Normally a clash of two college football titans, Michigan and Penn State will face off on Saturday with a combined record of 2-8. This year marks the 24th time these two elite programs have met in history, and this is the worst combined win percentage the two have had heading into any matchup. Stunningly, this is also the first time the two teams have met where neither program is above .500. This is going to be a game like none other in the rivalry between these two Big Ten schools, but not for the right reasons.
Let’s dig into the Michigan Wolverines game this weekend against the Nittany Lions.
Michigan Offense vs Penn State Defense
The Passing Game
For some odd reason, Jim Harbaugh has yet to name a starter at quarterback for Saturday’s game. In the fan base’s eyes (and frankly, anyone logical), this job belongs to Cade McNamara. The sophomore brought the Wolverines back after being down 10 points at the half in Piscataway and scored 5 touchdowns in the process.
McNamara now has 6 total touchdowns on the year (five through the air, one on the ground) in just 87 snaps under center. That’s more than Joe Milton, who has started every game this season. He has 252 snaps as the starter, and just 5 touchdowns to show for it (four passing, one rushing).
McNamara is also completing passes at a much higher rate: 67.4% compared to Milton’s 57.2%. In a clean pocket, McNamara has been a starting-level quarterback. When he is not under pressure, the sophomore has completed 28 of 38 passes (73.7%) for 317 yards and 5 touchdowns. Two of those 10 incompletions were drops by Michigan wideouts according to PFF.
Meanwhile, Milton has been slightly less impressive. Under no pressure, Milton has completed 62 of 103 passes, a 60.2 completion percentage, and racked up 776 yards and 3 touchdowns while throwing 2 interceptions.
It’s time for the baton to be passed from Milton to McNamara. Milton may have the stronger arm and the bigger wow factor, but McNamara has shown the consistency that you need from a quarterback at the collegiate level.
Here is where Michigan’s passing game ranks this season:
- Average 278 passing yards per game, 5th in the Big Ten and 29th in the country.
- Completes 59.5% of passes, 9th in the Big Ten and 78th in the nation.
- Michigan’s offensive line has allowed 8 sacks on the year, 7th-best in the conference. Their 1.6 sacks allowed per game is 35th in the country.
Penn State hasn’t lost football games because of their pass defense, for the most part. In their overtime loss to Indiana, the Nittany Lions held Michael Penix Jr. to just 170 yards, his fewest on the year. Penix Jr. also completed a season-low 52.8 percent of his passes in the narrow win.
The Nittany Lions secondary is led by two senior safeties: Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker. Wade, a team captain, was named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List for the nation’s best defensive back.
Brisker earned a Pro Football Focus All-Big Ten third team nod for his play last season, and has had a strong 2020 season, too. He has three pass breakups this year and has allowed only 65 yards in coverage on 12 targets.
Leading the cornerback room is another senior, Tariq Castro-Fields, who has the best coverage grade by PFF on the Penn State roster. He’s allowed just 89 yards on the year, and 42 of that came on one play. A year ago, Castro-Fields was voted to the All-Big Ten third team by the media and was an honorable mention by the coaches.
Redshirt senior edge rusher Shaka Toney was a second-team All-Big Ten player last season and he has been quite impressive again this year with 14 pressures and 4 sacks in 5 games. That’s tied for second in the Big Ten and only a half-sack behind Illinois’ Owen Carney Jr. for the lead in the conference.
Here is how Penn State’s pass defense stacks up:
- The Nittany Lions’ 12 sacks are 3rd-most in the Big Ten, and their 2.4 sacks per game is 54th in the country.
- Allowed 66.2% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, 11th in the Big Ten, and 109th in the country
- Given up 221.6 passing yards per game, 6th in the Big Ten, and 50th in the country
The Running Game
Last week we touched on the importance of Josh Gattis and the Wolverines picking a workhorse at the running backs position, and it appears a similar decision may have been made. While Chris Evans, Blake Corum, and Zach Charbonnet all saw playing time, Hassan Haskins saw growth in touches from previous weeks. He had 23 carries for 111 yards and a score in the win over Rutgers, the most carries any Michigan back has had this season.
Haskins has seen eight or fewer carries in every other game in 2020. His 111 yards was also a game-high for any Wolverines’ running back. It was the first time the position group has accounted for over 100 yards on the ground since the Minnesota game (The team ran for 152 yards against Michigan State, but 59 of that came from Joe Milton).
Speaking of quarterbacks’ running ability, it appears they may be some run plays in the docket for McNamara as a starter, too, just in a different capacity. Gattis called an option play for McNamara when he took over against Rutgers, but there were no longer any designed quarterback runs like we saw Milton have earlier this year.
Here is how the Michigan running game ranks:
- Average 123 yards per game on the ground, 11th in the Big Ten, and 100th in the country.
- Average 4.2 yards per carry, 8th in the Big Ten, and 67th in the nation.
Like the Penn State pass defense, the numbers on the ground won’t jump off the page at you. But, over the last two weeks, they have been far from good. They allowed 175 yards on the ground to Iowa last week in their 41-21 loss. It was 208 yards against Ohio State the week before.
Overall, their defense is Top-5 in the Big Ten allowing just 360 yards a game. That is after facing the two most potent offenses in the conference through their first four games; Ohio State and Maryland, and a Top-12 ranked Indiana squad.
One player who has thrived is edge rusher Jayson Oweh who has 18 stops on the season. PFF gives him an elite grade of 88.2 in rushing defense on the season. The redshirt sophomore has started in every game and has done an excellent job of containing the outside run.
Here is the Nittany Lions’ defense rank overall:
- Allow 138.6 rushing yards per game, 5th in the Big Ten, and 40th in the nation.
- Allow 3.6 yards per carry, T-4th in the Big Ten, and 35th in the country
Penn State Offense vs Michigan Defense
The Passing Game
Rutgers’ Noah Vedral had his best performance of the season against Michigan, and he was one of the worst-rated quarterbacks not only in the Big Ten but in all of Division I football. His 381 yards and 3 touchdowns made up his best performance of the season, by far.
Vincent Gray put together his second-straight impressive game after allowing just 5 receptions for 38 yards on 7 targets. On the other hand, Gemon Green struggled for the second time in as many weeks after giving up a 49-yard touchdown to Bo Melton and 98 total yards while being targeted 13 times.
The linebackers proved once again that they should not be tasked with man coverage as Rutgers completed 11 passes on 14 targets while any linebacker was in coverage. That allotted for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns of Vedral’s big day.
The Wolverines pass rush did get to Vedral twice on Saturday, the most sacks they have had since the Minnesota game (5). In the time in between, though, Michigan only sacked the quarterback once in a three-game span.
This is how Michigan’s pass defense compares to the conference and beyond:
- Their 1.6 sacks per game is 94th in the country, 8 total sacks is 9th in the Big Ten
- Allowed 59.2% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks 46th in the country
- Allowed 274 passing yards per game, 106th in the country.
The Nittany Lions have not figured out anything on the offensive side of the ball. Sean Clifford was supposed to have a monumental season and potentially break out as a Heisman candidate, leading a team that was projected by many to be one of two representatives for the Big Ten in the college football playoff.
Instead, the Nittany Lions are 0-5 and Clifford’s play has been a significant role in that. He has thrown 8 picks this season, the 8th most interceptions in the country, in only 5 games. Clifford threw only seven in all of last year.
Now, that is not entirely the fault of Clifford whose offensive line has been abysmal. He’s been under pressure on a third of his dropbacks, and when he has a defender in his face, he has been terrible. Here are his numbers: 12-of-34 (35.5%), 4 interceptions, and 18 sacks. It’s been far from pretty for the Penn State aerial attack in 2020.
Here is how Penn State ranks through the air overall:
- Average 279 passing yards per game (one more yard per game than Michigan), 4th in the Big Ten and 28th nationally
- Completed 57.3% of passes, 11th in the Big Ten and 95th in the nation.
- Allowed 20 sacks this season, by far the most in the Big Ten. The offensive line has allowed four sacks a game, 126th out of 130 teams in the FBS.
The Running Game
Michigan had its best performance of the season in run defense against Rutgers on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights ran the ball 40 times for just 105 yards. That’s a massive improvement from the Wisconsin game where they allowed 341 yards on 51 carries.
It appears the Wolverines may be without inside linebacker Cam McGrone, but Adam Shibley has played well in his stead. In fact, he has been the highest-graded run defender by PFF in each game where McGrone has gone down with an injury (Michigan State and Rutgers).
Chris Hinton has also really begun to take a step forward plugging the holes on the inside while Carlo Kemp takes more of an edge rusher role. Hinton recorded one of the two sacks last week and had a stop against Rutgers.
Still, there is a long way to go for this defense, they need to put together consecutive weeks of good play in one of their units and that has yet to happen.
Let’s take a look at where they stand:
- Allow 163.8 rushing yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten, and 66th in the nation.
- Allow 3.9 yards per carry, 9th in the Big Ten, and 44th in the country.
A program that has touted names like Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders over the last several seasons does not have a bell cow up to this point. Devyn Ford leads the way on the ground with just 209 rushing yards. He and Caziah Holmes split the majority of the carries and they have accrued just over 300 yards combined.
Clifford poses a running threat, too, with 182 yards on the season, just under 30 yards less than Ford, their top back. Once again, this could come down to the offensive line not controlling the line of scrimmage, but they are also relying on a sophomore (Ford) and a freshman (Holmes) for most of their carries.
Here is how the Nittany Lions defense lines up:
- Average 139 rushing yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten, and 83rd nationally.
- Average 3.4 yards per carry, 10th in the Big Ten, and 102nd in the country.
How Penn State wins
The Nittany Lions will emerge victorious if they get to the quarterback. The Michigan offensive line has been without at least two starters over the last three weeks, and against Rutgers, they didn’t have three (Hayes, Vastardis, and Mayfield). If the same is true against Penn State on Saturday, guys like Toney and Oweh could cause problems.
They need to get something going offensively. Clifford was a solid quarterback in 2019 and although he has not been great this year, he is facing one of the worst pass defenses in the Big Ten this week in Michigan. If he can start to put things together against this unit, things could get dicey for the Wolverines.
How Michigan wins
Michigan wins if their quarterback puts together another strong week and the offense is humming. When McNamara was in the game against Rutgers the offense looked more in rhythm and it was successful. Every drive that McNamara has been behind center the offense appears to have a chance, the same may not be true with different personnel.
If Milton remains the starter, they will need for him to start fast and not miss open receivers. Milton has a rocket arm, but he also tends to put too much on balls causing accuracy issues. They need for him to show the precision McNamara has shown on the field, command the offense, and fight for his privilege to be a starter.
Defensively, the Wolverines need to get to the quarterback. This Penn State offensive line is worse than what they saw against Minnesota in week one. Taking advantage of that even without Aidan Hutchinson and potentially Kwity Paye for the third-straight week will be pivotal.