UM mailbag: Stopping Barkley, getting TEs started

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

A new low in questions about the quarterbacks and John O’Korn this week as Michigan heads to Happy Valley to face No. 2 Penn State. So it will be nice to focus first on the defense, ranked No. 1 and led by a guy, Maurice Hurst, who considers Beaver Stadium his second-favorite place to play. Here goes with this week’s mailbag:

■ Question: What did Don Brown learn from Penn State’s previous opponents that will help in the game plan of stopping Saquon Barkley? — @rwschumacher

Michigan’s defense held Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to 59 yards rushing in last season’s meeting, though he did rack up 77 yards in receptions.

■ Answer: Richard, I don’t think Don Brown has spent too much time looking at how other defenses have schemed against Penn State or how they’ve approached Barkley. Brown’s defense is ranked No. 1 nationally, and while it hasn’t always been perfect, it has held every opponent this season to their lowest production of the year so far. He also was Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season when the Wolverines faced Penn State. The Nittany Lions were held to 191 yards and Barkley had 59 rushing and 77 yards receiving. So he’s going to get yards, but Michigan’s focus is limiting his big plays. The other concern will be quarterback Trace McSorley, who seemed to come into his own after that Michigan loss last year. To get back to your original point, Brown has picked up some tendencies from film and maybe even noted something a defense has done against Barkley, but my hunch is he feels pretty confident with his defense and his game planning so far this year.

■ Q: Was it Karan or the O-line? — @JohnJAndersen1

■ A: I’m going to give more credit to Karan Higdon here, John, and not taking away anything from the offensive line, but it hasn’t been horrible run blocking this year. Like a lot of backs, Higdon got stronger as he got more carries, but he seemed to see the field better this game — he saw he was going nowhere on that overtime carry and bounced out and scored. He hasn’t always shown that ability, so this was a big game for him in terms of establishing himself in this tailback rotation as a primary back. He will start for the fourth straight game, and that has given him confidence, too.

■ Q: Are the WRs going to run better routes? Will O'Korn look at more than one WR before running? Will he throw to someone other than primary WR? — @zybowskipjr

Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is trying to break some habits from high school, according to Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

■ A: So many questions, Paul, and so little time. Well, there’s plenty of time, but it’s hard to answer those questions. John O’Korn is making his third start and he will be playing in the most hostile environment he’s ever played while at Michigan, and maybe even all time. The message this week to O’Korn has had to be this: Don’t do too much, don’t turn the ball over, don’t try to make the big play (especially when there is double coverage and a tiny window), check down, and, oh, try not to have happy feet. So there is a lot on his plate, but if he does slow the game down as players like to say, he should be able to find the open receiver. But this comes down to his decision-making, and he has to decipher the defense faster and make that decision to throw or to run faster than he’s made it. As far as the receivers, they have to run crisper routes and get better separation. Jim Harbaugh last week said Donovan Peoples-Jones still has some habits from high school they’re working to break, but it’s not just him. Kekoa Crawford has to do a better job, and Grant Perry is solid but has to hang onto the ball.

■ Q: Prolly a dumb one ... do you think Higdon will have more rushing yards than Barkley? — @loganj1999

■ A: Come on, Brian — there are no dumb questions. Barkley is going to have to get those yards against a defense that relishes run stopping. They won’t stop him entirely. But he’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, too. Barkley will have more rushing yards than Higdon, because I think Michigan is going to use multiple backs to dent the Penn State defense. Not to say Higdon can’t get the hot hand (or should we say feet?) again, but I would expect a changeup and spreading the carries, with him getting the bulk.


■ Q: Will Michigan utilize the TEs like they did against Purdue, or will they be nonexistent like against MSU and Indiana? — @MattBowen213

■ A: Yeah, Matt, I’m with you on that. That second half was what I — and you, I’m assuming — thought they’d be showing. Now, some of that is the quarterback. There have been times Zach Gentry has been open and O’Korn missed him. You’re also seeing tight ends in there as extra blockers. Gentry and Sean McKeon, the second-leading receiver, have to be targeted more. Have to. Gentry, in particular, is a mismatch problem.

■ Q: Is Michael Onwenu going to continue playing both sides of the ball? — @SeanMishler

■ A: Nope, Sean, he’s at right guard and staying there. In fact, Tim Drevno, Michigan’s offensive coordinator/line coach, said this week that the “light bulb” has gone on for Onwenu, who has improved footwork and is moving well and finishing.

■ Q: What's your prediction on when Michigan will win a National Championship? — @GoMICH85

■ A: Well, when Harbaugh first took the job I did say on a couple shows that I think Year 4 or 5 he will have the program in position to be a contender. We shall see.