How Michigan loss became offensive turning point for Penn State, Wisconsin
INDIANAPOLIS — Two months ago, Penn State and Wisconsin went into Ann Arbor and scored a combined 17 points.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. After all, Michigan’s defense was one of the best in the country. A lot of teams would’ve had similar struggles in that situation. Nobody was surprised that Michigan put the clamps on at home.
And let’s be clear. It was ugly. Penn State had 191 total yards and didn’t score its first touchdown until the fourth quarter. Wisconsin at least kept it close. But that was only because of its defense. The Badgers completed 36 percent of their passes and ran for 2.5 yards per carry.
To say that both teams were “stymied” would be an understatement.
But two months later, Penn State and Wisconsin are the last B1G teams standing in Indianapolis. They went a combined 14-1 since leaving Ann Arbor. The one loss was in overtime to No. 2 Ohio State. Both teams figured out what worked for their offense.
Perhaps it just took one of the country’s best defenses to force them to adjust. Those adjustments are why Paul Chryst and James Franklin shared B1G Coach of the Year honors.
More importantly, those adjustments paved the road to Indianapolis.
The story of Penn State’s offensive dominance has been well-documented — eight straight wins behind an explosive tailback, a gunslinging quarterback and an offensive guru calling the shots.
Barkley is understandably the face of that in-season turnaround. Without a doubt, his presence made it easier for McSorley to make plays.
But it was the ball control that was so much better, especially from McSorley. People might not realize that in seven of the eight post-Michigan games, McSorley didn’t throw an interception. Barkley can run for all the touchdowns he wants, but a quarterback still has to make the right decisions. McSorley, to his credit, did that.
It’s amazing what an offense can do when it’s not turning the ball over. McSorley only threw for 16 yards more per game after the Michigan loss.
Look at how much that opened things up for Penn State:
|THROUGH MICHIGAN LOSS||AFTER MICHIGAN LOSS|
|Turnovers per game||2.5||0.6|
|McSorley’s TD-INT ratio||5-3||16-2|
|McSorley’s rushing yards per game||8||42|
|Points per game||29||40|
It doesn’t take an expert to understand that Penn State has been hot on offense. David Pollack said on Friday that he thought the thing that stood out about Penn State is confidence.
It’s not just believing in ability, though. Penn State believes in Joe Moorhead’s system. It took a little time for the Lions to master it, but that’s natural with a team as young as Penn State. To be on this kind of offensive run — at least 38 points in six of seven games — is still unfathomable if you go back and watch the Michigan game.
Wisconsin’s offensive turnaround gets overshadowed by the defense, as it probably should. The Badgers, of course, have a much different bread-and-butter. For all the attention the two-quarterback system gets, it’s been Chryst’s adjustment back to old-school, Wisconsin football that fueled the Badgers.
Corey Clement is a big reason why they’ve been able to do that. Does anyone realize that he’s ranked second among Power Five backs in carries? Keep in mind that Clement missed a game, too. But since Clement returned healthy, Chryst has fed him the rock like nobody in the conference.
The numbers don’t lie:
|THROUGH MICHIGAN LOSS||AFTER MICHIGAN LOSS|
|Wisconsin rushing yards per game||162||233|
|Clement’s carries per game||20.5||27|
|Clement’s games of 25-plus carries||0||6|
|Games of 20 points or less||2||1|
The only post-Michigan game that Clement didn’t get at least 25 carries came when Dare Ogunbowale went off in the overtime win against Nebraska. The Badgers still ran the ball a total of 38 times for 223 yards that night…and Clement got 19 carries.
In 11 games, Clement has more carries than he did in his previous three seasons combined. This was the guy that couldn’t stay healthy last year.
Some might’ve scoffed at Clement earning first-team All-B1G honors, but the workload that he endured was nothing short of remarkable. If he stays healthy, he’s on pace to finish the season with around 20 carries less than Melvin Gordon got when he led Power Five backs in rushes two years ago.
And just like that season, Wisconsin pounded its way to Indianapolis.
The approaches have obviously been different. The Badgers likely won’t come out throwing the ball on Saturday night, especially with Alex Hornibrook still listed as questionable. They want to run the ball and control the clock. Now isn’t the time to abandon what works.
Penn State wouldn’t mind doing the same, though Barkley won’t be at 100 percent. The Lions know how important it is to have balance against the Badgers. But these last eight games showed them that they’re plenty capable of trusting the passing game to do the damage.
In their own way, Penn State and Wisconsin made tweaks after brutal offensive showings in Ann Arbor. Two months ago, not many believed these two teams would be playing for a conference title and potentially a College Football Playoff spot. Not even Franklin saw it coming.
“I had Wisconsin-Penn State written on my grease board written in August,” Franklin joked on Friday. “No, no I didn’t.”
It definitely makes a lot more sense in December.