Games under Jim Harbaugh have mostly fallen into two groups: expected wins and missed opportunities. Really, the only thing that can truly break this trend would be success against Ohio State, but even after letting the game slip away against Michigan State, Saturday’s trip to Happy Valley offers a huge chance to show that things have truly changed.
Michigan waltzed into Madison early this season and completely outplayed Wisconsin. While this set the Badgers back to 1-3, the Big Ten West co-leaders have won five straight since then, proving how impressive that road win truly was. On Saturday, Harbaugh and company get a chance to show that this was no fluke and that this team is capable of logging big results away from home against the conference’s best.
The Nittany Lions look rough on paper, having dropped three of their last four, but there is a reason Penn State (S&P+ No. 11) is only a narrow underdog. By no means should the Wolverines head into this weekend feeling overly confident, and this is not a game that can be overlooked. However, this contest is certainly winnable, and doing so sets the team up well for maybe the biggest end to the season since 2016.
No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (8-1, 5-1) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3)
Cade McNamara’s statline looked better than the eye test against Indiana, which probably speaks more to the Spartans secondary (which crumbled against Purdue) than an evolution of the Michigan passing game. Should Blake Corum be out again, the pressure will be on McNamara to keep the chains moving, and more importantly, getting the ball into the end zone.
Even with Corum available, points are unlikely to be plentiful this weekend. Penn State profiles very similarly to Wisconsin: manageable on offense (S&P+ No. 47), but elite on defense (No. 7). The Wolverines have scored at least 29 points in each of their past five games, but only Ohio State and Iowa have topped 20 against the Nittany Lions this season. The run defense is allowing just 3.6 yards a carry in conference play, so the Hassan Haskins and the Michigan ground game will really be tested on Saturday.
On the flip side, Sean Clifford is back healthy and had a strong outing against Maryland, but the senior quarterback was less than stellar in losses against the Buckeyes and Illini. The Michigan secondary has held up this season, but Jahan Dotson might be the best receiver this unit has faced. With the game likely to be low-scoring, avoiding huge plays is an absolute must, and the Wolverines have done fairly well in this area.
Penn State’s rushing attack has been weak, with the Nittany Lions one of just 11 teams nationally to average under 100 rushing yards a game in conference play. Their last four games have yielded a pathetic 2.4 yards per carry, so Michigan should feel comfortable forcing Clifford to win through the air. Double cover Dotson and there is not a ton else to fear with this offense.
A week after Erick All’s big game, it was Luke Schoonmaker who broke out against the Hoosiers. Clearly the tight end position is a safety blanket for McNamara, and maybe this is the key to turning things around in the red zone. Michigan has scored touchdowns on just 11 of 25 red zone possessions since the Wisconsin game. This already cost the team its first loss, and more defeats are sure to come if this weakness does not find a remedy.
Noah Cain was supposed to come back from an injury-riddled 2020 as the team’s leading rusher, but he has really struggled this season, scoring just four touchdowns over nine games with just 3.2 yards per carry. The Michigan run defense has been fine in conference play, but not quite dominant, but this matchup should play to its hand. Handling the Penn State run game should give Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo plenty of opportunities to tee off on Clifford.