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Game Preview: No. 3 Michigan at No. 10 Penn State

The Nittany Lions look to topple the undefeated Wolverines and re-enter the playoff picture.

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

The Nittany Lions seek revenge from last season’s blowout in the Big House in a game that could put them back in the race for a conference crown and playoff berth.

No. 11 Penn State (8-1, 5-1) vs. Michigan (9-0, 6-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State +6.5 (Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.)

TV: FOX, Noon - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)

Weather: A cool but generally plesant day for mid-November, with a high of 46 and little chance of rain.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 86-37, 10th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 110-52, 13th Year

VS. MICHIGAN: 3-6

Jim Harbaugh:

MICHIGAN RECORD: 83-25, 9th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 141-52, 16th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 5-3

FUN FACTS

MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Michigan has a very well-balanced offensive attack, and have become less run-heavy with the emergence of JJ McCarthy as a passer. McCarthy remains on the Heisman shortlist and has the numbers to back it up, and will be looking for his “Heisman moment” after not playing against a ranked opponent or in any close games after nine weeks. He is completing 75.6% of his passes for 2,314 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. Oddly enough, all three interceptions came in the first half against Bowling Green. Manny Diaz has assuredly studied that film over and over to see what the Falcons did to cause McCarthy to slip up.

McCarthy is also the team’s fourth-leading rusher with 137 yards and three scores, and has the ability to extend plays in the pocket as well as scramble when the defense gives him space. This could mean Abdul Carter will spy McCarthy, much like he’s been used against more mobile quarterbacks the past two seasons.

McCarthy isn’t the only star in the backfield, as the running back duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards is probably the nation’s best, and may still be giving Nittany Lions fans nightmares after last year’s dominating performance. Corum is the main back, with 649 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the season. Edwards is more of a change-of-pace back who can break a long run at any moment, especially in the second half if the defense has spent too much time on the field. Edwards is also used more in the passing game, and has fourth-leading receiver with 24 catches for 225 yards.

Senior Roman Wilson has elevated his role with the offense as the primary receiver, and is coming off a big-time 9 catch, 143 yard performance at Purdue. He leads the team with 589 receiving yards and has already found the end zone 10 times this season. Cornelius Johnson is another expereinced wideout that McCarthy looks to often, and leads the team with a 17.6 yard per catch average. At 6’3”, Johnson is known for capitalizing on mismatches. Tight end Colston Loveland is another frequent target, and is the team’s second leading receiver.

Something to note is that Michigan’s offensive line has not done as well in pass protection in the past few weeks. They only allowed three sacks in the first six games, but have given up eight sacks in the past three games — four against Indiana, one to Michigan State, and three against Purdue. This is a trend Penn State will look to continue with the nation’s best pass rush, ranking first with 4.22 sacks per game.

This leads us to the biggest question for Penn State’s defense heading into the game — will star defensive end Chop Robinson be available to play? Robinson exited the Ohio State game early with an injury, and was out of action the next two games. However, he was able to make the trip and dress for the Maryland game on Saturday. While Penn State has a slew of outstanding pass rushers, the Nittany Lions could really use Robinson back in action for Michigan’s balanced attack. Not only is he one of the most unblockable players in the nation, he also excels against the rush.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN DEFENSE

There’s a lot to discuss with the Michigan defense, but let’s start with this key stat — they are allowing just 6.7 points per game.

Michigan doesn’t do anything really exotic on defense to confuse opponents, but sticks to the essentials and do it very well. They get pressure from a four man front, clog up the interior, have linebackers flying to the ball and a secondary that excels in man coverage. It’s much easier said than done, but the Wolverines do it very, very well. It’s quite different than the years of Dom Brown at defensive coordinator where they focused on getting pressure but were vulnerable to the big play.

There are many impact players on the Michigan defense, so I will do my best to keep this brief. Defensive end Josaiah Stewart is continuing a recent trend of elite passrushers for the Maize and Blue and leads the team with 6.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, while his counterpart Jaylen Harrell is not far behind with 5.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Defensive back Mike Sainristil leads the team with three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, while Will Johnson and Keon Sabb both have two interceptions and a pick-six. Linebacker Michael Barrett is a playmaker, and is second on the team in tackles along with two forced fumbles and recoveries, and four quarterback hurries. Linebacker Junior Colson is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine who leads the team with 49 tackles — 16 more tackles than Barrett, who is the second-leading tackler. Simply put, it’s a pure 11-man unit where everyone does their job well and gets in on the action at some point.

Fortunately for Penn State, quarterback Drew Allar is coming off his best game as a Nittany Lion against Maryland. While he completed 73.5 percent of his passes and tossed for four touchdowns and no interceptions, he looked far more comfortable in the offense and was able to put more trust into receivers. It seemed that the widely-held theory that Allar just needed to get his first career interception out of the way (after an NCAA record 311 attempts) has some truth to it, as Allar has looked much more poised and more willing to look downfield since being picked off in the fourth quarter against Indiana. Dante Cephas also had by far his best performance as a Nittany Lion, and will need to follow up with another big game for the offense to move the ball against Michigan.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Michigan kicker James Turner is eight-for-10 on field goals this season with a long of 50 yards, and has not missed an attempt of less than 40 yards. Punter Tommy Doman is averaging an outstanding 44.78 yards per punt with a long of 65 yards. He only has one touchback with 10 of his 23 punts placed inside the 20.

Penn State kick returner Nicholas Singleton and punt returner Daequan Hardy have been on a hot streak in recent weeks, and a big return from either could produce a huge momentum swing for a game that features the #1 and #3 scoring defenses in the nation.

PREDICTION

Michigan-23 , Penn State-17

I’m feeling much more hopeful about this game after practically counting Penn State out following their offensive performance at Ohio State and a lackluster game against Indiana. However, the offense finally showed some flair last week and Allar seems completely dialed in after a season of growth with some bumps along the way, and not enough help from his receiving crew. I’m just still not at the point where I have confidence the offense can consistently move the ball against a defense of Michigan’s caliber.

This will be a battle of the nation’s top two defenses. However, Michigan seems to have a more balanced and reliable offense that will have a little more success moving the ball than when the Nittany Lions are on offense. Perhaps Allar takes another big step, or the defense is able to come up with a score or two, or Singleton and/or Hardy are able to break a return that ends up deciding a close game. There are paths to victory, but none that make me overlyconfident until I see it happen.