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What to Watch For: Week 6 vs. Penn State

Is Hassan Haskins the go-to guy? That and more.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A game between two teams with a 2-8 combined record can’t have been what anyone was expecting to see this Saturday, but that’s what they’ll get.

Michigan, after surviving a surprisingly competent Rutgers team in triple overtime, gets a chance to move back to .500 against a Penn State team that is winless through five games for the first time in program history.

This is a matchup between two teams who figured to be similarly-matched contenders behind Ohio State in the Big Ten East. The first part of that statement might still be true. While 2-3 looks a heck of a lot better than 0-5, both the Wolverines and Nittany Lions’ seasons have been marked by injuries, questionable coaching and extremely inconsistent play above all. The vibe around both programs has been largely the same since the second week of the season.

But things might, just might, be creeping up for Michigan since its 48-42 win in Piscataway — a game Michigan probably deserved to lose, but a win regardless. The Wolverines’ two most experienced offensive linemen, Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, might return from injuries to play Saturday. Their running game got going against the Scarlet Knights. And, last but most importantly, they appear to have found a quarterback. Cade McNamara looked every bit the answer on Saturday, coming in relief of a struggling Joe Milton to go 27-of-36 for 260 yards and four touchdowns.

The Wolverines have stemmed their bleeding for now. Penn State hasn’t reached that phase yet.

Will Michigan take advantage of the Nittany Lions’ current state, or will Penn State end its downward slide? We’ll find out Saturday — but mercifully, not in primetime.

Is Hassan Haskins this team’s bell cow?

Last Saturday might not have been Haskins’ best game in a Michigan uniform — it’s hard to top his explosion against Notre Dame last year — but it was easily his most important. Michigan didn’t get anything going on the ground against Indiana and Wisconsin, and against Rutgers, it averaged just 1.8 yards on 20 carries with players other than Haskins.

Then there was the 220-pound junior, who ran aggressively all night long, finishing with 111 yards on 23 carries and, of course, the game-winning touchdown. Haskins rarely went down at first contact and made the most out of even the smallest holes.

Amazingly, Haskins’ performance was the first time a Michigan running back had gotten even double-digit carries in a game this season. Throughout four games, the Wolverines have tried to spread the wealth, so it’s partly by design. But when combined with steep early deficits and second and third-and-long scenarios, it meant that they had no run game to speak of.

Haskins changed that against the Scarlet Knights. Once McNamara began to open up the offense with his passing, Michigan kept putting the ball in Haskins’ hands, allowing him to get into a rhythm where backs with his powerful running style can thrive.

Haskins may not post super-efficient numbers behind a young/potentially depleted offensive line. But given the opportunity for 15-20 carries, Haskins has the ability to soften up defensive fronts and provide a dimension the Wolverines sorely need. If Michigan wants to replicate its offensive performance from a week ago, getting Haskins the ball early and often seems like a solid starting place.

Has Cornelius Johnson carved out a role for good?

Ronnie Bell is always open. Mike Sainristil had a career-high in catches and a second straight game with a touchdown pass at Rutgers. Erick All might be starting to get on top of his catching issues. Giles Jackson and Roman Wilson are ascending.

But no Michigan pass-catcher’s performance last Saturday was more impressive than Johnson, who caught five passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. (It’s been documented that Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black, combined, had one 100-yard game during their time at Michigan).

The players expected to step up in the wake of those departures — Bell, Jackson, Sainristil, Wilson — are more of the shifty, underneath type. That’s where Johnson comes in. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he fits the mold of Black, Collins and Peoples-Jones as a big, fast outside threat who can make contested catches and stretch a defense deep.

It showed in the second quarter last Saturday, when Johnson made a simple double-move to bust the Scarlet Knights’ coverage wide-open and haul in a 46-yard touchdown pass from McNamara. Johnson’s strength and balance was also on display on his second touchdown, when he broke a tackle, stayed on his feet down the sideline and found the end zone to make it a 35-27 game.

For a Michigan passing attack that has moved the ball underneath but often struggled to hit home runs (McNamara, for all his success, averaged a merely solid 7.2 yards per attempt against Rutgers), Johnson — who also caught a deep touchdown against Indiana — gives defenses something else to account for. The Wolverines’ receiving corps has no shortage of talent. It doesn’t have anyone else who can do what Johnson can.

Who starts under center for Penn State?

The Wolverines’ secondary is still as burnable as ever. Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral came into last Saturday having thrown five touchdowns to seven interceptions and averaging under six yards per attempt. Vedral looked nothing like that player against the Wolverines, whose soft coverage allowed him to rack up 381 yards and three touchdown passes.

Whoever starts for the Nittany Lions will be better than Vedral and have more dangerous targets to boot (namely, Jahan Dotson, the Big Ten’s second-leading receiver, who sports a 31-527-6 line). First, there’s Sean Clifford. The redshirt sophomore was a solid, if not a tad inconsistent, first-year starter in 2019, throwing for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns and a 148.5 QBR while also running for 402 yards.

But with Penn State in the process of losing to Nebraska, James Franklin pulled Clifford for Will Levis, a strong-armed passer and physical runner who nearly led a comeback behind 219 passing yards and 61 on the ground. Then, the opposite happened against Iowa: Levis got the start, but the offense stalled under his command before Clifford came in to engineer a comeback of his own that fell just short.

With Clifford having the relatively hot hand, it’d be a minor surprise to see Levis get the call, but it wouldn’t be at all shocking if Franklin called on him at some point in hopes of finding his own version of Cade McNamara. Either way, having to plan for two quarterbacks (who bring different playing styles, no less) is a tough ask for a defense that hasn’t been able to plan effectively for even one below-average signal caller.