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First Look, Game 9: Penn State vs Michigan

Penn State and Michigan meet in a marquee matchup Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines, coming off a bye week, can claim increased control of the Big Ten East with a win, while the Nittany Lions look to create conference chaos at Michigan Stadium.

Penn State, 6-2 and ranked 14th in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll, faces its second consecutive ranked opponent. The Nittany Lions defeated No. 18 Iowa, 30-24, last Saturday.

Michigan, 3-1 against Penn State during the James Franklin era, is unbeaten since a season-opening defeat at Notre Dame. The Wolverines’ Big Ten title ambitions gained a boost two weeks ago courtesy of a convincing win at Michigan State, and this showdown vs. the Nittany Lions — who pummeled Michigan last season — presents the program’s biggest challenge in advance of a Nov. 24 trip to Ohio State.

Penn State searches for a third straight victory, which would bolster its case for a high-level bowl bid and reshape the crowded College Football Playoff race. Following this trip, the Nittany Lions return home for a Nov. 10 contest vs. Wisconsin.

Let’s take an early glimpse at Penn State’s next foe.

Opponent: Michigan
Nickname: Wolverines
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (fourth season at Michigan; 35-12)
2018 record: 7-1 (5-0 in Big Ten)
Last Game: at Michigan State (21-7 win)
Leading Passer: Shea Patterson (1,523 yards, 12 touchdowns, 3 interceptions)
Leading Receiver:
Donovan Peoples-Jones (326 yards and 6 touchdowns on 22 catches)
Leading Rusher:
Karan Higdon (831 yards and 6 touchdowns on 153 carries)
Defensive Standout:
LB Devin Bush (49 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks)
2017 record: 8-5 (5-4 in Big Ten)

All-time series between Penn State and Michigan: Michigan leads 13-8
Penn State’s biggest win vs Michigan: 46-17 (2008), 42-13 (2017)
Michigan’s biggest win vs. Penn State: 49-10 (2016)

Last meeting: No. 2 Penn State 42, No. 19 Michigan 13 (Oct. 21, 2017 in Beaver Stadium)

Penn State set the tone early Saquon Barkley raced 69 yards for a touchdown on the second play from scrimmage — and cruised past Michigan to improve to 7-0 in front of a record-setting Beaver Stadium crowd (110,823; later topped by 110,889 at 2018 Ohio State game). Playing in a “White Out” setting, Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley accounted for all six Nittany Lions touchdowns. Barkley scored twice as a runner and caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from McSorley, who rushed for three scores and finished with 358 total yards. Penn State held the Wolverines to 269 yards, sacking quarterback John O’Korn seven times.

McSorley totaled four touchdowns vs. Michigan in 2017. (Photo: Harvey Levine-FOS/247)

Last meeting at Michigan: No. 4 Michigan 49, Penn State 10 (Sept. 24, 2016)

Four different Wolverines players scored first-half touchdowns as the home team built a 28-0 lead. Overall, the game featured scores for six Michigan players, headlined by running back Karan Higdon (81 rushing yards, two touchdowns). Michigan limited Penn State to 191 yards and only two third-down conversions. An eight-yard touchdown toss from McSorley to Chris Godwin was a rare offensive bright spot for the Nittany Lions, who fell to 2-2 in 2016 and 16-14 through 30 games under Franklin. Few would have believed Penn State would go on to win nine straight games, claim the conference championship and land on the doorstep of College Football Playoff inclusion.

What the 2018 matchup means

That 2016 trip to Michigan is the last game in which Penn State did not establish a fourth-quarter lead, something the Nittany Lions have now done in 31 consecutive contests. The perception surrounding this program has drastically evolved since suffering a blowout loss in Ann Arbor, and another win over the Wolverines would give the Nittany Lions an excellent chance to finish top-10 overall in final Top 25 rankings for a third straight season, something Penn State hasn’t accomplished since 1980-82.

Penn State last defeated a ranked opponent on the road in November 2013, when the Nittany Lions topped Wisconsin. It was Bill O’Brien’s final game as coach. and the team is 0-6 when visiting ranked foes since Franklin’s arrival.

The health of McSorley — who missed two offensive drives vs. Iowa before returning and playing through what appeared to be a right knee issue — will be widely discussed leading into this matchup. He’s among a few familiar faces in this series, such as Higdon (126 yards and three touchdowns in career vs. Penn State). There is also an injection of new talent, as Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson and Nittany Lions receiver KJ Hamler are prominent playmakers set to participate in their first Penn State-Michigan matchup.

Penn State would strengthen its case for a New Year’s Six bowl by winning, and keep its slim hopes for a Big Ten Champion appearance on life support. A Michigan win would represent a crucial stepping stone in the pursuit of the program’s first playoff appearance, and knock the Nittany Lions down another peg in conference standings.

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