- Michigan's defense has always been its strength under Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines made a clear statement in a dominant effort against Penn State.
No team in college football has had a better past four weeks than Michigan, which has topped three straight in-conference ranked opponents. No unit in the game, then, has had a better past two games than the Wolverines’ defense, which has looked more imposing with every passing game.
Saturday’s 42–7 win over Penn State—which was averaging 41 points per game before it ran into the wall that is Michigan—was Don Brown’s unit’s grandest statement yet. It held the Nittany Lions' offense, which has been formidable this season if not consistent, to 186 yards—78 of which came in the fourth quarter—and 11 first downs. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley managed just 83 yards and an interception, marking just the second game since he took over as the Nittany Lions’ starter in 2016 that he failed to toss a touchdown pass.
What Michigan did against Penn State was its best effort this season—but it’s hardly surprising. Consider last week: Against Michigan State, the Wolverines won, 21–7, allowing the Spartans 94 yards of total offense. The game before that, on Oct. 13, Wisconsin mustered just 100 yards on Michigan’s D in a 38–13 Wolverines win. That’s right; over the course of its past three games, Michigan has allowed its opponents, its ranked opponents, an average of 126.7 yards and nine points. Going into Week 11, it’s 8–1 and riding an eight-game winning streak, its only loss coming in Week 1 against a team currently ranked No. 4. Michigan is coming—in the Big Ten, where it controls its destiny, and in the playoff race.
Will the Wolverines crack the top four in next week’s rankings? Regardless of what Notre Dame does against Northwestern, Michigan deserves to move up in the standings, and not just because No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 LSU go head-to-head tonight. Since that loss to the Irish, the Wolverines have gotten progressively more imposing, making statement after statement against one of the country’s toughest slates. And its defense is looking like the best in the game.
Saturday’s win will only improve its already-great numbers. Michigan went into the game with the best defense, in terms of yards allowed per game, in the country, and the No. 6 scoring defense. Both those averages will tick down after Saturday, when a quarterback who once contended for the Heisman, McSorley, was felled by the nation’s best pass defense. That’s where Michigan has made its mark most this season, and doing so against McSorley only underscores that Brown’s unit is for real. On the other side of the ball—where Michigan’s run defense ranks No. 9 rather than No. 1—the Wolverines allowed Penn State just 68 yards and a paltry 2.3 yards per carry.
Going into the season, there was a sense that this might be a make-or-break year for the Wolverines, which had never managed to put together any kind of consistent offensive attack under Jim Harbaugh. In the offseason, they landed Shea Patterson, the graduate transfer quarterback from Ole Miss, in order to change that perception. And he has; on Saturday, Patterson threw for two touchdowns, and Michigan’s offense put up 403 yards. On the season, it’s the fifth best offense in the Big Ten—not record-setting, sure, but more than passable. And yet still, that’s not the story. Instead, Michigan is winning the way it was always going to win, if its offenses of years past would’ve just given it a chance. For the rest of the Big Ten—and college football as a whole—that should be a terrifying prospect.