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Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Michigan Wolverines Preview and Prediction

Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh

The Michigan Wolverines (3-0) were tested for the first time this season last week against Colorado, falling behind by two touchdowns in the second quarter before storming back in the second half to win 45-28.

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Penn State (2-1) avenged its 2015 loss to in-state rival Temple with a 34-27 win over the Owls. Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley made a dramatic return in the second half after leaving the game following the first play from scrimmage due to a leg injury and was able to close the game out with a 55-yard run to seal the win for the Nittany Lions.

Both teams enter Saturday looking to kick off their Big Ten slate with a victory to continue the momentum from big wins last weekend.  

Penn State at Michigan

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan -16.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Getting Push in the Trenches
The performance of both offensive lines have been underwhelming to start 2016. Despite four returning starters, the Wolverines have struggled to run the ball between the tackles consistently in their first three games, getting a handful of the rushing yards on outside tosses and jet sweeps by the wide receivers. Penn State has run into similar issues despite having one of the better backs in all of college football in Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry through three weeks and are middle of the road in terms of pass protection, allowing five sacks. Like with most Big Ten battles, whichever team has the most success in the trenches is likely to come out on top.

2. No Linebacker-U
The Nittany Lions will likely head into this week’s matchup without all three of its starting linebackers, as it was announced earlier in the week that fifth-year senior Nyeem Wartman-White will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL against Temple. Penn State is already without fellow starters Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda who, while they have not been announced as out, appear to be unlikely to play against Michigan after missing last week. While the rushing attack for the Wolverines has been uneven the first three games, you can be assured Jim Harbaugh will make a concerted effort to attack the middle of the defense with the running game and even quick, short passes over the middle to tight end Jake Butt.

3. Special Special Teams

The Michigan defense was the most touted group on the team heading into the 2016 season, but it has been the third phase that has made the most impact so far. The Wolverines are currently tied with Texas for the most blocked kicks through three weeks. After blocking two punts and a field goal attempt against UCF, the Wolverines special teams were at it again the following week against Colorado, blocking another field goal attempt and returning it for a touchdown. That would end up being the first of two special teams’ touchdowns for Michigan that day as Jabrill Peppers would tack on a punt 54 yards for a score late in the second half. Penn State better have their special teams units ready for Saturday because these can be momentum-swinging plays that the Nittany Lions cannot afford to have go against them when attempting to pull the upset. 

Final Analysis

Did last week’s brief scare from Colorado put a little pep in Michigan’s step? It sure looked like it did during the second half when the Wolverines eventually put the hammer down. If so, that would be bad news for a Penn State team that is severely overmatched in terms of talent and coaching. The Nittany Lions always have a chance no matter who they play because of Saquon Barkley, but Michigan is too good in the front seven of their defense to let him take over the game. Similar to last week, the Wolverines extend the lead late in the second half for a comfortable win. 

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Prediction: Michigan 34, Penn State 19

— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.