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Opponent Snapshot: Michigan

Can the Lions avenge last season’s loss?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Quick 2021 Recap

Michigan had a dream season in 2021, going 11-1 in the regular season, including a nailbiting 21-17 win over Penn State. Led by ferocious defensive end duo Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the Wolverines beat rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011, won the Big Ten for the first time since 2003, and advanced to the College Football Playoff for the first time since ever. There, the Wolverines succumbed to eventual national champions Georgia in the semifinal by a score of 34-11, capping the most successful season that Michigan has had under Jim Harbaugh.

Offensive Player To Watch: Cade McNamara (QB)

A former 4-star recruit, McNamara played well for the Wolverines as a redshirt sophomore in 2021. On the season, Cade completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six interceptions. A true pocket passer, McNamara is not often called on to run, and he played admirably in Josh Gattis’ system. However, star running back Hassan Haskins is off to the NFL, and Gattis is now calling plays for Miami (FL). If Michigan is going to succeed on offense, Cade will likely need to improve his TD:INT ratio, and perhaps lend his legs in the run game a bit more. Lucky for McNamara, three starters return on an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award for best OL unit in the country.

Keep an eye on placekicker Jake Moody as well, who opted against the NFL Draft and returned for the 2022 season after winning the 2021 Lou Groza Award, and being named the consensus first-team placekicker on the All-America team.

Defensive Player To Watch: Mazi Smith (DT)

Michigan lost a TON on defense from the 2021 season. Both of the aforementioned Hutchinson and Ojabo are gone, as are DTs Chris Hinton and Donovan Jeter, LBs Jordan Whittley and Josh Ross, and DBs Daxton Hill, Brad Hawkins, and Vincent Gray. Michigan has recruited as well as most, and will not lack for talent on defense, but experience is going to be a bit wanting. To that end, Mazi Smith will take over at NT after putting together a third-team All-American season in 2021. Given how poor the interior of the Lions’ OL has played at times, containing a truly disruptive nose tackle will be key to establishing the run game and keeping Sean Clifford upright.

Michigan Wins If

The Wolverines reload on defense, with a few proven starters carrying the load while talented but inexperienced new faces live up to their recruiting expectations. If the Penn State offense still struggles to run the ball, and the offensive line can’t keep Clifford’s jersey clean, the energetic youths on the Wolverines defense can pin their ears back and get after the ball. On the other side of the ball, Cade McNamara improves on his 2021 stats, helped along by a veteran offensive line, and helps make up for the loss of the Haskins in the rushing game. If the linebacking corps struggles for the Lions, expect the team to be picked apart by a short-to-medium passing game, with slants and crossing routes galore.

Penn State Wins If

The Nittany Lions round out on offense with a run game, and take advantage of an inexperienced Michigan defense. If the offensive line can get push against Mazi and a relatively inexperienced DL, the Lions can keep Clifford upright and give Keyvone Lee, Nick Singleton and Co. some lanes to run, and PSU should be able to score some points. On defense, if the defensive line can make McNamara uncomfortable, and the secondary can muddy the waters, the quarterback may be forced into some errant throws or poor decisions. If the Michigan run game is not as effective, Cade may try to shoulder the load himself, and if the linebackers can clog the short passing lanes, some turnovers could be there for the taking.