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Three key matchups: Penn State at Michigan

These are the matchups to watch ahead of Michigan’s Week 7 game against the Nittany Lions.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the No. 5 ranked Michigan Wolverines (6-0) welcome the 10th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (6-0) to the Big House for a noon kickoff in a much anticipated matchup. This will be the biggest challenge of the season for both teams, and this game will help determine the pecking order in the Big Ten East alongside the Buckeyes.

Here are three matchups to watch as the Wolverines prepare for their big home test.

Michigan red zone offense vs Penn State red zone defense

The Wolverines’ red zone offense against Penn State’s red zone difference is a strength vs. strength matchup on paper.

Michigan’s offense ranks tied for 25th in the nation with a .909 scoring percentage. Michigan’s ability to get a push against opposing teams close to the goal line — along with Blake Corum’s vision, speed and physicality — has allowed for the Wolverines to score 16 touchdowns on the ground this season inside the 20-yard line compared to eight passing touchdowns and six field goals in 33 red zone attempts.

In contrast, Penn State’s defense inside the 20 has been stout, allowing just three rushing and three passing touchdowns in 15 attempts. It has also held opponents to just a .667 clip (tied for eighth in the nation).

Part of the their success inside their own 20 has to do with their ability to shut down the running game of opposing teams thanks to some difference makers along the front seven. Fifth-year senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher has helped anchor the middle of the Penn State defensive line to help the defense rank fifth in the nation against the run.

Couple the depth along the defensive line with linebackers who often find themselves around the ball like Abdul Carter, Curtis Jacobs and Tyler Elsdon have this season, and it makes for a tough unit to run the ball against, especially when the field gets tight and room is limited down near the goal line.

Michigan’s pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense

One area where Penn State’s defense has allowed some yardage this season has been through the air. The Nittany Lions rank 102nd in the nation in passing yards allowed (262 yards per game).

Last week, against an Indiana pass defense that also ranks in the 100s, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy found success through the air and recorded his first 300-yard passing game. In this game, there will be times where it will be difficult to find room in the ground game and McCarthy will have to make some plays through the air. There should be opportunities to make some of those plays if Michigan’s offense executes.

Against the Hoosiers, Ronnie Bell, Luke Schoonmaker and Cornelius Johnson all had big games. The Wolverines could use similar efforts from all three of those guys against Penn State this week, especially with wide receiver Roman Wilson’s status still up in the air.

Penn State’s offensive line vs. Michigan’s defensive line

I previously mentioned the battle between these two teams in the trenches when it comes to red zone opportunities, but the matchup between the Penn State offensive line and Michigan’s defensive line will truly be one to watch all day long.

For starters, Penn State’s offensive line has been much better creating holes in the running game. It has also helped to have a dynamic freshman running back in Nicholas Singleton, who averages 7.3 yards a carry on 63 attempts and has found the end zone five times.

In contrast, Michigan has been really good against the run this season, ranking seventh in the nation while allowing just 81.7 yards on the ground per game.

Penn State’s offensive line has also been pretty good at protecting quarterback Sean Clifford to allow him to get the ball to his playmakers, as the Nittany Lions have allowed just seven sacks this season (tied for 38th in the nation).

On the other hand, Michigan’s pass rush seems to be improving by the week, as the Wolverines recorded seven sacks against the Hoosiers and are up to 22 as a team (tied for fifth in the nation).

Edge rushers Mike Morris and Eyabi Okie have really come on as of late, but there are several guys along the Michigan front playing really good football. They’ll need to continue that this weekend when it comes to trying to shut down the run and getting pressure on Clifford.