With the season on the line, the Michigan Wolverines head to Happy Valley this weekend and take on the undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions (7:30 p.m., ABC).
Last year, Michigan whooped Penn State at the Big House, but this is a brand new year for both teams, and the home team this year, unfortunately, looks like a juggernaut once again.
The offense is lead by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford, who looks like a Trace McSorely clone through the first six games. He is dangerous through the air (1,560 pass yards, 13 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) and on the ground (252 rush yards, 2 touchdowns). He can beat you in a lot of different ways, so Don Brown will be tasked with getting pressure on him while also making sure he doesn’t escape and run for big yards.
Many thought the running game would be a weak spot for Penn State this year, but it has been the complete opposite. The Nittany Lions have several running backs Michigan will have to keep track of, most notably true freshman Noah Cain, who has 310 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. Others to watch for include true freshman Devyn Ford (215 yards, 2 touchdowns), redshirt sophomore Journey Brown (233 yards, 3 touchdowns) and sophomore Ricky Slade (59 yards, 2 touchdowns).
A big part of their offensive successes has to do with the offensive line. The unit has not only opened holes for the Nittany Lions’ running backs to run through, but it has also protected Clifford quite well, only giving up 10 sacks. Only Indiana and Wisconsin have given up fewer sacks in the Big Ten (8).
But the toughest challenge for Michigan on defense will be limiting redshirt sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler, who has been one of the top receiving threats in the Big Ten this year (455 yards, 5 touchdowns).
Hamler is the type of receiver that could slaughter Michigan’s defense on those crossing routes that give the Wolverines so much trouble. This guy is shifty, has great instincts and can burn you at any moment, so it will be crucial for the defense to limit his production.
Other guys to watch in the receiving game include sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth (203 yards, 3 touchdowns), sophomore receiver Jahan Dotson (261 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Slade and Brown, the aforementioned running backs.
Defensively, Penn State is right up there with the best in the conference at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. They have the second-most sacks (27) in the Big Ten to go along with 59 tackles for loss.
Up front, Jon Runyan will have to deal with junior Yetur Gross-Matos, one of the better defensive ends in the country. He has at least 1 tackle for loss in all but one game this season, and in total has 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Needless to say, the dude is an animal and will be a huge problem.
On the other side of the line, Jalen Mayfield will be tasked with going up against redshirt junior Shaka Toney. He only has 14 total tackles, but his plays typically make a big impact, as he has 5.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss to his name.
The leading tackler on the team is sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons. With 31 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits and 1 sack, the Michigan offensive line will have to look everywhere to prevent giving up a sack or tackle in the backfield.
This is going to be a very difficult challenge for Michigan on all fronts. It would have been difficult had it been a noon kickoff at Michigan Stadium, but given the fact it is a night game on the road in a White Out environment, the Wolverines might run into a buzz saw.