Ann Arbor — There have been questions about Michigan’s running game. There have been questions about Michigan defending big plays. There have been questions about starting quarterback Wilton Speight.
Michigan had some answers in its Big Ten opener against Penn State on Saturday before 110,319 at Michigan Stadium.
Fourth-ranked and unbeaten Michigan had a complete game and improved with a 49-10 dismantling of Penn State (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. This was the Wolverines’ third-straight victory against Penn State, and they have now won 10 of their last 11 Big Ten openers.
“Today was a heck of a good win,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “There was improvement. I thought our line was good both sides, the quarterback, the running backs, the secondary. A lot of good football being played. Has to be an A-plus-plus day.”
Harbaugh pointed out that the only negative was the injury to cornerback Jeremy Clark. It appears to be a season-ending knee injury.
The Nittany Lions were held scoreless until two long drives in the second half produced 10 points.
The Wolverines produced in every aspect. The run game, which had taken some heat the last few weeks, was dominant and averaged 6.7 yards a carry against a Penn State defense that has grown incredibly thin at linebacker.
Five backs scored. Karan Higdon scored two rushing touchdowns, while De’Veon Smith, Chris Evans, Ty Isaac and fullback Khalid Hill each had a touchdown run. Higdon had 81 yards on nine carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run late in the game, while Smith had 107 yards on 12 carries. Michigan had 326 yards rushing.
“We saw a big opportunity to be able to slash them in the run game,” Speight said. “The offensive linemen were so happy about that. They came out with the mindset they were going to beat their guy and win the war of the trenches.”
Wilton Speight talks about making plays with his feet against Penn State. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
So confident was Michigan with its run game that at one point in the second half, the Wolverines ran the same play multiple times in a row.
“We’d just flip it back and forth and I started laughing looking at the play call because they do the same signal, same number in every time,” Speight said. “The linemen were getting so excited because I called the same play. I think we were getting nine or 10 (yards) a pop.
“When that happens, it’s demoralizing for a defense. I’ve never played defense but I can imagine that would suck to go through that every single play to have someone run you over. That builds our confidence and probably makes them lose confidence.”
Speight, who looked shaky last week against Colorado after taking a hit early in the game to his right (throwing) elbow, was sharp against the Nittany Lions. Speight was 21-of-34 for 189 yards and a touchdown pass to Devin Asiasi.
Speight did not take a sack in large part because of his ability to get out of pressure. And before the end of the first half, he kept alive a touchdown-scoring drive by scrambling 9 yards to convert on fourth-and-7.
Defensive lineman Chris Wormley talks about Michigan's defense setting the tone against Penn State. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
“That hit last week I took kind of dictated the internal clock I had for the rest of the game,” Speight said. “I didn’t want that to carry over into this game, so I wanted to hang in the pocket as long as I could. When the opportunity was there I knew I needed to make plays with my feet, and I was able to do that.
“I don’t like to rely on (scrambling). I’d much rather find completions and use my arm, but when I need to pick up a first down with my feet, I can do that.”
Defensively, Michigan smothered the run— the Nittany Lions had 70 yards rushing and talented lead back Saquon Barkley had 59 yards on 15 carries. He also had 77 yards on five receptions. The Wolverines had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks of quarterback Trace McSorley.
McSorley's lone interception was picked off by linebacker Mike McCray with just more than three minutes left in the game.
“Our guys were there and swarming,” Harbaugh said. “I thought it was impressive.”
The defense sent the tone the first series of the game. There were sacks by Matt Godin and Chris Wormley for losses of nine yards and the Nittany Lions were forced to punt from their 1-yard line.
Punter Blake Gillikin boomed a kick 61 yards, but Michigan's Jabrill Peppers returned it 53 yards to the Penn State 9-yard line and a 15-yard penalty for sideline interference put Michigan at the Penn State 24-yard line to start the drive.
Lynn Henning and Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News discuss Jourdan Lewis and the Wolverines players raising their fists during the national anthem. Detroit News
“We knew that Barkley was one of the best players if not the best player on the offensive side, so we knew once we shut down the run we could get to the quarterback,” Wormley said. “Those two sacks on the first drive were huge, backed them up and set it up for Wilton and the offense to punch it in and score a touchdown and start the game off full-speed ahead.”
Linebacker Ben Gedeon led the team with 11 tackles. Maurice Hurst had a team-best three tackles for loss.
Michigan got a boost with the return of two key defensive players — All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis and defensive lineman Taco Charlton.
Lewis had not played the first three games because of a nagging back issue, but made his presence known early on a 4-yard tackle for loss on a Penn State fourth-and-5 attempt in the first quarter. He also had a pass breakup. Charlton had been out since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener.
Michigan held a commanding 28-0 lead in the first half and had 259 total yards to Penn State’s 50.