There are four games left on Penn State’s 2018 regular season schedule, but there’s only one more chance to get a signature win that will impact the national title race. That type of win won’t come against Wisconsin, a program that just lost to Northwestern by two touchdowns and is one of the most disappointing teams in the country. It for sure didn’t come against Iowa after the Hawkeyes were spotted a 12-point lead only to somehow make more mistakes than a Nittany Lion team that looked like it was trying to give the game away.
Enter Michigan, the squad that has been considered an underachiever due to its general failure to defeat rivals since Jim Harbaugh took over. This year, though, the Wolverines are left standing as the top team in the Big Ten after wins over would-be contenders Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Michigan State.
Michigan is still led by its fearsome defense, but it has also gotten consistent quarterback play from Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. Plus, tailback Karan Higdon is on pace to gain well over 1,000 yards this year while averaging 5.4 yards per rush. This is bigger and stronger Michigan team than the one that lost to Penn State by 29 points last year. And we already know that the Nittany Lions aren’t as sharp as they were in 2017.
For more on Michigan, we reached out to Trevor Woods from SB Nation’s Michigan blog, Maize n Brew. Thanks to Trevor for helping us out with our game coverage!
Black Shoe Diaries: Shea Patterson has completed 67 percent of his passes this year, but he hasn’t been relied upon too much. Even in the come-from-behind win over Northwestern, Patterson only completed 15 passes. Is there a feeling among fans that Patterson can move the team down the field if the running game isn’t working? What’s the toughest test he’s had to face so far?
Maize n Brew: The toughest test Patterson had to face was Northwestern, being down 17-0 on the road. Patterson engineered a drive in the final minutes of the game that featured clutch third-down and fourth-down conversions via his arm and leg. While it may be somewhat fair to say he hasn’t been relied upon too much, you have to have a decent quarterback in order to run the football, otherwise opponents would simply stack the box every down as we saw in 2017 when Michigan’s quarterbacks weren’t so good. The Michigan fans believe in Patterson, there has been enough evidence to objectively say he’s a good quarterback. This very well may be Patterson’s biggest test yet, and if he can do even half better than that atrocious performance by Iowa’s quarterback last week, Michigan will be in good shape to win this one.
BSD: Karan Higdon has over 100 rushing yards in six of the seven games in which he’s played. However, in some of those games, he’s needed well over 20 carries to reach the century mark. Is Jim Harbaugh right to give Higdon the ball so often, or should he mix in some other backs as a change of pace?
MNB: There’s really no need to mix in running backs often, as Higdon has shown he has tremendous durability and endurance. He’s needed over 20 carries in some games to reach over 100 yards, but he’s still averaging 5.4 yards per carry, which is an excellent clip. Why does he get the ball so often? Harbaugh trusts him, and beyond that, Michigan’s offensive line has been able to tire opposing defenses out by jamming the run game down their throat. Should be a great battle between Higdon and the PSU front seven.
BSD: Donovan Peoples-Jones is one of Michigan’s top play-makers, but with the team attempting so few passes, he only has eight receptions in the last five games. Should Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton be doing more to get the ball in Peoples-Jones’s hands?
MNB: That’s a good question, and I’d expect we see those reception numbers go up for Peoples-Jones soon in the near future. However, Michigan has other play-makers that can catch the rock, including Nico Collins, Zach Gentry, Grant Perry, and Sean McKeon to name a few. Stud wideout Tarik Black may finally be back from injury and that would be a major addition for Michigan’s offense. To answer your question, Harbaugh won’t force anything to Peoples-Jones, they’ll be taking what they can get and throw it to the open target.
BSD: In its last two games, the Michigan defense held Alex Hornibrook and Brian Lewerke to a combined 12-for-45 passing. What makes the unit so tough to pass against? Is it more about Chase Winovich and the pass rush or Lavert Hill and the secondary?
MNB: It’s 50-50. They are playing great ball. The pass rush doesn’t always get home, and in those instances you see how good Michigan’s secondary is, with Hill, David Long and company smothering opposing wideouts. Michigan’s pass rush has been impressive all around as well. It has been a solid unit from top to bottom, with rotational players also being key contributors on a given week.
BSD: Rashan Gary has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, but the defense has performed just fine without the future NFL Draft pick. Have you noticed the defense missing Gary in any regard? Is he better off sitting out and getting ready for his pro career?
MNB: I wouldn’t say he’s better off sitting out, as it isn’t a season-ending injury. Gary is close to full strength (per reports) and he’s eager to get back on the field and help Michigan win the rest of their regular season games. He isn’t pulling a Bosa. If Gary doesn’t play in this game, he will definitely be back in the next week or two. The defense has performed great while he has been out, but they’re better when he’s on the field.
BSD: Michigan lost to Notre Dame in the season opener, but now Harbaugh’s team finds itself just one spot behind the Irish in the College Football Playoff rankings. What does Michigan need to do in order to break into the top four? Will beating Penn State, Ohio State, and the Big Ten West champion be enough, or do fans need to hope for a Notre Dame loss?
MNB: Fans don’t need to hope for a Notre Dame loss. All it would take is Michigan winning out and LSU losing to Alabama on Saturday for them to crack the top four. If that scenario unfolds, there’s no way the CFP committee wouldn’t choose Michigan as one of the four teams. If Michigan runs the table through the Big Ten Championship, they’ll have as impressive a resume as almost any team and certainly good enough to be at least No. 4. Still a lot of time between now and then for them to falter or show they’re the real deal, though.
BSD: The Wolverines are 10-point favorites this Saturday. How do you see the game going for Michigan?
MNB: My gut tells me Michigan pulls away in this one. Penn State is to be respected, their pass rush is impressive, Trace McSorley has been brilliant at times this season and throughout his career, but Michigan is the better team as a whole when we start breaking down each position unit. Combine that with home field advantage, the team being well-rested coming off a bye with an extra week to prepare, a lot of variables are setting up for the Wolverines to win by over 10 points. I’d also like to note that you predicted Michigan will win as well, so I hope the PSU fans don’t throw tomatoes at me. Best of luck.
I had Penn State covering the spread, though! Thanks again to Trevor for taking the time to answer our questions. For more coverage of Michigan sports all year round, be sure to check out Maize n Brew!