ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Big Ten has a new bully.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown says he woke up every day the past year thinking about the 42 points and 506 total yards Penn State hung on his team in Happy Valley last year. Senior defensive end Chase Winovich said the Nittany Lions stole their lunch money a year ago. He and his teammates were showing up Saturday to take it back. They did that and more in the latest stop of what Winovich has dubbed Michigan’s “revenge tour,” giving Brown a night to remember for much different reasons.
Winovich said he kept waiting for Brown to bubble over with excitement while the Wolverines were building a 42-point lead, but the coach who usually is best described as a walking exclamation point didn’t show his satisfaction, especially after Penn State ruined a shutout bid in the final two minutes of a 42-7 blowout victory.
“We didn’t want to just beat them,” Winovich said. “We wanted to get after them.”
Brown has once again pieced together the best defense in the country. The Wolverines allowed a total of three touchdowns during a stretch of three straight wins over ranked opponents on their so-called revenge tour, and did so while developing an indignant, no-apologies attitude for the teams they are leaving in their trail. During that same stretch, No. 5 Michigan has grown from a threat in the Big Ten to the league’s undisputed top playoff contender.
They played so well Saturday that it made head coach Jim Harbaugh feel like singing.
“I’m reminded of the old jingle in the ’70s,” Harbaugh said before doing his best (out-of-tune) impression of an old Budweiser ad campaign. “When you’ve said Don Brown, you’ve said it all. He’s the king. He’s the king of defensive coordinators.”
Penn State’s opening drive lasted four plays, and quarterback Trace McSorley ended up on his back on three of them. Michigan didn’t really stop hitting the playmaking senior — who was at least somewhat hampered by a knee brace and the shaky joint beneath it — until James Franklin inserted Tommy Stevens in his place late in the third quarter.
Stevens wasn’t the answer. His first pass was intercepted by Brandon Watson and returned 62 yards for a score. Then again, no one in the Big Ten has had much of answer for a Michigan team that is allowing just a shade more than 200 yards per game and perhaps still getting stronger.
With junior Rashan Gary back on the field for the first time in a month, trying to stop Michigan’s blitz packages became a puzzle with no apparent solutions. Which potential first-round draft pick on the edge of the line do you plan to double-team? How about the speedy, aggressive pack of linebackers coming right behind them?
That rush package has helped the Wolverines stop their last three opponents — Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State — on 30 of 34 third-down attempts. Two of those successful conversions came with less than a yard to gain, and the other two came in garbage time of blowout victories.
“Me, personally? I’m looking for third down,” said pass-rush specialist Josh Uche, who had a pair of sacks Saturday. “Just get it to third down.”
The Wolverines’ offense appears to be building up a healthy lather as well as this team plows forward toward the home stretch of the regular season. Senior Karan Higdon topped 100 rushing yards for his seventh straight game, and quarterback Shea Patterson‘s success in the running game should keep the remaining teams on Michigan’s schedule honest against option plays. Sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones scored a touchdown for the second straight week and continues to blossom into a bona fide deep-ball threat.
Peoples-Jones popped up after scoring and mimicked the touchdown celebration former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley used to pull out after big plays. Winovich celebrated a big play with the home run swing that McSorley has made something of a trademark move. Michigan has been taking notes during the past few years of finishing third in the Big Ten’s powerful East Division. Now the Wolverines are not just winning, they’re doing so with an edge.
“We’re the team to beat in the Big Ten,” Winovich said. “That’s not a controversial statement. I think that’s a fact at this point.”
The bigger question now for Michigan is whether the Big Ten’s new bully can hang on a bigger playground. Penn State averaged more than 40 points per game coming into Ann Arbor, but without a fully mobile quarterback its offense was a shell of its once rocket-powered self. Can the Wolverines’ defense remain as dominant if down the road it runs into a juggernaut like Alabama or Clemson?
There is, of course, a month of football to play before Michigan will know if it even gets the chance to answer that question. November never fails to deliver a few surprises, and the Wolverines still have a massive hurdle to clear in Columbus at the end of the season before getting to play for any kind of a championship. The way they’ve pushed around good competition in the past three weeks, though, has changed expectations for Michigan.
The revenge tour is over, it’s time now for the Wolverines and that stingy, salty defense to aim higher.