The Michigan defense has received much praise for its play this season, and rightfully so. Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller agrees, saying the Wolverines have “a real good defense.”
But Miller feels the second-ranked Nittany Lions’ defense also has been playing well, and that adds just one more motivating element to what should be a frenzied full house for Saturday night’s “White Out” at Beaver Stadium.
“It’s kind of like everybody talks about the Michigan defense,” said Miller, a redshirt sophomore from George Washington High School . “They’re trying to overshadow us. We want to show them we’re the best defense on Saturday.”
The numbers for both sides through six games have been impressive.
Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is first in FBS in points allowed (9.0 per game), 24th in rushing defense (117.3 yards per game), ninth in passing defense (167.8) and ninth in total defense (285.2). Michigan (5-1, 2-1) is eighth in points allowed (14.7 per game), sixth in rushing defense (85.8 yards per game), third in passing defense (138.0) and first in total defense (223.8 yards).
A point of pride is the way the Lions’ defense has performed this season centers on takeaways. They are tied for third in FBS with 17, and their nine interceptions through six games already are one more than they had for the entire 14-game season in 2016. They are plus-12 in turnover margin, second in the nation.
“We’re really confident,” Penn State senior cornerback Christian Campbell said. “We’ve worked so hard and prepared so hard that the confidence is there for the whole defense, and for the whole team actually competing against our offense every single day.
“Summer training and just competing every day against those guys made us better. We prepare hard for practice and against each team. So really the confidence is there for our defense to play even harder and get those takeaways and accomplish our goals.”
Third-year junior cornerback Amani Oruwariye leads Penn State with three interceptions, including one in each of the last two games. He said repeated work catching footballs off the JUGS machine during and after practice and in the offseason has paid off.
“As a group, we want to take the ball away as much as we can,” Oruwariye said. “We want to challenge receivers all the time. We’re going to be put on an island sometimes so we can stop the run game, but we embrace that. We worked on it all offseason. We just want to play to the best of our ability and just try to make takeaways.”
Head coach James Franklin said the reason for the increase in takeaways is the emphasis on it, and the fact that the defense is doing a better job of pursuing the ball as a group.
“Think about how many times last year the ball was on the ground as a fumble and we didn’t come up with it,” he said. “This year we’re coming up with those fumbles because we’ve got more people around the ball. If you’re around the ball, good things are going to happen. That means interceptions with tipped passes, fumbles, and finishing off a tackle and creating fumbles.”
Michigan has turned the football over 12 times this season (six fumbles and six interceptions) and is minus-3 in turnover margin. Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn, who will make his third start since taking over from the injured Wilton Speight, has thrown four interceptions.
By the numbers
Average yards per carry for Saquon Barkley in his last two games (36 rushes, 131 yards).
Average yards per carry for Barkley in his first four games (66 rushes, 518 yards).
Most yards allowed by the Michigan defense in a game this season, last week vs. Indiana.
Three things to watch
With scrutiny of the Penn State offensive line increasing after a shaky last two games, coach James Franklin says the offense will employ new schemes hoping to help out the unit.
No matter what help the line receives, it has to be extra vigilant to keep 280-pound Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (seven tackles for losses) from using his strength and quickness to beat the blocks.
Behind Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions’ kickoff return unit is No. 1 in FBS at 30.9 yards per runback. Michigan’s kick coverage team is second in the nation, limiting opponents to 13.9 yards per return. The question looms: Will the Wolverines kick to Barkley?