ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The kinks appeared to be worked out for No. 4 Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines scored on four of their first five drives en route to thoroughly thwacking Penn State 49-10 at the Big House.
At times, Michigan seemed darn near unstoppable, which sets up well for a Wisconsin defense that seemed darn near immovable earlier in the afternoon an hour down the road in East Lansing. The Badgers, who handed No. 8 Michigan State a solid 30-6 beating, will come to Ann Arbor on Saturday as a top-10 team for the biggest Big Ten showdown of the young season.
For Michigan (4-0), the opening streak of kink-removing contests against two-touchdown underdogs (or more) has officially come to an end.
Jim Harbaugh’s team has scored at least six touchdowns in all four of its games. Don Brown’s new defense is averaging more than four sacks and 10 tackles for loss per game. The slimmest margin of victory has been 17 points, hardly worthy of a single gray hair added to Harbaugh’s youthful, 52-year-old head.
There have been cracks, though, that have led the Michigan faithful to believe the top-five ranking and dominant start against weaker competition are too good to be true. A decade of disappointment and a dozen years without a conference title will do that to you. Wisconsin, which has allowed five total touchdowns and six total sacks this season, provides reason to remain guarded for another week.
Michigan’s defense held Penn State to 50 yards in the first half, and sophomore star Saquon Barkley finished with 68 total rushing yards. The only other Nittany Lion who had net positive yards through three quarters on offense was tight end Mike Gesicki. That said, Barkley busted a 33-yard run and a 30-yard reception on a short dump-off that exposed the same vulnerabilities in Michigan’s defense that allowed Colorado to rack up nearly 200 yards in the first quarter a week earlier.
Is Brown’s defense rounding into shape, or will it surrender more big plays against Corey Clement and budding quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 195 yards in his first start against the Spartans?
Five Michigan running backs ran for touchdowns against the Nittany Lions, and the offense gained more than 300 yards on the ground for the second time this season. But that was against a Penn State defense that was down to its third- or fourth-string middle linebacker for most of the game and came into the game ranked 92nd nationally against the run. Was Saturday a true showing, or is the real Wolverines offensive line the group that had a hard time pushing around Colorado and UCF in previous weeks?
Jabrill Peppers broke loose on another 50-plus-yard punt return to set up Michigan’s first score of Saturday. Special teams have contributed two touchdowns and constant disruption in September. Then again, Kenny Allen has missed two field goals in six attempts. Might the Wolverines need a clutch kick down the road against stiffer competition?
Saturday’s game sucked the life out of Penn State long before the final whistle, but it probably didn’t do enough to get an abused Michigan fan base to totally trust its team. Against the Badgers, the smallest seams of uncertainty and faintest shadows of doubt will be either exploited by a solid Wisconsin program or cast aside for a full-on Harbaugh-palooza. The first big test of a promising season awaits.
By this time next week, Michigan should know for certain what kind of a football team it is fielding in 2016.