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Penn State-Michigan Game Preview

Penn State hopes to pick up win number eight in a Senior Day/Whiteout clash against the Michigan Wolverines.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Penn State hopes to pick up win number eight in a Senior Day/Whiteout clash against the Michigan Wolverines.

Penn State (7-3, 4-2) vs. Michigan (8-2, 5-1)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State +4

TV: ABC- Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst), Shannon Spake (sideline)

WeatherA cloudy and cool afternoon with temps in the 40s and very little chance of rain.


James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 14-9, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 38-24, 5th Year


Jim Harbaugh:

MICHIGAN RECORD: 8-2, 1st Year

OVERALL RECORD: 110-48-1, 12th Year



The Wolverines have the best aerial attack since Chad Henne was in maize and blue thanks to Iowa graduate-transfer Jake Rudock. The quarterback position was a question mark throughout the offseason, but Rudock has completely obliterated all expectations set for him. Through 10 games he is completing 64.2 percent of his passes while picking up 2,220 yards to go along with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rudock is coming off a career day against the Hoosiers, throwing for 440 yards and six touchdowns in the double-overtime thriller against a young Indiana secondary. He also led a clutch drive during the closing seconds of the game to force overtime, which ended with a touchdown pass to receiver Jehu Chesson as time expired. Rudock is certainly not defined as a scrambling quarterback, but has the ability to pick up extra yardage and keep the chains moving when given an opening.

Rudock has several talented pass-catchers at his disposal, led by senior receiver Amara Darboh. The Iowa native is a well-rounded receiver, who has the speed to get open deep while also finding holes in the defense all over the field. He's an excellent route-runner who knows how to get separation. Darboh leads the team with 45 receptions for 567 yards. Penn State's secondary must pay close attention to Darboh at all times, something that will be made all the more difficult with the absence of senior safety Jordan Lucas.

Tight end Jake Butt is another fantastic option who has the speed and athleticism that regularly creates mismatches. Like Darboh, he has excellent hands and a knack for finding soft spots in the defense. Butt has contributed 38 receptions for 500 yards and two scores on the season. Chesson is another big target who seems to get better each week. He is coming off a monster game against the Hoosiers, where he caught 10 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns. Expect Rudock to look the senior's way to continue to strike while the iron is hot. Chesson does an excellent job of making plays in traffic, and can hurt a defense despite tight coverage.

Michigan also has several talented options at running back led by De'Veon Smith, one of the hardest runners in college football. Smith is a load to take down and can easily wear on a defense. If Penn State's offense struggles to stay on the field again, don't be surprised if Smith breaks off a couple long second half runs against a gassed Penn State defense. Junior Ty Isaac is another big back who can punish a defense, but is listed as doubtful after being inactive for the past three weeks. Junior Derrick Green is also banged up, meaning Smith may be forced to carry the load against a punishing front seven for the Nittany Lions. Expect senior Drake Johnson to see a series or two, with Smith getting the majority of carries on Saturday. The one positive for Penn State is that the Wolverines do not feature a back who excels in reaching the perimeter, something that has caused issues for the Nittany Lions' run defense this season.

A recent X-factor for the Wolverines offense has been safety Jabril Peppers, who looks to be the second coming of Heisman winner Charles Woodson. Not only does Peppers excel in the secondary, he also has the rare gamebreaking ability that is shared by only a handful of players across the nation. Peppers will see occasional snaps on offense and lineup all over the field, and whether he's running or receiving the ball, is a threat to score any time he gets a touch. There's no doubt Bob Shoop is putting in extra hours this week trying to figure out how to stop- or at least slow down- Peppers.

Let's start with the bad news- Michigan has arguably the nation's best defense, which has regularly shut down offenses throughout the season, including several that are much more productive than Penn State. There are very few weaknesses to attack. When looking at the numbers, Michigan ranks in the top eight nationally of all key defensive statistics- rushing defense (8), passing defense (6), pass efficiency defense (2), total defense (2) and scoring defense (6), giving up just 14.8 points per game.

Before you give up all hope for Saturday, there is a silver lining. Last week, Indiana offered a blueprint on how to run on the Wolverines by attacking on stretch plays that create wide running lanes, neutralizing Michigan's ability to overpower opposing lines. However, it seems somewhat doubtful that Penn State has the talent upfront or the coaching fortitude to take advantage. Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see what type of game plan Penn State puts together against such a stout defense. The Nittany Lions offense took great strides against Maryland and Illinois with a well-balanced attack thanks to the long-overdue introduction of the vertical passing game. However, against a tough Northwestern defense, Penn State reverted back to its old self- allowing the defense to stack the box by over-relying on the run and short passing game. Using history as a guide in contests against similar defenses, Penn State may just get the ball in the hands of Saquon Barkley as much as possible and hope he can beat a premiere defense all on his own. As talented as Barkley is, a repeat of this gameplan will likely lead to a very long afternoon against the Wolverines.

Another glimmer of hope is the absence of defensive tackle Ryan Glasglow, who will miss the remainder of the season with an injury. It was clear that there was a dropoff on the depth chart, as Michigan's run defense was nowhere near as dominant without him in the lineup against Indiana.

Outside of Glasglow, there is plenty of talent to go around. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is a probable first-team All-American. The junior has an astounding 18 pass breakups on the year, and will likely be charged with shutting down Chris Godwin. This will make it crucial for DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis to produce early and often. Senior linebacker Joe Bolden is a very disciplined player who does a great job of patrolling the sidelines, and is the team's leading tackler. Defensive tackle Chris Wormley is in the mold of Austin Johnson, a run-stuffer who can also find his way into the backfield. He will more than challenge Penn State's interior line. Defensive end Willie Henry is another big body who can be very disruptive. He's the team leader in sacks with six and will likely add to that total on Saturday. Senior safety Jarrod Wilson is a punishing safety who is very active against the run. The aforementioned Peppers is a star-in-the-making at safety with nearly unprecedented athleticism. Simply put, outside of a banged up defensive line, Michigan has a deep back seven with talent to spare.  Penn State's offense will need its best effort of the season while maintaining a balanced attack to have a chance of outpacing the Wolverines.

Kenny Allen has been very efficient for the Wolverines, connecting on all 36 of his extra point attempts and 14 of 18 field goal attempts on the season. He is 11 of 12 on attempts inside the 40, with a season long of 47 yards. He has yet to attempt a field goal of 50 or more yards in his career, so expect the Wolverines to roll the dice and go for it on fourth downs when Michigan is just out of field goal range. Aussie punter Blake O'Neil has been a model of consistency (outside of one play) and is averaging 41.7 yards per punt on the year. When given space, he can easily flip the field and has a season long of 80 yards (yes, 80 yards).

The Joey Julius era may be over in State College, as freshman Tyler Davis is now listed as the starting placekicker. Davis has been the primary kicker since coming on in relief after Julius had two extra points blocked on low kicks and also had a kickoff sail out of bounds against Illinois. Davis is perfect on the year, connecting on three extra points and three field goals with a long of 42 yards.

Peppers is Michigan's primary return man, and is a threat to take it to the house with each opportunity. While Peppers is the sole punt returner, Lewis also contributes on kickoff returns and averages a very impressive 30 yards per return. If that's not enough to keep you up at night, Chisson has a 96-yard touchdown return to his credit, even though he only has two returns all season.

In what has been a struggle all season, Penn State will need to find a way to overcome the field position battle, which should easily go in Michigan's favor with their strengths in the punting and return games.


The intangibles seem to clearly be in Penn State's favor this week. Senior Day typically brings out the best in the team, which should be especially true on Saturday as the program says farewell to the last class who played under Joe Paterno and stood by the program during the school's darkest days. The Whiteout always provides a difficult atmosphere for opponents, although it may be somewhat diminished by the noon kickoff time. Also, while Penn State was resting during a much-needed bye week, Michigan played in a physically and emotionally draining double-overtime game at Indiana.

While the intangibles are in Penn State's favor, it probably won't be enough to send off the seniors with a victory.

The deciding match-up for this game to me is Michigan's ferocious defensive line against Penn State's offensive line, which is still very much a work in progress. Even with the Wolverines banged up up front, Penn State will still likely struggle to open up ranning lanes for Barkley and give Hackenberg the time he needs to set his feet and be effective. This means Michigan likely controls the game from beginning to end, with Penn State putting together enough plays here and there to keep it interesting.

Anthony Zettel goes out with a bang with two sacks and his third interception in as many years against Michigan, while Carl Nassib picks up a sack and three tackles for loss to reclaim the national lead in the latter category and a fired-up Brandon Bell has a career day with 16 tackles and a forced fumble. But in the end, it won't be enough as Michigan finds ways to score against a tired defense while holding the offense in check for the majority of the game.