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Inside the Numbers: The Formula to Upsetting Penn State

As long as Michigan sticks to a certain offensive game plan, the Wolverines have a shot to knock off Penn State.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

Saturday night will be a pivotal point for Michigan’s season.

The Wolverines head to Happy Valley, where No. 2 Penn State, a sea of white, and a never-ending chorus of Seven Nation Army awaits them. It is a viper pit, a place many excellent teams have entered only to leave dazed and confused and licking their wounds. And it is where the trajectory for Michigan’s season will be determined.

With a loss, the Wolverines will be all but out of the Big Ten race. They already have a loss to a division foe (Michigan State), and a second one would likely be too much to overcome. Michigan would need Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State, all of whom have unblemished Big Ten records, to each lose at least two conference games, and because the Wolverines would already have losses to two of those three teams, they likely would need a lot more help than that to win any divisional tiebreaker.

And none of that help would matter if Michigan didn’t win out after such a loss to finish 10-2 (7-2 B1G). However, S&P+ projects Michigan has just a 4.2% chance to do it.

So it’s safe to say that Michigan’s Big Ten and even New Year’s Six hopes would be dashed by the end of Week 8 with a loss to Penn State, and it’s easy to see the fan base become dispirited and begin looking ahead to 2018, if it hasn’t happened already.

With a win however, the morale surrounding the program would surge after the last several weeks featured endless concerns and questions regarding this team’s offense. Michigan would earn its first win as a double-digit underdog since 2007 (Florida in the Capital One Bowl, +10.5) and its first win against an AP top-25 team on the road since 2006 (No. 2 Notre Dame). Fans would be rejuvenated by the unexpected victory and by the realization that Michigan could be 9-1 (6-1 B1G) entering the final two weeks.

Suddenly, the idea of a Big Ten championship wouldn’t seem so outlandish.

So what does Michigan need to do to upset Penn State and keep its season alive?

Run the ball. Again and again and again and again.

Last weekend, Michigan had its best game of the season on the ground. The Wolverines registered season highs for rushing yards (271) and yards per carry (6.16), and the 6.16 yards per carry were the most allowed by Indiana this year. This is even more surprising when you remember that Ohio State and Penn State already took their crack at the Hoosiers’ run defense, which is no slouch and ranks 25th in S&P+.

This was an encouraging sign for Michigan’s offense. Karan Higdon had a breakout game with 200 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. Higdon showcased his north-south running style, hitting gaps hard and low. He demonstrated that his top-end speed is sufficient, splitting Indiana’s defense on a counter untouched for a 59-yard score — the longest run the Hoosiers have surrendered this season. And he stole the soul of a Hoosiers defensive end on his 25-yard touchdown run in overtime when the entire play seemed to break down before he transformed a loss of yards into six points.

Higdon wasn’t the only Michigan runner to perform well either. Ty Isaac was productive in limited snaps, recording 38 yards on seven carries (5.43 YPC), though he missed one noticeable cut. And that’s because Michigan’s offensive line seemed to click with its run blocking for long spurts for the first time all season. Michael Onwenu used his weight to escort Hoosiers aside, Juwann Bushell-Beatty was an upgrade over Nolan Ulizio at right tackle in that department, and the left side of the line held its own.

Michigan’s run offense is still only ranked 55th in S&P+, but this was a significant step in the right direction. And it should provide Michigan confidence that it can run the ball effectively against Penn State. Though the Nittany Lions are 15th in yards allowed per carry, S&P+ views their run defense (44th) as being worse than Indiana’s. This doesn’t mean that you should expect Higdon to burst out for another 200-yard effort, but there will be yards to be had on the grass. Michigan just needs to be creative with how it gets them, adding new wrinkles and constraints and testing Penn State’s edges.

This isn’t the only reason why Michigan should keep the ball on the ground as much as it can. Another reason is that Michigan’s pass offense was more discouraging than Michigan’s run offense was encouraging against Indiana. For the second straight week, John O’Korn underwhelmed as the pass offense sunk to new lows. O’Korn completed 10-of-20 passes (50.0%) for 58 yards (2.9 YPA), and things have to go disastrously to dip below a 3.0 YPA. He overthrew Donovan Peoples-Jones, didn’t see a wide-open Zach Gentry for a touchdown on a two-man route, and had an interception negated by a questionable pass interference (though not as questionable hold) when he attempted to connect with Eddie McDoom on a fade on 3rd & 7. O’Korn also didn’t have a great grasp of game management, allowing the play clock to expire just before snapping the ball and revealing a tricky shovel pass design which would have bust for big yards.

So the idea that O’Korn can come into Happy Valley and turn things around against Penn State is ludicrous. The Nittany Lions’ defense is fifth in Passing S&P+, eighth in passing success rate, and third in passing IsoPPP (explosiveness). This is a fantastic pass defense that has very few weaknesses. They do not allow many successful plays through the air, and on the rare occasion that they do, they shut them down for minimal gains. Plus, Penn State’s defense has proven it has ball-hawking tendencies, having already been the recipient of nine interceptions this season (tied for 12th).

Each time that Michigan finds itself in 3rd & Long or drops back to pass, especially in what should be a raucous, stadium-rattling environment, it will feel like a giant gamble.

Michigan needs to avoid those gambles by keeping the ball on the ground and staying ahead of schedule. This likely would cause Penn State’s defense to slide downward towards the line to stack the box, but that’s when O’Korn can try to keep them honest with play action. But Michigan should not go to this well too often because this is the sort of game where the Wolverines should not want to throw the ball more than 15 times. If they do, it means they’re falling behind schedule or, worse, on the scoreboard.

Plus, if Michigan attains sustainable success with its rushing attack, the clock will continue to run. This will shorten the game, provide Penn State with fewer possessions to pull away, and permit Michigan’s defense to earn as much rest as it possibly can.

And Michigan’s defense will need as much rest as it can against this Penn State offense. The Wolverines’ defense has been remarkable, ranking second in S&P+ and again performing at a national championship level. On the other hand, though, the Wolverines have yet to face an offense as talented as Penn State’s (13th via S&P+).

However, this is an offense that Michigan can stop. Penn State’s offensive line will not be much of a match-up for Michigan’s front seven. That unit is ranked 87th in adjusted line yards, 111th in adjusted sack rate, 118th in stuff rate, and 127th in power success rate. The only area where Penn State’s offensive line ranks well is in opportunity rate (14th), but that speaks more to the extraordinarily talented Saquon Barkley and his ability to make highlights out of nothing. Barkley will be good for one or two dazzling runs, but Michigan’s defense (fourth in rushing success rate) likely will contain Barkley most of the night, like it did in 2015 (15 runs, 68 yards) and 2016 (15 runs, 59 yards). And Michigan was able to do that without the incredible speed of Devin Bush, Jr.

Penn State also will try to neutralize Michigan’s disruptive front seven with numerous run-pass options (RPOs) to keep them guessing and buy Trace McSorley some time, but the Wolverines have the best pass defense in the nation (first in S&P+, YPA, and passer rating). Lavert Hill is emerging as a Jourdan Lewis clone, and David Long and Brandon Watson have been excellent on the other side of the field. The trio of corners just held Indiana to its worst passing output of the season and star wideout Simmie Cobbs, Jr. to only 39 yards on four grabs. Penn State doesn’t have a wide receiver of that caliber. DaeSean Hamilton had one superb game against Indiana (9 catches, 122 yards, 3 TD), but he has been relatively pedestrian otherwise. The Nittany Lions’ best chance to break it open through the air is to get Barkley involved in the screen game to counter Michigan’s aggressiveness. Other than that, Michigan’s defense should be steady.

This would all add up to what should be a competitive, low-scoring affair. Then maybe Michigan will have the few big runs, few big breaks, and few big kicks (former PSU commit Quinn Nordin is 14-of-16, while PSU’s Tyler Davis is 6-of-13) it needs to win.

As long as they keep running. If they do that, they may just run to an upset victory.