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Seven things to look for in Michigan’s game vs. Penn State

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If Michigan’s going to win the game, here are seven things to watch for.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight should be interesting to say the least. The national media has a love hate relationship with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football, but at the end of it all, the Wolverines have yet another matchup that’s receiving a ton of attention.

The Wolverines are about to play a night game against Penn State, a game PSU selected as their ‘whiteout’ game. The atmosphere is going to be as loud and crazy as can be and if Michigan walks out of there with a win, they’ll silence a lot of critics (until next week).

If Michigan’s going to pull of the upset over Penn State, there’s a lot that must go right, here are seven things to watch for in the game.

Sean Clifford vs. Michigan’s pass-rush

Quarterback Sean Clifford has had a fine season to this point, amassing 1,560 yards, 13 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions and has completed 64.2% of his throws. His production doesn’t stop with his arm, though, Clifford has rushed for 252 yards as well.

While Clifford’s had games where he’s been dangerous, he hasn’t fared well against the blitz, something Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown will be sending at him early and often.

Per ESPN, Clifford’s completion percentage when pressured is a lackluster 39%, which ranks 85th in the FBS. Further, Clifford’s ESPN QBR is 73.1 in the pocket compared to a much better 93.5 outside of it.

Michigan’s defense ranks 12th in the nation with 3.5 sacks per game and Penn State’s offensive line is in the middle of the pack nationally, ranking 45th in sacks allowed.

Clifford is a different quarterback when he’s pressured (in fairness most QB’s are), and if Michigan’s pass-rush can get home, momentum could shift in the Wolverines favor. Going against the best defense he’s faced this year in Iowa last week, Clifford was just 12-of-24 for 117 yards and a touchdown.

For our scouting report on Clifford, click here.

How will the environment impact Michigan?

Penn State head coach James Franklin said he wants the matchup to be a “seismic event”, meaning he wants the crowd loud and rowdy. And they’re going to be rocking in Happy Valley for whiteout game at night.

The type of environment Michigan is going into will be hostile. Linebacker Josh Uche said fans said derogatory things towards the Michigan team two years ago, which is to be expected, it is a rivalry game in its own right. Noise, 100,000 fans that hate you for the night, playing under the lights, all those variables can lead to the demise of an opposing team.

Michigan will have to weather the storm early and make things happen on both sides of the ball to silence the crowd. The only way to silence them is by getting out to an early lead, a multiple score lead. Whether you believe Michigan can do this or not is another conversation, but if they did in fact create breathing room on the scoreboard, it would shut the crowd up for a bit.

Fundamentally sound, physical football is needed

Michigan can’t shoot themselves in the foot in a game like this on the road against a pretty good team. That means no silly personal foul penalties, and most importantly, NO FUMBLES! Gifting Penn State extra possessions would be a recipe for disaster.

Fundamentally sound football goes beyond not fumbling or committing egregious penalties, it also means that Don Brown’s defense must stay disciplined, maintain their gaps, and not over-pursue (which could allow a huge counter run by PSU).

In pass defense, Michigan will have to tackle well on short throws. Penn State likes to dial up receiver screens and short crossing patterns, and their success depends on opposing defenses not tackling well. If Michigan is able to limit yards after the catch, it’ll greatly increase their chances of winning the game. Wide receiver KJ Hamler is especially dangerous when he’s asked to run these types of patterns, and he’ll be a major challenge for Michigan.

Along with fundamentals and technical proficiency, Michigan needs to continue playing tough. After the Wisconsin loss, Jim Harbaugh challenged his team to get tougher, and they have. Since the loss the team has played with more hustle and physicality, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. If Michigan is going to win this game, they’ll have to out-muscle Penn State.

Offensive line will decide how Michigan’s offense performs

Michigan’s offensive line has played a more physical and technical brand of football since the Wisconsin loss. The line has protected Shea Patterson at a high clip of late and against Illinois they created huge holes for running backs to run through, but this Penn State defense may be just as good as Wisconsin’s. If the offensive line has a good day across the board, Michigan wins. If the unit struggles, the final score won’t be pretty.

While the ‘defining game of the Harbaugh era’ talk is absolute garbage and is used every time Michigan plays a good team, this game could define what Michigan’s offensive line is and is not.

Time for the young dudes to make their presence known

Dax Hill is now the starting nickel back, Cam McGrone is now a starting linebacker. Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins look like a great 1, 2 punch out of the backfield. Players such as these weren’t major contributors against Wisconsin and their roles on the team have evolved since then due to them now being healthy or simply stepping up when their number was called upon.

From the outside punditry they act like Michigan is the same team as a month ago, but that simply isn’t the case. McGrone and Hill could be huge difference makers in this game and pack a punch as tacklers. Haskins and Charbonnet run with a ton of power and look like two players where the sky could be the limit. On the road, it’s important to pack a stout run game, and Michigan could have one. The counter to this is the fact Penn State has the No. 3 rushing defense in the nation. A tough challenge for sure.

More speed in space and tempo?

Michigan may rank No. 73 in passing offense, but they rank No. 21 in yards per completion, meaning they’ve taken some shots, but need to hit more of them consistently. As long as the offensive line protects Patterson, Michigan may be back to full strength at wideout, with WR Nico Collins and TE Sean McKeon both likely to suit up (in my opinion).

Michigan has the talent at receiver to make things happen in the open field, they have players with enough speed to gain separation, now it’s all about going out there and delivering punches decisively and continuously.

Another area of the speed in space scheme that was promised is the ability of the offense to speed up and slow down the pace of the game, controlling time of possession in any way they so please. While the offensive attack hasn’t been of the up-tempo variety so far this season, the fact they don’t huddle up should bode well for them heading into such a loud environment on the road. The no-huddle offense will allow Michigan to not suffer as many delay of game penalties as they would otherwise.

There’s even a chance that the Wolverines will try to go up-tempo a drive here and there in hopes of a quick score. Then there’s the realistic possibility Michigan is trailing in the game and time will be an issue. If that’s the case then we’ll see if the unit has it in them to play from behind and score fast to get back in the game.

Can Shea Patterson have his best game yet?

Shea Patterson has had an up and down year at quarterback. Patterson committed a turnover in the first five games of the season, with that streak ending last week against Illinois. Patterson’s going to need to not only protect the football against PSU, he’s going to have to make things happen and continue to move the chains.

Patterson’s internal time clock hasn’t been as fast as it could be getting rid of the football, and in an environment such as this, he’ll have to get rid of the ball quickly and confidently. Windows close quickly in the passing game and you have to take your shots when they appear. Can Patterson do this? He has before.

An element of Patterson’s game we haven’t seen much of this season is his running ability. Part of the reason he hasn’t taken many read-option runs is because he was banged up the first few weeks of the season, but now at full health with a big game in front of him, expect Patterson to run more than in prior games.

Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey is healthy so Michigan could let Patterson showcase his wheels knowing that if he did get hurt, their depth at quarterback is fine at the moment. The element of the quarterback keeping the ball on read-option runs could really open up the run and pass game alike (RPO’s) and make defenders hesitate in the process.