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Michigan Wolverines vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Preview and Prediction

Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh

The Big Ten may still be won by either Ohio State or Michigan State, but the revival of Michigan is real and the rebuilding of Penn State continues. The Wolverines and Nittany Lions square off Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley with plenty to play for on both sides of the field. Michigan can continue to make a late push for a possible spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, while Penn State can make a push to play in one of the conference's New Year's Day bowl games.

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Penn State head coach James Franklin is still searching for his first career victory over a top 25 program. Getting that elusive win against the Wolverines will not come easily, although Penn State's defense gives them a fighter's chance to win if they can slow down Michigan's running game. Michigan has run for 23 rushing touchdowns this season, good for third-most in the conference. Penn State's run defense has also been gashed at times this season, giving up 200 yards or more against Army, Ohio State, Maryland and Northwestern. Penn State held Michigan to just 54 rushing yards last season in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines prevailed in a hard-fought 18-13 victory. Can Penn State pick up revenge this time around?

College Football Podcast: Week 12 Preview

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Michigan at Penn State

Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Saturday)


Spread: Michigan -4

Three Things to Watch

1. Big Ten's top passing defenses vs. Rudock and Hackenberg

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No team in the Big Ten has given up fewer yards than Penn State and Michigan. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have favorable touchdown-to-interception ratios as well, with Penn State allowing seven passing touchdowns with nine interceptions and Michigan allowing five touchdowns with eight interceptions. Each pass defense will present a stiff challenge to the opposing team's quarterback.

Michigan's Jake Rudock has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Wolverines, and his ability to manage the offense has proved to be quite effective. Inside the red zone, Rudock has completed 56.4 percent of his passes and his nine touchdowns with zero interceptions. This is an area Penn State's defense has been vulnerable in this season. The Nittany Lions have allowed seven passing touchdowns inside the red zone and have failed to come up with an interception inside their 20-yard line. Michigan's pass defense tightens up inside the red zone as well, allowing just two touchdowns this season. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg has had some ups and downs this season, but he has played well in the red zone, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

2. Penn State perfect at home this season, Michigan an adventure on the road

When Michigan takes to the road, crazy things seem to happen. Last week the Wolverines got tangled up in an overtime thriller against Indiana. Two games before that was a fascinating finish against Minnesota that went down to the wire. Last time Michigan visited Penn State, in 2013, the two programs played a multiple overtime game. Could there be more road craziness in store this weekend?

Penn State has lost all three of their games on the road (the lone win away from Beaver Stadium came on a neutral field in Baltimore against Maryland), but they are perfect at home this season. Each of Penn State's home wins this season have come by double-digit margins except for a 20-14 decision over Army. Michigan will be the best opponent to step foot in Happy Valley this season though, and the Nittany Lions will be put to the test against a surging and revitalized Big Ten power. With a Whiteout in full effect, even for a noon kickoff, Penn State will have to feed off the energy. It will be on the defensive line with Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson to set the tone.

3. Michigan's Big Ten title hopes alive with a win

Michigan was supposed to be a couple of years away from returning to Big Ten championship form, but the Wolverines can play themselves right into the Big Ten title game with a road win at Penn State. Of course, the Wolverines would still have to beat Ohio State next week, but a loss to Penn State would take Michigan out of the running heading into the final week of the season. Michigan wins the Big Ten East Division with wins against Penn State and Ohio State and a Michigan State loss to either the Buckeyes this week or the Nittany Lions next week.

Penn State cannot win the Big Ten East's spot in the Big Ten championship game, as they would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Ohio State. Penn State can claim a share of the division championship with wins against Michigan and Michigan State and two losses by Ohio State.

Final Analysis

Both teams have some young blossoming stars worth paying close attention to this weekend. Penn State's freshman running back Saquon Barkley continues to be one of the biggest threats Penn State has. Last time out he rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort against Northwestern. He will have to earn his yardage this week against Michigan's stiff run defense. Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers is showing why he was such a highly-rated recruit out of high school in New Jersey. Look for him to continue getting a chance to dazzle with his athleticism on offense and special teams, which will keep Penn State's entire coaching staff guessing. If Michigan can keep Penn State's coaches on their toes, the advantage appears to go toward the Michigan sideline.

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Prediction: Michigan 26, Penn State 24

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.