Before the season began, it seemed the Michigan football team’s entire 2018 would be defined by its three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, from middle October to early November.
Two games through that stretch, the fifth-ranked Wolverines (7-1 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) have nearly made it out the other side unscathed.
All that is left in Michigan’s season-defining span now are the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2).
Penn State was thought to be a national title contender at the start of the season, but after two heartbreaking losses to Ohio State and the Spartans, the Nittany Lions are now fighting an uphill battle to play meaningful late-season games. Of course, if they can overcome the Wolverines on Saturday, that narrative may be flipped on its head.
To preview the top-15 matchup, The Daily caught up with Tyler King, the football editor at Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, to ask about the importance of the game and how he sees things panning out.
The Michigan Daily: So, Michigan players have been talking, and the coaches have been talking a lot this week about last year’s game. I’m wondering how much talk there’s been on the Penn State end about that game.
Tyler King: Yeah, Penn State is like one of the few schools in the country, maybe the only school, that doesn’t do a big press conference, which is very frustrating from a content standpoint, but that’s beside the point. But they take this whole, 1-0 each week mentality, treating every game like the Super Bowl, which is such a cliché, but they do it. For every game, they treat every game, not like it’s Akron, but there have been misconstrued quotes from, like, last year, where James Franklin says beating a team like (Pittsburgh), an in-state rival, is just as important as beating Akron.
So, I mean, they haven’t really talked about it too much, because honestly even today, the players and James Franklin were asked about two years ago, the game at The Big House, which Michigan won, 49-10. And they kind of just shrugged those questions off, like, ‘Yeah, that happened, but we’re just focused on this year’s game and this year’s Michigan team.’ They usually like to shrug those questions off and they don’t heavily talk about that game a lot from last year. Obviously it was a whiteout game and Penn State’s had success in the whiteout the last couple of years. Obviously this year losing by one point to Ohio State, but in general, usually the whiteout has been successful. I just think that was just a product of two teams last year where Penn State was just clearly better and in that home environment it just kind of showed.
TMD: And about those two losses, both of them have sort of come at the last minute in heartbreaking fashion. Does it feel at all like a team demoralized by those or are they sort of rallying around finishing strong here?
TK: Yeah, like I said, they do that annoying, kind of, 1-0-each-week kind of thing, and James Franklin said that after they beat Iowa this past week. Another beat reporter asked about, you know, does this kind of, maybe breathe some life into the team? And James kind of really just played that question off and just said, ‘Look, we’re 1-0 this week. We’re happy we won this week.’ So, I mean, after the Ohio State game, the vibe that I got from talking to players and especially a guy like Trace McSorley, who had, I mean, just an unbelievable performance against Ohio State, they felt kind of confident. I mean, in my opinion, I thought Penn State was the better team for three quarters, and then they just had another fourth-quarter collapse and they lost by one point. So I didn’t think they were very defeated.
But after Michigan State, I could feel it, talking to players, that they were kind of defeated. And obviously now, that was three weeks ago, so I mean, I would have a good feeling they put those two games behind them. But, I mean, definitely after the Michigan State game, you could kind of feel the vibe with the players, especially with a guy like Trace McSorley, who didn’t play his best game that day. The offense as a whole struggled, only scoring 17 points. He seemed kind of — he seemed very defeated after that game. But now I think they’ve kind of rebounded and yeah, this game right here is going to decide their season — whether or not they have a chance at a New Year’s Six bowl or whether they’re looking at, maybe like, a Holiday Bowl or an Outback Bowl or Citrus Bowl appearance or something like that.
I think of this as the toughest game on their whole schedule. This is tougher than the Ohio State game, because that’s a whiteout game at home. This is a road game in a stadium that the Penn State program has not had a lot of success at this century. So they seem ready for this game, but like I said, they treat every game the same — at least they put on that mirage that they do.
TMD: From a national perspective going into the year, the narrative around Penn State was, how are they gonna replace Saquon Barkley. How do you think they’ve replaced Saquon Barkley both on the field and from a leadership standpoint?
TK: Yeah, from a leadership standpoint, I don’t think there’s been any — they have plenty of good veterans on this team and quality leaders. Obviously with Trace McSorley they have that. And replacing (Barkley) from a production standpoint, I mean, James Franklin said before the year, you can’t replace Saquon Barkley because he’s a once-in-a — the program’s never gonna have a player like Saquon Barkley again, because just his innate talent and his work ethic and things like that, it’s just never gonna happen.
But in my opinion, and I’ve said this all year long, I think Miles Sanders is a better fit for this Penn State offense than Saquon was. Watching Saquon for three years and being a huge NFL fan like I am, I think Saquon is better fit for a pro-style offense where the quarterback is under center, and Penn State never goes under center. So I think Miles Sanders is just more fit for this type of system. And, obviously, he doesn’t have the same numbers that Saquon did last year, but I still think he’s been incredibly productive. I mean, he had a game against Illinois in which he ran all over them. He had exactly 200 yards and three touchdowns. He’s put up big numbers in just about every game except I think two: Against Ohio State and then this past week against Iowa he didn’t really do much. But he didn’t have a lot of touches in either of those games for whatever reason.
Yeah, I think Miles Sanders is up there. When I mention (Michigan running back) Karan Higdon in the top three (running backs in the Big Ten), I think Miles Sanders is in the top three as well. I think he, (Wisconsin’s) Jonathan Taylor and Karan Higdon are the three best running backs in this conference. I think Sanders has done a very good job this season.
TMD: McSorley has taken a slight tick down, I would say, statistically this year. Have you seen any sort of drop-off, or is that not necessarily representative of how he’s been playing?
TK: Definitely passing, his stats are down (from what) they were the past two seasons. I think, just, with the way this offense has had to adjust and had to work this season, I wrote a story last week about Trace McSorley and his ability as a runner this season, because he’s become that. He’s no longer this player that is chucking it deep to his talented wide receivers and letting them go get it as a product of Joe Moorhead’s offense.
… But yeah, Trace McSorley the last two seasons had 10 total 300-yard passing games — five in each season. This season, through eight games now, he doesn’t have any. I think he’s only thrown for over 230 yards once. So, I mean, as a passer, yeah. The stats show that he’s taken a step back, and there have been some games where he hasn’t looked as accurate, but he’s really just getting no help from his wide receivers. I mean, one of the big talking points this entire season has been the inexperience of this wide receiver group and the drops that have plagued them. Even the veterans that they have like DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson haven’t been nearly as productive as many people thought they would coming into the year. The only two, receiving — reliable, consistent, receiving targets that McSorley has is redshirt freshman KJ Hamler … and then another freshman, true freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth who has been really impressive.
… (McSorley) has been whatever Penn State needs him to be, and I think that is the biggest thing this season for him. He’s still playing at a Heisman-caliber level in my opinion, and even though that’s not as a passer, it’s more as a runner, he’s still been incredibly impressive.
TMD: If Penn State’s gonna win this game, they need to do…?
TK: It’s gonna come down to, can they play well enough on offense to get the job done against this really talented Michigan defense.
TMD: Do you have a prediction?
TK: Like I said, I don’t really think it’s gonna be all that close. I think this Michigan team is really dominant, and like I said, Penn State in the past has not really had a lot of success at The Big House. And the offense, right now, is just not at the level where I can fathom them scoring more than, like, 20 points against a defense like this on the road. I mean, they struggled to move the ball against an Iowa team that really wasn’t that impressive to me on tape.
So, yeah, I think I’m gonna go somewhere around Michigan 31, Penn State 17.