It’s a top 10 battle in the Big House!
Penn State (5-0) vs. Michigan (6-0)
Kickoff: Noon, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
TV: FOX, Noon - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)
Weather: A cold morning with temperatures in the upper 30s will slowly warm up to the mid-50s. Showers are possible through the morning and afternoon.
PENN STATE RECORD: 72-34, 9th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 96-49, 12th Year
VS. MICHIGAN: 3-5
MICHIGAN RECORD: 67-24, 8th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 169-70-1, 19th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 4-3
This will be the 26th meeting between the two opponents, with Michigan holding a 15-10 all-time series lead...Penn State is 11-6 in games played on October 15, which includes the top-5 battle in 1994 where the Nittany Lion prevailed 31-24 on their way to an undefeated season...Penn State also defeated Susquehanna 45-6 in 1898, as well as demolishing the Sterling Athletic Club 45-0 in 1910.
MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Blake Corum is the workhorse running back who is at the center of the Wolverines offense. He currently sits at third nationally in rushing yards despite a light load during the non-conference slate. Corum has seen his carries rise in Big Ten play, averaging 28 carries per game in conference games. He’s responded with at least 124 yards and a touchdown in each game, including a 243-yard day to help carry the offense past Maryland.
While Corum is a sturdy back, the Michigan line has struggled to get him yards between the tackles. He’s done most of his damage by bouncing it outside and getting to the second level. Corum isn’t too involved in the passing game, with four catches on the year.
Sophomore J.J. McCarthy was able to supplant Cade McNamara as QB1, despite the latter leading Michigan to a conference championship and playoff berth in 2021. McCarthy’s numbers so far are staggering - a 78.3 competition rate and nine touchdowns to only one interception. However, it should be noted that the offense has been tailored for a first-year starter. Most passes are kept under nine yards, and Michigan has found success in dinking and dunking down the field. Like Penn State, Michigan has struggled to find options in the vertical passing game. McCarthy has the mobility to elude pressure and pick up a first down or two with his legs, but isn’t typically looked upon as a runner.
Manny Diaz likes to throw everything he can to confuse opposing quarterbacks, and expect that to be dialed up as he hopes to take advantage of McCarthy’s relative inexperience - especially against a defense that can get to the quarterback and generate turnovers like the Nittany Lions.
Ronnie Bell remains the primary target at receiver, with more than twice as many catches (30) as the next leading wide receivers (Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson, both with 12). Bell has the athleticism to attack the middle of Penn State’s defense, which has been vulnerable as the linebackers have struggled in coverage. It could be a big day for tight end Luke Schoonmaker, a very large and reliable target. Schoonmaker has been outstanding in Big Ten play, with 20 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games.
Penn State has been outstanding stuffing the run, allowing just 79.6 yards on the ground per game. Michigan’s strength is using one of the nation’s best running backs often to set up the pass. This will be a fascinating match-up, and determine whether or not the Nittany Lions can try to keep pressure on McCarthy to carry the offense, and get the opportunity to force him out of his comfort zone.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN DEFENSE
The Wolverine’s defense is similar to Penn State’s in a number of ways. They’re stout against the run, they don’t allow much time in the pocket for the quarterback, and can create turnovers. They’re also similar in that both are replacing key playmakers from last year, and have had younger players stepping into the role and still reaching their full potential. Both have been outstanding the first part of the season, and will keep getting better. It should be noted that while Michigan is near the top in the nation in all defensive categories, they have played a very poor group of offenses after six games.
Michigan has consistent talent and depth across the defense. While they have some standouts, they have many “plug and play” players they can rely on. Linebacker Junior Colson leads the team in tackles by a wide margin, and has been an effective blitzer. Mike Morris is a nearly 300-pound edge rusher who can be very difficult to keep in check. He has four sacks and three QB hurries in the past three weeks against Big Ten opponents. Former Alabama commit Eyabi Okie only has one sack on the season, but is starting to grow into his tremendous upside and is poised for a breakout game. Jaylen Harrell is another talented edge rusher who has been making plays in the backfield all season. Basically, Michigan has done a fine job at replacing Aidan Hutchinson (who in my humble opinion deserved the Heisman in 2021) and David Ojabo, who would have been a surefire first round pick if not for an injury. Safety Rod Moore is one of the standouts of the secondary, with two picks while also being very active in the run defense.
Michigan’s scheme has remained similar over the years despite new faces at defensive coordinator - throw an array of coverages on first and second downs, then attack on third down. It’s a high-risk, high-reward scheme so it will be crucial for Penn State to find its vertical passing game this week.
Michigan kicker Jake Moody is back for his fifth season. He is 9-for-12 on field goals this season, with a long of 52 yards, and is coming off a season where he missed just two of his 25 field goal attempts. Brad Robbins is also back for his fifth season, and has been one of the top punters in the Big Ten dating back to 2018. He is averaging 46.2 yards per punt, with half of his 18 attempts being fielded inside the 20.
Penn State’s Barney Amor has been right there with Robbins, which could lead to a Big Ten-style punter showdown if the defenses take control of the game. Kicker Jake Pinegar is searching for consistency. He’s missed an extra point and chip shot this season, but also hit clutch field goals - a 48-yarder to give Penn State the momentum it needed in the second half against Auburn, as well as a field goal in terrible conditions to give much-needed breathing room against Northwestern in a 17-7 slugfest.
Penn State-28 , Michigan-24
The Nittany Lions and Wolverines are strikingly similar nearing the midway point of the season. Both are stout on defense, especially against the run. Both can get after the quarterback and take an offense out of rhythm, while creating momentum-shifting plays. Both offenses like to rely on the run, have promising intermediate passing attacks without much luck of finding a deep threat.
The biggest and most impactful similarity for me is the makeup of the teams. Both replaced key players from a season ago, but have seen younger, inexperienced players and additions from the transfer portal rise up to fill those holes. In most cases, the new faces have far exceeded expectations, leading both teams to undefeated records and top 10 standing heading into this game. This is what the game will come down to for me. This will be the biggest test by far for both teams. Some players will struggle against the advanced competition, while others will rise to the occasion and prove they are difference-makers. This game will come down to how this shakes out - perhaps no more importantly than J.J. McCarthy. He will not have the luxury of a clean pocket like he has for most of the season. He could struggle mightily if Penn State shuts down the run, or he could show why he was so highly-touted and able to beat out the incumbent who led the team to huge heights just a year ago. If it’s the latter, Penn State could be in trouble.
This one could easily go either way, but I like the Nittany Lions ability to create havoc to give them a slight edge. Penn State wins the game by winning the turnover margin in a nail-biter.