Michigan vs. Penn State: Keys to Victory for Nittany Lions

Jesse ReedCorrespondent IOctober 11, 2013

Sep 7, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Zach Zwinak (28) celebrates with teammates Jesse James (18) and Ty Howle (60) after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Eastern Michigan 45-7. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State isn't expected to win at home in Week 7 against Michigan, but the Nittany Lions are quite capable of pulling off an upset.

Michigan enters the contest undefeated with a record of 5-0, but the Wolverines have nearly been upset by inferior opponents twice already this year. After impressively dispatching Notre Dame, Michigan nearly lost to Akron and Connecticut in consecutive games before righting the ship against Minnesota last weekend.

Penn State is still smarting from the beating it took a week ago by Indiana. Combined with the disappointing loss against UCF, the Nittany Lions have suffered two losses early in the season with their toughest stretch upcoming.

A week after Michigan comes into town, Penn State travels to face Ohio State, and two losses in a row would likely put this team into too deep a hole to recover from this season. 

With that in mind, it's imperative for Penn State to play its best game of the season and beat the talented Wolverines on Saturday.

Here are the biggest keys of the game.


Pressure Devin Gardner Into Mistakes

Devin Gardner is supremely talented, and when he's given time in the pocket to make plays he makes defenses pay. 

That said, he has shown fragility when pressured early in games. 

In the two games the Wolverines nearly lost to Akron and Connecticut, Gardner was pressured into throwing five interceptions, and he's thrown a total of eight in five games this season.

Taylor Lewan is a star left tackle, but Michigan's offensive line as a whole is open to exploitation. Though it may not be the safe play, Penn State would be smart to send Glenn Carson on a few delayed blitzes early in the game to get Gardner off his game. 


Shut Down Michigan's Rushing Attack

Sep 7, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (12) hands the ball off to running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (28) during the third quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew W
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

This year Michigan has relied on its running game when Gardner is struggling through the air. It's been an effective strategy, too, as the Wolverines would be 3-2 without the timely contributions of Fitz Toussaint in the team's two close wins.

Toussaint has been phenomenal all year for Michigan, rushing for 397 yards with seven touchdowns. 

Penn State has its hands full trying to stop Michigan's rushing attack.
Penn State has its hands full trying to stop Michigan's rushing attack.Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

If he were the only Wolverines player capable of breaking off big runs, however, it might be easier to slow him down. Gardner is an effective runner from the quarterback spot, totaling 318 yards and six touchdowns on the season. 

Up-and-coming freshman Derrick Green has gotten into the action this year, too, and he's a big play waiting to happen. 

The defense of the Nittany Lions must play with exceptional gap discipline against this multifaceted attack.


Pound the Rock and Control the Clock

Sep 14, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Zach Zwinak (28) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Central Florida Knights at Beaver Stadium. Central Florida defeated Penn State 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Matth
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The best way to ensure victory at home against Michigan will be to keep Gardner and his offense off the field as much as possible. The best way to make that goal a reality is by controlling the clock with a punishing rushing attack.

For the season, Penn State has put together impressive ground totals, rushing for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. It wouldn't be correct to assume the Nittany Lions featured a physically dominant rushing attack, however. 

Of the team's 858 rushing yards, 538 were earned against EMU and Kent State. 

Michigan's front seven will provide a stiff test for Penn State's offensive line, but this is a battle the home team must win if it has any chance of winning. 


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