ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight took a beating last week against Colorado. This week, he spent most of the day standing back and watching his teammates do all the work.
De’Veon Smith led an overwhelming ground game with 107 yards rushing and a touchdown and Karan Higdon ran for two scores and No. 4 Michigan routed Penn State 49-10 on Saturday in both teams’ Big Ten opener.
“We were looking for a way to be more careful out there so I wasn’t getting hit as much as I did last week,” Speight said. “Luckily, our offensive line and our running backs were great. I think there was one time where we called the same play eight straight times, just flipping the sides, and we were picking up nine or 10 yards a pop. I was just laughing every time I got the same signal.”
Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) finished with 326 yards rushing and scored six of its seven touchdowns on the ground. Five different backs scored on the ground.
“I was really impressed by all of our running backs,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We were moving the chains and breaking off big runs.”
The Nittany Lions (2-2, 0-1) were simply running out of bodies on defense. They came into the game missing three starting linebackers, lost Brandon Smith to a second-quarter targeting penalty then lost Jan Johnson to injury.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been through or seen anything like this,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We’ve got three guys out, and then Brandon gets thrown out going for an interception. Then Jan Johnson comes in, and we lose him, too.”
Penn State was overmatched on the other side of the ball as well. Saquon Barkley rushed for 59 yards and caught five passes for 77 more, but no one stepped up to help.
“They are just physical on both fronts,” Franklin said. “The offensive line is big and strong, and their defensive line is more of the same. Plus they’ve got one of the most talented secondaries in the country.”
Jabrill Peppers gave the fans an early thrill by returning Penn State’s first punt to the 9, although a bench-interference penalty moved the ball to the Nittany Lions 24. Seven plays later, Khalid Hill dove in on 4th-and-goal from the 1.
The Wolverines also scored touchdowns on their next two drives. Penn State finally got a couple stops, but the Wolverines took a 28-0 halftime lead on Higdon’s 2-yard run.
The Nittany Lions got on the board with a field goal early in the third, but Chris Evans made it 35-3 with a 3-yard run and the Wolverines cruised to the win.
PENN STATE : The Nittany Lions couldn’t compete on either side of the ball. Depth is becoming a serious issue at linebacker, with four players injured, so the defensive staff is going to have to find a new way to stop teams on the ground and on short passes.
MICHIGAN : The Wolverines dominated in the trenches, with their defensive line continuously overrunning Penn State’s offensive line. They registered five sacks while building their first-half lead. Speight, meanwhile, had all the time he needed. “I thought we blocked things well, and I thought the defensive line was really good,” Harbaugh said. “I was very pleased tonight.”
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines came in at No. 4 and there seems little chance that will change much with No. 1 Alabama winning earlier in the day in a blowout and No. 2 Ohio State on a bye. No. 3 Louisville was at Marshall.
Several players held up a fist on the Michigan sideline during the national anthem.
“There’s a freedom of expression, and people can speak their mind,” said Harbaugh. “I can tell you what I believe, but I’ve thought about this for a few weeks, and just because I’m the football coach, I can’t dictate what other people believe. I support them speaking their mind.”
Michigan: WR Jeremy Clark suffered what the Wolverines believe was a torn ACL. “This would have been an A-plus-plus-plus day if we weren’t saddened about Jeremy,” Harbaugh said.
PENN STATE: Returns to Happy Valley for the first of three straight home games. The Nittany Lions face Minnesota next Saturday in the Golden Gophers’ first trip to Penn State since 2009.
MICHIGAN: Plays its fifth straight game at the Big House, but will have a tougher test against Wisconsin. The 11th-ranked Badgers routed No. 8 Michigan State 30-6 in East Lansing.