Penn State kicks off an intriguing three-game stretch against the Wolverines in a prime time clash in Beaver Stadium.
(2) Penn State (6-0, 3-0) vs. (19) Michigan (5-1, 2-1)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -9.5
TV: ABC- Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Maria Taylor (sideline)
Weather: A very pleasant October day with a high around 70 and sunshine, then cooling off into the 50s during the evening with very little chance of rain.
PENN STATE RECORD: 31-15, 4th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 55-30, 7th Year
VS. MICHIGAN: 0-3
MICHIGAN RECORD: 25-7, 3rd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 127-53-1, 14th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 2-0
NOW THE FUN PART....
MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
The biggest offseason storyline for Michigan was how they would bounce back after losing the most starters in the Big Ten. While the defense hasn’t lost much of a step, the offense looks very much like a unit with just four starters returning from a year ago.
A major part of the offensive struggles revolve around a lack of production from the quarterback position. Wilson Speight returned as the starter, but has been ruled out indefinitely after suffering an injury early against Purdue in week four. Taking over is senior John O’Korn, who has been unimpressive in three weeks of action. The Houston transfer is completing 54.9 percent of passes for 563 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions. He is coming off of a rough game against Indiana, where he completed 10 of 20 attempts for just 58 yards.
While Michigan has some talent on offense, they seem to lack any dangerous playmakers to help the offense overcome the lack of experience. The team employs a running-by-committee approach with Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans splitting carries evenly. At times, Jim Harbaugh will stick with one back who has the hot hand, so you may see a group effort, but you may also see one of the aforementioned running backs get 25 carries on Saturday. Isaac is the team’s leading rusher with 403 yards, edging out Higdon by a mere two yards. Higdon has done a better job finding the end zone with five touchdowns on the season to Isaac’s lone score. Evans is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and his role has declined since being the primary back with 22 rushes for 78 yards against Florida in week one.
Junior Grant Perry is the team’s leading receiver, and does most of his work going over the middle. Tight end Sean McKeon plays a large role in the passing game and moves very well for someone at 6-5, 250 lbs. True freshman Tarik Black seems to be on his way to a stellar career, but has not recorded a catch in the past three games after a hot start.
Penn State’s defense has been outstanding, currently leading the nation in scoring defense by allowing just nine points per contest. The secondary has been the most pleasant surprise of the season, and should make for another tough outing for O’Korn. Expect the defense to do what they have done best- fly to the ball to limit the run game if there is no real threat in the air, while using its speed by sending pressure from all over on obvious passing downs.
MICHIGAN DEFENSE VS. PENN STATE OFFENSE
Despite only returning one starter from a season ago, Michigan has one of the nation’s top defenses. They currently lead the nation in total defense, giving up just 223.8 yards per game, and also rank first in pass efficiency defense, third in passing defense, sixth in rushing yards allowed and sixth in sacks. Basically wherever you try to attack, the Wolverines have a solid unit that really make you earn every last yard.
The bigest concern for the Nittany Lions, as it will be for the next three weeks, will be how Penn State’s offensive line can handle an incredibly talented front seven- and Michigan’s may be the best of the bunch. The Wolverines have several guys in the trenches who can make things chaotic for the Nittany Lions on Saturday night. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst is reminiscent of former Penn State star and current Tennessee Titan Austin Johnson. Not only does he take up space in the interior of the line, he has an outstanding first step that allows him to regularly make plays in the backfield. He already has 29 tackles and seven TFLs from the nose tackle position. Rashan Gary was one of the most highly recruited players in the 2016 class, and it shows. He did suffer an injury against Indiana last week, but is expected to be ready to go on Saturday. Defensive end Chase Winovich is also extremely difficult to handle, and has accounted for five sacks and 7.5 TFLs on the season.
The linebacker crew is deep and talented, and benefit greatly from being freed up by a strong line that demands so much attention. Middle linebacker Devin Bush is a frontrunner for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He can patrol sideline to sideline, and is also a threat to get to the quarterback. Outside linebacker Mike McCray leads the team in tackles and makes an impact coming off the edge. Even reserves like Noah Furbush and Jordan Glasgow (who lines up all over the field) would be stars for most other Big Ten squads.
The secondary boasts sophomore Lavert Hill, who seems to be well on his way to All-American status. He has two interceptions and six pass break-ups, and usually forces teams to avoid his side of the field.
The key to this game, and the following two during this key stretch for Penn State, will be the performance of Trace McSorley. Michigan will work to shut down the run game, and also likely attempt to force Barkley to stay in the backfield as a blocker on passing downs. Penn State’s receivers have improved tremendously in getting separation this season, but will face its stiffest challenge of the season against on of the nation’s top secondaries.
In Trace we trust...
This will hurt to read considering Nittany Lions’ field goal woes this season- Michigan true freshman and one-time Penn State-commit Quinn Nordin has been outstanding, connecting on 14 of 16 attempts with a long of 55 yards. He’s also been perfect on 17 extra point attempts. Tyler Davis, on the other hand, is just six of 13 on the season. Penn State’s field goal unit has been nothing short of a disaster all season that has seen missed chip shots, missed blocks and poor snaps and holds. If the game comes down to the wire, Michigan has a decided advantage.
Freshman Brad Robbins took over punting duties for the Wolverines in week four, and has averaged 41.3 yards per punt with a long of 57 in the last three contests. He punted nine times last week against Indiana, and could very well reach double digits against the stout Penn State defense.
Barkley and punt returner DeAndre Thompkins each have a return touchdown this season, and both seemed poised for at least one more. Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones is an explosive return man, who took a punt return to the house against Air Force. The Wolverines have not shown much in the kick return game, and primary returner Kekoa Crawford is averaging 17.4 yards per return with a long of 27.
Penn State-28 Michigan-16
I’ve had a much harder time settling on a prediction for this game, and that trend will likely continue in the coming weeks. The issues that gives me the biggest pause is Penn State’s offensive line being overmatched, which is a major key for any game of football, at any level. Fortunately, Penn State is the more well-rounded team. With Michigan’s offense struggling, the Nittany Lion defense should be up to the task of limiting the amount of points allowed so the offense can outscore them, even if they don’t have their best performance.
As previously mentioned, I expect this game to come down to the performance of McSorley and spreading the ball out to a deep and dynamic group of passcatchers. It seems likely that Michigan will sell out to stop Barkley on the ground and keep him in the backfield on passing downs, meaning McSorley will be able to get the job done even against a stellar secondary. If McSorley is on, Penn State should be able to win by a couple of scores. If he has a rare off night, it’s going to come down to the wire.
I’m not going to bet against McSorley as he’s proven time and time again. He tosses two touchdowns- one to DaeSean Hamilton, and the other to Saeed Blacknall, who always seems to find the end zone in games like this. On defense, Grant Haley sets the tone with an early interception, while Jason Cabinda feeds off the frenzied White Out crowd with a 13-tackle game that includes a sack and a pass breakup. Up front, Curtis Cothran has himself a night with 3.5 TFLs while Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney combine for a late-game sack to help seal the victory.