Michigan football grades: See how many F's Wolverines earned for performance vs. Penn State

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Free Press sports writer Orion Sang grades Michigan football after the Wolverines' 27-17 loss to Penn State.

Offense: D-plus

Penn State does not field a good defense, yet Michigan scored just 17 points and tallied 286 yards. Several factors came into play: The Wolverines seemed to shy away from relying on running back Hassan Haskins, even when Haskins was running hard and churning out yardage, and the passing game was severely hampered by an injury to the right throwing shoulder of starting quarterback Cade McNamara, who completed just 12-of-25 passes for 91 yards. The problem with Michigan's offense is that almost nothing comes easy. Either the Wolverines have to face numerous third downs on a grinding, time-consuming drive that isn't guaranteed to lead to points — or the offense fails to convert in short-yardage situations. And when things are going well, like they did with Haskins and the run game in the first half, U-M chooses to go elsewhere instead.

Michigan wide receiver A.J. Henning runs against Penn State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan wide receiver A.J. Henning runs against Penn State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

[ There's no one reason Michigan is malfunctioning — but it starts with coaching ]

Defense: F

Yet another woeful performance from the defense, which allowed 417 yards and could not get stops at the most crucial junctures. Penn State seemed to rely upon a vanilla game-plan and didn't hurt Michigan with big downfield passes to big-play receiver Jahan Dotson, who had just three catches for 30 yards. But the Nittany Lions still moved down the field with ease — they ran the ball at will with a pair of freshman running backs, completed easy slant passes to freshman receiver Parker Washington and got a few big runs from quarterback Sean Clifford, who had nine carries for 73 yards and a touchdown. Washington's career-best nine catches for 93 yards makes him the third receiver to post a career game against U-M's defense this season. Somehow, the Wolverines did not force a single turnover against a team that entered the game averaging 2.6 per game. This might be the worst defense in the Big Ten.

Special teams: D-plus

A mixed bag here. Kicker Jake Moody made a 40-yard field goal to open the second half, which was no guarantee given how badly Michigan's kickers have struggled this season. Disaster occurred elsewhere, though. With Giles Jackson out due to injury, the Wolverines struggled to field punts. Mike Sainristil muffed a punt at the end of the first half that gave Penn State the ball in scoring position (the Nittany Lions kicked a field goal), while Blake Corum muffed a punt in the third quarter but recovered the ball.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown talks to players during a timeout during the first half against Penn State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown talks to players during a timeout during the first half against Penn State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Coaching: F

You could probably tell where this one was heading after just the opening drive. Despite failing to score on its previous five opening drives this season, Penn State marched down the field to start the game with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. It looked all too easy, with a couple easy passes and 39 rushing yards. And for the sixth time this season, Michigan allowed the opening touchdown and found itself trailing. The first drive for each team should be a reflection of the week's preparation. And every game this season, the Wolverines have looked thoroughly unprepared.

U-M's coaching staff also impacted the game with several decisions on offense. The Wolverines chose to re-insert a clearly injured McNamara into the game, only to pull him midway through the fourth quarter. Did a hurt quarterback who struggled to throw the ball give the Wolverines their best chance at winning? Then, the Wolverines went away from Haskins at a crucial juncture early in the game. Haskins looked like the best player on the field, with 73 rushing yards in the first quarter — and then barely played on the next two possessions. There was still plenty of game left, but maybe Michigan doesn't punt on those two drives and is able to take the lead if it relies more on Haskins.

Right now, everything looks difficult for the Wolverines. They drop routine catches, muff punts and miss tackles. But the coaching staff doesn't seem to be doing much to help the players, either.

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football grades: Defense shows it may be worst in Big Ten