STATE COLLEGE — Michigan is great defensively.
And that must be distinctly understood, to borrow from Charles Dickens, or else nobody will truly understand how impressive Penn State’s offense played. How stunning this win was, in scope and breadth.
All anyone talked about in the week leading up to maybe the most-hyped game Penn State has played at Beaver Stadium in a decade was Michigan’s defense.
And there went Penn State’s offense Saturday night, doing what it has seemed to make a habit of against great defenses in big games.
It picked it apart.
The top-ranked defense in the country. A unit that hadn’t allowed more than two touchdowns in any game this season. A band of studs that forced a hard-to-fathom 52 punts that led the nation this season. A vicious group that “solves their problems with aggression,” as Penn State coach James Franklin put it.
Gashed it. Throttled it. Overwhelmed it.
Something had to give Saturday, and it gave No. 2 Penn State’s way, for sure. The Nittany Lions piled up 506 total yards, scored on Saquon Barkley’s latest Heisman Highlight Reel addition — untouched on a 69-yard run — on the game’s second play and wound up trouncing the No. 19 Wolverines, 42-13, in a win very likely to give Penn State a boosted national reputation as it heads into Columbus, Ohio, next weekend.
We can talk about how well Penn State’s defense played, because it did what it had to do against a fairly pedestrian Wolverines offense, forcing the key turnover early in the fourth quarter to seemingly take the Maize and Blue’s breath away. We can talk about Penn State’s special teams largely controlled a pretty dangerous kicking and return game that had served the Wolverines well during the first half of their season.
Winning battle of strength vs. strength: But here’s the real deal: This game was always about whether Penn State’s mighty offense could do enough against Michigan’s mighty defense. It was strength versus strength. The best of what Penn State does against the best of what Michigan does. And not only did Penn State do enough, but it did enough by somehow beating Michigan at what it does best.
Every Michigan strength, Penn State turned into a weakness at some point.
It was a clinic, and it brought to light something that probably isn’t talked about often enough considering Barkley’s greatness and Trace McSorley’s grit and the defense’s overwhelming speed.
Those thoughts a while back that Penn State was playing with one-hand tied behind its back from a coaching perspective in the Big Ten East Division? Laughable.
All of this comes with a bit of a caveat: Penn State had a bye week to prepare for the game, and Franklin conceded that allowed for two extra practices devoted to Michigan preparation. Likely, more went into it than just that.
Taking advantage of Michigan's aggressiveness: Either way, the Nittany Lions’ biggest plays came by taking advantage of what Michigan does so well.
They’re so aggressive to the ball, Franklin raved.
Well, on that Barkley touchdown run, the Lions ran a misdirection. McSorley lined up to take the shotgun, with Barkley to his left. But McSorley shifted to his right, then Barkley moved behind center Connor McGovern to take the snap. Everyone moving right. Michigan’s aggressive front, looking right.
Barkley took the snap and sprinted off left tackle. It was clear that play was going for a score by the time he turned the corner.
Penn State knew Michigan plays defense with its collective hair on fire. So, the Nittany Lions called a game that made Wolverines defenders make aggressive decisions. More option plays on the edge than anyone is used to seeing from Penn State went for nice gains. More of the fake handoffs to Barkley led Wolverines eyes to the edges, opening up the middle for McSorley to have easily his most effective game of the year on the ground. He rushed for a career high three scores.
Beating Wolverines' man-to-man defense: They play such tough, physical, man-to-man defense against the pass, Franklin pointed out.
Well, Penn State beat that, too. Another facet of the Penn State pass game that hasn’t been shown this season is McSorley’s deep touch, which he showed off late last season especially in the Big Ten Championship Game. In fact, McSorley’s 35-yard heave to a leaping Mike Gesicki in the first quarter was eerily reminiscent of the throw he made to Saeed Blacknall in the third quarter of the title tilt last December that changed the course of that game.
That was certainly the most obvious example of how Penn State attacked that aggressive defense. But it wasn’t the only one. DaeSean Hamilton had several catches on those passes McSorley lofted over, and not through, that Michigan coverage. Gesicki had another on a key touchdown drive for the Nittany Lions at the end of the first half to put them inside the 5.
PSU coaches won their battle: Everything Michigan’s defense did so well in the first six games, Penn State used against it. Which says two things: First, that Penn State’s players are good enough to attack a really good opponent’s strengths. Second, that its coaches are more willing and able to adjust to the scenarios they face than they’ve maybe let on in the past.
Penn State outplayed Michigan, for sure. And that’s a big story.
The story nobody saw coming, though, might be that James Franklin’s staff thoroughly outdid Jim Harbaugh’s.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.