Wojo: Wolverines slapped with ugly dose of reality
University Park, Pa. — Michigan wasn’t ready for this, not the pressure, not the moment, not all those Penn State play-makers. From a disastrous start to a desultory finish, the Wolverines were slapped to an ugly reality, embarrassed by an opponent that wouldn’t let up.
Michigan was outmatched in every way, primarily at the offensive skill positions, where Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley put on a show in the Nittany Lions’ 42-13 romp Saturday night. Penn State unleashed pent-up revenge and Michigan ran out of answers quickly, plagued again by penalties and myriad breakdowns.
Now, Jim Harbaugh faces a fresh batch of questions, as the Wolverines (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) realistically were eliminated from contending for anything of note. He didn’t have his team ready for the Nittany Lions’ early jump, as they grabbed a 14-0 lead less than five minutes in, and he certainly doesn’t have an offense that can compete at a high level. Newly troubling was the performance of Don Brown’s defense, which was shredded for 506 total yards, and you can bet it won’t be top-ranked any longer.
This was probably the most-sobering outcome of Harbaugh’s two-and-a-half seasons in Ann Arbor, matching the biggest blowout (42-13 to Ohio State in 2015). The Wolverines are young, yes, but they’re not showing much improvement, and they’re playing a backup quarterback, John O’Korn, who fights hard but struggles to make big plays.
For perspective sake, Penn State looked every bit like the No. 2 team in the country, as it exacted almost perfectly symmetrical redemption for its 49-10 loss to Michigan last season. Since that pummeling, James Franklin’s Nittany Lions have won 16 straight regular-season games, and now are aligned with Ohio State and Michigan State for another run at the Big Ten title.
Under the hood
How bad was this for the Wolverines? It explicitly spotlighted their flaws, while ripping apart their strengths. O’Korn couldn’t keep up, but this is not strictly a quarterback issue. It’s an overall offense issue, underscoring Michigan’s inexperience at receiver and continuing problems on the offensive line.
How do they solve it? Harbaugh wasn’t offering specifics.
“We solve it with our team, nobody else can help us but us,” he said. “We’ll put our best people on it, our players and our coaches.”
Is it solvable this season?
“Yes,” he said.
The play-calling hasn’t helped, and that’s on Harbaugh and his staff, Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton. They don’t have anything to lean on, and aren’t coming up with anything creative to compensate and surprise defenses. Late in the game, the Wolverines were still calling basic play-actions, hoping receivers popped free, with few throws to tight ends or backs.
Meanwhile, Penn State spent its bye week wisely, opening up a can of creativity on offense and defense. On the second play of the game, Barkley lined up alongside McSorley, took the direct snap and raced 69 yards virtually untouched, a play Franklin had resisted using before Saturday night. Each star scored in all sorts of acrobatic ways, with McSorley running for three touchdowns and throwing 42 yards for another that was snared by Barkley after a deft juggle.
Harbaugh doesn’t have a McSorley, or a Barkley, or a dynamic receiver like DaeSean Hamilton, all juniors and seniors. But when will he? When that offense got humming — after Michigan rebounded to make it 14-13 — it was mesmerizing. The Wolverines didn’t have many answers during the game, or afterward.
“I thought their offense played extremely well — understatement,” Harbaugh said. “They were hitting on all cylinders. They hit us on quite a few plays that we’ve defensed well this year.”
It was only 21-13 at halftime but Penn State had 302 yards, more than Michigan had allowed in any full game. The first drive of the second half stalled after freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped a pass and O’Korn suffered one of his seven sacks. O’Korn often held the ball too long, a problem he hasn’t corrected, but receivers weren’t getting open, and he was effective running at times.
Time to ponder
In losses to Michigan State and Penn State, the offense rarely sustained anything, and Harbaugh has some tough decisions to make. At what point does he switch from the senior quarterback to redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, not necessarily because Peters is ready, but because he needs to get ready for the future?
I suspect a change might happen with one more loss. There’s no quick fix, and with only five returning starters this season, some growing pains were expected. But this was especially illuminating, and it left the Wolverines vowing to stick together.
“We know the fake love is gone, there’s no bandwagon, it’s us,” O’Korn said. “From here on out, that’s what it’s gonna be about, us as a team, the guys inside Schembechler Hall, nobody outside. We’ll find out a lot about this team and this program over the next few weeks. I think we’ve got a great group of guys, we don’t expect anybody to quit or give up. We’re 5-2 and I think everybody’s freaking out outside our four walls.”
Some people are freaking out, and some of it is justified. And some is just harsh reality, like when a senior-laden Michigan team did the same thing to a younger Penn State team a year ago.
The Nittany Lions rebounded and won the Big Ten, and absolutely used 49-10 as fuel. They said after this game the hype about Michigan’s defense was a motivating factor too. The Wolverines can only hope to use 42-13 the same way.
“Last year at this point, I thought that was one of the worst Penn State teams I’ve ever seen, and they went on and should’ve won the Rose Bowl,” O’Korn said. “We’re gonna need some help now if we want to accomplish all of our goals. It’s up to us to make a decision to make this season what we want it to be.”
Sitting next to O’Korn was running back Karan Higdon, and he nodded in agreement.
“We played a great team and got punched in the mouth,” Higdon said. “But college football is funky. Crazy things happen all the time. There’s no telling. It’s not over for us yet, so you can’t count us out.”
That was the message from Harbaugh too, and maybe it’s easier to regroup when you recognize you faced a tremendous opponent bent on making a statement. The Wolverines ran into a raucous Whiteout blowout and responded timidly at first, made a decent recovery, then couldn’t do anything.
It was another high-profile loss, and it was as revealing as any. It showed how far the Wolverines have to go, and how many pieces they’re still missing.