As '22 begins to resemble '97, a surprising hurdle remains for Michigan
The 1997 vibes were so strong at Michigan Stadium on Saturday that the only thing missing was a halftime concert by Sugar Ray.
Members of Michigan’s last national championship team were present, honored for the 25th anniversary of that season. Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson helped an aging, cane-wielding Lloyd Carr navigate onto the field in one of those moments that says everything about the bond a special football team can create.
Michigan’s opponent also awakened echoes of that storied season.
For the first time since ’97, the Wolverines and Penn State were both in the top 10 heading into the game. And just like then, it was a Michigan massacre.
The fifth-ranked Wolverines’ 41-17 blowout of the No. 10 Nittany Lions would have been even more lopsided if not for some freakishly fortunate bounces that kept Penn State afloat in the first half.
As it stood, the 24-point margin was dang near a carbon copy of No. 4 Michigan’s 34-8 win over the No. 3 Nittany Lions back in ’97. The location changed, but the domination was the same.
Much like ’97, the Wolverines even have themselves another Heisman candidate. Running back Blake Corum made it clear he belongs in the conversation with another stellar showing, gaining 166 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries.
Corum’s 61-yard touchdown to put the Wolverines up 31-17 midway through the third quarter was this game’s dagger even if the scoreboard still indicated Penn State had a shot. It did not. You could see the Lions’ souls exiting with each Corum cut.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 15, 2022
Corum is positioning himself to be the second straight Wolverine to reach New York City on Heisman night, even if actually hoisting the trophy is rather unlikely for a running back in this day and age. But Corum’s performance wasn’t even the most promising development from a Michigan running back on Saturday.
After giving us some tastes of his potential against lower-tier opponents the past couple seasons, sophomore Donovan Edwards demonstrated he’s ready to rumble in the Big Ten. Edwards was an even faster bolt of lightning than Corum, picking up 173 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 16 carries.
One can’t blame FOX announcer Gus Johnson for initially confusing the two on Edwards’ 67-yard touchdown run, because in that moment they were impossible to distinguish.
DONOVAN EDWARDS HOUSE CALL💨🏠
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 15, 2022
Further aided by JJ McCarthy’s 57 rushing yards, Michigan racked up 418 yards on the ground against the Nittany Lions. It was Michigan’s most productive rushing performance since a 2016 game against Rutgers.
And if you can run the ball like that, very few opponents have a chance at stopping you. Michigan has a bye next week, but it feels like the entire next month will be a bye.
Michigan State’s defense has zero chance of slowing down this train. Rutgers is respectable defensively, but likely to be overwhelmed by Michigan’s defense. Nebraska looks better under interim coach Mickey Joseph, but remains weak in the trenches.
Michigan has a clear path to 10-0. But then comes the challenge most expected Penn State to present.
The game before The Game: A championship preview?
When this season’s schedule was released, Michigan fans were probably relieved to see Illinois coming to Michigan Stadium the week before the Ohio State game. It wasn’t quite the SEC playing FCS teams in Week 12, but it felt like the closest the Big Ten could do.
Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. The Illini haven’t beaten Michigan since 2009. If you remove seasons in which Rich Rodriguez coached Michigan, which you should, the Illini haven’t won against the Wolverines since 1999.
This appeared to be a scheduling gift. Instead, it’s shaping up as Michigan’s biggest pre-Ohio State challenge.
Illinois asserted itself as the best in the Big Ten West with a 26-14 win over Minnesota while Michigan was manhandling Penn State. With nothing left to talk about in Ann Arbor, announcers Joel Klatt and Gus Johnson even alluded to the No. 24 Illini near the end of their broadcast.
Outside of Ohio State, Illinois appears to be the lone team in the Big Ten capable of matching Michigan’s physicality.
The Fighting Illini manhandled what had been the nation’s top statistical defense on Saturday. Minnesota, which was allowing 8.8 points and 222 yards per game, gave up 26 points and 472 yards to the Illini. It was the first time since last year’s season opener that an opposing offensive line shoved the Golden Gophers around.
Illinois might also be capable of forcing JJ McCarthy into mistakes. The Illini play aggressively, with 12 interceptions against just 2 touchdowns allowed.
There is another intriguing possibility with the Illini, too. The schedule sets up in a manner that Michigan could potentially beat Illinois and Ohio State to close out the regular season at 12-0 — and then face the 10-2 Illini again in the Big Ten championship game.
We’re a long way from any of that taking place. For Michigan, the singular focus is on avenging last year’s loss to Michigan State in 2 weeks.
Jim Harbaugh said when he congratulated Michigan’s offensive line on today’s performance, they responded “It’s on to State, coach.”
— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) October 15, 2022
When Corum was asked about Heisman talk, he said "Michigan State is on the clock now".
— MrDoolittle 🏴☠️ (@wolverinebacker) October 15, 2022
For the rest of us, it’s impossible to see Michigan not exacting that revenge. Only a pair of hurdles remain capable of keeping the Wolverines from a return trip to the CFP.
One of them is well-known. The other, believe it or not, is Illinois.