Saturday night, long after the crowd had dissipated from Michigan Stadium, as the rest of the country began to come to terms with Michigan’s demolition of Penn State, the Wolverines had one lingering regret — their inability to keep a shutout.
If holding the Nittany Lions’ scoreless for the first time since 2001 would have been a monumental accomplishment, limiting them to seven has to come close. Before Saturday, Penn State ranked ninth in the country with 41.0 points per game. One of the main talking points in the lead-up to the game was whether Michigan could win if it descended into a shootout.
Thanks to its defense, that concern had eroded by the end of the first quarter, much like it did against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Across the Wolverines’ so-called three-game gauntlet, they held opposing starting quarterbacks to 17-for-58 passing for 249 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. None of the three threw for over 100 yards. Trace McSorley — the Nittany Lions’ dynamic quarterback who into the game averaging 293.9 total yards per game over the past two and a half years — totaled just 83 passing yards on Saturday to go with negative-six on the ground.
“(McSorley) has definitely earned my respect for everything that happened last year,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “… He’s earned my respect. I think besides Shea, I’ve said this before but he’s probably the best college football playmaker in America.”
On the first play of the game, McSorley proved why he has earned that respect, finding Pat Freiermuth over the middle for a 25 yard game. For the rest of the afternoon, earning respect was Michigan’s job.
With junior defensive end Rashan Gary back from injury, the Nittany Lions’ made the mistake of only putting one lineman on Winovich and he took immediate advantage, forcing the Nittany Lions out of Wolverine territory with a sack of McSorley.
“(Winovich) set the tone, he really did,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “Right out of the, right from the beginning. Got the sack right away and that became the theme in the game of putting pressure on the quarterback and just not giving him a chance to breathe back there and that was set by Chase.”
One play later, defensive coordinator Don Brown subbed in junior defensive end Josh Uche as he typically does on third down. Double coverage shifted back to Winovich so naturally, Uche made an explosive first step inside of Penn State’s left tackle to get through to McSorley untouched.
“Our pass rush is probably the most elite in the country,” Uche said. “So I know they were thinking about us beating them off the edge so they were a little more quick to jump out and then we just came inside on them.”
Dominant defensive lines are typically associated with suffocating opponents in the running game. Michigan’s is no different — it came into Saturday as a top-ten rush defense and held the Nittany Lions to just 68 yards on 30 rushes. But its biggest impact comes through the air.
That was most obvious on Penn State’s last drive of the first half. McSorley got a rare clean pocket on consecutive plays and promptly fired off a pair of 20-yard completions. His good protection didn’t last long — after two quick incompletions, the Nittany Lions were forced out of field goal range on third down when senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow collapsed McSorley’s pocket to get the Wolverines’ fourth sack of the half.
For the rest of the evening, McSorley completed more passes to Michigan’s defense than to his own receivers. As usual, the Wolverines had constant pressure from their defensive line to thank.
“Whether you think we’re one of the best defenses in the country,” Winovich said, “… you can just look at the evidence and make your own assumption about that.”
Shutout or not, it’s hard to disagree with Winovich’s insinuation.