STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Michigan football team’s Big Ten East Division title hopes vanished in its 42-13 loss at No. 2 Penn State on Saturday.
Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State are 4-0, two games ahead of fourth-place Michigan and Rutgers.
Michigan eyes becoming bowl eligible by earning its sixth win. It has games against Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland to prove it can compete against two of the Big Ten’s top teams, Nov. 18 at Wisconsin and Nov. 25 against Ohio State.
The Badgers and the Buckeyes are considered two of the Big Ten’s three best bets to win the conference championship and possibly earn a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Here are three things Michigan needs to improve to give itself a chance to compete with Wisconsin and Ohio State:
1. Find consistency on offense
Against Penn State, Michigan showed flashes on occasion but no consistency. The Wolverines cut Penn State’s lead to 1 point with less than 2 minutes left in the second quarter, but of its 11 possessions, only three covered more than 30 yards:
- An 11-play, 59-yard drive in the first quarter began as a result of David Long’s interception of Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley with 3:21 left in the quarter and ended with Karan Higdon’s 1-yard touchdown at 12:53 of the second.
- An eight-play, 67-yard drive in the second quarter that ended with Ty Isaac’s 6-yard touchdown with 1:45 remaining in the first half.
- A 13-play, 32-yard drive that began with less than 8 minutes left in the fourth and ended with Michigan turning the ball over on downs with 3:19 left after quarterback John O’Korn was sacked for a 9-yard loss — Penn State’s seventh sack of O’Korn.
By comparison, Penn State had eight drives of at least 46 yards. Six ended with touchdowns.
Michigan needs more long, sustained drives. The Wolverines used nearly 10 minutes to build a substantial offensive drive. By then, Penn State had built a 14-0 lead with its own dynamic playmaking.
Mixing up the play calls and targeting tight ends and running backs more often in the passing game can help. The offensive line is better at run blocking but needs to find more consistency to give O’Korn more time to throw. For his part, O’Korn needs to get rid of the ball sooner and try not to take sacks.
2. Repair the secondary’s shortcomings
When Michigan’s defense controlled running back Saquon Barkley on the ground, the Nittany Lions shifted to the pass, which exposed holes in the Wolverines secondary.
Michigan entered the game second in the nation in pass defense (138 yards per game) and gave up a season-high 282 yards passing to the Nittany Lions, the most multi-faceted offense it has faced this season.
McSorley didn’t hesitate to throw long passes to a range of wide receivers and tight ends, including a 35-yard pass to Mike Gesicki less than 6 minutes into the game that set up Barkley’s second touchdown.
Long’s interception was a bright spot for the Wolverines secondary, and sophomore Lavert Hill had 7 tackles and a pass breakup. But Michigan has to be prepared for a range of different receivers. Barkley caught 3 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown, and Gesicki had 2 catches for 52 yards. Michigan’s man-to-man defense was exposed and needs to improve.
“They hit us on quite a few plays that we’ve defensed well this year, and I thought their execution was really good [Saturday night] right from the beginning,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Penn State. “Then we got it a little bit under control, and then they came back and hit the quarterback sucker play, hit the inside fade, downfield balls, really good throws, well played by the receivers, et cetera.”
3. Regain confidence by beating Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland
Michigan faces Rutgers at noon ET Saturday, hosts Minnesota on Nov. 4 and plays at Maryland on Nov. 11. Earning wins in those games will come with a combination of improvements to the offense: protecting the quarterback, minimizing turnovers, improving timing with Michigan’s wide receivers and regaining solid footing in the run game.
O’Korn is a placeholder and a game manager in Michigan’s offense, but the offensive line needs to help him. Penn State sacked O’Korn 7 times. It also needs to open holes to help its running backs, who ran for 103 yards — 1 yard more than its season low of 102 in a loss Oct. 7 against Michigan State.
Improving those areas, instead of a drastic overhaul (say, making redshirt freshman Brandon Peters the starting quarterback in place of O’Korn), will prepare Michigan for the Badgers and Buckeyes.
“From here on out, it’s going to be all about us and the team,” O’Korn said. “We have a great group of guys that don’t expect anyone to quit or give up. We’re 5-2, and we have a great team.”
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