Michigan is a team that plays its best ball when its back is against the wall. If that’s the case, the Wolverines should be playing their best come Saturday when No. 8 Penn State comes to town. The Nittany Lions are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten, and they have aspirations to keep their revival going. Fifth-year senior quarterback Michael Robinson leads Penn State, which is coming back to Ann Arbor for the first time since an overtime loss in 2002.

Michigan passing offense vs. Penn State passing defense:

This unit has been up and down for the Wolverines all season. Chad Henne has looked spectacular at times – see his first half against Michigan State – but also very shaky at times, like in last week’s 23-20 loss to Minnesota. He has the receivers to help him – senior Jason Avant still leads the Big Ten in receptions and yards, and Mario Manningham has continued his great freshman season. But more importantly for Michigan, last week Steve Breaston finally played like everyone thought he would this year. The redshirt junior had three catches for 45 yards and a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown.

The Nittany Lions arrive at the Big House touting one of the top defenses in the country. They are allowing just 15.3 points per game and yielding 203 yards through the air. Seniors Alan Zemaitis and Calvin Lowry lead a secondary unit that has six interceptions this season. But the front seven have put a lot of pressure on opposing offenses with 20 sacks already. If Henne hopes to get back on track, he will have to go through his progressions and not lock in on one receiver.

Edge: Penn State

Michigan rushing offense vs. Penn State rushing defense:

Just like the Wolverines’ aerial attack, the Michigan run game has had a very up and down season. Against Minnesota – a defense that surrendered 364 yards on the ground to Penn State – the Wolverines could grind out just 94 yards while averaging 2.8 yards per carry. Michigan’s hopes lie on both Mike Hart and the offensive line finally opening up holes consistently. A game like the one against Michigan State when Hart pounded out 218 yards and one touchdown would help Michigan’s offensive woes.

Most of the hype that the Nittany Lions’ defense gets comes from the fact that the unit is giving up just 90 yards per game on the ground. Last week against Ohio State, Penn State bottled the Buckeyes run game for 91 yards. Other Big Ten linebackers are more highly publicized than the Nittany Lions’, but Paul Posluszny and Tim Shaw lead a great group that hits hard and keeps everything in front of them.

Edge: Penn State

Penn State passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense:

Prior to this season, Robinson was a great athlete who played quarterback. But this year, he has shown great poise while leading the Nittany Lions’ half spread offense. Robinson has completed just 53 percent of his passes, but, more importantly, he has gotten the ball to his young, talented receivers. As long as he limits turnovers, something he wasn’t doing earlier in the season, the Penn State offense could have a big day. Redshirt freshman Deon Butler and freshman Derrick Williams may not be the most physically imposing receivers, but their quickness and speed scares just about everyone.

The Wolverines’ passing defense hasn’t been bad this season, but this game could be rough for Michigan. It is starting its fourth- and fifth-string safeties – Jamar Adams and Brandon Harrison. Going against a balanced Penn State offense, which is averaging 207 yards per game both passing and rushing, the Wolverines need the youngsters to step up.

Edge: Penn State

Penn State rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense:

Penn State’s rushing attack comes from all over the field. Running back Tony Hunt is the team’s leading rusher, and the junior has picked up 539 yards and three touchdowns on 86 carries.

But it’s not just the backs that will beat teams. Quarterback Michael Robinson is a true dual threat, and Paterno uses him as much as possible. At Monday’s press conference, senior pat Massey described Robinson as “A quarterback who is really a running back with a quarterbacks arm. He is somebody who can do it all. XXXX described Robinson as “a running back with a quarterback’s arm.” Robinson has rushed 74 times for 338 yards. And then there is Justin King. The freshman wide receiver has seven rushing touches for nearly 18 yards per touch. Basically, they can hit you from all sides. And that might present a bit of a problem for Michigan, which is seventh in the Big Ten in rushing defense.

Special teams:

Garret Rivas went from the high of winning a game two weeks ago against Michigan State, to missing two attempts last weekend. If it is a close game, Michigan needs him to be more consistent. Last week, Breaston showed flashes of his former self with the aforementioned kick return. If he can consistently provide the Wolverines good field position, Michigan’s offense will benefit greatly.

Special teams: Push


Michigan has won each of the last five meetings with the Nittany Lions – including two when Penn State was ranked higher. Plus, the Wolverines have won every other game this season, putting them on pace to win this one. But Penn State looked pretty unbeatable last week against Ohio State – and the Nittany Lions haven’t lost yet this season.

Edge: Michigan

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