There seemed little question that Michigan would have one of the nation’s most efficient and potent offenses this season. Too many talented Wolverines were back, with a healthy Ronnie Bell added to the equation as well.

But replacing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo along the defensive front? That’s what was going to make or break Michigan’s chances of repeating its Big Ten title.

It’s also what’s going to make or break the No. 5 Wolverines in Saturday’s battle of unbeatens with No. 10 Penn State. And based on what we have thus far seen from Hutchinson and Ojabo’s replacements, Michigan may have the right guys to replicate last year’s dominant performances in the trenches against the Nittany Lions.

Though the game was close on the scoreboard — Michigan rallied for the game-winning touchdown with 3:24 to go — it’s a wonder Penn State had a chance to win.

Michigan’s defensive front dominated Penn State’s offensive line for 12 tackles for loss, including 7 sacks. Hutchinson and Ojabo accounted for 5 of those sacks.

They may be in the NFL now, but defensive ends Mike Morris Jr. and Eyabi Okie are coming into their own for Michigan. Penn State needs to be concerned.

Meet Michigan’s new dynamic duo

The Morris/Okie dynamic has some uncanny similarities to last year’s pairing of Hutchinson and Ojabo.

Like Hutchinson, Morris is a power-rushing son of a former college football standout. His dad, Mike Morris Sr., was an offensive lineman at Florida State during the Seminoles’ late 1980s/early 1990s heyday.

Like Ojabo, Okie is a speed-rushing threat who landed in Ann Arbor from the unlikeliest of locations. Ojabo, of course, came from way off college football’s beaten path: Scotland. But Okie’s previous stop at FCS program Tennessee-Martin isn’t exactly on the main talent highway, either.

It is there where there’s a bit of divergence. Whereas Ojabo was a developmental project, Okie has always had the talent. Tapping into it has been another issue.

Okie was a 5-star prospect who, like so many 5 stars, began his career at Alabama. He was dismissed from the program after making the all-SEC freshman team in 2018. From there, Okie transferred to Houston, but never played a snap before being dropped from that program.

It took being at UT-Martin for Okie to finally put things together both on and off the field. And given that Michigan was his runner-up when he chose to sign at Alabama, the Wolverines made sense for him to exercise his season as a graduate transfer. Particularly with someone needing to take Ojabo’s place.

Morris and Okie aren’t on pace to match Hutchinson and Ojabo’s 25 combined sacks — Morris is second in the B1G with 5 and Okie is tied for ninth with 3 — but they do appear to be heating up at the right moment.

Morris has 3 combined sacks in the past 2 games, and Okie has a pair.

They also aren’t the only strengths along Michigan’s defensive front.

Mazi in the middle

The presence of nose tackle Mazi Smith is what allows Morris, Okie and the rest of Michigan’s defense to thrive. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz referred to Smith as a “refrigerator that can move.”

Smith frequently draws double teams that allow other Wolverine defenders to take advantage of their 1-on-1 matchups. It’s no coincidence Michigan is leading the Big Ten with 22 sacks and rates third with 39 tackles for loss. Though Smith isn’t contributing a lot to those particular stats — he has 0.5 sacks and 2.5 TFL — his presence gets other Wolverines to the ball carrier in the backfield.

And it’s not as if he’s not bringing guys down himself. Even with all of the extra attention, Smith had 8 tackles against Maryland and 5 against Indiana.

Though he plays an entirely different position, Smith is the Michigan defensive lineman with the most Hutchinson-like impact this season. Opponents want to avoid going in his direction.

Penn State’s litmus test

If Penn State is actually the Big Ten East’s biggest threat to Ohio State, we will know by how the Nittany Lions offensive line holds up against Michigan. In the same token, we’ll learn if Michigan truly does have a championship-caliber defensive line.

Last year’s game was the first time Michigan recorded 12 TFL since a 2019 game against Illinois. It was a microcosm of a season in which Penn State was worst in the Big Ten in sacks allowed and finished 13th in tackles for loss allowed. The Nittany Lions were also 12th in yards per carry.

So far, it looks like Penn State’s front 5 is finding its footing in 2022.

The Nittany Lions are fifth in the league with 4.9 yards per carry. They’re fourth with 23 TFL allowed, and third with 7 sacks allowed. And 5 of those sacks were permitted in a surprising Week 2 test against Ohio. Sean Clifford has only been sacked once since that inauspicious performance.

Of course, those performances include games against defenses ranking 60th (Auburn) and 97th (Northwestern) nationally in sacks. Michigan is fourth in that department.

Saturday will demonstrate whether Michigan’s defensive line or Penn State’s offensive line is closer to last year’s version — which would be a good thing for the Wolverines, and bad news for the Lions.