Michigan hasn’t beaten an opponent ranked in the top-five of the AP Top 25 poll since September of 2006. Eleven seasons ago, the 11th-ranked Wolverines dominated No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend, delivering the Fighting Irish a 47-21 loss — the most points scored against Notre Dame at home in 46 years.
Flash forward to 2017, and the No. 19 Michigan football team (2-1 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) has a chance to repeat the feat Saturday in State College against No. 2 Penn State (3-0, 6-0).
With the ESPN College Gameday treatment, a primetime national television slot and a white-out crowd at Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions will certainly have an atmosphere built up in their favor. The Wolverines will try to play the spoiler, but whether or not they can pull it off is an entirely different question.
Here’s how Michigan matches up against Penn State on Saturday night.
Michigan pass offense vs Penn State pass defense
Coming off fifth-year senior John O’Korn’s 10-for-20, 58-yard performance last week, this is the phase of the game that has induced the most anxiety among the Wolverine faithful — and for good reason.
Throughout the first half of the season, Michigan’s offense has been inept. That’s no secret. But after last week, the Wolverines’ run game seems to be in much better shape, which leaves the passing attack as the biggest problem facing the team.
The Nittany Lions and their vaunted defense have all the tools to exploit that problem to the fullest degree. Penn State ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency defense, as it has given up just 1007 yards in six games. The Nittany Lions have already picked off their opponents nine times while allowing just three touchdowns through the air.
This is a clear mismatch. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters take some snaps under center if things get out of hand.
Edge: Penn State
Michigan run offense vs Penn State run defense
As alluded to in the previous section, Michigan’s ground game is moving in the right direction, in large part due to the rise of junior running back Karan Higdon.
Prior to the season, Higdon seemed to be the third-string back in the Wolverines’ three-man rotation. Instead, he has taken the first half of the year by storm, breaking out from the pack as the clear starter. He topped off his emergence last week with a career-best 200-yard, three-touchdown day against Indiana.
While Higdon and his fellow backs have played well, they have yet to face off against a defense as tough as Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions average 3.09 yards allowed per rush and have given up just four touchdowns on the season.
Penn State has the ninth-best overall defense in the country and has allowed the fewest touchdowns of any team so far. For an offense as anemic as Michigan’s, that will likely be too much to overcome.
Edge: Penn State
Penn State pass offense vs Michigan pass defense
For as much Heisman hype as running back Saquon Barkley attracts, he might not even be the best offensive player on the Nittany Lions’ roster. That would be quarterback Trace McSorley.
While some dual-threat quarterbacks use their legs to compensate for a lackluster arm, that couldn’t be farther from the truth for McSorley. He has one of the best passer efficiency ratings in the country at 154.1 after averaging 266.2 yards per game with a total of 13 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 67. On top of that, he boasts four rushing touchdowns and 2.5 yards per carry.
But McSorley will have his most challenging test against Michigan’s No. 1 ranked defense. The Wolverines lead the nation in passing efficiency defense, specifically, after giving up just 828 yards in the air while tallying five interceptions and allowing five touchdowns.
Behind junior safety Tyree Kinnel and sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill, the secondary looks ready for McSorley. But he might still be one step ahead.
Edge: Penn State
Penn State run offense vs Michigan run defense
As good as Barkley is, he has seemingly hit a rough patch. After rushing for over 200 yards against Iowa a month ago, he hasn’t broken the 100-yard mark in the two games since.
Last week, Northwestern held Barkley to 75 yards on 16 carries, though he did score twice. And the week before, Indiana shut him down completely, keeping him out of the end zone while also holding him to a measly 56 yards on 20 carries.
Neither of those defenses are anywhere near as good as Michigan’s. The Wolverines have given up an average of just 85.8 yards per game on the ground, including an average of 2.64 yards per rush, with a total of three touchdowns allowed.
Michigan combined for seven tackles-for-loss against the Hoosiers, and then spent the week claiming that the defensive unit has yet to reach its full potential. That isn’t a good sign for Barkley.
While both punters are evenly matched, between the two kickers, there is no competition.
Redshirt freshman kicker, and former Penn State commit, Quinn Nordin continues to impress with his consistency, adding two more field goals to his name to run his record up to 14-for-16. Penn State kicker Tyler Davis couldn’t be much more opposite. He has made just six field goals out of 13 attempts, missing all but two of his attempts from farther than thirty yards out.
After wresting the starting job away from sophomore Will Hart, freshman punter Brad Robbins made the most of it against Indiana. Out of nine punts, Robbins averaged 40.8 yards and downed three of them inside the 20-yard line.
Meanwhile, Nittany Lion punter Blake Gillikin has averaged 44.2 yards on his 26 punts — seven of which went longer than 50 yards.
Though it may be hard to believe, it was just a season ago that Michigan routed Penn State, 49-10. That latter team went on to run the table and capture the Big Ten title.
The only game the Nittany Lions have lost since then was a hard-fought, 52-49 battle against USC in the 2016 Rose Bowl. A number of notable injuries and a questionable ejection surely sunk Penn State last September.
It seems eager to correct the record against the Wolverines this year.
Edge: Penn State
Prediction: Michigan 10, Penn State 31