In the last meeting between Michigan and Penn State, in State College last November, both teams scored four times.
The difference in the game was that Michigan’s four scores were all touchdowns, while Penn State stalled for short field goals three times in a 28-16 loss. The Nittany Lions finished 3-for-14 on third down with just nine points on three red-zone trips.
That might well be the story when the teams match up again Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Big Ten East foes’ stats have many disparities, but the biggest one is this: Penn State ranks 118th in the country on third down, converting 27.3 percent of its chances, while Michigan leads the country in third-down defense, allowing a 10.5 percent conversion rate.
The Nittany Lions have to do much better to have a chance Saturday, but they will likely still be the toughest opponent the Wolverines have faced. Here’s how the teams stack up:
Michigan rush offense vs. Penn State rush defense
Michigan’s ground game eased some of the concerns last week against Colorado, rushing for 168 yards on 4.1 per carry with three touchdowns. Senior De’Veon Smith played his best game of the season, carrying 11 times for 87 yards and a score, and the unit had just two negative rushes, not counting sacks.
The Wolverines have gone with a true committee at the position this season. Smith’s 11 carries were the most any back has earned this season, and even with his success, Michigan still went to redshirt junior Ty Isaac 10 times. Expect the rotation to continue this week, and look for the Wolverines to go to their running game early on to set up the passing game.
Last year, the Wolverines totaled just 87 rushing yards against Penn State, but in this matchup, the Nittany Lions’ front seven is hurting. Since the season opener, Penn State has lost all three starting linebackers — Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White — to injury. Manny Bowen, Brandon Smith and Jake Cooper will start in their places, respectively. Once considered a position of strength, that’s a severe depth issue for a unit that will match up with Michigan redshirt junior fullbacks Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi in the run game.
As a byproduct of those injuries, the Nittany Lions now rank 92nd in the country in rush defense at 176.3 yards per game. Their two leading tacklers are in the secondary, and their next two are injured, though they have had 28 tackles for loss from 17 different players. Michigan may try to pound the ball against that undermanned front.
Michigan pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense
For the first time this season, Michigan’s passing game looked out of sync on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight completed just 53 percent of his passes (16 of 30) and took three sacks. Top wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson combined for just two catches. And the multiple deep balls the Wolverines hit against Central Florida the previous week weren’t there, as Speight completed just one long pass.
Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno on Wednesday acknowledged areas for improvement in every facet of that game, from pass protection to route polishing. One constant has been senior tight end Jake Butt, who was the team’s leading pass catcher again Saturday with seven grabs for 87 yards. He, Darboh and Chesson combined for 203 of Michigan’s 256 yards last year against Penn State.
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, have been tough on opposing quarterbacks. Pass defense is their statistical strength, tied for 22nd in the country at 168.7 yards per game. And while Speight should be the most talented opposing quarterback Penn State has faced, the Nittany Lions have picked off the other three four times, broken up eight passes and made 10 sacks.
Despite its success, Penn State’s secondary has been inconsistent. After Kent State and Pittsburgh combined to pass for just 220 yards in the first two games, Temple piled up 286 against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. Penn State will have to make some adjustments to avoid letting Michigan do the same.
Edge: Penn State
Penn State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Talk around Schembechler Hall this week has been focused on Michigan, as usual, but the one Penn State name that has surfaced is Saquon Barkley.
The Nittany Lions’ sophomore running back blends speed and power at 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, and is the team’s biggest offensive weapon. He led Penn State in each of the first three games with 105, 85 and 68 rushing yards. The Wolverines limited him to just 68 yards on 15 carries last year, and 56 of those yards came on a single run.
The only other Penn State rusher with more than eight carries is quarterback Trace McSorley, who has 32 rushes for 38 yards, in part because of five sacks. He will run the spread offense out of the shotgun and be a threat to scramble, but his speed isn’t anything Michigan hasn’t seen before. Overall, the Nittany Lions’ rushing offense ranks 113th in the country.
On the defensive side, the Wolverines cleaned up some of the long runs that plagued them against Central Florida, giving up no rushes of more than 15 yards to Colorado. Their rush defense still sits at 57th in the country, but the UCF game skews that number. The Nittany Lions have struggled up front in recent years, which isn’t a recipe for success against Michigan’s defense.
More importantly, the Wolverines are nearing full strength. After losing two members of their defensive line to injury in the opener, they hope to get senior defensive end Taco Charlton (ankle) back this week. Charlton made three tackles for loss and two sacks last year against Penn State and will be a handful again if he plays.
Penn State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Nittany Lions will be the third consecutive up-tempo spread offense Michigan has faced, so the Wolverines are now accustomed to it, and defensive coordinator Don Brown vowed to have his team prepared. He’s familiar with this particular offense, having been the defensive coordinator at Connecticut in 2011 while current Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was the quarterbacks coach.
First-year starting quarterbacks like McSorley don’t have a good track record against the Wolverines’ suffocating defense in recent years. But McSorley has gained experience quickly this season, being the only Nittany Lions quarterback to throw a pass and averaging 276 yards per game. He has thrown four touchdowns and two interceptions against some decent defenses.
His top two targets are back from last year: Chris Godwin (18 catches for 220 yards this season) and DaeSean Hamilton (12 for 141). They will both start again Saturday.
Michigan’s stifling defensive backfield lost some ground Saturday when it gave up several big pass plays against Colorado. This should help: The Wolverines hope All-American senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis will make his season debut Saturday after suffering a couple of minor injuries. Lewis was excited four weeks ago to get his final season underway, so he should have plenty of energy Saturday.
Elsewhere, Michigan should recover from a lackluster performance Saturday. Fellow defensive backs Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are all seniors who know how to learn from their mistakes, and Penn State doesn’t have the weapons that Colorado did.
The Wolverines have Jabrill Peppers on their team.
That’s enough. The do-it-all star finally returned his first punt for a touchdown last week, going 54 yards to secure a Michigan victory. With 278 all-purpose yards, he would rank second on Penn State’s team — and he has seen two plays of offense all season. The Nittany Lions kept him in check last season, but he’s always a threat to make a big play. If that weren’t enough, the Wolverines have also tipped two punts and blocked a third and returned it for a touchdown in the past two weeks.
Penn State’s special teams have been routinely successful this year, with kicker Tyler Davis hitting all of his five field-goal attempts with a long of 40 yards. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius has 16 touchbacks in 21 tries as he tries to limit Peppers’ opportunities. Outside of one 59-yard punt return, the Nittany Lions haven’t broken many big plays in the return game.
The only hiccup lately on a terrific Michigan unit that ranks second in the country in special teams efficiency was the kicking game against Colorado. Senior kicker Kenny Allen missed two of his three field-goal tries, from 37 and 44 yards.
But again: The Wolverines have Jabrill Peppers on their team.
The Big Ten season kicks off Saturday, starting the title chase for these two East division opponents. For now, the championship is a more realistic goal for the Wolverines, who will be fired up to start the conference season off right. They’ll also have home-field advantage for the fourth straight week.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State fought back from its first loss with a 34-27 victory against Temple last week, and the Nittany Lions will be trying to avenge a home defeat against Michigan last season.
The biggest intangible, though, may be the players returning for the Wolverines, especially Lewis. The senior is one of the emotional leaders of the team, and besides being able to shut down the opponent’s best receiver, he also brings a mental edge to the defense. His teammates admit his trash talk on the field fires them up.
Prediction: Michigan 37, Penn State 20