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Michigan: Five things we learned vs. Penn State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Chris Evans is dragged out of bounds by Penn State safety Marcus Allen in the first quarter.

Here are five takeaways from Angelique S. Chengelis following Michigan's 42-13 loss at Penn State on Saturday.


Barring some unexpected implosion among the Big Ten East’s main contenders, Michigan is out of the conference title chase. Again. So now what? Michigan has five remaining regular-season games, including their final two against top-10 opponents, No. 5 Wisconsin, the class of the West Division, and No. 6 Ohio State, which hosts No. 2 Penn State on Saturday. Before that, though, Michigan has winnable games at home against Rutgers (3-4, 2-2) – to break their tie with .500 league records – on Saturday at Michigan Stadium and Minnesota (4-3, 1-3) at home the following week. The Wolverines, who are one win from bowl eligibility, will then travel to Maryland (3-4, 1-3). Now the test for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is to challenge his players to keep working, even though they have two Big Ten losses and the championship game is now a goal for next season.

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The nation’s top-ranked defense met an offensive juggernaut and the offense – and Penn State – prevailed. Michigan gave up 42 points and 506 yards, and the Nittany Lions proved why people fear their big-play capability, especially from quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. This was the first time Michigan has allowed 500 yards or more since Indiana gained 527 in 2015, and the Wolverines equaled the most points they’ve allowed since playing Ohio State in 2015. “They hit us on quite a few plays that we’ve defensed well this year,” Harbaugh said. “I thought (Penn State’s) execution was really good, right from the beginning.” And now? Now Michigan’s defense is ranked No. 5, yielding an average 264.1 yards a game.


John O’Korn threw for 58 yards at Indiana last week and plenty of criticism was flung his way, although the game plan, Harbaugh said, was run-heavy. During a night when Michigan had little going right at Penn State, especially from its staple – its defense – O’Korn wasn’t the main issue. Penn State’s defense is no slouch, and Michigan receivers were challenged to get open, and when they did, there were some dropped passes. O’Korn took seven sacks, mostly because he hung onto the ball while he could not find open receivers, and he also had to take off running when the pocket broke down. He had 14 carries for 46 yards, but with the 49 yards lost on sacks, he finished with minus-3 yards. O’Korn did have a fumble, but that was on running back Karan Higdon, who did not do his job in pass protection. The sacks weren’t all on the offensive line, but on the running backs, as well, which is something that should not be this much of an issue seven games into the season.

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All last week the Michigan players, mainly the defensive players, said they relished the opportunity to show the college football world what how good this team could be on the big stage. It was a big stage Saturday night against No. 2 Penn State, and the Wolverines were not able to show much, as they were thoroughly dominated by the Nittany Lions. Michigan is now 0-2 in night games this season, having also lost at home to Michigan State. While Michigan has picked off a couple road wins, at Purdue and Indiana, they have yet to show up big on that big stage, and, in fact, looked like a team that took steps back under the lights, which highlighted their blemishes.


Freshman Ambry Thomas had three kickoff returns for 87 yards, including a 43-yarder in the first quarter that gave the Wolverines the ball at their 43-yard line. Michigan was unable to move the ball, but that didn’t take away from what Thomas was able to do. In Michigan’s other night game against Michigan State, Thomas had a 30-yard kickoff return. That was pretty much the special teams highlight. Redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin, who had been a Penn State commitment, was booed during both of his extra-point attempts. Nordin is 14-of-16 on field goals this season but didn’t attempt one at Penn State. He had made all 17 of his extra-point attempts until that first one that he missed right. He is now 18-of-19.