Sunday, November 22, 2015

Michigan 28, Penn State 16: Greater than its parts

Michigan hadn't won in Happy Valley since 2006. And on Saturday, they headed there again, looking to move to 9-2 on the season.

Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.

At least watching the game live, it didn't feel like the Wolverines played particularly well. In addition, the officiating was typically poor, with many of the more egregious calls going against the Wolverines (and in this case, it was so frequent as to be beyond partisan interpretations).

Yet, when it came down to it, the Wolverines clocked the Nittany Lions, even if it doesn't show it on the scoreboard.

Through 11 games, it's undeniably true that the coaching staff has squeezed everything out of this collection of players as is humanly possible. More players are seeing the field, improving incrementally as the season trudges forward into the frigid final weeks.

After a big 56-yard run by Saquon Barkley early in the game, visions of Michigan's vulnerability on the ground against Minnesota popped up again. But that would be Penn State's last huge chunk play of the game. Wide receiver Chris Godwin reeled in 38 of his 51 receiving yards on one play, and Jabrill Peppers got lost in coverage on the touchdown underthrow to Saeed Blacknall.

Other than that? Zip, zilch, nada. The clearly frustrated Christian Hackenberg completed just 13-of-31 passes for 137 yards, good for a putrid 4.4 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, after the big run, the speedy Barkley was held to 12 yards on 14 carries (making for a statistically inferior performance to Michigan's infamous "27 for 27" output against Penn State in 2013...albeit on fewer carries, true).

Michigan hurt itself with a number of pre-snap defensive penalties, and some that are still beyond explanation. Nonetheless, Michigan went on and completed its first undefeated road slate since 1997.

Say what you will about the quality of the Big Ten -- even if you say it's bad, Michigan hasn't gone undefeated on the road in this league for almost two decades.

Michigan's defensive line once again looked dominant, constantly getting in Hackenberg's face. The Wolverines are only marked down for four sacks, but even that seems to underrepresent the level of dominance the line flashed, albeit against a not-so-quality offensive line.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Taco Charlton stepped up and had likely his best game as a Wolverine, leading the defense with a pair of sacks and playing like the athletic, big-time recruit he is. He notched three tackles for loss, and Chris Wormley (2 TFL) and James Ross (2 TFL) found their way into the backfield, too. Other than Jake Rudock's late-season renaissance, the emergence of a different defensive lineman each week has been the most exciting part of the season.

On the other hand, no, it was not Peppers's finest hour. It would do fans well to remember that this is his first full year of college football; mistakes will happen, and coverage skills are still a work in progress.

On the other side, despite throwing 38 times, Michigan only let up two sacks -- let's take a second to remember how things were on the offensive line not too long ago, when poor Devin Gardner never had a chance each time he dropped back to pass. Yes, the running game is an ancillary at best part of the offense, but at least the line is not only holding its own at something, it is excelling.

As for Rudock, two turnovers are the only blemishes on yet another tremendous outing, his third-straight game with 250-plus passing yards. In case you missed it, that makes him the first U-M quarterback in history to pass for that many yards three games in a row.

Not so quietly, Rudock has transformed from liability to net-passable to a real asset. That improvement can in part be attributed to increased familiarity with the offense, but also, of course, to coaching.

This is still far from a big-play offense, but those are starting to trickle through in recent weeks. Rudock completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jake Butt, a 26-yarder to Amara Darboh and a 39-yarder to Jehu Chesson. Michigan needed that, as it stumbled to just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground, with the longest run of the day, 20 yards, coming from Chesson.

Comparisons to the 2006 game will be made. Michigan's defense once again overwhelmed a PSU offense in a game that appears closer than it actually was.

So, here we are.

Michigan is 9-2, outshooting probably at least 95 percent of the fan base's expectations. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Ohio State did not take care of business yesterday, making Michigan's road to Indianapolis seem more like a dead end than a viable route. Michigan needs help from the same Penn State team it just defeated.

Also, of course, they have to win in the Big House against the Buckeyes. I don't need to tell you that Michigan has only come out on the winning end of The Game once since 2003.

No, the Buckeyes didn't exactly look invulnerable this past Saturday, playing against Michigan State's backup quarterbacks and running an offense that was baffling to partial and impartial observers alike. Who knows what Ezekiel Elliott's postgame comments mean for next Saturday, what state of mind the Buckeyes will be in, what sort of team will be coming into Ann Arbor two days after Thanksgiving.

Michigan might not get a shot at Iowa, even if it wins this Saturday, because of one faulty punt snap in October. In the topsy-turvy world of college football, sometimes that's all it takes to knock you off course.

Even so, it's been a while since Michigan has been playing for something in earnest.

Nonetheless, there's no doubt that Michigan has had a successful campaign. But a product of that success is increased expectations. We all know this, like we know the sky is blue or that when in the red zone, Michigan wins far more often than it loses (on both sides of the ball).

But if Michigan plays Ohio State tight, and loses? Well, for that day, no one will remember 9-2. The 2006 season is remembered for many things: the Notre Dame blowout, the Penn State game, even the too-close-for-comfort Ball State game. Above all that, though, that season is remembered for No. 1 vs. No. 2 -- and, to a lesser extent, the disappointing second half of the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of sports and humanity. We only remember the last thing.

The road to Indianapolis might close in East Lansing next Saturday. If it does, Michigan will wait -- Indianapolis will be there next year, and for years to come.

On Saturday, the only thing that matters is the two teams on that field, and what they do on that field. On Saturday, this season's legacy hangs in the balance. Lose, and it's just a nice season with two losses to Michigan's rivals.

Win? That's a season to remember, Indianapolis or not.

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