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Game Preview: Penn State vs. Michigan

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Can the Lions start Big Ten play with a shocking upset?

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

The Nittany Lions bounced back last week with a win over Temple, but now the Big Ten slate hits fast and hard with a road trip to Michigan.

Penn State (2-1) vs. Michigan (3-0)

Kickoff: 3:30 PM, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI

The Betting Line: Michigan -18.5

TV: ABC - Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Brian Griese (analyst), Todd McShay (sideline)

Weather: Highs in the low-70s with a 20-percent chance of rain

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 16-13, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 40-28, 6th Year

VS. MICHIGAN: 0-2

Jim Harbaugh:

MICHIGAN RECORD: 13-3, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 115-49-1, 13th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 1-0

...NOW THE FUN PART

MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE

The first test for the Penn State defense is this game will be whether or not they can put inexperienced quarterback Wilton Speight in some difficult situations. After watching the Penn State front seven trip over itself while trying to tackle James Conner in the Pitt game, I’m guessing that Jim Harbaugh will pound the rock at the Lions until they prove they can stop the run.

The Wolverines like to mix it up with their rushing attack, as six different non-quarterback players carried the ball more than one time last weekend against Colorado. Leading the charge will be senior tailback De’Veon Smith, who is averaging 5.6 yards per carry on the young season. If the Lions manage to bottle him up, look for freshman Chris Evans to get involved. He leads all Wolverines with 157 rushing yards thanks to his 112-yard, two-touchdown performance in the opener against Hawaii.

The running game might not be the biggest problem for Penn State on Saturday, though. That’s because All-Big Ten tight end Jake Butt will be running through a field defended by three backup Penn State linebackers. Even against experienced defenders, Butt’s size and speed make him a matchup nightmare, but the Lions’ injuries make him a monumental threat. After only catching on pass in Michigan’s opener, Butt had back-to-back games with seven receptions and more than 80 yards, so he should be featured heavily when Speight puts the ball in the air. Look for Penn State to bring a third safety on the field in the form of linebacker hybrid Koa Farmer in an attempt to better match up with the big tight end.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Penn State should overlook the other Michigan receiving targets. Butt may have been the only Wolverine receiver to catch more than two passes against Colorado, but experienced wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are perfectly capable as well. At least Penn State knows how to defend them, though.

The best way for Penn State to have success in this game (and every game) is to stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback, but those things will be hard to do because Penn State’s defensive line is much less experienced than Michigan’s offensive line. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry will likely have to send blitzes if he wants to pressure Speight, which will hopefully cause the signal caller to struggle with his accuracy the way he did against Colorado (16-for-30, 229 yards).

MICHIGAN DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE

Michigan’s defense allowed just 17 points over the first two games of the season, but last week some cracks began to show as Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau averaged nearly 10 yards per pass and threw for three touchdowns. On the other hand, Colorado scored just seven points after the first quarter. Still, the opportunity is there for Penn State to attack Michigan with a passing game that has completed 71 percent of its throws over the past two weeks with 10.5 yards per attempt. Yes, Saquon Barkley is a tremendous playmaker who must be given the ball as often as possible, but there are other ways to accomplish that besides handing it to him behind an offensive line that is getting pushed back by top high school recruit Rashan Gary and the rest of Michigan’s defensive front.

Using draws, screens, and other creative measure will be a better way to keep Barkley fresh and get him the ball in space where he can really hurt the opposing defense. With Michigan lining up Gary alongside upperclassmen like defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, three yards and cloud of dust is not going to be the best way to move the ball. Expect offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to start the game with some short possession throws in order to make Trace McSorley comfortable and minimize the early impact of Michigan’s front seven. If the offensive line holds up, that could open things up for some passes further down the field as the game wears on.

The biggest problem for the Penn State offense in this game will be Jabrill Peppers, the linebacker who is one of the most versatile and athletic players in college football. The sensational sophomore also plays punt returner, safety, and occasionally running back, but he’s at his best when he’s chasing down the guy with the ball, as evidenced by the 9.5 tackles per loss that he’s already accumulated this season.

Normally with a guy like Peppers, you want to run straight at him in order to wear him down and neutralize his speed, but given the strength of Michigan’s front seven, the best strategy for Penn State should be to work the perimeter of the field and make the game more about wide receivers vs. the secondary than about the battle in the trenches. Penn State’s offensive line has looked better this year than last, but we still don’t know if it’s strong enough to contain a defense like Michigan’s. The Lions’ strength is still in the speed and athleticism of Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, and Barkley.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Another strength for Penn State could be in the punting game, where freshman Blake Gillikin has been a revelation this year with his consistent booting of the ball. He averages 44 yards per punt this year, which is three more than Michigan’s Kenny Allen, who also kicks field goals for the Wolverines. As a kicker, Allen is 4-for-6 this year with a miss on his only try from great than 40 yards away, although in 2015 he was 3-for-6 from that distance and 18-for-22 overall. If the Penn State defense can keep Michigan out of the end zone, there’s a decent chance it can come away with some zeroes.

Nittany Lion kicker Tyler Davis has been perfect on five field goals so far this season, and that trend probably needs to continue for Penn State to have a shot at the upset this week. Gillikin and kickoff specialist Joey Julius must focus on keeping the ball away from Peppers, which will hopefully force the Michigan offense to work for its points.

PREDICTION

Michigan-31 Penn State-20

This score seems kind of low considering how the season has gone so far, but I’m feeling confident that Penn State can stop turning the ball over and giving its opponents short fields to work with. If that happens, the Lions have enough firepower on offense to not get blown out in this game, but winning the thing will take a monumental effort from a banged-up defense that has looked rather pedestrian thus far.

Springing an upset like this usually requires a victory in the turnover margin, but I’m not convinced that the Lions can properly pressure Speight without opening up space for Butt in the process. If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m expecting the senior tight end to have a big game.