Free Press sports writer Orion Sang reveals what he learned in Michigan football‘s 48-42 win at Rutgers, and looks ahead to the Wolverines’ game vs. Penn State on Saturday:
3 things we learned
McNamara emerges as QB1: Cade McNamara didn’t win the starting job during the week, but he sure seems to have emerged as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback after leading them to Saturday’s win. After taking over in the second quarter, McNamara completed 27-of-36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for another. It was a near-flawless game, and the offense moved the ball with McNamara than it did in any of the previous three games. McNamara made quick decisions with the ball, threw accurately and showed moxie with some of the plays he made against pressure and out of the pocket. The Wolverines haven’t officially announced him as the starter yet, but it would be a major surprise if he’s not against Penn State.
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The defense is still bad: Rutgers doesn’t have a potent offense. Yet the Wolverines allowed the Scarlet Knights to total 42 points and 486 yards — while quarterback Noah Vedral, on his third different team, had a career-best game by completing 29-of-43 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns. Time after time, Vedral found open receivers — especially on quick out routes or slants — and also connected on long passing plays of 43 and 61 yards, the latter of which went for a touchdown. Michigan still has a lot to figure out on defense. At this point, one wonders what the betting line will be for the regular-season finale against Ohio State.
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Michigan is not the worst team in the Big Ten East: That would be Rutgers (or Penn State). Despite trailing by 17 and facing a game-winning field-goal attempt in overtime, the Wolverines narrowly escaped Piscataway with a win. It was closer than any of their previous wins against the Scarlet Knights since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach, but a win is a win, and Michigan desperately needed one after a three-game losing streak. U-M is young and inexperienced, so who knows how much this win could boost the confidence and energy of the team.
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Matchup: Michigan (2-3) vs. Penn State (0-5)
Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
TV/radio: ABC; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).
Know the foe: Penn State
The Nittany Lions, much like Michigan, have been one of the top teams in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State) over the past half-decade. But have reached new lows during this weird, shortened season. Penn State is now the only winless team in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are in the midst of a quarterback controversy, as Sean Clifford lost his starting job only to engineer a partial comeback in Saturday’s loss to Iowa. It seemed like Penn State was fine with handing the offense over to Will Levis, but will Clifford earn the starting nod this week after his comparatively better performance? There are question marks at every other position of the team, too. The Nittany Lions have been hit hard at running back, where Journey Brown unfortunately had a career-ending health condition, while Noah Cain suffered a season-ending injury in the opening week. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, one of the team’s top players and a legitimate NFL prospect, will undergo season-ending surgery this week. And the defense has felt the loss of linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.
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3 things to watch
Quick start with new quarterback?: Michigan outscored Rutgers, 48-25, after McNamara took over at quarterback. The Wolverines also scored their lone touchdown against Wisconsin with McNamara in the game. If he starts against Penn State, will U-M get off to a better start than it has in recent contests? The Wolverines have allowed the opening touchdown in all five games this season. Maybe they’ll flip the script with McNamara. The offense seemed to run smoother with him, and the Wolverines’ offense scored more points Saturday than it has in any other game this season.
Emerging run game: After the Wolverines combined to rush for just 60 yards over the previous two games, the run game came back to life with a 146-yard performance against Rutgers. Granted, it wasn’t pretty, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and was stuffed in numerous short-yardage situations. At times, it even seemed like the Wolverines ran too much — especially in overtime. Still, Michigan had more success on the ground than it had in any of its previous three games. Hassan Haskins emerged from the four-man running back rotation as the undisputed No. 1 back, with 22 carries for 110 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Although the young and injury-ravaged offensive line has had its struggles, Haskins runs hard and consistently churns out yards after contact. For as good as McNamara and the passing game looked, it will be hard to have the same level of success if the run game disappears.
Injuries still piling up: Michigan was without five starters due to injury in Saturday’s game, and it could be without two more in the future, as middle linebacker Cameron McGrone was carted off the field and safety Brad Hawkins left with an injury. The Wolverines’ defense can’t take any more hits, with depth lacking at every position across the board. It’ll be worth monitoring the status of McGrone and Hawkins — along with that of star defensive end Kwity Paye, who is the team’s best pass-rusher and pro prospect and has not played in the past two contests. The offense, meanwhile, is absent starting offensive tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, who have missed the past three games, and starting center Andrew Vastardis, who did not play Saturday due to an undisclosed injury.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Will Michigan football stick with hot hands vs. cold Penn State?