Good news, Mom and Dad. They passed their midterms! In their first true test of this 2022 football season, the Michigan Wolverines aced the run section, aced the pass section, aced the tackling section and finally — though not without some struggle — aced the scoring section.
True, for a moment there Saturday, it looked like Michigan would turn in 1,000 pages of work and still fail the exam. They dominated Penn State in every phase of the game statistically — honestly, it was like a Mac Book Pro against a Tandy 100 — but two monster plays for the Nittany Lions, a quarterback keeper for 62 yards and a ricochet interception off a player’s helmet for a pick-6, actually gave the visiting team a lead in a game they had no business leading.
It was like watching a tank being flipped by a mouse. The Wolverines had been dominant from the opening kick, but settled for field goals just shy of touchdowns, then saw those two freak plays within four minutes take them from a 13-0 lead to a 14-13 deficit minutes before halftime.
“We never lost confidence,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said after U-M righted the ship, outscored No. 10 Penn State, 25-3, in the second half, and cruised to a 41-17 final. “We just kept pushing.”
And shoving. And tackling. And throwing. But mostly running. The Wolverines was so relentless rushing the ball, their cleats were calling “timeout!” And the U-M rushers? Those weren’t backs, they were cannonballs. If it wasn’t Heisman Trophy candidate Blake Corum exploding for 61 yards on one play, it was Donavan Edwards, on a career performance, galloping 67 yards on another. The duo scatted so perfectly, I thought I was watching Ella and Louie. On Saturday, Corum and Edwards could have left an ambulance eating their dust.
By the time the day was finished, the pair had 339 yards and four touchdowns between them, U-M had over 500 yards of offense, and, if you subtract a few big plays, I’m not sure the Nittany Lions even arrived in Ann Arbor.
“Like Coach Harbaugh said,” McCarthy quipped, “it was a butt kicking every which way a butt can be kicked.”
Extra credit for quoting your coach.
With this offense, who’s in a rush?
Remember that Penn State came into the game with one of the best run defenses in the country. Teams had averaged less than 80 yards a game against them. But on Saturday, Michigan was a giant pair of scissors and Penn State was a little white ribbon.
Slice, dice, that’ll suffice. When the running backs weren’t crushing it — which was most of the time — McCarthy, the sophomore starter, was stepping up big, hitting throws on the run, hanging in under pressure, making plays with his feet, and coming back from a crazy interception that was tipped and actually bounced off a player’s helmet and into the arms of a Penn State defender, whom McCarthy chased unsuccessfully down the sidelines and into the end zone.
A lot of eyes were on the kid at that moment. Would he crack? Would that crazy play rattle him?
The Wolverines came right back and drove 61 yards to retake the lead at the half.
“That’s the beauty about our offense,” McCarthy said. “When you’re rushing for 400 yards a game against the number 10 team in the country, I’ll sit back and be a part of that ride every single game.”
He did more than sit back. But he’s right. When you have Corum and Edwards going the way they were going, the quarterback is like a driver using cruise control: just keep the wheel straight. Those cleats were made for running, and that’s just what they did.
Of course, It helps when your defense is squashing the other guys. And Michigan was. Take away Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford’s stellar keeper in the second quarter that fooled everyone, and the Wolverines allowed Penn State a total of 49 yards on the ground. Forty nine yards? And that’s with a two-pronged rushing attack that the Nittany Lions were bragging about coming in.
They’re not bragging now.
“We’re in the business,” said U-M defensive lineman Mike Morris, “of proving people wrong.”
‘On to Michigan State, Coach’
Well, time will tell. Many Michigan seasons go this way. They rack up lots of early wins against lesser opponents, they have a midterm exam against a ranked Big Ten team, a major quiz follows — usually against Michigan State — and then the final exam against Ohio State. Never mind the homework in between. Michigan’s ultimate grade rests largely on those three contests, two of which still remain.
But Morris and the rest of the 7-0 Wolverines have earned their stripes of confidence, especially against schedule doubters.
“The narrative is that Michigan hasn’t played anybody,” Morris said. “I feel like that’s not true. … Maryland was a great team. Indiana is a good team. Iowa was a really good team, great defense. And now Penn State …
“We showed up and we showed out.”
That they did.
Now, I know Michigan fans hold their breath while puffing their chests. They’ve been fooled too many times by midseason excellence. But Ohio State won’t be showing up on the schedule any faster just because you worry. And Michigan has now started 7-0 two years in a row, something that hasn’t been done in Ann Arbor in nearly 50 years.
So there’s reason for optimism as they prepare for Michigan State. That wasn’t a pile of cole slaw Michigan just crushed. That was Penn State. And the best news? The players have moved on.
“I’m coming up the tunnel telling guys they had a great game,” Harbaugh said after the win, “and Blake (Corum is saying) ‘On to Michigan State, Coach.’
“(I told the) offensive line, ‘Heckuva performance, 412 yards, guys, that’s great. (They say) “Coach, onto Michigan State.”
“OK,” Harbaugh said, grinning. “I like where your head’s at.”
But maybe not as much as he likes their feet. Let’s face it. You can’t stomp a good team a whole lot better than the Wolverines did on Saturday. They passed their midterms. Now they come home with dirty laundry, take a nap and get ready for the big exams ahead.