STATE COLLEGE — They had started practicing it back in training camp. They had saved it for the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense.
And it took just two plays on Saturday night for Penn State to show it off.
Connor McGovern’s shotgun snap went back to Saquon Barkley, not Trace McSorley, as the running back and quarterback traded roles.
It was Barkley faking a handoff to McSorley and the Wolverines’ aggressive defense slanted hard to the right side of the formation as both Barkley and McSorley headed that way.
Except Barkley cut hard against the grain and found nothing but green in front of him — 69 yards untouched to the end zone to stun the Wolverines.
In front of a Beaver Stadium record crowd of 110,823, Penn State’s coaching staff outschemed Jim Harbaugh’s crew on both sides of the ball, smashing the Wolverines 42-13 to avenge last season’s 39-point loss in Ann Arbor.
Heading into the bye week Franklin had made a point to say that the Nittany Lions still had some tricks they hadn’t put on film yet.
The Lions showcased several of the direct snaps and used a variety of pre-snap motions, often with Barkley moving in and out of the slot. It all added up to the second-ranked Lions hanging a shocking 506 yards on the stalwart Wolverines.
”It’s stuff that we worked on in camp,” Franklin said. “…I think they’re also are some things that (coordinators) Brent (Pry) and Charles (Huff) and Joe (Moorhead) try to save for the second half of the season so that you can kind of have a little bit more variety in your game plan when you need it.”
The Wolverines weren’t prepared for any of it.
In a battle of two of the country’s most respected coordinators, Moorhead’s offense delivered some haymakers to Don Brown’s defense in the first half. By the break, Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) had 21 points and 302 yards against Michigan — both season-highs for a full game for a defensive unit that came into the night allowing just 223.8 yards per game (No. 1 nationally) and 14.7 points per game (No. 9).
On the other side of the ball, Pry’s unit — still the country’s best in terms of points allowed — forced seven sacks of quarterback John O’Korn, who admitted after the game that the Lions defense “showed some looks we weren’t expecting.”
“All week long, everybody was talking about their defense,” Franklin said. “We got a pretty good defense around here, too.”
And one that has worked especially hard to disguise its pre-snap looks, confounding all seven offenses its faced this season.
Especially the Wolverines.
“We practiced and watched a ton of film (on Michigan) and what they were gonna do,” senior cornerback Christian Campbell said. “We put some (new) plays in, and that’s probably what happened. They probably (weren’t) ready for that. We (were) better prepared.”
It all sets up one of the nation’s biggest games of the season as the Lions march into Columbus next week to take on No. 6 Ohio State, with the winner staking their claim as a favorite to reach the College Football Playoff.
It won’t be Michigan (5-2, 2-2) representing the Big Ten.
Barkley finished with 150 total yards (108 rushing, 42 receiving) and three touchdowns while McSorley rushed for 76 himself and threw for 282, scoring four times.
Barkley became the first player in Penn State history to record 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in his career. And he wouldn’t mind taking some more of those direct snaps.
“Real comfortable,” Barkley said. “It’s something we worked on this week, something we tried to put in that we thought would work.”
The duo of Barkley and McSorley buried Michigan early in the fourth quarter after Christian Campbell stripped quarterback John O’Korn, with Robert Windsor coming up with the loose ball.
Two plays later, McSorley lofted one up to Barkley, who beat his man down the right sideline, initially bobbling the ball before tipping it up in the air to himself for a 42-yard touchdown that made it 35-13.
And it could have been worse.
McSorley was not sharp in the early going as Michigan’s ferocious front hit him on most passing attempts. The junior missed some open receivers. Barkley dropped a ball on a wheel route.
Most critically, McSorley and tight end Mike Gesicki were not on the same page with the Lions up 14-0 and driving in the first quarter. Gesicki was not expecting a throw when it came, and Michigan’s David Long easily picked it off for a huge momentum swing.
McSorley prevented a pick-six with a diving tackle in front of the Michigan bench, but the Wolverines were able to eventually punch it in on fourth-and-goal from the 1. And despite Penn State’s huge start, Michigan answered with two touchdowns, trailing 14-13 only because of a missed extra point.
The key drive came with the Lions taking over from their own 25 with just 1:45 remaining in the first half. They needed just 52 seconds to find the end zone as McSorley took it in himself after plenty of help on nice grabs from DaeSean Hamilton (six catches, 115 yards) and Mike Gesicki.
By the fourth quarter, Michigan’s offensive line caved against Penn State’s pressure as the Lions got home for seven sacks, including one on fourth down at midfield that was followed up by McSorley’s third rushing score of the night.
Before that play, Moorhead had gathered his unit on the sideline to deliver a message, according to the ABC broadcast.
“You guys remember 49-10?” he said, referencing the score of Michigan’s win over the Lions last year.