Before the season even started, Wolverine and Nittany Lion fans knew the Penn State-Michigan game would be a huge match.
Six games into the season, it is exactly that.
Everyone knew it was very likely both teams would be undefeated. As it played out, No. 19 Michigan sits at 5-1 and No. 2 Penn St 6-0.
Both teams have similar story lines with good records while still not breaching the upper echelon of their schedule. In every football game, there are game-changing factors each team may have an advantage in executing. The team that can execute the most of these vital aspects will likely end up with a win. That being said, here are 10 factors to the Penn State-Michigan game as well as which team has the advantage in each:
1. Explosive Plays: Advantage Penn St
Penn State has the clear edge here and it starts with Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley. The football freak show leads Penn State in rushing AND receiving, which is incredible for a running back. On top of 6 rushing touchdowns and 2 receiving touchdowns, he also has a kick return and passing TD. Trace McSorley also has the eye for the big play and plenty of tall, rangy receivers.
Michigan has heavily struggled creating big plays on offense, especially in the passing game. Since Wilton Speight went down with an injury, explosive plays have been hard to come by. There has been a bright spot here as last week Karan Higdon had a career day on the ground with a 59-yard run in the fourth quarter and the game winning 25-yard TD run in OT against an Indiana defense that held Saquon Barkley to 56 rushing yards on 20 carries.
2. Three and Outs: Advantage Michigan
Both the Michigan and Penn State defenses are excellent. Michigan ranks first in the nation in total defense while Penn State ranks ninth. Both are very good, but for very different reasons. Penn State’s defense makes its living on capitalizing on opponent mistakes and creating turnovers, while Michigan’s defense is about getting the opponent off the field as early as possible with negative run plays, sacks and third down efficiency. It will be very interesting to see which defensive unit is more impressive at the end of the day.
3. Clutch Field Goals: Advantage Michigan
Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin is shaping up to being one of the best Michigan kickers in recent memory. He is 14-of-16 on the season, including 2-of-3 from 50+ range. Penn State’s Tyler Davis is only 6-of-13 and hasn’t attempted a kick beyond 50 yards. If the game becomes a low-scoring slug fest, a field goal duel would be a huge advantage for Michigan.
4. Tackles For Loss: Even
This is going to come as a shock to a lot of people because Michigan has been infamous for giving up tackles for loss, currently ranked No. 112. However, Penn State has allowed 34 tackles for loss and 14 sacks just in the last three Big Ten games and ranks No. 121! However, the tie breaker here is Saquon Barkley. He doesn’t need to have 200 or even 100 yards rushing for his team to win. However, Michigan will indeed need a big game from its running backs to be in the game. They haven’t shown they can win against stiff competition if they can’t run the ball.
5. Third Down Efficiency: Advantage Michigan
In a game where offenses will likely have trouble getting into a rhythm, third down conversions will be a big deal. Neither defensive unit is likely to surrender many yards on first or second down. Michigan’s defense specializes in this area, ranked first nationally in third down defensive efficiency with only 18 first downs allowed from 88 attempts by opponents. Penn State will likely have to rely on big plays to get points because Michigan just doesn’t like to surrender first downs.
6. Catastrophic Plays: Advantage Penn State
This simply isn’t close. Penn State is +12 in turnover margin (second in nation) while the generous Michigan offense is at 0. It’s certainly possible for this to change as Michigan’s defense has come up big numerous times, but all three of Michigan’s featured backs have at least one fumble. Not to mention the fact that John O’Korn has only one touchdown pass to four interceptions. This has to terrify Jim Harbaugh, who will likely lean heavily on an improving ground game. All the same, O’Korn can’t hide in this game. He is not going to get away with another 59-yard passing performance. He’s going to have to deliver and pass for at least 150 yards and not commit big mistakes.
7. Offensive Line Dominance: Even
You don’t become the No. 112 and No. 121 best unit at giving up tackles for loss with an elite offensive line. Both the Wolverine and Nittany Lion offensive lines are quite underwhelming. Saquon Barkley can usually get his number without an offensive line, but that was before they have played a team like Michigan. Also, Michigan’s game against Indiana, running for 270 rushing yards, who gave nothing to Penn State makes Michigan fans feel better than it has the whole season about its offensive line. Was it a fluke? We’ll soon find out.
8. Penalties: Advantage Penn State
Last week, Michigan committed a school record 16 penalties. It’s hard to fathom Michigan repeating that level of mistakes, but it’s not like it was an isolated incident. They’ve committed a total of 51 penalties for 446 yards. Penn State has committed less than half of that with 24 penalties for just 232 yards. It’s certainly reasonable to think Michigan will cut down on these for a game this important, but heavily penalized teams don’t usually just repent and live a new life, it’s just something they are going to do.
9. Punt and Kick Returns: Advantage Penn State
Saquon Barkley is a dynamic return man as well as a running back and receiver. He already has one kick return for a touchdown against Indiana. Wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins usually handles the punt returns and he is dynamic in his own right, with 239 yards on 14 returns and a touchdown. Michigan’s kick return game is a non-factor against anyone they play, but their freshman man child Donovan Peoples-Jones wowed Michigan fans when he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown. However, Peoples-Jones has also been replaced early in the season for being too careless with the ball. So it is close, but Penn State has the edge here.
10. Deep and Accurate Punting: Advantage Penn State
Michigan freshman Brad Robbins took over in Week 4 against Purdue and has been adequate with an average of 41.3 yards and 6 punts inside the 20. Penn State sophomore Blake Gillikin has 44.2 yards per punt with 12 inside the 20. Both teams have an ability to block punts and kicks. Michigan blocked one of Indiana’s field goal attempts last week and Penn State got its hands on two field goals against Iowa. A punt or field goal block would swing momentum in a huge way in a matchup like this.
Conclusion: Michigan (3) Even (2) Penn St (5)
This is not to say that just because a team has an advantage in one area of the game it is a done deal. It is very possible that Penn State gets all the three and outs and Michigan’s defense doesn’t play up to its potential. It is very possible that Michigan actually wins the turnover margin in this game. Either way, Penn State has the advantage on paper. And we haven’t even factored in coaching, which may be an advantage to Michigan (especially with Don Brown on the sidelines) and the crowd, which will certainly benefit Penn State. Everything is still going to come down to the play on the field.