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Michigan gameday matchups: Penn State

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The Wolverines face a big test on Saturday.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After taking care of business at home against the Indiana Hoosiers, the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines will head out to take on Penn State on the road this Saturday. In what will likely be one of Michigan’s toughest games this season, the Wolverines are going to have to execute a clean game if they want a win in Happy Valley for the first time since 2015.

The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, are looking to regain traction after going 1-3 in their last four games. Michigan comes in as a ranked opponent, and what better way for them to regain glory than to beat the Wolverines at home? It looks to be anyone’s for the takings as odds have this game split even. Both teams are looking to win out, but who has the edge in this matchup? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Michigan’s starting quarterback Cade McNamara has proven to be the go-to with his consistency and leadership. He’s going to have to rely on these characteristics heading into a game in Happy Valley. Even though it isn’t a night game, Michigan has had a tough go of it in Beaver Stadium during the Jim Harbaugh era. It’ll be a tough environment, but based on his performance against Michigan Sate, McNamara is the reliable option to get the job done.

In conference matchups this season, McNamara has garnered a 62 percent completion rate, throwing 1,295 passing yards, six TD and two INT. He’s going to want to live up to his words by getting wins “that other years couldn’t” and Penn State is an excellent place to start. McNamara has moved to a 62.5 percent completion rate with 1,666 passing yards, nine TD, and two INT on the season.

If there is a face to Penn State’s offense, it’s their starting QB Sean Clifford. The senior quarterback has handed the Wolverines losses two years in a row. As he looks to extend it to three, he’s going to have to pick apart the Wolverine defense and make as few errors as possible. Against conference opponents, Clifford has a 58.5 percent completion rate with 1,460 passing yards, nine TD and 4 INT. In the four games so far against opponents ranked in the AP, he has a 67.6 percent completion rate with 1,034 yards, four TD and 4 INT.

He has the experience and the firepower to make the Wolverine secondary work. However, his heavy reliance on passing plays, given 311 attempts to McNamara’s 208, could allow the Wolverine defense more opportunities to force turnovers. If he wants to cap off his senior year with a win against Michigan, Clifford needs to upkeep his passing numbers while executing clean play. Clifford has a 64 percent completion rate and has thrown for 2,371 yards, 16 TD, and nine INT on the season.

Faced with an offense that heavily relies on their passing game, the Wolverines have the opportunity to confine this opposing offense into a space they deem fit. The Nittany Lions average 277.7 passing yards a game, while the Wolverine defense only allows 173.4 passing yards a game. Michigan has done an excellent job this season in eliminating the passing effort of their opponents. In their last two games they have kept Indiana under 100 passing yards and MSU under 200 passing yards, well below both these two teams average passing yards per game on the season. The Wolverines have also not allowed a single receiving touchdown in their last two games. This game will be no different, as eliminating the passing effort will be the key to this game for Michigan. Forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback is going to be crucial for this Michigan defense if they want to get out of Happy Valley with a win.

The Nittany Lion defense will have their hands full with this Michigan offense. With the Wolverines likely down one of their two studs at running back, they are going to have to fall back on the passing game they have been growing over the course of the season. Penn State is going to have to work out a way to contain the Michigan passing effort as the Wolverines average 217.3 passing yards per game. In their last two games, the Nittany Lions have allowed both of their opponents over 300 passing yards, well over their season average of allowing 213.6 passing yards per game. If Penn State wants to keep Michigan from getting a win in their home stadium, they are going to have to hone in their secondary to take away the Wolverines passing game and this starts with getting the pressure on Michigan’s QB.

Michigan plays tough up front, as they have only allowed six sacks on the season so far. The offensive line has meshed so well this season and they have ensured that McNamara remains protected in the pocket, while also giving chances for their ground game to achieve the level of success that they have. Penn State hasn’t been as fortunate. Opposing defenses have gotten to Penn State’s quarterback 20 times this season. This will be a main focus for Michigan’s defensive ends and luckily for the Wolverines, they have the “reapers” at the ready. David Ojabo and Aiden Hutchinson have been outstanding all season, as they have recorded eight and six sacks on the season, respectively. Penn State will be seeing a lot of them on Saturday. The Wolverine defense has recorded 20 sacks on the season.

Penn State on the other hand has a similar effectiveness getting to the quarterback. They have 17 sacks so far this season with defensive end Arnold Ebiketie leading the way, recording 6.5 sacks so far this season. Whether their defensive line can push Michigan’s offensive line around is yet to be determined, but it will be a main point of contention in this game. Especially because this defensive line has to deal with Michigan’s ground attack. While they get some reprieve because Michigan RB Blake Corum will likely not play after an injury against Indiana, they still have RB Hassan Haskins to worry about. The Nittany Lions allow 137.1 rushing yards per game, which could force Michigan’s hand if they are successful in containing Haskins. However, as previously mentioned, Michigan has a stellar offensive line and they are going to give Haskins the chance to shine.

Even down one, Michigan’s rushing offense has been dynamic and electric all season. It is extremely unfortunate that Corum was injured last week and that freshman Donovan Edwards was dealing with something as well, but Haskins looks up to the challenge to take on a heavier workload. He encapsulates the team mentality of winning, no matter what it takes, and he’s going to demonstrate that on Saturday. The Michigan offense has averaged 234.1 rushing yards a game and that is in part due to Haskins and Corum. Haskins, in conference games, has 548 rushing yards and seven TD on 116 attempts. His skillset and athleticism will be called upon once more to take down the Nittany Lions. He has 829 yards and 11 TD on 165 attempts on the season.

Penn State reflects a very different story. The Nittany Lions average 106.4 rushing yards a game. Their top rusher, RB Noah Cain, has 121 yards and three TD on 40 attempts against opponents ranked in the AP, while 177 yards and two TD on 53 attempts in conference games. The Wolverines will likely capitalize on the Nittany Lions’ weaker ground attack and this doesn’t bode well for Penn State as Michigan’s defense allows 124.7 rushing yards a game. Containing Penn State’s ground game effectively will force the Nittany Lions to throw more, especially without a reliable ground attack. With an already lopsided offense that heavily favors their passing game, Penn State will likely have to seek high pass attempts and receiving yards to be in this game.

This game means a lot for these two teams and the remainder of their seasons. Michigan hopes to prove they have what it takes to go into a hostile road environment and escape with a win. Penn State wants to prove that their 1-2 record against ranked opponents isn’t indicative of their season and keeping Michigan at bay does just that. The Nittany Lions have to execute a clean game and have an effective plan for Michigan’s offense to get this win. The Wolverines are searching for their second road win in Happy Valley under Coach Harbaugh. They have the makings to do so, despite injuries last week against Indiana. Michigan has to stick to their guns and having a balanced attack bodes well for them to come out with a win.

Michigan heads to Penn State for a Big Ten east showdown at noon eastern time.