Michigan’s relentless, punishing running game would have been problem enough for Penn State’s defense.
The Wolverines’ rushing attack piled up 259 yards Saturday to lead the way in a 42-7 rout of the overmatched and overwhelmed Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium. It was death by a million paper cuts for a young Penn State defense that has been unquestionably improving while also fighting a valiant war against attrition.
“Our defense has played way too many reps the last three or four weeks,” head coach James Franklin said after the game Saturday. “We have talked about it.”
At least from Franklin’s perspective, the concern has been mounting since he first mentioned it after Indiana was on the field for a whopping 100 plays — 26 of them in the last half of the fourth quarter alone — against the Nittany Lions’ defense on Oct. 20.
Michigan State churned out 89 plays the week before that, and Iowa ran 88 more Oct. 27. So, while the 69 plays that Michigan ran Saturday afternoon might look like a break for the Nittany Lions defensively, they were certainly compounded by the physical nature of the Wolverines offense.
Penn State’s offense hasn’t run more than 79 plays in a game this season — and that was in the overtime win over Appalachian State in the season opener. Michigan's defense, meanwhile, hasn’t been on the field for more than 69 plays in any game.
Impact a matter of debate: How much it actually affects the players remains a debate on which even they disagree.
For some, staying on the field is a matter of toughness and pride.
“Football is a physical game. You’re going to get banged up a little bit. You’re going to feel it,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “But that doesn’t matter. You still have to go out and play. If I can play, I’m going to play. I’m not going to decide to sit on the sideline just because I feel a little bruised.”
For others, it’s a feeling that should lead to a learning experience.
Play better, especially on critical downs, and the defense simply won’t be on the field as long, linebacker Jan Johnson said. Michigan had 14 chances to convert third downs Saturday. It succeeded eight times.
“I don’t feel that it’s piling it up,” Johnson said. “We just can’t let teams keep extending drives on third down. We have them in third-and-8 plus, and even when we have them at third-and-3, we can’t let them go run, run, run, first down. That’s the reason why they can have the ball so long.”
Fatigue leads to shoddy play: As much as he agrees with Johnson’s assessment of the opposition’s third-down success, safety Garrett Taylor conceded that fatigue inevitably leads to shoddier play.
For him, it’s a matter of numbers.
“I don’t think it changes much physically. We still do a good job flying around, getting to the ball fast,” the junior said. “But if we’re a little more tired, we might not be as mentally sharp. That could allow for more mental mistakes, potentially. Fatigue is something we do a good job trying to train out in the offseason, but if you’re out there a lot, there are bound to be more mistakes.”
As considerable a blowout as the Nittany Lions suffered Saturday, 28 of Michigan’s points came in an 8-minute, 12-second stretch at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Seven of those points came courtesy of cornerback Brandon Watson’s 62-yard interception return for a touchdown, and another was set up by cornerback David Long’s interception of quarterback Trace McSorley. But there seemed to be little doubt Michigan’s offense had worn down a defense that kept Penn State within striking distance for three quarters.
Being smart about practice: “The biggest thing is, we have to be smart about how we practice this week,” Franklin said. “We have to put this game behind us, move forward and practice smart this week. We have to give our guys the best chance to play well. We have to take some of those reps and the wear-and-tear off of them so we can be as fresh as we possibly can come Saturday.
“We’re going to have to make some adjustments with how we practice and how we work. This week is going to be really important.”