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Penn State at Michigan: Game Preview

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How the mighty have fallen

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

What was once thought to be one of the Big Ten’s ‘Games of the Year’ is now simply a match-up between two teams who have failed to come anywhere close to expectations this season.

Penn State (0-5) vs. Michigan (2-3)

Kickoff: Noon, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI

The Betting Line: Penn State +4

TV: ABC - Dave Pausch (play-by-play), Mike Golic (analyst), Paul Carcaterra (sideline)

Weather: A chilly but clear day with the temperature rising to the 40s throughout the afternoon.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 56-28, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 80-43, 10th Year

VS. MICHIGAN: 2-4

Jim Harbaugh:

MIHCIGAN RECORD: 49-21, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 151-67-1, 17th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 3-2

FUN FACTS

Of all the fantastic receivers to come out of Penn State this century, Jahan Dotson is the only one with at least 30 catches, 525 receiving yards and six touchdowns through the first five games of the season...the game will be played on the 39th anniversary of Penn State’s infamous 48-14 clobbering of #1 Pitt in 1981...the game also falls on the anniversary of the formation of the Letterman’s Club in 1907.

MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Like Penn State, Michigan is unsettled at the quarterback spot. However, the Wolverines may now have a clear direction moving forward.

Joe Milton began the season under center, and got off to a promising start in the week one victory against Minnesota. However, his performance has dipped with each week and left doubt if he is the right fit to lead the offense. Backup Cade McNamara took over last week after a slow start for Milton, and responded brilliantly by completing 75 percent of his passes for 260 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the first game of McNamara’s career where he saw significant snaps, and looks to be the first of many (at least for 2020).

Ronnie Bell is the standout receiver for the Wolverines, a consistent force with at least four catches in each game this season. He had one of the best games of his career in week three against Indiana, catching six passes for 149 yards and a score. Cornelius Johnson is a big target, and is coming off a standout performance with 87 receiving yards and two touchdowns to help guide Michigan in its triple-overtime thriller against Rutgers. Giles Jackson is just 5-9, but can be dangerous with the ball in his hands. He is currently the team’s second-leading receiver with 15 catches on the year.

Hassan Haskins is a bruising back who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He saw his workload skyrocket against Rutgers, helping him produce 109 yards and a score on the ground. Don’t be surprised if he gets another 25-carry day with Penn State’s defense struggling to stop the run in the trenches.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN DEFENSE

Yet again, the biggest question for Penn State’s offense is who takes the first snap at quarterback. Will Levis got the call last week, and had an efficient but overall unproductive day. He completed 13 of 16 passes, but kept everything short and was unable to provide the needed spark for the offense. His day ended with just 106 passing yards, but also produced 34 yards with his legs. He did not throw any touchdowns or interceptions.

Sean Clifford returned to the lineup, and proceeded to throw two spectacular passes that resulted in touchdowns on his first two attempts. However, he would quickly throw two interceptions, including another pick-six that extinguished any hope for a late comeback.

Neither James Franklin nor the official depth chart provided any clarity on a murky situation. The depth chart lists the starter as Levis OR Clifford, and Franklin alluded to the fact that he expects both quarterbacks to play well against the Wolverines.

Like Penn State, Michigan’s defense boasts a lot of projected talent but has been an astounding disappointment this season. They could not get off the field against a lethargic Michigan State offense, resulting in what was then seen as a shocking upset in week two. They allowed 38 points in an uncompetitive game against Indiana. They were helpless as Wisconsin ran all over them for 49 points. They also allowed 35 points in regulation to Rutgers, including giving up a late touchdown and two-point conversion that allowed the Scarlet Knights to force overtime.

We’re looking at weakness vs. weakness when the Nittany Lions have the ball. Sadly, it will come down to which unit is most dysfunctional and either can’t move the ball against a leaky defense, or can’t stop a discombobulated offense.

Michigan may be without its biggest playmaker on defense, defensive end Kwity Paye. The senior leads the Wolverines in sacks and TFLs despite not playing the past two games. He remains questionable for Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS

You may see Michigan go for it on fourth down with regularity on fourth downs in Penn State territory, as their kicking game is rather messy. Jake Moody has not seen the field since a disastrous 0-for-3 performance in week one. However, one-time Penn State commit Quinn Nordin has not provided any answers either. After connecting on his first two attempts of the season, Nordin also had a 0-for-3 performance against Rutgers that nearly cost the Wolverines its second victory of the season. It’s hard to imagine Harbaugh having much confidence in either to boot a crucial field goal in a tight contest on Saturday.

However, Brad Robbins will give the Wolverines an advantage in the punting game, as he is averaging an exceptional 46.9 yards per punt this season. He has a long of 66 yards, and has the ability to flip the field when Michigan finds itself backed up.

Jordan Stout will need to continue booting kickoffs out of the end zone to keep the ball away from Giles Jackson, an explosive returner who is averaging 27.2 yards per return and had took the opening kickoff of the second half to the house to spark Michigan’s rally against Rutgers on Saturday.

PREDICTION

Michigan-20, Penn State-17

I just can’t believe we have gotten here. So many of the things I’ve written above seems like it came out of a bad dream that you would have laughed off, never expecting it to come true. It’s completely unfathomable that Penn State would be 0-5 for the first time in program history, while Michigan sits at 2-3 after eking out a triple-overtime victory against Rutgers.

Just unfathomable.

I see this game going one of two ways - an uneventful slog where one team does just enough to end up victorious, or a bonkers, back-and-forth affair with wild momentum swings throughout. At least it would be an entertaining escape for three hours, but my best guess is we see the former in a game similar to the completely forgettable (well, outside of the phantom false start that cost Penn State a successful onside kick) 2015 contest between these two squads.

It’s nearly impossible to put any confidence in either team at the moment, but I will go with Michigan simply because they are at least coming off a win and may have some extra juice in practice this week. In an absolute pillow fight, Michigan is better by a couple feathers.

As you can gather from my score prediction, I’m not expecting much offense but will go with Theo Johnson getting his first of many touchdown receptions as a Nittany Lion, while Shaka Toney adds to his NFL audition reel with two sacks.

Another week, another search for answers.