With its conference title hopes on the line, the No. 12 Michigan football team can’t afford to look ahead when it visits Penn State on Saturday.
A win in Happy Valley could set up a potential Big Ten Championship Game play-in between the Wolverines and Buckeyes in a week. But a winner-take-all matchup is impossible if Michigan doesn’t take care of business this weekend.
Here’s what to watch for when Michigan visits Penn State.
1. Can the defense regain its form?
After losing redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow to an injured pectoral muscle, the Wolverines suffered the ill effects of exhaustion against Indiana. The Hoosiers’ quick tempo wore down the Michigan defense, allowing Indiana running back Jordan Howard to run wild.
The Hoosiers poured on 41 points, the most of any Wolverine opponent this season, drawing up a blueprint for Michigan’s future opponents to follow. The question is whether the Nittany Lions can learn from Indiana’s success and execute effectively.
Penn State has a talented running back in Saquon Barkley, and a quarterback capable of making just about any throw in Christian Hackenberg. But the Nittany Lions’ offensive line is nowhere near the level of the Hoosiers’, and most of Indiana’s success was conditional on solid blocking.
But if Penn State can get good protection, the Wolverines could be in trouble once more.
2. Two top-notch D-lines
Even without Glasgow, Michigan is talented up front. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Willie Henry and redshirt junior defensive end Chris Wormley have been consistent forces in the backfield, and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has had a breakout season.
But the Nittany Lions might be every bit as good, highlighted by the nation’s sack leader, Carl Nassib, who has 15.5. The Wolverines have faced a trio of tough fronts this season in Utah, Michigan State and Northwestern, but they have yet to take on a player who can change the game as much as Nassib.
3. Will Jake Rudock continue his hot streak?
Michigan’s fifth-year senior quarterback is, as the kids say, en fuego. Rudock has earned back-to-back career highs in passing yards in his last two games, culminating with a 440-yard, six-touchdown effort against Indiana.
But Penn State is among the nation’s best pass defenses, allowing just 159 yards per game through the air. The Wolverines’ receiving corps of junior tight end Jake Butt and redshirt junior receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson is in a rhythm of late — especially Chesson, who caught four touchdowns last week — and they’ll need to keep it up if Michigan is going to have success Saturday.
The Wolverines’ rush offense has taken a significant dip in recent weeks, as neither junior running back De’Veon Smith nor redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson has been able to develop a rhythm.
Michigan has been able to get by without big games from its backs, but only because Rudock has shined. The Wolverines will need him to keep it up if they want to emerge from Happy Valley victorious.
4. The out-of-town scoreboard
If Michigan does come away with a win Saturday, all eyes will be on the scores elsewhere in the country.
If Ohio State can beat Michigan State in Columbus, the Wolverines and Buckeyes will play for a spot in the Big Ten title game next Saturday. That’s the most important result the Wolverines will be watching for. But if that happens, many other games gain importance too.
Sitting at No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Michigan is not completely out of the playoff picture — it just needs a lot to go right to get there. This week, the Wolverines would hope for wins from the Buckeyes over the Spartans, Iowa over Purdue and USC over Oregon. That would keep Michigan’s next opponent undefeated, and keep alive the possibility it could face an undefeated Iowa team in the Big Ten title game.
The Trojans, meanwhile, could play a crucial role in the Wolverines’ championship hopes. If USC wins out, it will go to the Pac-12 title game, where it could emerge as a three-loss conference champion, unlikely to pass Michigan in the rankings if the Wolverines win the Big Ten.
If that happens, any Notre Dame loss — either to Boston College or Stanford — would swing the door wide open.
Of course, Michigan needs to worry about its own scoreboard first.