With a record of 5-0 including 1-0 in the Big Ten, the Michigan Wolverines currently have a stranglehold on the Legends division. The rival Penn State Nittany Lions of the Leaders division have a golden opportunity to throw a wrench into the Wolverines' plans on Saturday, though, if they can come through with an upset win.
Penn State has been a tough team to figure out this season as it is 3-2 overall with a 3-1 record at home, but Bill O'Brien's squad has lost winnable games to the likes of Central Florida and Indiana. Because of that, the Nittany Lions are three-point underdogs at home against a Jekyll-and-Hyde Michigan team. An upset is possible, but Penn State will have to execute its game plan to perfection.
Here are the three biggest keys to the Nittany Lions derailing the Wolverines' perfect season at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Big Plays from Christian Hackenberg
As is often the case with freshman quarterbacks, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg has had an up-and-down season. His most-recent performance against Indiana was fantastic as he threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns, but that came on the heels of a game against Kent State in which he completed just 37 percent of his passes for 176 yards, one score and one interception. If the Nittany Lions are going to come through on Saturday, Hackenberg's showing will have to resemble what he did against the Hoosiers.
Penn State ultimately fell short against Indiana, but that was on the defense more so than Hackenberg as the Hoosiers were allowed to put 44 points on the board. Assuming Hackenberg plays well again, it will certainly give the Nittany Lions a chance. Hackenberg has had a roller-coaster season thus far, and he has been frustrated by Penn State losing two of its past three games, but O'Brien isn't concerned, according to Penn State student blog Onward State.
The Wolverines have struggled mightily against teams that are far less talented than Penn State as they Akron and Connecticut by a combined seven points. To put that in perspective, those teams are a combined 1-9, and neither of them has a quarterback as skilled as Hackenberg. While Hackenberg's accuracy and decision making have been questionable at times, he has developed a great rapport with wide receiver Allen Robinson, and it is paramount that they combine for some big plays on Saturday.
Force Devin Gardner Into Mistakes
There are few quarterbacks in the nation that possess more explosiveness than Michigan's Devin Gardner, but Gardner doesn't always do a great job of channeling that. Gardner does have more than 1,000 passing yards and eight touchdowns along with 318 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, but he has a major issue when it comes to turning the ball over. Gardner has thrown eight interceptions this year, and he had committed 17 turnovers in nine starts entering last week's game against Minnesota, according to College GameDay.
On the plus side, Gardner had a turnover-free day in Michigan's 42-13 triumph over the Golden Gophers, so perhaps he has turned the corner. Gardner issues could return at any moment, though, and they could ultimately be Michigan's Achilles heel. Gardner played with fire against Akron and UConn as he threw combined five interceptions in those games. Michigan was able to persevere due to the talent gap, but that won't be possible against a team like Penn State.
The Penn State defense has been very inconsistent this season, but it does have 12 sacks and five interceptions, so it should be able to make Gardner pay if he isn't careful. Gardner has been playing with a fire all season long, however, he has yet to get burnt. If the Nittany Lions want to win this game, they have to coax Gardner into making some poor choices with the ball.
Keep Michigan's Offense Off the Field
Thanks to the three-headed monster of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, the Nittany Lions have run the ball quite effectively this season as they are averaging nearly 172 yards per game on the ground. Zwinak is the senior leader of the group as he leads the team with 369 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, but both Belton and Lynch are averaging 6.6 and 7.7 yards per carry respectively, so opposing defenses have to pick their poison.
As good as Penn State is when it comes to pounding the rock, O'Brien often seems to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the passing game. It's understandable considering how much time he spent with the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, but it isn't a great idea to put too much pressure on Hackenberg. O'Brien appeared to do that last week against Indiana as he abandoned the run despite Zwinak's success, according to Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror.
While Hackenberg needs to have a solid day on Saturday, running the ball will be paramount. Despite Gardner's penchant for making mistakes, Michigan has a quick-strike offense that can put points on the board in a hurry. The best defense for that is a strong running game on the offensive side of the ball as it will keep the Wolverines' offense on the sidelines. If Zwinak, Belton and Lynch run well on Saturday, O'Brien simply can't ruin their momentum by putting the game completely in Hackenberg's hands. Running the ball well will hurt the Michigan offense and help Hackenberg too, so it should be a no-brainer for O'Brien.
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