The Michigan football team opens up conference play on Saturday against Penn State (2-1), a team desperate to prove its worth. The Nittany Lions finished last season 4-4 in Big Ten play, and after two mediocre seasons under coach James Franklin, Penn State is in need of a pick-me-up.
A win over the fourth-ranked Wolverines would do just that, but after struggling against Temple last week — ultimately pulling through to win 34-17 — and losing to in-state rival Pittsburgh the week before, it’s not likely Penn State will be able to pull it off at Michigan Stadium.
The Nittany Lions have a few key players absent due to injury, complicating that effort even more. Three starting linebackers are injured, with Nyeem Wartman-White definitely out against Michigan. He will miss the rest of the season after suffering an injury against Temple. Fellow starting linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda are injured as well, with their statuses for Saturday's game unknown. Wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, who had two receptions in Penn State’s season opener, has also been absent since early September.
On the other side of the ball, the statuses of Michigan senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, senior defensive end Taco Charlton and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone are still unknown. All three are starters on the defense, and it would be valuable to have the trio back to begin Big Ten play. Senior cornerback Channing Stribling indicated that Lewis practiced on Tuesday, but it is unknown if Mone or Charlton are practicing.
Michigan’s biggest challenge will come against the Nittany Lions’ offense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley leads the Big Ten in passing with 828 yards over three games. Recently, against Temple, he went 18-for-24 and showed off his deep ball on a 52-yard touchdown pass.
“Penn State’s offense, they’ve got a very good quarterback, they’ve got a very good running back, they’ve got very good players that I think are very good for that (no-huddle system),” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “So it’s another challenge for us and why we treat every game like it’s a championship game. It’s a big game. Every opponent on our schedule comes in with a strong will to defeat us and good coaching and good players.”
Running back Saquon Barkley has already collected six rushing touchdowns this season, so expect Michigan to give him special attention early. Against Temple, the sophomore averaged 7.6 yards per run and recorded a 55-yard touchdown. Last season against Michigan, Barkley racked up 68 yards but still underperformed compared to his season average of 97.8 rushing yards per game.
Monday, senior linebacker Mike McCray said he was looking forward to facing the challenges Barkley would bring.
“He’s a great back,” McCray said. “He’s going to be a good challenge for us, to go against one of the top backs in the country. We’re up to the challenge, though.”
While Penn State won’t be Michigan’s toughest Big Ten competition this season, Harbaugh is maintaining his attitude that every game should be treated the same.
“The way we’ve looked at it, we were out to be at our best every single week,” Harbaugh said. “As we assess the schedule from the start of the schedule, every opponent that we play was going to have to be treated with the utmost respect. Preparation was going to have to be precise and locked in and focused to give ourselves the best chance to be successful in the football game. … Every game is a big game. Every game is a championship game.”