How Michigan football's Aidan Hutchinson is launching his game to the next level

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen breaks down Michigan football's 21-17 win over Penn State and looks at a few players who helped or hurt their stock Saturday at Beaver Stadium:

Four up

WR Roman Wilson: Wilson's career day against Wisconsin in October was derailed by a hand/wrist injury suffered that afternoon. He caught six passes for 81 yards against the Badgers before sitting out the following week against Nebraska. When he returned against Northwestern, Wilson wore a protective brace on his injured hand and played a minor role. He entered Saturday with six receptions for 40 yards in his past three games. But with Andrel Anthony and A.J. Henning both seeing limited time in returns from undisclosed injuries, Wilson became a focal point for Cade McNamara, who threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns. Wilson saw a team-high seven targets Saturday and caught three for 31 yards and two touchdowns. His first TD opened the scoring for Michigan on a 21-yard reception in which he ran a beautiful route by faking a slant, cutting upfield, stacking the defender and then knifing across the middle to create separation on a perfect pass from McNamara. His second touchdown was a 1-yard reception off a play-action fake. Instead, McNamara flipped an easy pass over the middle for a score that extended Michigan’s lead to 14-6 early in the third quarter. “Just being ready when my name is called,” Wilson said. “You never know. I feel like I’ve been focused more about this game throughout the week, just more locked into the game plan."

Michigan wide receiver Roman Wilson catches a touchdown pass in front of Penn State defenders Joey Porter Jr. (9) and Ji'Ayir Brown (16) during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in State College, Pennsylvania.
Michigan wide receiver Roman Wilson catches a touchdown pass in front of Penn State defenders Joey Porter Jr. (9) and Ji'Ayir Brown (16) during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in State College, Pennsylvania.

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ILB Junior Colson: Colson seems to exert a tighter squeeze on the second inside linebacker spot every week alongside veteran Josh Ross. Colson split time fairly evenly with Nikhai Hill-Green for the first seven weeks before his playing time vaulted across the 40-snap mark against both Michigan State (41) and Indiana (43). He turned in his best game of the season in Happy Valley by recording a team-high 12 tackles and half a sack. He began with a highlight on Penn State’s first possession. The Wolverines had already sacked quarterback Sean Clifford twice before the Nittany Lions faced third-and-4 from U-M's 15. Despite Penn State trying a quicker tempo, Colson was alert to the snap and sliced into the backfield to bury Clifford for a loss that forced a field goal. Give him additional points for toughness by shaking off an injury near the end of the first quarter and returning on the next possession. His combination of size, straight-line speed and lateral quickness have made Colson an attractive option for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who deserves credit for aiding the development of a true freshman.

OLB Aidan Hutchinson: It’s hard to imagine Hutchinson’s stock rising even higher, but his performance at Beaver Stadium established a new benchmark. Hutchinson set a career high with three sacks to spearhead Michigan’s most ferocious pass-rushing effort this year. Behind Hutchinson and fellow edge rusher David Ojabo, who added two more sacks of his own, the Wolverines bludgeoned Clifford for 11 quarterback hits and seven sacks. Hutchinson generated his first pressure, and his first sack, on the second play from scrimmage by forcing an intentional grounding penalty. Then he maintained his aggressiveness. Hutchinson saved what could have been another substitution blunder by blasting off the line of scrimmage for a sack-fumble early in the second quarter while many of his teammates were out of position. He rounded out his day by splitting sacks with Colson and defensive lineman Julius Welschof to bring his total to 9½, second to Ojabo's 10. Hutchinson told reporters he believes Michigan has the Big Ten's most talented roster. “This is one of those games that we knew they hold the ball, and the opportunities will be there,” Hutchinson said. “You just have to take advantage of them. And I think we did.”

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) tackles Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) tackles Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

RB Hassan Haskins: With backfield partner Blake Corum remaining in Ann Arbor due to injury, Haskins became the focal point of the running game for the second consecutive week. Haskins set a career high with 31 carries (for 156 yards) as running backs coach Mike Hart made it clear which of the healthy tailbacks he trusts. True freshman Donovan Edwards returned from an undisclosed injury after missing the last two games, but Hart played him for only a handful of snaps. Edwards carried twice for two yards. And reserve tailbacks Tavierre Dunlap and Leon Franklin, whom Hart said would be ready to go if needed, didn't have a carry. It was Haskins, Haskins and more Haskins as he fought through contact on an afternoon when the passing game struggled. He was responsible for 13 of U-M’s 21 first downs and averaged five yards per carry despite Penn State’s decision to stack the box. McNamara also utilized Haskins in the passing game several times — a role typically reserved for Corum. Haskins caught all five passes thrown his way for 45 yards, with 41 coming after the catch. His 201 all-purpose yards were more than double the production of any Penn State non-QB. “You know how much I love Hassan,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s incredible. I just enjoy the incredible of what he can do.”

Two down

LT Ryan Hayes: While Michigan’s pass rushers dominated, they weren’t the only players in the opposing backfield. Penn State’s defense registered two sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble. In pressuring the quarterback, the Nittany Lions consistently found success against Hayes. Hayes allowed his first sack partway through the second quarter when defensive end Arnold Ebiketie cut inside to corral McNamara as the quarterback stepped up in the pocket. Ebiketie then got the better of Hayes on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. He returned to the inside move on second-and-11 to force a pressure that resulted in a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage. On the next snap Ebiketie used the threat of an inside move to turn the corner on a speed rush instead, leveling McNamara and knocking the ball free for a strip sack. The Nittany Lions took over at the U-M 16, resulting in a field goal and a 17-14 lead. “I feel like the D-end just made a good play,” tight end Erick All said. “It wasn’t Cade’s fault. He didn’t see the guy.”

S R.J. Moten: There was plenty of attention on Michigan’s secondary Saturday as Macdonald revealed his plan to defend stud receiver Jahan Dotson; it didn’t take long to recognize a significant personnel change. Moten, a starter all season next to strong safety Brad Hawkins, remained on the sideline when the Wolverines took the field for the first time. He stayed there nearly all afternoon in what a U-M spokesman described as a coaching decision — it wasn’t injury-related. Moten’s place was taken by true freshman Rod Moore, a former three-star recruit from Ohio who held scholarship offers from most schools in the Big Ten. Moore had played 67 snaps across six games this season and logged a season-high 18 snaps last week, though it’s unclear whether that was foreshadowing his expanded role or a result of the lopsided score. Either way, Moore played virtually all of Saturday as part of the bracket coverage designed to contain Dotson, who managed just 61 yards on nine receptions. On an afternoon when the Wolverines allowed one completion longer than 25 yards, Moore’s six tackles tied Hawkins for fourth-most on the team.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Aidan Hutchinson launches game to next level