On paper I think Penn State and Michigan match up really well. Two solid defenses, strong run games, and okay passing games on both sides of the line. Michigan is likely a touch worse than they were last year, while I think Penn State is a touch better. If this game were either neutral or at Beaver Stadium, I’d pencil the Lions in for the win. But the game is in Ann Arbor, and while the Big House isn’t as difficult a place to play as Columbus, it will still be a hostile crowd.
After the two teams settle down, the two defenses do their part. It’s a tight game through three quarters, with neither team doing enough to pull away. Fourth quarter, Sean Clifford tosses an interception, and on the ensuing drive Michigan picks the middle of Penn State’s defense apart with shallow crosses and mesh plays. The Wolverines go up late, and hold off a late push by the Lions to tie it up when a Jake Pinegar field goal attempts sails wide.
Michigan 24, Penn State 21
Personally I think people may be overreacting just a tad too much to the Wolverines’ performance against Indiana. Away games with Michigan also give me PTSD (see 1998 through 2007.) This game will be close, and like Chris, if it’s in the Beav, Penn State gets the victory.
The running game will struggle more than usual, and Sean Clifford throws a pick in the second half. As a result, Penn State plays from behind for most of the final two stanzas. It’s close, but not close enough.
Michigan 21, Penn State 17
There is a strong argument to make that Penn State is the better all-around team than Michigan. These are two very good football teams, but in terms of overall talent the Nittany Lions just may have the slight edge. That said, the game is being played in Ann Arbor and Michigan’s passing game is built on short crossing routes which is the one weakness of Penn State’s defense. If the Nittany Lions are going to beat the Wolverines, their linebackers are going to have to play better than they have all season. While linebacker has not necessarily been the liability many feared entering the season their overall play has still left a lot to be desired. If Penn State’s linebackers can help fill holes to contain Blake Corum and the rushing attack while preventing crossing routes and the middle of the field in the passing game from killing them, it should be another good day for Manny Diaz’s unit.
Penn State’s passing attack has not been good enough. Not even close. Wide receivers have struggled at times to get separation and be explosive. Sean Clifford continues to look like a deer in the headlights when he’s in the pocket, often times getting happy feet even when he has a good pocket leading to him not setting his feet and making poor throws. Clifford can not miss open receivers and leaves points on the field Saturday afternoon if the Nittany Lions want to leave Ann Arbor 6-0. To be honest, if Drew Allar was the starting quarterback I’d have little doubt in the Nittany Lions securing a victory.
This game likely comes down to which passing game does more, between the way they match up with Penn State’s defense and a lack of faith in Clifford I believe it will be the Wolverine passing attack that does enough to get the victory.
Michigan 24, Penn State 20
I feel like I’ve rewritten my Auburn prediction about four times. Same concerns against a much better team than the Tigers. Can Penn State’s linebackers hold up? Will Michigan exploit the middle of the field? What about Penn State running the ball and protecting Sean Clifford against the best defensive line they’ll have seen? Can anyone get open for big pass plays down the field?
But you know what? Even with all the parallels to 2021, I think Penn State is pretty damn good this year. There are still concerns I have about picking them to win on the road in a huge game environment against what I also consider to be a damn good team (consistent Clifford, young running backs, an efficient offensive opponent with a mobile QB and Heisman darkhorse tailback).
Let’s do it anyway. Clifford makes a big play late and the defense comes up with a key turnover. Lions win 24-23. Let’s believe.
Penn State 24, Michigan 23
I think the meme with the two Spider-Man’s pointing at each other applies quite well to this game. Both Penn State and Michigan boast solid run games and short-to-intermediate passing attacks offensively while lack a true deep threat, both teams also boast the ability to stop opposing ground attacks while also having effective pass rushes and opportunistic secondaries waiting to pounce on any ball that comes their way while being vulnerable in the middle of the field due to the issues at linebacker.
I know there’s skepticism about Sean Clifford (and rightfully so), but he steps up in big road games and has a 2-1 record as a starter against Michigan (which could’ve been 3-0 if Kalen King didn’t run into his own teammate trying to cover a crossing route), so I think he will put up a decent enough performance to at least not lose PSU the game.
The big question mark to me is whether PSU’s defense can contain Blake Corum and force JJ McCarthy to beat them with his arm. I think Manny Diaz can dial up enough looks that can disrupt the Wolverines like no team has been able to do to them yet. Yes, they will give up some big plays and a few scores, but they will also get a critical turnover or two that sets up a score for PSU.
I know I initially had this pegged as a loss for the longest time, but when it feels this evenly matched, I’m gonna err on the side of being a homer on this one.
Penn State 24, Michigan 20
(Originally appearing in the B1G Preview and Degenerate Challenge)
One of the most anticipated games of the season, the Nittany Lions will look to avenge last season’s heartbreaker against the Wolverines. Both teams have looked unstoppable at times, and both have shown weaknesses that can fully be exploited. Penn State has not fared well against Jim Harbaugh on the road, losing two of three by at least 35 points. Can this be the season the tides turn?
Plenty of folks will tell you that if Penn State loses this game, it’ll be because of quarterback Sean Clifford. Let’s revisit Clifford’s last three games against the Wolverines:
2019: 14-25 (58%), 182 yards, 4 touchdowns (1 rushing), 0 turnovers.
2020: 17-28 (60.7), 163 yards, 1 touchdown (rushing), 0 turnovers.
2021: 23-43 (53.5), 205 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 turnovers.
Even in his worst performance against the Wolverines, a hobbled and sick Clifford still managed to complete 53 percent of his passes on nearly twice as many attempts as the previous two seasons, while committing no turnovers. Penn State may very well lose this game, but if they do, it won’t be because of Clifford.
Penn State 56, Michigan 17
(Originally appearing in the Game Preview)
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.
Penn State 28, Michigan 24