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What To Watch For: Michigan vs. Penn State

Michigan looks to continue its hot streak against Trace McSorley and company.

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

After checking in at No. 5 in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, Michigan has a shot to add another quality win to its resume on Saturday against No. 14 Penn State.

Here’s what you need to watch:

Containing Trace McSorley

Michigan did an excellent job shutting down Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke two weeks ago, but now faces a much better player in PSU signal caller Trace McSorley.

Not only can he hurt you with his arm (1,628 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions on the year), he can beat you with his legs. He’s rushed for 617 yards and nine touchdowns on 110 carries in 2018. To compare, starting running back Miles Sanders has compiled 834 rushing yards and eight scores. U-M has been susceptible to running quarterbacks both this year and in prior seasons, and McSorley is the ultimate test now that J.T. Barrett is finally out of college football.

One thing clearly in Michigan’s favor is McSorley’s health. Last week against Iowa, McSorley sustained a knee injury, but did return to the game. He will play this week, but it’s uncertain how healthy he actually is. The more Michigan can get after him in the backfield, deliver some hits and make him uncomfortable, the better chance U-M’s defense can force bad throws.

He’s the best quarterback Michigan will see in 2018 outside of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, and will test the nation’s No. 1 defense. We’ll see how Michigan’s “holding defensive backs” hold up.

Don’t Let Up

At the end of last season’s game, Penn State decided not to take a knee to run out the clock, and instead continued on marching down the field. Michigan’s defense remembers that, and so does defensive coordinator Don Brown.

U-M players and fans are mad about it which I understand, but at the same time there was nothing Michigan could do about it. If you don’t want another team to run up the score or embarrass you, then stop them. It’s really quite simple. I wasn’t upset when Penn State did it last year and I won’t be upset if Michigan does it to Penn State this time around. I don’t want to hear about gamesmanship and how it’s not a nice thing to do. Michigan couldn’t stop Penn State’s offense and that was that.

The past two meetings between these teams resulted in a blowout, so it’s not crazy to suggest it could go that way again, but in Michigan’s favor. It’ll take a strong start from the Wolverines and a forced turnover or two by the defense, but it’s certainly possible. If Michigan is up big in the fourth quarter, I don’t expect to see Jim Harbaugh call off the dogs, and he shouldn’t. If Penn State can’t stop the Wolverines (or if Michigan can’t stop PSU should the game go the other way), they should keep scoring, keep piling it on, keep fueling the budding rivalry. Heck, go for two after a late touchdown. Sports are supposed to be fun for the winners, not the losers, so don’t let up.

Win The Third Down Battle

Michigan and Penn State could not be more different when it comes to converting on third down. Through eight games, Michigan has a success rate of 47.8 percent (54-of-113) on third downs, good for No. 11 nationally.

Penn State has been dreadful on the key down, converting only 35.8 percent (39-of-109) of the time, which ranks 102nd in the country.

The Michigan offense has looked sharp ever since its Week 1 loss to Notre Dame, and Shea Patterson has evolved into the player every fan hoped he would be. Factor in the Wolverines might be getting wide receiver Tarik Black back, and the offense looks golden.

Penn State’s defense has been solid on third down, however, holding opponents to a conversion rate of 33.1 percent (46-of-139). That ranks No. 29 nationally.

Michigan’s defense, not surprisingly, has also been very strong on third down, limiting opponents to a conversion rate of just 28.7 percent (31-of-108), which is good for No. 9 nationally.

Penn State’s poor performance on third down is odd considering the team has the No. 27 total offense in the country, while Michigan’s ranks No. 55. U-M has simply been able to get it done when it matters most, while PSU hasn’t. If that trend continues, it should be a good day for the Maize and Blue.

P.S. Keep an eye out for Rashan Gary, he’d give Michigan’s defense a big lift should he be healthy enough to play.