In my season projections before the season started, I predicted that Michigan would finish 7-5. One of those five losses would come to Penn State. I also thought Penn State would be far, and away better than it has been so far this season.
Don’t get me wrong—Penn State is a good team. It leads the Big Ten in total offense, total defense, and time of possession, ranks second in scoring offense, has the most sacks, and the second fewest penalties, and has the best third down defense.
Yet, when you look further, you realize that it has played just one good team all season (Iowa). Aside from that, it shut out a fairly decent Minnesota team last week, and the rest of the teams on the schedule have a combined record of 13-18.
Michigan has taken some heat for the schedule it has played, most notably for Delaware State, an FCS team, last weekend. Yet the combined record of its opponents is virtually the same as Penn State’s.
So despite the perception that Penn State is far and away better than Michigan, I find the two very similar.
The offenses are a lot alike with the main talent at running back. Penn State running back Evan Royster is a senior and has already run for 641 yards this season. He has Stephfon Green, a junior who has scored four touchdowns, to complement him, although Green is out for this week’s game with an ankle injury.
Michigan’s offense relies heavily on senior backs Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor, who have combined for 610 yards and seven touchdowns, though neither played last week against Delaware State.
While Michigan’s rushing offense is a little more dynamic overall, Penn State has a little better passing offense thanks to a fifth-year senior quarterback. Darryl Clark has completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,654 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.
Clark has play-makers to throw to in Derek Moye (472 yards, four TDs), Chaz Powell (316 yards, three TDs) and Graham Zug (257 yards, two TDs), all of which have more yards than Michigan’s leading receiver, sophomore Martavious Odoms (238 yards, one TD).
Defensively, there’s no question that Penn State is formidable. It has given up just 61 points through six games, and just 239 yards per game.
Michigan on the other hand, gives up about 21 points per game. That doesn’t bode well when going up against a great defense, since Michigan’s modus operandi this season has been to put up a lot of points and hope it’s more than it gave up.
However, the last time Michigan went up against a defense many thought was impenetrable, it ran with ease. Michigan scored three rushing touchdowns on an Iowa defense that hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown in 33 quarters of play.
So what does Michigan have to do to beat Penn State?
It starts with taking care of the ball. Through the first five games of the season, Michigan had done a pretty good job of this. But against Iowa, Michigan turned it over five times, essentially thwarting its chance for an upset.
Michigan has come a long way from last year’s turnover-prone bunch, but in its biggest game yet, turnovers became its downfall.
Protecting the ball against Penn State is mission number one. Michigan has shown that it can move the ball and put points on the board. But failing to convert because of turnovers and giving the opponent good field position and momentum won’t help its cause.
Secondly, Michigan needs to prove it can be effective with the pass. It averages 235 yards per game on the ground (5.4 yards per carry), and Penn State will undoubtedly stack the box to stop the run.
Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier has proven he can pass, but much of Michigan’s passing has come toward the end of halves or games when needing to score quickly.
If Michigan can complete some passes early, it can keep Penn State mindful of the pass and pay dividends in the running game.
Michigan should have center David Molk back from a foot injury, so that will help the offensive line consistency. Molk has missed the last four games, leaving right guard David Moosman to fill in.
Finally, Michigan has to prevent the big play. Penn State has a wealth of play-makers and Michigan has been prone to giving up big plays all season. Its defense has had trouble getting off the field on third down and that was a glaring weakness against Iowa.
The Hawkeyes converted 8-of-18 third downs, including a 34-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-12.
Big plays are devastating to a defense, and even more so when the offense is turning the ball over. If Michigan can contain Penn State’s play-makers it has a good chance to win.
I think this will be a pretty evenly-matched game, especially since it’s in the Big House. But in the end, I think Penn State has too many playmakers on offense, and too rigid a defense for Michigan to out-score it.
Unless Michigan plays a virtually perfect game, Penn State will win. Unfortunately, with this young team, a perfect game is unlikely.
Prediction: Penn State 34 – Michigan 27