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Preview: Penn State 2018

A win over the Nittany Lions does many things. Revenge, a step closer to the Big Ten Championship and almost guarantee a Rose Bowl berth AT WORST.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Don Brown had his worst performance as a coordinator last year against Penn State. He’d be the first to admit that.

42 points. 506 total yards, including 224 on the ground. Saquon Barkley torching Mike McCray on a wheel route. All evidence from an embarrassing fall night in Happy Valley.

The sequence that cut the deepest? PSU’s backups got to first-and-goal in the final minutes, trying to turn 42-13 into 49-13. Brown, though his defense made the late stop, has used that humiliation as motivation heading into this Saturday.

Trevor Woods detailed players currently frothing at the mouth about it.

This sense of vengeance is permeating through Schembechler Hall. During the playoff ranking unveil Tuesday, Kirk Herbstreit mentioned the Revenge Tour. Chase Winovich talked about conference foes “bullying” the Wolverines. After double-digit victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State:

“Me personally, I wanted our lunch money back,” Winovich said, “and I wanted them to pay interest.”

Brown’s No. 1 S&P+ defense now resembles actual rabies-infested Wolverines, and Jim Harbaugh has a history of holding grudges (ask Pete Carroll at Southern Cal in 2009).

In that environment, James Franklin and a beat up Trace McSorley may be running into a buzzsaw this weekend.

MOTO (Master of the Obvious)

No. 5 Michigan (7-1, 5-1) against No. 14 Penn State (6-2, 3-2), 3:45 p.m.


Radio: ESPN/Michigan IMG Sports Network

Line: Michigan by 10.5

Series history: Michigan leads 13-8, which was bolstered by a nine-game streak from 1997 to 2007. James Franklin is 1-3 as head coach, though as detailed in intro, his 2017 team emphatically dispatched the Wolverines.

The last time the two played in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines similarly pounded the Nittany Lions 49-10.


Accuweather. Looks like a perfect fall day at 47 degrees with minimal chance at rain. The kind of day that this author is reminded that the smoggy air and trashy streets of Los Angeles will never beat the changing colors of a Midwestern autumn.

The kind of day were all you can hear is Tim Allen’s Pure Michigan voice.



Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has cobbled together the nation’s No. 15 S&P+ pass defense despite a host of departures and injuries.

Last year’s entire secondary graduated, but 2016 starter John Reid returned at corner, as well as preseason All-Big Ten Amani Oruwariye. Pry heavily rotated underclassmen last year, getting nickel Tariq Castro-Fields and safeties Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor ready for battle in 2018.

The numbers have improved each week. After Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas bombed the back four for 270 yards and two scores, the only other quarterback to reach that total was Ohio State’s Dwyane Haskins (also 270, three touchdowns).

Considering Haskins averages 350 yards a contest, that’s a quality effort.

Taylor, Scott and Oruwariye all have two picks on the year. The secondary is quite at Don Brown levels of press-man coverage, but it leans towards aggressiveness to give the line more time to pressure the pocket.

Speaking of, the Nittany Lions rank No. 4 at 3.5 sacks a game. Ed Warinner’s line has yet to face a line this prolific at pressuring the quarterback — next highest is Nebraska at 2.5 a game.

The lead sack master is Yetur Gross-Matos with six.

The 6-foot-5, 259-pound sophomore is the total package with range, explosiveness and strength. He leads the conference with 12.5 tackles for loss.

His counterpart at end is Shareef Miller (four sacks), who is a bulkier type who wins with discipline. Pry will also send rush linebacker Shaka Toney (five sacks) on blitzes a la Josh Uche.

Michigan likely will need to utilize tight ends to find room through the air. Against Iowa, the Nittany Lions almost were punished by breakdowns against the Hawkeyes’ T.J. Hockenson.

Skip to 46:45.

With Zach Gentry leading the team in receiving, it’s not too much of stretch to say Shea Patterson will involve him in the passing game.

Additionally, PSU collapsed in the fourth quarter against Ohio State’s screens. Expect short throws to Donovan Peoples-Jones and others to feature this week.

However, Pry has his defense primed to contain Michigan’s receivers, even if Tarik Black returns from his injury.

Advantage: Penn State


After Michigan pounded Michigan State’s No. 2 efficiency run defense for 183 yards, it’s hard to be intimidated by PSU’s No. 54 unit.

With a smallish line — no starters over 295 pounds — the Nittany Lions rely more on stunts. While it’s led to a top-20 stuff rate (61.5 total TFLs), a lesser ground attacks have been able to chip away over 60 minutes.

MSU’s La’Darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward averaged over four yards a pop, while Indiana racked up 224 yards on 45 totes (nearly five YPC).

In fact, only Kent State has failed to crack 100 yards rushing on this defense.

Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor are the anchors at defensive tackle. At 285 and 295 pounds respectively, they have combined for 10 TFLs and 3.5 sacks on the year.

The leading tackler at linebacker is former five-star Micah Parsons with 43.

Ed Warinner’s line has gotten better week after week, imposing its will the last two weeks against Wisconsin and MSU. This isn’t the front seven to stall that momentum.

Advantage: Michigan



After Ohio State, Trace McSorley looked like a Heisman contender. He amassed 461 total yards, including 286 through the air, to will his team to a close loss against the highly-ranked Buckeyes.

After OSU’s collapse against Purdue, this performance lost some luster. Also, he’s been unable to build off of it. Since then:

  • 19-of-32, 192 yards and one touchdown versus MSU
  • 19-of-36, 220 yards and one pick versus Indiana
  • 11-of-25, 167 yards, one touchdown and one pick versus Iowa

With James Franklin lacking consistent weapons elsewhere, he’s excessively leaned on his senior leader. It almost cost him dearly as McSorley banged up his knee in the first half against the Hawkeyes.

If Franklin shows up in Ann Arbor with a one-dimensional attack, Brown’s defense will look to tee off on it.

The biggest test is in the slot, as former Michigan target K.J. Hamler leads the team in receiving with 28 receptions for 498 yards and five scores. He’s a speed merchant that will flex Tyree Kinnel’s and Josh Metellus’ improved coverage skills.

Lavert Hill and David Long are set to face 6-foot-4 Juwan Johnson (293 yards) and DeAndre Thompkins (183 yards).

Overall, this aerial assault is a far cry from last year, ranking No. 69 overall in efficiency. Michigan trots out the No. 1 pass defense in America.

Advantage: Michigan


Despite leading the team with 834 yards on the ground, Miles Sanders is sometimes a forgotten man on this offense.

That’s because he has just two games over 100 yards over five conference games, including a 200-yarder against Illinois.

While the other was an 162-yard effort versus MSU’s stingy front, it was a boom or bust day. Take away his 48 and 78-yard bursts, he finished with 15 carries for just 36 yards.

A long-maligned offensive line has improved to the point where they average 2.76 line yards a carry (line push before a defender touches the ball-carrier), which is good for No. 29 nationally.

An occasionally explosive back and an improved front five make this a competent run game. McSorley’s legs transform it into the No. 9 S&P+ attack.

That was only minutes after injuring his knee.

He’s tallied 617 yards on 110 carries, and reached the end zone nine times. Last year, he torched the Wolverines with the read-option, gaining 76 yards and notching three touchdowns.

Since struggling with Brandon Wimbush’s legs at Notre Dame, the defense has steadily improved against dual-threat quarterbacks. Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez had negative yardage, and Maryland’s Tyrell Pigrome only found room in garbage time.

Only Wisconsin has been able to push Michigan’s No. 5 efficiency rush defense up front. PSU does not have the caliber of linemen that the Badgers routinely possess, so running straight up the gut doesn’t seem sound.

That means Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne are going to try to attack the perimeter. Does their offense have the speed to run past an athletic front — potentially with Rashan Gary?

Advantage: Michigan


Kicker Jake Pinegar has connected on 9-of-13 kicks and 41-of-42 extra points. Meanwhile, Quinn Nordin has had an extra week to work out of a recent funk.

Punter Blake Gillikin averages 42.3 yards a punt to Will Hart’s 49.5. Gillikin was involved in two safeties in the first half against Iowa on botched punt snaps.

Lastly, Hamler averages 28.3 yards a return on kicks. Michigan ceded a touchdown on a return against Maryland.


The visceral pick based on emotions is Michigan in a blowout. Reading the language and attitudes this week, the Wolverines are itching to hit someone in all-white uniforms.

With that said, PSU has some ways to win this game. While Michigan should find plenty of room on the ground, can the offensive line hold up in protection against the best unit its faced all year?

Even against a very strong defense in Iowa, the Nittany Lion offense made enough big plays to prevail. Can the defense close the door on every Hamler slant or McSorley keeper?

On the other hand, how close is James Franklin to being 4-4 on the year? Iowa missed several opportunities due to a broken quarterback in Nate Stanley, and Appalachian State got to overtime.

The victor on Saturday will be the one with more consistency. Franklin’s success the last few years has been built on boom-or-bust plays. Before, those were jump balls to Mike Gesicki or Chris Godwin. Now, it’s McSorley in a variety of ways.

Jim Harbaugh and company have waited a year to knock out the Nittany Lions. They won’t try to do it with one haymaker.

They’ll consistently punch the body, and knock them out with a decisive fourth quarter.

Michigan 41, PSU 21