It should really be called Michigan's Big Noon Kickoff show, as this will be the fourth week in a row the Wolverines will be featured on FOX. This weekend, the billing is warranted, with the No. 5 Wolverines (6-0) hosting the No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0) in an undefeated clash that has major implications in the Big Ten East Division.
Last Saturday was a wave of emotions for the Michigan players and coaches in the 31-10 defeat of Indiana. Football-wise, the Hoosiers tested the Wolverines in the first half, tied 10 all at the break. Michigan's defense took over the game in the second half, allowing just 29 total yards while accumulating seven total sacks on the day. But that performance was overshadowed by the scary incident on the Michigan sidelines where running backs coach Mike Hart suffered a "medical emergency" that resulted in him collapsing. Monday brought positive news that Hart was back on his way to Ann Arbor and is in stable condition.
The Nittany Lions should be well rested coming off their bye week, looking to improve upon arguably their most disappointing performance of the year in a 17-7 victory over Northwestern in Week 5. Six turnovers between both teams in the first half and Penn State accumulated a season-low 360 yards of total offense in what turned out to be a slog of a game.
Big Noon Kickoff finally has a big-time showdown on Saturday.
No. 10 Penn State at No. 5 Michigan
When Penn State Has the Ball
Fair or not, quarterbacks will get the most praise or the harshest criticism depending on a game's outcome. And that rings true at Penn State more than most collegiate programs with fifth-year senior Sean Clifford, where the calls for a possible change to 5-star freshman Drew Allar have grown louder the last two weeks. Consistency remains an issue, as you see both the good and bad from Clifford every week, who threw a first-half interception against Northwestern. The senior quarterback is 2-1 against the Wolverines the last three years, tossing four touchdowns and zero interceptions but also throwing for under 210 yards in each meeting. He'll have no easy task again this year against a Michigan defense that ranks 11th nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
Working in Clifford's favor is the talented group of skill-position players that surround him. There is no alpha at wide receiver as the Nittany Lions had the previous three years with Jahan Dotson, but Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith are as good as any group in the Big Ten outside of Ohio State. And Penn State is getting more contributions from the tight end position where Brenton Strange caught three of his team-leading four touchdowns in the last two games.
Clifford will be in the spotlight, but Penn State must get the running game churning in order to win this matchup on the road with their talented freshmen duo of Nick Singleton and Kayton Allen. The Nittany Lions have already surpassed their rushing touchdown total from 2021 (12), largely due to Singleton and Allen both averaging more than five yards a carry on the season. Penn State's offensive line, while improved, remains a sore spot, ranking 107th nationally in stuff rate and 105th in line yards, according to CollegeFootballData.com.
When Michigan Has the Ball
The first half of last week's matchup with Indiana was filled with frustration for Wolverine fans. Missed opportunities in the passing game with drops, errant throws, and overly cautious play-calling. The overall numbers for the running game were solid, rushing for 168 yards on 37 attempts (4.5 ypc), but 50 of those yards came on one spectacular run by star running back Blake Corum. Outside of that, Michigan had just one rushing attempt on the day that went for double-digit yardage. Many of the problems were fixed in the second half when the Wolverines scored three touchdowns to put the game away, but there are some concerns heading into the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
More Corum and Donovan Edwards on the field at the same time would be a start in showing some new looks. Now in his second game back from injury, Edwards had just eight touches against the Hoosiers and wasn't featured much in the passing game, which is where he thrives. That could've been because seniors Ronnie Bell and Luke Schoonmaker combined for 25 of the 36 targets that went to Michigan pass catchers. Schoonmaker, in particular, has been outstanding during starter Erick All's absence with 20 of his 23 receptions coming in the last three weeks. Similar to Penn State, the Wolverines have no shortage of options in the passing game.
Saturday will present a matchup of strength on strength with Corum and the Michigan run game facing off with Penn State's stout rush defense that is ranked fifth in the country in yards allowed per contest. Not one opponent has averaged more than four yards a carry against the Nittany Lions this season.
It's easy to pinpoint the quarterback battle between Clifford and J.J. McCarthy as the determining factor in the matchup. But both teams have achieved their undefeated records behind the strength of their running backs, so winning the battle in the trenches will have a major impact on the outcome on Saturday. Michigan's outstanding offensive line against the dominant run defense of the Nittany Lions. And then Penn State's shaky OL against a Wolverine front that is tied for third in the country with 22 sacks. Slight edge to the Wolverines at home.
Prediction: Michigan 26, Penn State 23
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
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