WR Jahan Dotson poses biggest challenge of the season for Michigan football's defense

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen looks ahead to Michigan football’s game against Penn State on Saturday:

Next up

Matchup: No. 8 Michigan (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 23 Penn State (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten)

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pennsylvania.

TV/radio: ABC; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Wolverines by 2.

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Michigan defensive back George Johnson tackles Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Michigan defensive back George Johnson tackles Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Know the foe

A pair of wins over ranked opponents (No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 22 Auburn) propelled the Nittany Lions to a 5-0 record and set the stage for a titanic road clash against then-No. 3 Iowa in early October. But things unraveled in Iowa City when starting quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game as Penn State fell, 23-20, to the Hawkeyes. The loss began a three-game skid for the Nittany Lions in which they were stunned by Illinois in nine overtimes, then fell to Ohio State in Columbus despite hanging within a field goal until midway through the fourth quarter.

Their hopes of a Big Ten title extinguished by three conference losses, the Nittany Lions snapped the skid with a 31-14 road win over Maryland on Saturday. Tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter, Franklin’s club responded with 17 points in the final 13:55 to pull away from the Terrapins. On a day when wide receiver Jahan Dotson set a school record with 242 receiving yards, Penn State sealed victory with a massive defensive play. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa with fewer than three minutes remaining and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown. “Defensively tonight, as well as all year long, they’ve kept us in games, battled,” coach James Franklin said after the win over Maryland. “They’ve played really championship-level defense all year long.”

Three things we learned

Jake Moody continues to roll: Where would Michigan be without its reliable kicker? He connected on three more field goals against Indiana on Saturday to punctuate red zone possessions that stalled. His kicks were good from 34 yards (twice) and 32 yards as the Wolverines built a double-digit lead. Moody has established himself as one of the best kickers in the country, ranking second in the nation in field goals made (21) behind Cayden Camper of Colorado State. Moody has yet to miss inside the red zone, 17-for-17 inside 40 yards and perfect on 33 extra point attempts. “He’s putting together a heck of a year,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Very high confidence in Jake Moody. Been very steady and very good. Gonna be very important.”

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Michigan running back Hassan Haskins runs by Indiana defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball during the first half on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan running back Hassan Haskins runs by Indiana defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball during the first half on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.

Young running backs aren’t ready: Before the season, running backs coach Mike Hart said the days of a workhorse tailback are largely over in college football; teams need several backs to navigate the physicality of conference play. That was why Hart was so excited about his trio of Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Injuries to Corum (right foot) and Edwards (undisclosed) have left Haskins as the only healthy member of the trio. Corum exited Saturday in the first quarter, while Edwards wasn’t in uniform for the second consecutive week. With the game out of hand in the second half, Hart had every opportunity to give meaningful reps to younger running backs such as Tavierre Dunlap, Leon Franklin and Isaiah Gash. That Hart stuck with Haskins for 27 carries and gave the others eight combined snaps suggests the underclassmen aren’t ready. Haskins will continue to receive a heavy dose of carries until Corum or Edwards returns.

Injuries mounting: As September gave way to October, the season-opening loss of receiver Ronnie Bell remained the only notable injury for the Wolverines. It wasn’t until Week 6 that U-M played a full game without a starter other than . But the pendulum began to swing the other wat that night in Lincoln. Michigan needed five offensive guards to complete the game after starters Zak Zinter (leg) and Trevor Keegan (shoulder) departed with injuries. Then Edwards limped off toward the end of a victory over Northwestern. Then quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All dropped out in the final minutes against Michigan State. The floodgates finally opened Saturday when Corum, cornerback Gemon Green and wide receivers Andrel Anthony and A.J. Henning all exited with injuries. McNamara needed medical attention as well for an aggravation of his injury suffered against Michigan State. The war of attrition has arrived in Ann Arbor. “The way we practice, we know that everybody is ready,” edge rusher David Ojabo said. “Everybody takes game-like reps in practice, so once somebody goes down, we know the next man is ready, you know? We don’t fret. We don’t flinch. Just next man up. Come do your job.”

Michael Cohen's three things to watch

Scoring defense elite: Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has the Wolverines tied for sixth in the nation in scoring defense, averaging just 16 points allowed per game. The Nittany Lions aren’t far behind. Franklin’s team is tied for 10th in that category, at 16.7 points per game. They have held Wisconsin, Ball State, Villanova, Indiana, Illinois and Maryland to 20 points or less and allowed more than 30 points in a game just once — to Ohio State. The driving factor is success in the red zone, where PSU's opponents are scoring 64.7% of the time, seventh in the country. The Nittany Lions have allowed only 10 red zone touchdowns, at a clip of 29.4%, which trails only Clemson (27.3%) and Georgia (25%). Meanwhile, Michigan has floundered at timesinside the 20. “I don’t know if there’s a better combination of safeties in the country,” Franklin said of Brown and Jaquan Brisker after Saturday's win. “Coach (Anthony) Poindexter has done a great job with those guys as well. I think (they) are playing at a really high level right now. I’m proud of them.”

Dotson among the best: The Wolverines have gone nine games without facing an elite receiver. That ends Saturday when Macdonald is tasked with stopping wideout Jahan Dotson, who caught 11 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Maryland. Dotson, who explored the possibility of entering the NFL draft after last season, is one of only seven receivers in the nation with more than 100 targets and one of only four such Power Five players. He has 71 catches for 932 yards and nine touchdowns this season. headlined by four games with at least 100 yards. Defending him will be the biggest test for U-M’s secondary. “Each week our plan is to get Jahan Dotson as many touches as possible,” Franklin said following Dotson’s school-record performance against the Terrapins. “That’s what you have to do with your best players, and he came through for us time and time again tonight.”

Penn State defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (17) sacks Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith, right, during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (17) sacks Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith, right, during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Top pass rusher from the portal: The Nittany Lions won big in the transfer portal with defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, who arrived at Penn State as a graduate transfer after three seasons at Temple. A three-star recruit , Ebiketie chose the Owls over scholarship offers from Army, Navy, Maine and Charlotte. Ebiketie, who is 6 feet 3 and 256 pounds, had six sacks and 10½ tackles for loss during his time at Temple. Through nine games with the Nittany Lions, though, Ebiketie has posted 13½ tackles for loss, seventh in the nation. He also has 6½ sacks (equal to Aidan Hutchinson's total) and 37 pressures (11 more than David Ojabo). Ebiketie will be on the radar of special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh as well, after blocking two kicks this season.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's biggest test: stopping Penn State's Jahan Dotston