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Michigan Wolverines vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Preview and Prediction

Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Penn State welcomes Michigan to Happy Valley on Saturday night for one of the Big Ten’s most anticipated games in the 2017 season. The Wolverines loss to Michigan State took a little air out of this matchup, but there is still plenty at stake when this game kicks off.

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The Nittany Lions had a timely bye week last Saturday, and coach James Franklin has this team poised to make a run at the CFB Playoff. Penn State fell just short of a berth after winning the Big Ten title last fall, and the 2017 edition of Franklin’s program clearly ranks inside of the top four at the midway point of the season. Of course, staying there won’t be easy. In addition to this game, Penn State still has to play at Ohio State and Michigan State – in back-to-back matchups after playing Michigan. The strength of this team remains with Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley at running back, along with a defense allowing only nine points a game. Penn State has played only just one contest (at Iowa) decided by less than 17 points this year.

As mentioned above, Michigan’s loss to Michigan State was a setback for coach Jim Harbaugh’s team in the Big Ten title picture. But the Wolverines are far from finished, especially with games remaining versus Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. However, in order to contend with the Buckeyes, Badgers and Nittany Lions, Harbaugh has to get the offense on track. Michigan’s offense has been stagnant all season and has not scored more than 27 points since the Week 2 win over Cincinnati. While the offense is struggling, the defense is once again among the best in college football.

Michigan holds a 13-7 series edge over Penn State. All 20 meetings between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have occurred since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. Michigan has a three-game winning streak over the Nittany Lions, including a 49-10 victory last season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan at Penn State

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Penn State -9.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Michigan’s Offense

This unit remains the top concern for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh following last week’s win over Indiana. The Wolverines enter Saturday night’s game averaging just 27.2 points a game. That number dips even more when non-conference games are filtered out, as Michigan is recording 21.7 points a contest in Big Ten play. The Wolverines rank seventh in the conference by posting 5.4 yards per play, are tied for ninth with just three passing plays of 40 or more yards and rank 13th in the Big Ten in third-down conversions. Harbaugh’s offense has also lost 12 turnovers and has a minus-three margin after six contests.

As if the numbers above weren’t problematic enough, Michigan’s offensive line and quarterback play have been lacking in the production department. Wilton Speight is out indefinitely after suffering a back injury against Purdue, elevating senior John O’Korn into the starting role. O’Korn – a transfer from Houston – has completed 45 of 82 throws for 563 yards and one touchdown this year. He’s also tossed four picks and completed just 10 of 20 passes for 58 yards against Indiana last week. O’Korn’s play is also impacted by the turnover Michigan had at receiver over the offseason, as this is a young group trying to develop through the heart of Big Ten play. While O’Korn is struggling, the bigger concern for Harbaugh has to be the offensive line. Pass protection and holes in the running game have been an issue all season. Michigan is tied for 10th in the Big Ten with 16 sacks allowed, and its rushers are averaging 4.4 yards per carry. If the front five can clear a few lanes, the Wolverines have plenty of talent at running back. Ty Isaac (403 yards) leads the team in rushing, with Karan Higdon (401) and Chris Evans (252) also a factor in the backfield.

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With Saquan Barkley and Trace McSorley leading Penn State’s offense, the defense in Happy Valley often gets overlooked. However, this unit is only giving up 4.01 yards per play and is limiting opponents to just nine points a game. The Nittany Lions have been one of the best in the Big Ten at getting after the quarterback (17 sacks) this season and lead the conference in takeaways (17). Each level has been a strength so far for coordinator Brent Pry, as senior linebacker Jason Cabinda (40 tackles) is a force around the line of scrimmage, freshman end Shaka Toney leads the team with three sacks, and cornerback Grant Haley has been one of the Big Ten’s top cover men through the first seven weeks.

Can Michigan find a spark on offense on Saturday night? Or will the same issues continue to plague this offense? In order for the Wolverines to have success, the offensive line has to play better and O’Korn has to hit a few shots downfield to take some of the pressure off the ground attack.

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2. Penn State’s Passing Game

While much of the focus in Ann Arbor has surrounded the lackluster offense, the defense is once again among the nation’s best under coordinator Don Brown. No opponent has scored more than 20 points or reached 300 total yards against the Wolverines this season. Through six contests, Michigan’s defense ranks third in the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 14.7 points a game and ranks second nationally by allowing only 3.68 yards per play.

With those numbers in mind, it’s hard to find a weakness on Michigan’s defense. However, the secondary experienced a significant turnover in personnel over the offseason and hasn’t exactly played the toughest stretch of quarterbacks to start the year. The Wolverines rank first nationally in pass efficiency defense and are holding opposing passing games to just a 44.1 completion percentage. A large chunk of the credit for the success against the pass has to go to the players up front, as quarterbacks haven't had a lot of time to throw on this defense. Tackle Maurice Hurst has been one of college football’s top defenders so far in 2017, with linebacker Devin Bush and Rashan Gary delivering breakout campaigns as sophomores. Hurst and Gary are a big reason why Michigan is tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks generated (20) with Wisconsin through the first seven weeks of the season. Cornerback Lavert Hill is also off to a strong start this fall.

Can Penn State find success through the air against Michigan’s secondary? That process starts up front, especially with a line that has struggled at times this season. The Nittany Lions have allowed 16 sacks in six games, which is quickly closing in on last year’s total (24). With defenses loading up to start Saquon Barkley and a struggling offensive line, quarterback Trace McSorley has had a lot on his right arm through the first six weeks. But as expected, McSorley continues to direct this offense with high precision, as the junior has connected on 67 percent of his throws for 1,597 yards and 13 touchdowns. Barkley leads the team with 29 catches, but DaeSean Hamilton (22), Juwan Johnson (24), DeAndre Thompkins (16) and tight end Mike Gesicki (22) will see plenty of targets on Saturday night. With a rugged Michigan defensive front coming to Happy Valley, McSorley’s mobility will be a valuable asset for coordinator Joe Moorhead to utilize.

3. Saquan Barkley Against Michigan’s Defense

Containing Saquan Barkley for all four quarters is nearly impossible. Just ask Northwestern’s defense. After devoting extra attention in the box to Barkley all game long, the junior broke loose for a 53-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory. Through six games, Barkley has rushed for 649 yards and six touchdowns and is tied for second in the Big Ten with five rushes of 30 yards or more. And if Barkley is contained in the running game, he can still find a way to make an impact on the offense as a receiver.

Needless to say, containing Barkley on Saturday night isn’t going to be easy for Michigan. However, the Wolverines have contained Barkley over the last two years, allowing just 127 yards on 30 attempts. The Heisman Trophy candidate has struggled at times to find running room behind Penn State’s offensive line, but his biggest obstacle on Saturday night is the Michigan defensive front. The Wolverines are allowing only 85.8 rushing yards per game and just 2.64 yards per carry. Tackle Maurice Hurst leads the way up front, with ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary chipping in a combined 12.5 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Devin Bush (49 stops) is another player off to a strong start this season and is likely to earn a place on the All-Big Ten squad by the end of 2017.

It’s a strength versus strength matchup here. Who will win out? Can Barkley top 100 yards and deliver a few big plays in the second half? Or will Michigan contain Barkley to under 100 yards for the third consecutive year?

Final Analysis

Don’t expect too much in the way of fireworks on offense on Saturday night. Both defenses rank near the top of the Big Ten in fewest points and yards per play allowed, can generate pressure with the front four and stop the run. Even though both defenses are going to land their share of punches in this one, Penn State’s offense will be the difference. Michigan’s offense has struggled to consistently put together drives and running the ball against the Nittany Lions won’t be easy. If the Wolverines are unable to establish the run, this unit will be in third-and-long all night. McSorley and Barkley will find yards and points tough to come by all night, but this duo finds enough production in the second half to knock off Michigan and elevate Penn State to 7-0.   

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Prediction: Penn State 24, Michigan 17