College football’s top matchup for Week 8 takes place in Happy Valley, as Penn State hosts Michigan in a key conference matchup between Big Ten rivals. The Wolverines are in a must-win situation if they want to have a shot at the Big Ten East Division title. With one defeat in league play from a game at Wisconsin, and a matchup versus Ohio State still remaining, a loss on Saturday night would put Michigan too far behind in the division. The Nittany Lions have made a steady climb in the rankings after a 6-0 start. With a win on Saturday night, coach James Franklin’s team would emerge as the clear contender to Ohio State in the East.
Michigan began the season with playoff aspirations, but a Week 2 win in overtime against Army and the loss at Wisconsin have caused those hopes to fade. However, since the loss to the Badgers, the Wolverines have won three straight, including a 10-3 home victory over Iowa. With Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State still left on the schedule, coach Jim Harbaugh’s squad isn’t out of the playoff mix.
Penn State is 6-0 and has wins over Pitt and Iowa, but Franklin’s squad will have a chance to make a big-time impression on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions have faced only two FBS teams with a winning record this year and won both matchups by seven points or less. With remaining games against Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State, Franklin’s team has several big-time opportunities to play its way into the top four (and an undefeated regular season).
Michigan holds a 14-8 series edge over Penn State. The Wolverines have won four out of the last five matchups against the Nittany Lions, including a 42-7 victory in Ann Arbor last fall.
Michigan at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -9
When Michigan Has the Ball
Michigan finished second in the Big Ten in scoring last season. However, with a desire to open the offense up and utilize more tempo and spread concepts, coach Jim Harbaugh hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to call plays in 2019. So far, the results are mixed. The Wolverines rank eighth in the Big Ten in scoring (30.3 ppg), average 5.6 yards a play and are tied for eighth in the conference with just five plays of 40 yards or more.
On a positive note for Michigan, the offense has scored at least 42 points in two out of its last three games. Of course, those performances came against Rutgers and Illinois. For the Wolverines to get on track offensively on Saturday night, it starts by winning up front. Michigan’s offensive line had an uneven start to the season and will face a Penn State defense that has already generated 27 sacks and ranks second in the Big Ten in rush defense. Linemen Yetur Gross-Matos (5.5 sacks), Shaka Toney (5.5) and Robert Windsor (2.5) lead the way in the trenches, with rising star Micah Parsons and Cam Brown anchoring the linebacker unit. Freshman Zach Charbonnet paces Michigan’s offense with 376 yards, but Hassan Haskins (189), Christian Turner (146) and Tru Wilson (95) will see time.
In addition to winning the battle up front, Michigan has to get quarterback Shea Patterson on track. The senior is completing 57.1 percent of his throws and ranks sixth in the Big Ten in quarterback rating (136.87). The move to more of a spread approach was supposed to help the Wolverines take advantage of the playmakers at receiver. However, this group still needs more opportunities. Ronnie Bell (20 catches), Nico Collins (13), Tarik Black (15) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (12) form one of the Big Ten’s best receiving corps. However, Gattis and Patterson have to do a better job of getting this group more involved.
Is this the week Michigan’s offense puts all of the pieces in place and has a breakout performance? For a group finding its rhythm and struggling to make the shift, a matchup against Penn State’s defense isn’t the ideal opponent. No opponent has managed more than 13 points against the Nittany Lions this year, and the defense is holding teams to just 3.8 yards per play.
When Penn State Has the Ball
Despite the departure of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders to the NFL, Penn State’s offense is on pace for a better 2019 campaign. The Nittany Lions average 6.6 yards a play (up from 6.1 last year) and 42 points a contest (up from 33.8). While the competition will get tougher, this unit has answered any uncertainty from the personnel departures from last year’s group.
New quarterback Sean Clifford is completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 1,560 yards and 13 touchdowns to just two picks. Also, as evidenced by his 252 rushing yards, the junior can hurt defenses with his legs. Mobility could be a huge asset for Clifford on Saturday night. Michigan’s defense has accumulated 21 sacks and is holding teams to 17.5 points a game. The Wolverines struggled in the loss to Wisconsin, but the defense is finding its stride thanks to the emergence of linebacker Cam McGrone and linemen Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. When Clifford looks downfield, it’s no secret KJ Hamler (26 catches) and tight end Pat Freiermuth (17) will be the top targets.
At first glance, Michigan’s rush defense numbers look like a concern. The Wolverines are ninth in the conference versus the run, allowing 122.8 yards a game. However, a deeper look shows Michigan is only giving up 2.97 yards per carry and most of the damage came versus a tricky option team (200 versus Army) and 359 against Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions will test this group with a couple of running backs. Noah Cain (310 yards) seems to be edging Journey Brown (233), Devyn Ford (215) and Ricky Slade (59) as the No. 1 option.
When Penn State has the ball, the question marks and battles to watch are similar to the ones facing Michigan. Can the Nittany Lions hold up in the trenches on the ground and in pass protection against an aggressive Michigan front? Assuming the Wolverines stuff the run and generate a handful of negative plays, Clifford will have to win this game with his arm.
Don’t expect a lot of points on Saturday night. Both defenses rank among the best in college football and yards and points will be at a premium. With that in mind, a couple of plays, turnovers or special teams could make a huge difference. Penn State has lost only six turnovers, while Michigan has 13 giveaways this season. The Nittany Lions have the better offense, homefield advantage and edge in the turnover department. Those factors are likely to swing a close, low-scoring game in their favor.