Breakdown: Michigan vs. Penn State
Only one item remains on the Michigan football team’s to-do list before the Wolverines have a chance to face No. 3 Ohio State at home for a spot in the Big Ten Championship.
This weekend, No. 12 Michigan must journey into Happy Valley and come away with a win over Penn State (4-2 Big Ten, 7-3 overall) — no small task.
The two teams have played close games in their last two matchups: In 2013, the Nittany Lions pulled out a 43-40, double-overtime win, and last season Michigan held off Penn State under the lights at Michigan Stadium, 18-13.
With the way the Wolverines have played lately — three of their past four games have gone down to the final play — more theatrics aren’t out of the question.
The Daily breaks down the matchup:
Michigan pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense
Michigan fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock is coming off the best game of his career, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. The Wolverines may need some more heroics from him in the last two weeks of the season. He appears ready to provide those heroics, with the help of redshirt junior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and junior tight end Jake Butt.
Michigan played it relatively safe last year against Penn State, with quarterback Devin Gardner finishing 16-for-24 with 192 yards, a touchdown and an interception. That was about Rudock’s average until last week, when the Wolverines started hitting passes downfield. If that trend continues, it also bodes well for what could be a shootout against Ohio State next week.
The problem for Michigan is that the Nittany Lions could be the best opposing pass defense of the season. Penn State gives up just 159 yards per game through the air — second in the nation — and has nine interceptions. Indiana, meanwhile, came into last weekend’s game ranked second to last in that category.
The Nittany Lions’ leader in pass breakups has just five of them, but most of the team’s success in defending the aerial attack comes in its pass rush. Penn State has 41 sacks this season, led by the nation’s leader in the category: defensive end Carl Nassib with 15.5.
Edge: Penn State
Michigan rush offense vs. Penn State rush defense
The Wolverines have dropped off in their running game lately. In their five-game winning streak earlier in the season, they rushed for more than 200 yards four times, but they haven’t done so in the four games since. Last week at Indiana, Rudock was their leading rusher with 64 yards, while junior running back De’Veon Smith gained just 58 on 12 carries.
Due to a combination of injuries, splitting carries and ineffectiveness, Michigan hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since Smith against Brigham Young on Sept. 26. The Wolverines relied more on the passing game against Indiana, but if they could establish the ground game early, it might help relieve the pressure on Rudock.
That will be no easy task against Nassib and the Penn State front. The Nittany Lions have 94 tackles for loss this season, including a streak of 18 games with at least five. Overall, Penn State’s defense ranks No. 13 in the country, giving Michigan a tough test.
Edge: Penn State
Penn State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has already faced the Wolverines twice, with mixed results. Two years ago in State College, he threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, including one to lead a comeback at the end of regulation. Last season in Ann Arbor, Michigan sacked him six times and limited him to just 160 yards.
Hackenberg, a 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior, has thrown 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. His top target is wide receiver Chris Godwin (808 yards, three touchdowns). But his offensive line is still struggling, giving up 33 sacks in 10 games this season, so Michigan has an opportunity there.
The Wolverines appear to have solved some of their issues in the secondary, allowing just 317 yards over the past two weeks after surrendering at least that many in each of the previous two games. Hackenberg has the tools to burn them, but the secondary will be the best he has faced this season.
Penn State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Here, the Wolverines have the most to prove. Playing without redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow at Indiana last week, Michigan allowed 307 yards rushing on 55 attempts.
The Wolverines had to move up redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurst to play in Glasgow’s spot, and they faced depth issues behind Hurst. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Tom Strobel, now a two-way player, will see action there, as will others. Even without Glasgow, Michigan still boasts redshirt junior defensive linemen Willie Henry and Chris Wormley.
Penn State’s rushing attack doesn’t quite have the firepower of Indiana’s, and the Nittany Lions won’t test Michigan with any up-tempo offense, either. But running back Saquon Barkley is earning 6.3 yards per carry for a total of 836 along with seven touchdowns. There isn’t much behind him, and the sacks hurt Penn State’s rushing numbers. While the Nittany Lions rank just 98th in the country, the Wolverines will have to prove they can stop the run.
The Wolverines gave up another big play in the special teams game last week, this time a punt-return touchdown by Indiana’s Mitchell Paige. Other than that, though, the unit remains solid. Senior kicker Kenny Allen is now 14-for-18 on field goals, and fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill is averaging 41.7 yards on 44 punts with just three touchbacks.
Penn State changed kickers midseason, from Joey Julius to Tyler Davis after Julius missed two extra points against Illinois on Oct. 31. Davis has been perfect since then.
The Nittany Lions also have two punters and no big-play threat in the return game like Michigan redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers.
In some ways, Penn State has the edge here. The Nittany Lions are coming off a late-season bye week, playing at home on Senior Day and looking to avenge last season’s loss in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, Michigan admitted to being fatigued at Indiana last week, will be playing without Glasgow again and is traveling on the road for the second straight game.
But then there are the circumstances: Penn State is all but eliminated from the Big Ten East race, save for the possibility of a wild end to the season that could result in a four-way tie. The Wolverines, on the other hand, need only a win and a Michigan State loss to play their archrival at home for the division title next week. For them, the stakes couldn’t be any bigger.
Prediction: Michigan 26, Penn State 24