The Pain Is Free
There are certain things you do in life that you do at your own peril. You throw rocks at a hornets' nest. You wave a red flag in front of a bull. You play in traffic.
You try to block Alan Branch with one man.
The only thing close about the game Saturday night was the score. Despite prevailing by a single touchdown, and some minor struggles on offense without Mario Manningham, Michigan's defense was in complete control of their 17-10 throttling of Penn State.
Michigan sacked PSU quarterbacks 7 times. There were 9 tackles for loss totaling an astonishing -67 yards. Michigan hurried or hit PSU's quarterbacks on almost every play. More importantly Michigan knocked out two PSU quarterbacks and scared the hell out of a third. Woodley, Biggs, Taylor, and Jamison took up residence in Penn State's huddle and attempted to take up residence inside the quarterbacks' helmets as well.
The evening could be summed up by Michigan's first sack of the game. Taylor blasted through his block with speed usually reserved for men two-thirds his size. In one motion he bulldozed his blocker and buried Morelli. Then, as if to underscore the talent advantage and before Morelli's legs had even met the ground again, Taylor had popped back into a standing position crossing and uncrossing his arms to signify that this was only the beginning. More pain was in store.
Woodley immediately re-emphasized this point. Throwing Levi Brown's replacement out of the way like a used kleenex, he enveloped Morelli for the second sack of the game. Unlike so many sacks at the college level, this was not a sack where the quarterback was tripped or simply wrapped up. No Woodley wanted to see if Morelli was full of candy, throwing him to the ground like a pinata up against a wall. For some reason, a series later, PSU tried to block Woodley with a running back. Why? Why in God's name would you do that? Do you hate your quarterback? Does he owe you money? You know the result. Woodley bounded over Hunt, arms outstreched for poor Morelli, grabbing him, and bringing the full force of Woodley's body weight down on Morelli for his second sack.
This was the way it would go for Penn State's young QB until early in the third quarter. On perhaps Morelli's best pass of the night, a over the middle soft zone completion to Williams he was knocked out of the game. On a five step drop, Branch forced his man to the carpet before Morelli even planted his feet. Williams hadn't made his cut as Branch exploded off his back foot, making up Morelli's drop space in the blink of an eye. Williams cut middle. Branch's arms extended. Morelli began his throwing motion. Branch launched himself at Morelli's chest. The ball was released.
First contact was made as Morelli's chest met Branch's. Morelli's follow through limply hit Branch's shoulders and back as the two left their feet together, propelled by the force of Branch's weight and speed toward the stratosphere. Gravity quickly took effect and the two began there speedy decent to the ground. From that point on it was best not to look. Branch's body weight simply crushed the poor Penn State QB as the two-backed beast met the hard Beaver Stadium turf. While the description here is lenghty, the play itself was not. The whole play, from snap to completion, lasted maybe 3 to 4 seconds. The speed at which everything happened was just mind boggling.
An important thing to note is that Morelli completed that pass knowing he was going to be hit on that play. I tip my cap to him and wish him a speedy recovery. He showed a pair of cajones I know I don't possess in making that pass and taking that hit. The kid's alright in my book.
Things did not get easier from there. Daryll Clark replaced Morelli and quickly suffered the same fate as his predecessor. Attempting to scramble on a second down, Clark was met by two Michigan players on an apparent stop. Struggling for extra yards Clark stayed vertical long enough for Woodley to finish the play and Clark's evening.
The PSU running game suffered a similar fate. On 25 carries, Penn State gained only 53 yards. This total is not subtracted from anything. 53 yards gained on the ground. Penn State's vaunted run game, 3rd in the Big Ten prior to Saturday's game, lost 67 yards on sacks and TFLs. Michigan continually brought Hunt down for little or no gain on first contact. Taylor and Alan Branch simply decided that no one would leave the backfield, each pushing two blockers into New Jersey on any given play. There was no second level blocking, just Harris, Burgess, Crable, Adams and Mundy waiting unmolested to pound Hunt.
Despite my earlier panic about Penn State seeming to be able to move the football through the air, in hindsight I was greatly mistaken. Before being concussed, Morelli was only 11 of 18 for 133 yards. Before being knocked silly, his first replacement Daryll Clark was 3 of 6 for 16 yards. take away a blown 41 yard screen pass TD, Penn State only managed 159 passing yards.
There were plenty of dropped balls by Penn State receivers. There were plenty of short completions. There was one decent Morelli completion for 31 yards. However, there was (for the most part) sure tackling. There were hard hits when the ball was caught. There were not (save Hunt's TD scamper) blown tackles.
A sideline scene during the that served to underscore the difference between the now departed Jim Herrmann and Ron English occurred late in the second quarter with Penn State driving deep into Michigan territory. With a minute a change left on the clock, English called timeout to bring his defense to the sidelines. As soon as his group had gathered 'round English exploded on them. Though the mic's were turned off, it was not difficult to discern the content of his tirade. The passion and intensity of this man were on display for all to see. He knows this group. He knows how they react to being challenged, and that was what he did. Despite a first and goal, Penn State walked away with only 3 points. The challenge was made and accepted. Again, two things that emphasize the difference between this year and last.
Another of the differences was the resilience of the Offensive line and Mike Hart. Playing the toughest defense they have seen all year, in one of the most hostile environments in the Big Ten, they played a solid game. Mike Hart cracked 100 yards for the sixth time in seven games and added a touchdown. Faced with serious pressure from Penn State's front seven, the offensive line cleared the way for Hart and allowed only two sacks on Henne (one of which was a coverage sack). Michigan was committed to the run and showed they can run successfully on talented defenses, even when they stack the box against it.
For the passing game it was apparent Mario Manningham's absence was a torn in the Michigan game plan. Even so, Chad Henne directed the offense with poise and control. He showed a veteran savvy, changing the plays and walking to each lineman to let them know the play. Despite completing only 50% of his passes, at least 5 of his INC's were drops. Two drops in particular stand out.
Despite the drop, Breaston had an excellent day. 5 catches for 79 yards. He was crisp out of his breaks and ran routes like a receiver should. Arrington's emergence continued as he grabed five passes for 83 yards and a TD. He keeps getting better.
On a day where upsets seemed the rule rather than the exception, Michigan won a tough game against it's toughest opponent so far. Fire and emotion were on display from the defense, while calm, deadly efficency was displayed by the offense.
It was an uneasy game to watch. Players left the game woozy with an unseemly regularity. There was a vemon with which Michigan played defense. An anger. They appeared upset people doubted their ability to play on the road. Mad that people would compare what Penn State did to Minnesota to what they could do to Michigan. Furious at the implication that they would give up yards and scores.
Michigan served notice on Saturday that the only thing it is willing to give its opponents is pain.