A week after the college football landscape was altered by upsets, No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) hopes to avoid becoming the next top team to fall when they host No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) Saturday night at 7:30pm on ABC.
The Nittany Lions were off last week and watched fellow top-five teams Clemson and Washington both lose on the road in conference games. Penn State has the luxury of facing Michigan at Beaver Stadium, though, which will be packed full of high-energy fans upwards of 100,000.
Though Michigan has been a different team since losing starting quarterback Wilton Speight to injury, Penn State will be on high alert given the Wolverines’ stout defense. That unit is the top overall defense in the nation, giving up just 224 total yards per game and just 14.7 point per game. While the Penn State defense tops the nation in points allowed at nine per game, the Nittany Lions will look to its offense to make enough plays against the Michigan defense to preserve their perfect season to date.
Penn State has struggled to run the ball in their past two games against so-so defenses, so establishing the run game is first and foremost on Saturday. You wouldn’t normally think that of a team that has potential Heisman frontrunner tailback Saquon Barkley, but the Lions’ star impacts the game in so many more phases than taking handoffs. Expect No. 26 in blue to get the ball in a variety of ways to try and break down the rugged Michigan defense, including the passing and return game as we’ve seen all season.
It should be a great game between two of the Big Ten’s best, and a crucial game in Penn State’s College Football Playoff hopes. Though the Lions could theoretically still make the playoff with a loss as Ohio State did a year ago, a one-loss team is in no way guaranteed a spot in the final four.
Michigan’s front four vs. Penn State’s offensive line
This game will likely be won in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Both teams have good lines on both sides of the ball, but Michigan’s upset hopes rest on how well they dominate the line of scrimmage against Penn State’s offense.
If the Michigan front four can push around Penn State’s offensive line as it did a year ago, it will close down the run game and put pressure on quarterback Trace McSorley to make plays in the passing game with collapsing pockets all night.
Penn State’s special teams vs. Michigan’s special teams
Saquon Barkley is dynamic in the return game and DeAndre Thompkins is dangerous on punt returns as well. Blake Gilliken is one of the best punters in the nation and is a weapon when tasked with pinning teams deep in their own territory. Their downfall has been kicker Tyler Davis, who is just six for 13 on field goal attempts.
Quinn Nordin has been fantastic for Michigan, hitting 14 of 16 field goals this season. With this game expected to be close it could come down to a matter of points and Michigan has a huge advantage with a reliable kicker.
Key players to watch
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
While he’s normally in this spot, the transcendent Barkley will be even more important this week for Penn State. It’s the best defense he’s faced all year and will be counted on to make at least two or three big plays if the Lions want to avoid the upset. If he doesn’t, Penn State likely losses this game.
Michigan QB’s John O’Korn and Brandon Peters
O’Korn hasn’t bee very good since taking over for the injured Speight and has thrown just one touchdown against four interceptions on the season. He likely won’t be the reason Michigan wins the game, but he could easily be the reason they lose it. If he can avoid turning the ball over and count on his defense to give him field position they will have a chance to put up enough points to pull the upset.
Peters is included but it’s the same plan for him if coach Harbaugh decides to go with him at some point over O’Korn.
Penn State LB Jason Cabinda and S Marcus Allen
Michigan isn’t going to ask their quarterbacks to win the game, instead they’ll count on their running game to churn offense as they did a week ago against Indiana. Penn State will ask Cabinda and Allen to stuff that running game and force O’Korn or Peters to beat them. If they can do that, it’s a good bet Penn State will force turnovers and give their offense extra possession to pull off the win.
Prediction: Penn State 35 Michigan 17
This one should be close for a while, but Michigan’s offense will face a tough defense and won’t be able to hold back Penn State’s explosive playmakers all night. At some point Barkley will get loose for a few big runs and Penn State will pull away in the second half.