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Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo are joined by former Michigan running back Chris Howard, and later by Matt Charboneau to talk about what's next for UM and MSU. The Detroit News

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The way the Michigan-Penn State game has been discussed and broken down it essentially sounds like it will be the Michigan defense vs. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions’ quarterback and dynamic running back.

It obviously will be more than that when No. 19 Michigan plays at No. 2 Penn State in a whiteout at Beaver Stadium tonight, but the Wolverines, 5-1, 2-1 Big Ten, do have the nation’s top-ranked defense. And Barkley is an all-purpose back who is prominently mentioned in Heisman Trophy talk.

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“They just have a really good ability to make a lot of big plays,” Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “When you play an offense like that you have to try to eliminate those explosive plays and shut down two really dynamic players in McSorley and Saquon. It’s definitely a challenge.”

The Michigan players could not say enough about Barkley, from running back Karan Higdon, who says he watches film of Barkley to pick up things from one of the best out there, to defensive players who have seen him improve year after year.

“We identified him as someone who is a really good player even as a freshman,” Hurst said. “We thought he’d be a top-10 pick someday. He’s someone who is really dynamic. He’s running for the Heisman, so you always have your challenges as a defense when you’re facing someone who is in contention for a Heisman Trophy.

“(We’ll) just try to contain those big plays. That’s what really sparks their offense. That’s what really gets them going are those dynamic plays by him. If you do a good job trying to contain (Barkley) and trying to control those big plays, you can kind of slow him down.”

Michigan sophomore linebacker Devin Bush will be matched on Barkley much of the game. Bush has been impressed by how he runs with balance and can slither through small gaps.

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“He’s going to challenge our whole defense as a group,” Bush said. “He’s a great player. A great running back. He’s going to test us in the run game and pass game. That’s what we have to get ready for. It’s only going to test me and help me develop my playing skills as well. It’s going to be a great matchup.”

But Chase Winovich said if they focused solely on Barkley, the Wolverines would be minimizing the big-play ability of Penn State’s entire offense.

“He’s obviously a great player, but he’s a great player on a great team,” Winovich, a defensive end, said this week. “He’s not the only good person on the offense. We’re going to key them all. From my perception of how we’re handling things, I don’t think we’re just keying on any particular person. We’re preparing for everybody that might come into the game. We’re not taking any risks.”

Facing ‘tremendous’ Barkley fires up UM’s Higdon

As UM enters the second half of the regular season, it is clear defense is the team’s strength.

“We’re getting better each week,” Hurst said. “I think we’re starting to create our own identity. And I think we’re starting to really gain an understanding of our defense, sort of like who we are as a defense. That’s really important. We kinda knew what we had last year, and this year has been a little bit more unknown, but I think we’ve really started to develop in our own.

“(We’re) a team that tries to stop teams on third down, stop the run, trying to be a factor during the game and trying to bring pressure, make quarterbacks feel uncomfortable, that’s sort of our identity and the team we want to be as a defense.”

Each week the defense sets goals. They’re aware of the national standings, Hurst said, but they focus on the next opponent and what they need to do to keep the offensive numbers low.

The Wolverines are coming off a grind-it-out overtime win at Indiana. The defense stuffed Indiana on its final drive and Tyree Kinnel’s interception ended the game. Michigan has wins at Purdue and Indiana so far this year.

“Whenever you go to an away venue and you come out with a win, whether it was Purdue or this game, we’ve been pretty bad on the road for the most part since I’ve been here,” Hurst said. “Just to know you can go on the road and get those wins and grind out those tough games and come out on top, that really forms your identity as a team and it’s positive. You think when times are rough, your team can really pull together and come together.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

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