Michigan is coming off a couple of tough weeks, losing to Michigan State and then struggling to win in overtime at Indiana last Saturday.
Certainly, Jim Harbaugh expected his Wolverines to be much better positioned in the conference at this point. But here we are entering Week 8 of the college football season with No. 19 Michigan needing to win Saturday’s game at No. 2 Penn State just to remain in contention in the Big Ten East.
Ohio State (6-1. 4-0), Penn State (6-0, 3-0) and Michigan State (5-1, 3-0) have yet to lose in conference, so a second league loss now would be difficult for Michigan (5-1, 2-1) to overcome.
Not impossible, but difficult.
That’s why Harbaugh was disappointed with the way his squad struggled to put away the Hoosiers last week after leading by 10 at halftime. Being forced to win in overtime made for a stressful afternoon.
He was even further exasperated by the 16 penalties for 141 yards his Wolverines were assessed, and that doesn’t include the two flag that were picked up when Michigan was whistled for three penalties on one play.
“I tell my 6-year-old not to spill the milk. And, gosh darn, the next thing that happens is spilled milk,” said Harbaugh. “(We) try to coach them how not to get penalties and we’re getting penalties. That’s an area we have to grow and get better.”
Harbaugh preaches the importance of playing mistake-free and not doing anything to beat yourself. If there was ever a time for the Wolverines to embrace that philosophy it would be now because Penn State has excecuted at a high level on offense and defense.
Coming off a bye week, James Franklin and his players aren’t likely to lack focus since they are entering what may be the toughest stretch for any Big Ten team with games against Ohio State and Michigan State next on the schedule.
On paper this promises to be a defensive battle with Penn State leading the Big Ten in scoring defense at 9.0 points per game and Michigan third at 14.7 points.
The problem for the Wolverines is that the Nittany Lions are also second in the conference in scoring offense, averaging 47.3 points per game. They have a Heisman frontrunner in tailback Saquon Barkley, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, while quarterback Trace McSoreley leads the Big Ten with 266.2 yards passing per game.
Nonetheless, Harbaugh is looking forward to the challenge.
“We have the most punts against us of any team in college football this year. The most three-and-outs,” he said. “We’re doing some really great things on defense.”
Franklin knows the mastermind behind the Michigan defense fairly well, having served with Don Brown on Maryland’s staff from 2009-10. Brown was the Terps’ defensive coordinator when Franklin was the offensive coordinator.
“They’re going to solve their problems with aggression,” Franklin said. “(Brown’s) answer for the game of football is to be aggressive – be aggressive in the way he calls the game, be aggressive in how the players play.”
Franklin hopes to counter that aggressiveness with big plays. The Nittany Lions already have had 38 plays covering 20 or more yards this season.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
All times Central
Iowa at Northwestern, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2
Purdue at Rutgers, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, BTN
Maryland at Wisconsin, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, FOX
Indiana at Michigan State, Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, ABC
Illinois at Minnesota, Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, BTN
Michigan at Penn State, Saturday 6 p.m. CT, ABC
- Penn State (6-0, 3-0): Last Week – Idle. The Impact Yardage and points could be difficult to come by when No. 2 Nittany Lions host No. 19 Wolverines in duel between two of nation’s best defenses.
- Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0): Last Week – W, Purdue, 17-9. The Impact – Jonathan Taylor is running away with Big Ten rushing title with 164.3 yards per game. Averaging 10 yards per carry, he’s on track to a 2,000-yard season.
- Ohio State (6-1, 4-0): Last Week – W, at Nebraska, 56-14. The Impact – J.T. Barrett back in thick of Heisman race with 18 TD passes with no picks in last five games, leading Buckeyes to more than 50 points and 500 yards in each.
- Michigan State (5-1, 3-0): Last Week – W, at Minnesota, 30-27. The Impact – With countdown on to back-to-back November games with Penn State and Ohio State, Mark Dantonio needs to guard against any hint of a letdown by Spartans.
- Michigan (5-1, 2-1): Last Week – W, at Indiana, 27-20, OT. The Impact – Karan Higdon rushed for 200 yards and three TDs, including 25-yard winner on first OT carry.
- Iowa (4-2, 1-2): Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Hawkeyes have outscored opponents 70-20 in fourth quarter but still lost against Penn State and Michigan State. Linebacker Josey Jewell leads Big Ten and is seventh nationally with 70 tackles.
- Purdue (3-3, 1-2): Last Week – L, at Wisconsin, 17-9. The Impact – Boilermakers are fifth in Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-4) and their 15 forced is second only to Penn State’s 17. That should give Jeff Brohm’s bunch confidence rest of season.
- Northwestern (3-3, 1-2): Last Week – L, at Maryland, 37-21. The Impact – Senior Justin Jackson now Wildcats’ career rushing leader with 4,639 yards and No. 1 in career total yardage with 5,350 yards. He still has half season to go with four of six games at home.
- Indiana (3-3, 0-3): Last Week – L, Michigan, 27-20. OT. The Impact – Hoosiers have lost 22 in row to Michigan, but Wolverines have gone to OT in last two trips to Bloomington. All IU’s losses this season have come to Top 25 teams.
- Minnesota (3-3, 0-3): Last Week – L, Michigan State, 30-27. The Impact – Gophers may have found a spark with Demry Croft hooking up with Tyler Johnson for three TDs in fourth quarter of loss to Spartans.
- Maryland (3-3, 1-2): Last Week – L, Northwestern, 37-21. The Impact – Junior D.J. Moore was bright spot in loss with career highs of 12 catches for 200 yards. He’s now 10th on Terps’ career list with 110 catches for 1,610 yards.
- Nebraska (3-4, 2-2): Last Week – L, Ohio State, 56-14. The Impact – Receiver JD Spielman had a school record 200 receiving yards on 11 catches but majority of Cornhusker fans bailed by halftime as Buckeyes rolled.
- Rutgers (2-4, 1-2): Last Week – W, at Illinois, 35-24. The Impact – Scarlet Knights ended 16-game skid in league, never trailing in road game while rushing for most yards (274) in school’s Big Ten history.
- Illinois (2-4, 0-3): Last Week – L, Rutgers, 35-24. The Impact – Jeff George Jr. passed for career-high 308 yards in home loss to Rutgers but has thrown five picks in last two games with just two TD passes. Illini have lost last four games after a 2-0 start to season.
(All times Central; projected winners in bold caps)
Iowa at NORTHWESTERN
PURDUE at Rutgers
Maryland at WISCONSIN
Indiana at MICHIGAN STATE
Illinois at MINNESOTA
Michigan at PENN STATE
Last Week: 5-1
Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday. I covered teams in each of the conferences during my 41 years as a sports journalist and I’m not ready to give it up in retirement.