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Getting To Know Michigan's Week 12 Opponent: Penn State Nittany Lions

We introduce you to Michigan's seventh Big Ten opponent, Penn State, in preparation for this weekend's matchup.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season during game week, we will be taking a look at what Michigan's opponent that Saturday has done so far and what the team looks like. With the game against Penn State being a week eleven opponent, we automatically go to the Nittany Lions' loss to Northwestern two weeks ago and their future NFL quarterback.

Penn State Overview: Defense...Great, Offense...Eh

Ricky: Somehow, Michigan’s improbable dream season remains alive after a thrilling win against Indiana. Talk about putting steel in your spine. The Wolverines travel to State College to play a seven-win Penn State team. Future NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions; he’s eight passing yards shy of 2,000 on the season and has thrown 13 touchdowns to two interceptions. Zach, we know how Michigan has struggled against experienced quarterbacks this season — and even spoke about it last week with Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld. If you’re going to stop Hackenberg, how do you do it?

Zach: Hit him. Pulverize him. Bury him. Whatever you have to do to bring him to the ground. No quarterback in the Big Ten, let alone the country, has been hit as much as Hackenberg. Penn State’s offensive line through 10 games has given up 33 sacks, with 32 occurring when the future pro baller was on the field. Apply the pressure at a constant rate and it’ll be an easier road to reach nine wins for the first time since 2011. This will be the third straight season in which the Wolverines will see Hackenberg under center, where he finished with a passer rating of under 25 at the Big House in 2014. Ricky, will fans see a replicated Hackenberg from last year?

Ricky: I’m split on this decision. I think Hackenberg is much better than what we saw last year. But at the same time, he hasn’t handled pressure well, and Penn State’s line gives him a lot of pressure. Michigan should only add to that with guys like Chris Wormley on the line. As good as he can be, Hackenberg hasn’t been able to display consistency at the collegiate level; the type of consistency you’d expect from a quarterback of his stature. On the flip side, Jake Rudock has been playing lights out in November. He’s been everything you could hope for. But at the same time, the running game has been nonexistent. In your mind, what’s the biggest thing Michigan needs to show against Penn State: another fantastic game from Rudock or some life in the backfield?

Zach: Jake Rudock’s performance last weekend against Indiana should be stuck between asterisks. Yes, he set career-highs in completions, yards and touchdowns, but the Hoosiers defense is amateurish, currently ranked 117th in the country in total defense and 122th in passing defense. Penn State, however, they ranked second in the FBS in passing defense, allowing just under 160 yards per game. The one thing going in Rudock’s favor is the fact, like you said, is his lights out showing in the month of November. It’s the perfect test for the Iowa transfer before he takes on Ohio State for the regular-season finale. Let me ask you about the backfield now, who finally steps up this weekend?

Ricky: It has to be Drake Johnson. As much as he’s impressed me this season, I don’t see De’Veon Smith’s style of play working down the stretch, particularly with him banged up. Johnson had an incredible November last season and kept Ohio State on its heels until he tore his ACL. He’s shown flashes of that month this season, but if you can get him going against Penn State, that bodes well for The Game, in my opinion. Zach, the big issue with Michigan the past couple games has been its defense. It couldn’t stop the run and struggled defending the passing game against Indiana. Do you see the defense stepping it up against Penn State, and with Ryan Glasgow appearing to be out for the season, who could be the unsung hero on that line?

Zach: I played nose tackle in high school, maybe Michigan could give me a scholarship for Saturday? But you’re right, the Wolverines were unable to wear down Nate Sudfeld and Indiana’s high-tempo offense. There is, however, major difference when comparing the offenses from the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions. Penn State ranks 127th in third-down conversions (27.5%) and 127th in plays per possession (4.4). It’s an inconsistent and rather embarrassing offensive unit, considering that Hackenberg is a likely first round draft pick. So despite the defensive line losing a key member in Glasgow, I don’t see Michigan giving up big plays in Happy Valley.

Recap: Northwestern 23, Penn State 21 (Nov. 7)

After leading 20-7 at halftime, Northwestern needed almost 60 minutes to beat Penn State on Nov. 7.

Jack Mitchell drilled a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left to push the Wildcats to 7-2 on the year. He missed his first two field goal attempts.

Christian Hackenberg struggled in Evanston, completing 21-of-40 passes for 205 yards and an interception. Saquon Barkley carried the Nittany Lions’ offense, rushing for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.

Penn State led Northwestern 21-20 after scoring early in the fourth quarter. It forced Northwestern to punt on two consecutive fourth-quarter drives and received the ball with over three minutes remaining. All the Nittany Lions had to do was run the clock out and they’d emerge victorious.

Rather, Northwestern’s defense stepped up for a three-and-out and received the ball on its 46-yard line for the game-winning drive.

The loss dropped Penn State to 7-3 (4-2 Big Ten) heading into its bye week.

Key Players

Christian Hackenberg, Quarterback

Hackenberg is currently slated to be drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans with the 49th pick in the 2016 NFL draft. The fact that Penn State comes into this weekend not ranked in the Top 25 with three losses may have hurt his draft stock, slipping down from the projected top ten earlier in the year. Regardless, he's a bonafide NFL prospect that has the talent and will power to pick apart Michigan's defense at home.

Carl Nassib, Defensive End

First off, his name is Carl, that alone gives him positive recognition from us. Jokes aside, Nassib has molded himself into one of the more destructive pass rushers in the country. He leads the FBS with 16 sacks, three more than Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue, who comes in at second with 13.

Special Teams, Kickoff Coverage Unit

Penn State has allowed two kick returns for a touchdown, while giving up an average of 64 (ed-26yards/return, 118th in the nation) yards a return this season. It sets up a perfect opportunity for Jabrill Peppers to record his first touchdown as a returner.

Hot Takes

Zach: Penn State losses this game because of its offense. Expect a low scoring affair.

Ricky: Time for a little Sack-a-Hack. Penn State has allowed 33 sacks this season and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen against Michigan. The Wolverines will level Christian Hackenberg six times in the happiest of valleys.