Michigan defense’s test against Penn State has Big Ten, Playoff implications
Does No. 5 Michigan have the best defense in college football?
The numbers tell a story. The Wolverines lead the FBS in total defense (220 ypg) and pass defense (122.9 ypg). They rank sixth in scoring defense (14.4 points per game) and ninth in run defense (97.1 ). But Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo offers a contrarian viewpoint — one where the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
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“You have to look at Michigan defensively only against the best teams they play,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo told Sporting News. “Look at them against Penn State last year.”
That’s the game Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said he has thought about every day since the Nittany Lions routed the Wolverines 42-13 last season. Michigan (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) has a chance to retake that test when No 14 Penn State (6-2, 3-2) visits Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
It’s here we’ll find out if Michigan has a defense capable of winning a Big Ten championship. Like past seasons — 1997, 2006 and 2016 come to mind — beating Penn State serves as the litmus test to determine whether the Wolverines are ready for larger conversations.Not that Brown would ever look that far.
“The approach Coach Harbaugh has had the whole staff and players is to take care of what’s in front of you,” Brown said. “If you get too far ahead, then bad things happen.”
So forget about Ohio State, the Big Ten championship or Michigan’s No. 5 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. Brown prefers to keep the focus on Penn State, and with good reason.
Those numbers tell a story, too. The Nittany Lions racked up 506 total yards on 8.3 yards per play — the most on the Wolverines since Brown took over as defensive coordinator in 2016. Michigan has allowed the combination of more than 300 total yards and 5.0 yards per play in just seven games since Brown arrived. They are 2-5 in those games.
Those are the numbers DiNardo is talking about.
“Where Michigan gets itself in a bind is they cut guys loose in the secondary but the quarterback can’t get the ball off,” DiNardo said. “You can play against an offense that can protect, they can attack that.”
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Enter Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who had 282 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception in last year’s game — but also added 76 rushing yards and three rushing scores. That is the challenge for the Wolverines’ defense.
“(McSorley) has a really good feel for what Coach Franklin wants to do offensively, especially in the throw game, and he has a number of guys he to the throw the ball to,” Brown said. “It’s a healthy balance between trying to stop the run, pressure them in that respect and trying to get after them in the pass game.”
What is different that suggests Michigan can pass this test the second time around? The offense is improved around Shea Patterson and the offensive line. The defense is coming off its best effort of the season in limiting rival Michigan State to 94 total yards in a 21-7 victory. The game is at Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines routed the Nittany Lions on 49-10 in 2016.
Michigan’s 2018 defense — led by senior defensive end Chase Winovich — is playing with an edge. This is another stop on the self-proclaimed “Revenge Tour.”
“Those three quarters have been things we have to move on, and I think we’ve done that on the both sides of the ball. I think there is a little more confidence in this team.”
Brown mentioned the defense had bad first quarters against Notre Dame in the opener and Northwestern this year, not to mention a rough third quarter against SMU. The Wolverines gave up 30 points in those three quarters of play, but have allowed just 85 points in the other 29 quarters the rest of the season.
“We can present a formidable four-man front rush or get into all of our pressure stuff, Brown said. ” It really depends on the strengths and weaknesses of who we are playing in terms of which way we want to go. The nice thing is we can determine how we’re going to go ahead and attack people.”
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Michigan will continue to do that with Brown, and a win on Saturday would set the Wolverines up for the next leg of the Big Ten race, which ends Nov. 24 at No. 8 Ohio State.
There’s a feeling the Wolverines can pass that test, too. But it starts with Penn State. That’s the challenge Brown faces next.
You can’t say he hasn’t put a lot of thought into it.
“That’s the cat-and-mouse game, and that’s the fun part of coaching,” he said.
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