Penn State Football

Michigan’s high-risk defense will give Penn State opportunities. Can the Nittany Lions capitalize?

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley will have to lead this offense Saturday against Michigan — because the Wolverines’ defense is going to set out to stop Saquon Barkley first and foremost.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley will have to lead this offense Saturday against Michigan — because the Wolverines’ defense is going to set out to stop Saquon Barkley first and foremost. Centre Daily Times, file

In recent weeks, it’s clear what defensive coordinators have tried to do against Penn State: Stack the box, stuff Saquon Barkley and saddle Trace McSorley with the responsibility of leading an offense.

McSorley’s had an easy time picking apart what Penn State calls “free access” — soft coverage on the outside. But the Nittany Lions won’t have anything free on Saturday. McSorley and his pass-catchers will need to earn everything they get.

Under the direction of coordinator Don Brown, Michigan’s defense doesn’t mess around with shutting down one option to allow another. The Wolverines go for broke — and to this point, it’s worked pretty well.

“I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They’re going to try to take your run game away. They’re going to take all the easy throws away. ... That’s how he plays.

“A lot of people would describe it as a high-risk, high-reward defense. When you’ve been the No. 1 defense in the country as many times as he’s been, I would say it’s high-reward.”

While Penn State has the best scoring defense in college football (9.0 points allowed per game), the argument can be made that Michigan’s unit is better.

The Wolverines are first nationally in third-down conversion defense; opponents have converted only 18 of 88 attempts (20.5 percent). It has three defensive touchdowns, tied with Wisconsin for most in the conference. Brown’s unit has surrendered the second-fewest first downs in the country. And the Wolverines are equally good at shutting down the pass (138.0 yards per game, third nationally) and run (85.8 yards, sixth).

Michigan is no slouch when it comes to straight-up scoring defense, either, allowing 14.7 points per game (8th in the country).

This isn’t a blip on the radar. Michigan was first or second in the FBS in seven categories last year — including total defense, scoring defense, tackles for loss, first downs allowed and third-down conversion percentage — and Brown reloaded this season after losing 10 of 11 starters.

The coordinator — affectionately known as “Dr. Blitz” — runs his defense in a similar fashion this year as he did in the past. The Wolverines are going to overload the box with their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage across the board.

The Nittany Lion pass-catchers are ready for that pesky press, too.

“They kind of live in that environment, and they thrive in that environment,” Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins said. “You’ve got to transform your mindset, transform your footwork, transform your approach to the game and have a better understanding of the attention to details that you have to bring to every play.”

Added tight end Mike Gesicki: “They’ve got the guys to be able to cover one-on-one and be put out on an island. I think that speaks volumes to the kind of athletes and players they have.”

It definitely presents a dangerous situation for Penn State’s offense.

If Michigan’s front-four featuring Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich, along with blitzers, take advantage of the Nittany Lions’ suspect offensive line, McSorley — who’s been sacked 13 times in the last three games — could be in trouble.

At the same time, the Nittany Lions have big-play wideouts like Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson who can beat corners off the line of scrimmage and rip Michigan’s press coverage deep. Plus, Barkley’s an option in the slot or out of the backfield.

If McSorley has time, Brown’s high-reward defense can lean toward high-risk.

McSorley said Michigan’s full-throttle defense is “definitely going to be a challenge.” Ultimately, it could be the matchup that decides Saturday’s White Out affair.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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