Here it is, the game we’ve all been waiting for — the marquee, Thanksgiving weekend matchup of … 2-3 Michigan and 0-5 Penn State?
Saturday’s game will feature two teams with majorly disappointing seasons, decimated by injuries and with questions about their head coaches swirling. The Wolverines had to go to triple overtime to beat bottom-feeding Rutgers and lost to Michigan State, which itself lost to Rutgers (and doesn’t have any other wins this season). But the Nittany Lions are the only winless team in the conference. While some of their losses weren’t that bad, like to Indiana or Ohio State, they also lost to Nebraska and Maryland.
This game might be close or even exciting, but it likely won’t be good football. If you decide to watch with the hope that there’s no way this game can be as bad as Rutgers, here are some things to watch for:
Who will be under center (or in the shotgun) for both teams?
Both squads have had a bit of a quarterback controversy in the past weeks. Michigan’s original starter, junior Joe Milton, was benched against both Wisconsin and Rutgers for sophomore Cade McNamara. All indications are that McNamara will start Saturday.
Penn State’s battle is between Sean Clifford, who led the Nittany Lions to victory over the Wolverines in State College last year, and Will Levis, who started in place of Clifford in last week’s loss to Iowa.
When asked who he thought would start at quarterback for Penn State, junior cornerback Vincent Gray said, “I think 14, I think is their No. 1 guy,” referring to Clifford. He then added: “Both of them can throw the ball very well though.”
McNamara gave Michigan a spark last week that the Wolverines hope can carry over rather than being a one-game wonder akin to John O’Korn in 2017. Meanwhile, both Clifford and Levis have left a bit to be desired. Clifford is 87-152 with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions while Levis is 27-47 with no touchdowns or interceptions.
But if the Nittany Lions do start Clifford, he has a history of success and could cause trouble for the Wolverines if he finds his touch.
How is the injury situation?
Since the beginning of the year, three offensive and two defensive starters have missed at least one game due to injury, including both starting tackles and defensive ends and the center. Safety Brad Hawkins and linebacker Cam McGrone also left the Rutgers game due to injury.
Jim Harbaugh stayed mostly mum on the injuries this week, referring to some number of players as “questionable.” Of the injured players, only defensive end Aidan Hutchinson has been ruled out for the rest of the season.
This wouldn’t be the first time players referred to as “questionable” didn’t end up playing, but offensive line coach Ed Warinner did provide a glimmer of hope for tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes: Both have been practicing this week. With an offensive line that has struggled, getting both tackles back could be key for the Wolverines.
Penn State’s injury situation might be even worse than Michigan’s. Its top two running backs, Journey Brown and Noah Cain, are both out for the season, along with star tight end Pat Freiermuth. The Nittany Lions have also had a few other starters miss time, including No. 3 running back Devyn Ford, whose availability will be decided Thursday, according to Penn State coach James Franklin.
If Ford is unable to go, Penn State will turn to two true freshmen at the position. Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields also missed the last two games and Franklin did not provide an update on his status.
Can Michigan’s corners stop Jahan Dotson?
One star who’s still available for Penn State is wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 527 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
In its last four games, the Wolverines’ secondary was most often seen being torched downfield or committing pass interference. That won’t fly against a top receiver like Dotson. (Ty Fryfogle, the only receiver with more yards and scores than Dotson, had seven catches for 142 yards against Michigan on Nov. 7.)
“(Dotson’s) been doing very good this season,” Gray said. “He’s very crafty, very smooth. I like this matchup, I think it’s gonna be a great challenge for us overall and I think the key to stop him will just be getting our hands on him at the line of scrimmage. I think we can run with him very well, so just making sure we are patient and we’re not, like I said before, overly physical with our hands downfield and we’re just matching his route.”
That may be easier said than done.
Can Michigan’s running game build on Rutgers?
After two losses in which the Wolverines gained sub-100 rushing yards, last Saturday was somewhat of an improvement. Michigan rushed for 148 yards, 110 of which came from junior Hassan Haskins.
The Wolverines had largely gone with a running back by committee early in the season, but against the Scarlet Knights, Haskins got 22 carries while three other running backs got 34 combined. Haskins said after the game that he had expected to get more carries, indicating that perhaps he will be the go-to option going forward.
With a depleted offensive line, Haskins’ skill set of getting yards after contact and creating holes where there are none may be just what Michigan needs.
“The amount of runs that Hassan had that were yards after contact in this game, tough, efficient, outstanding runs,” Harbaugh said after the Rutgers game. “Just tremendous.”
Will momentum matter?
While a triple-overtime win over Rutgers isn’t something to celebrate, it is still a win, and that’s more than can be said about Penn State. The Wolverines have struggled with confidence this season, and it’s possible that the relief of a win — no matter who it came against — will give Michigan enough of a boost to carry it through another Saturday.
“This week, I thought we got our swagger back a little bit,” McNamara said after the game.
Harbaugh added: “I thought our players played with great talent and heart.”
Meanwhile, Penn State is reeling. Sometimes, desperation can lead a team to victory, but that didn’t help the Nittany Lions against Nebraska or Iowa.
Thus, the key advantage for Michigan on Saturday may lay in its mentality.