with four receptions for 39 yards and no touchdowns. He was targeted 10 times.
For Michigan to have a puncher’s chance, the secondary has to do its job. If it can take away Penn State’s deep ball like it’s been doing to other teams all year, then buddy we’re gonna have a heckuva game on our hands.
BSD: The Wolverines are 10-point underdogs this weekend. How do you see the game going for Michigan?
MNB: This is the first time in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure here at Michigan that the Wolverines have gone into a game as double-digit underdogs, and I think that’ll feed into this team’s confidence.
As I just mentioned in your last question, for Michigan to win they’ve got to stop the deep ball and get pressure from the defensive line. If Indiana, Northwestern, and Iowa were able to limit Saquon’s effectiveness, then Michigan’s elite defense should do the same thing.
I think it’ll be a closely fought game, a low scoring slugfest with neither team giving an inch a la the Iowa vs. Penn State game. Ultimately in the end Penn State closes the deal and wins 21-20, effectively ending Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes, and keeping the Lions’ record spotless heading into their matchup with Ohio State.
Thanks again to Josh for taking the time to answer our questions. For coverage on Michigan athletics all year round, make sure you check out Maize N Brew!