Michigan enters the month of November likely in control of its destiny for a trip to the CFB Playoff, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s team still has a couple of obstacles in its path, including Saturday’s game against Penn State. The Wolverines ranked No. 5 in the first release of the CFB Playoff rankings, while the Nittany Lions checked in at No. 14.
Michigan started its 2018 season with a 24-17 loss in South Bend to Notre Dame. However, the Wolverines have showed steady improvement since the opener, reeling off seven consecutive victories, including wins against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The addition of transfer quarterback Shea Patterson has provided a boost to the offense, and the offensive line has made big strides under new coach Ed Warinner. Michigan’s defense ranks among the best in college football, as no opponent has managed more than 24 points against this unit in 2018. If the Wolverines get by Penn State, upcoming games against Rutgers and Indiana should allow this team to be 10-1 going into the finale against Ohio State.
Penn State entered the year with expectations of winning the Big Ten title and got off to a fast 4-0 start. However, the Nittany Lions stumbled in back-to-back games to Ohio State and Michigan State but defeated Indiana and Iowa to improve to 6-2 going into Saturday’s contest versus Michigan. Coach James Franklin’s team has played in four consecutive games decided by six points or less and is 2-2 in that span. Quarterback Trace McSorley is among the top players in college football, leading an offense that averages 41 points a game. However, Penn State’s defense has slipped just a bit on the stat sheet. After holding opponents to 16.5 points a game in 2017, the Nittany Lions are giving up 22.8 in ’18. Despite having two losses in Big Ten play, Penn State isn’t out of the mix to win the East Division. However, there’s no margin for error the rest of the way.
Michigan owns a 13-8 series edge over Penn State. The Wolverines have won three out of the last four against the Nittany Lions. Penn State won 42-13 in Happy Valley last fall. However, the Nittany Lions have not won in Ann Arbor since 2009.
Penn State at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 3:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Michigan -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Penn State QB Trace McSorley
Penn State’s hopes of a victory will rest on how far McSorley can carry the offense. In last week’s win over Iowa, the senior quarterback suffered a knee injury in the first half but returned to action and guided the Nittany Lions to 13 points in the final two quarters. McSorley finished the game by connecting on 11 of 25 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 63 yards and a score.
Although McSorley returned to the game last week, how close to 100 percent will he be this Saturday? The senior’s mobility is crucial for Penn State to execute its RPO offense, and Michigan’s front is capable of creating a lot of pressure or creating havoc in the backfield. The Wolverines rank first in the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.4 ppg allowed), limit opposing offenses to 3.7 yards a play and allow less than 100 rushing yards a game.
In order for Penn State to pull off the upset, it needs McSorley and running back Miles Sanders to have big performances. If McSorley is limited or has any trouble making plays with his legs, the task of winning in Ann Arbor will only get tougher.
2. Michigan’s Ground Game Against Penn State
Thanks to an improving line behind new assistant coach Ed Warinner, Michigan’s ground game is averaging 212.8 yards a game – up from 177.7 last season. Karan Higdon has been the catalyst for the ground attack, recording 831 yards and six touchdowns on 153 carries, with Tru Wilson (217) and Chris Evans (194) providing a solid trio of options for Harbaugh. Additionally, quarterback Shea Patterson (145 yards) can make plays as needed with his legs on reads or when the pocket breaks down. Most importantly for Harbaugh’s offense, Warinner has developed the front five into one of the most-improved units in the Big Ten. Michigan rushers are averaging 5.1 yards per carry, which is up from 4.4 last fall.
Stopping Michigan’s ground game will be a challenge for Penn State’s defense. The Nittany Lions rank ninth in the Big Ten against the run, allowing 161.4 yards a contest. All five opponents from conference play have eclipsed the 100-yard mark, including 224 by Indiana and 245 from Illinois. While stopping the run has been an issue at times, Penn State’s front has exceled at getting to the quarterback. Yetur Gross-Matos has 12.5 tackles for a loss, with Shareef Miller (8.5) and Shaka Toney (7.5) also disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
Will Michigan’s ground game continue to churn out the yardage and productive gains against Penn State’s front seven? Or will the Nittany Lions win the battle up front and limit Higdon to under 100 yards?
3. Michigan QB Shea Patterson
As mentioned above, a big reason why Michigan is in the mix to win the Big Ten and earn a trip to the CFB Playoff is the continued development by the offensive line. However, another factor in the Wolverines’ improvement this season goes back to the addition of Patterson under center. The Ole Miss transfer has been efficient (67.3 percent) in his first year with the program, throwing for 1,523 yards and 12 touchdowns to just three picks. Patterson’s mobility also adds another dimension to the offense. The junior has been adept at making timely runs off of read plays or simply escaping the rush to roll out and throw outside of the pocket.
Patterson could have some extra help in the receiving corps this week, as sophomore Tarik Black played in the win over Michigan State and could see an increased role this Saturday. Black suffered a foot injury and missed most of last year. The sophomore suffered another foot injury in preseason workouts and missed the first six games of the 2018 season. Black’s return adds another weapon to a receiving corps that already featured tight ends Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon, along with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins at receiver. Penn State’s secondary ranks second in the Big Ten against the pass and has allowed only two plays of 40 or more yards this season.
Will Patterson continue to play mistake-free ball and find plays downfield against a secondary ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense? The Nittany Lions have excelled at getting to the quarterback this season, and coordinator Brent Pry’s group will need to generate pressure to keep Michigan’s offense to contain Patterson and this receiving corps on third downs.
The last two meetings in this series weren’t close on the scoreboard. Michigan won 49-10 in 2016, with Penn State winning 42-13 last fall. It’s unlikely the 2018 matchup will be a repeat of those scores. Look for a much closer game this season, but the Wolverines seem to be peaking at the right time. Patterson will be efficient, as Michigan’s ground game gets cranked up in the second half. McSorley’s mobility is worth monitoring against one of the nation’s top defenses. If he can’t move in the pocket or is limited, that’s a huge setback for Penn State’s offense. The guess here is McSorley makes enough plays to keep the Nittany Lions within striking distance most of the game, but Michigan is simply better this season, as Harbaugh’s team crosses another victory off on its revenge tour.