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Penn State Vs. Michigan: Breaking Down The Matchups

October 20, 2017

When Penn State has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

Penn State is going to hope its offensive line, which has been merely OK this season by the coaching staff’s own admission, will benefit most from the bye week and play its best game of the season. That’s a lot to ask against a Michigan defensive line led by DT Maurice Hurst and DEs Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, who have combined for eight sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries through six games.

EDGE: Michigan

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

There will be questions about Michigan’s young secondary performing in its first big-time road atmosphere, but the group’s talent is undeniable. One-time Penn State commit LaVert Hill has starred as a sophomore, leading the Wolverines with six pass breakups and two interceptions. Safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus are ultra-aggressive and will be a factor also against the run. Penn State has beaten secondaries this season more with the number of options it has than with one consistent go-to player. But Juwan Johnson might have to emerge in this one for QB Trace McSorley.

EDGE: Michigan

KEY MATCHUP

Running backs vs. Linebackers

Michigan’s linebackers rival Iowa’s in talent, and they may be even better as a group. RB Saquon Barkley had a big game against the Hawkeyes despite a stirring effort from their stars at linebacker, rushing for 211 yards and piling up 94 more through the air. Captain Mike McCray is really the lone returning starter for the Wolverines at the Will, and he and freshman MLB Devin Bush are having big seasons. Penn State needs the best player in the country to play like it again against a group that will be focused on him.

“It’s critically important,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of slowing Barkley. “He’ll be the challenge player on a lot of downs, and it will be a team effort defensively all day to go against a really great player and an outstanding offense.”

That said, Harbaugh insists Saturday won’t just be a showcase for Barkley against a great defense. It will be one for a great defense that wants to stop maybe the best player in the nation in his tracks. With that in mind, it could present an opportunity for McCray, Bush and other Michigan defenders to elevate their games.

“I truly believe that,” Harbaugh concluded.

EDGE: Penn State

When Michigan has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

The Wolverines are big and talented up front, but they’re also on the younger side, and again, this is an environment they haven’t been in before as the visiting team. LT Mason Cole is a star, and C Patrick Kugler has been steady, but Penn State’s rotation at defensive line has been getting better as the season has progressed, and Michigan has been fairly one-dimensional on offense. If they can’t throw consistently, Shareef Miller and company will be able to harass the Michigan rushing attack.

EDGE: Penn State

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

The strength of Penn State’s team, at least so far this season, against the weakness of Michigan’s entire attack. QB John O’Korn has not been great, and that has left a young receiving corps full of potential with few chances to make big plays. But freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones and sophomore Kekoa Crawford have basically taken a backseat to possession types like Grant Perry and tight end Sean McKeon on key downs. There will be plenty of chances for Penn State’s secondary to turn the game around, especially if Marcus Allen gets to focus on shutting down the run.

EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

Michigan has started three different feature backs this season behind bruising FB/TE Khalid Hill, and sophomore Chris Evans and senior Ty Isaac are good pile movers. But junior Karan Higdon is coming off a 200-yard, three-touchdown effort against Indiana. He gives the Wolverines a big-play threat from the running game, even though he hasn’t been that type of threat consistently. Penn State, meanwhile, has held some pretty good running backs — Iowa’s Akrum Wadley and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson — largely in check this year. Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen tend to show up with big numbers when the power running teams come to town.

EDGE: Penn State

Special teams

Kicking game

Seems strange to say, but the Nittany Lions will probably prefer that punter Blake Gillikin plays a bigger factor down the stretch than kicker Tyler Davis, given Davis’ struggles in the first half of the season. Michigan has punted well with Brad Robbins, and kicker Quinn Nordin — another former Penn State commit — is 14 for 16 on field goal attempts.

EDGE: Michigan

Return game

There are weapons all around these two program’s return teams. Peoples-Jones has returned a punt for a score this season, and Crawford has been solid bringing back kicks. There’s just more potential with Penn State’s return teams, though. DeAndre Thompkins has broken a few big punt returns, and Barkley can take any kickoff to the house. A special teams touchdown would be a major factor in this one, either way.

EDGE: Penn State

Prediction

Michigan is so good defensively, it is going to win its share of battles even against a really good Penn State offense. But, is Michigan’s offense good enough offensively to make enough plays against a swarming Nittany Lions defense to make that matter? With the Nittany Lions at home, coming off a bye week, and Michigan struggling to do much outside of Karan Higdon’s rushing against an Indiana defense that struggled in Beaver Stadium, it stands to reason that Michigan will need to score on defense or special teams to give itself a great shot to pull off the upset. There will be plenty of gut feelings leaning toward a bigger Nittany Lions win. But the Michigan defense is too sound for that. That said, in the White Out and in front of a national audience, Penn State still gets a relatively comfortable win.

Penn State 24, Michigan 13