ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It was billed as Michigan’s biggest Test to date.
A Top 10 showdown against his only and (so far) only opponent, a team that was said to pose a real threat to the Wolverines’ strength at playing football, with a roster full of high-ranking recruits looking to play hard and the physical brand of football.
Instead, it was a real live hit in the schoolyard on Saturday, a 41-17 miracle at Michigan Stadium that took notice of many in the college football world.
A quick check of the box score pretty much sums up the lopsided affair: 563-268 total yards. 28-10 on the first few downs. A possession time advantage of nearly 24 minutes.
“As Coach Harbaugh said in the locker room, it’s a kick in the butt in every way,” said starting quarterback JJ McCarthy.
The Wolverines amassed a season-high 418 yards on the ground, a feat that can only be compared to the 2016 season when Michigan rushed for 481 yards in a 78-0 blowout win over Rutgers. But that was Rutgers. This was a 5-0 Penn State team that conceded fewer than 80 rushing yards per game and gave up a bye.
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“It showed what it showed,” said Harbaugh, whose team started 7-0 after winning the Big Ten last season and making the college football playoffs. “I felt the team made a really positive statement. Call it a statement game? OK, call it a statement game.”
Harbaugh praised the performances of his two main defenders, Blake Corum (28 carries, 166 yards, 2 TD) and Donovan Edwards (16 carries, 173 yards) while making sure to spread the love. Credit was given to the offensive line and tight ends, and receivers were given a nod for blocking and catching when needed.
And then came the defense. A unit tasked with replacing two All-American edge rushers and an NFL first-round safety while introducing its third coordinator in as many years seems to have found its groove at just the right time. The pass rush is booming. The gameplay takes place. At halftime, Penn State had just 83 total yards, 62 of which came from a surprise run by quarterback Sean Clifford. It was that collapse and a highlight-reel pick-6 that cut Michigan’s halftime lead to 16-14 and made the game look closer than it actually was.
“I think our defense is really good and they’re making the move to a dominant defense,” Harbaugh said. “The boys run to the ball and every game 4-5-6 boys come to the balloon. We started the game with two three-and-outs and it just kept going from there.”
Fulfilling the notion of water finding its level, Michigan beat Penn State 25-3 in the second half and ran away with a game where oddsmakers had predicted a 7-point difference. But it never really felt like it. The Wolverines did what they wanted, when they wanted, slowed only by their own mistakes. Twenty-eight more games were played. 7.1 yards per play and an amazing 7.6 yards per carry.
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Inefficiency in the red zone remains an issue (Michigan had to settle for field goals three times to keep the score from becoming more one-sided), but Saturday’s performance was stunning. This wasn’t their overwhelming non-conference schedule, or even a basement living Big Ten opponent. This was Penn State, a team with players about the same height and skill level as Michigan, and got beaten down and tired for all to see.
“The narrative is that Michigan hasn’t played anyone,” said Mike Morris, who started defensive end. “I have a feeling that’s not true. The Big Ten is very sleepy. I feel like anyone in the Big Ten can beat anyone in the country. Maryland was a great team. Indiana was a good team. Iowa was a really great team with great defense. Well, Penn State.
“This narrative can go on, but we’re here to prove people wrong.”
In the past two years, after Harbaugh began a program overhaul, replacing much of his coaching staff and approach, Michigan has rediscovered the magic of college football. The Wolverines are 19-2, with their only losses coming narrowly and controversially on the road to rival Michigan State and a slightly more one-sided affair to eventual national champion Georgia in the college football playoffs. Their start this season mirrored that of 2021 when they started 7-0, suffered a setback at East Lansing and defeated Big Ten favorite Ohio State to capture a conference title and apply to the CFP.
While projecting the future can prove difficult (and futile) Michigan remains in the driver’s seat to do it again. With a bye week next week and four winnable games after that, the stage is set for another epic side to the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry in late November.
But before that, says Harbaugh, “we’re moving on to the state of Michigan.” Exactly the kind of approach he would prefer.
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