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No. 10 Penn State at No. 5 Michigan Preview: Plenty on the line in a classic Big Ten clash

Both squads are looking to prove that the early season has not been a fluke.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The criticisms are probably fair. The schedule up to this point is not exactly spectacular, the defense has dominated (but against weak offenses), and it feels a little early to crown this a legitimate playoff contender. While the offense is better than last year — in large part thanks to impressive running back play — this weekend will be the first legitimate test.

But enough about Penn State.

In all seriousness, it is true that neither team has been significantly challenged yet, but that does not negate anything that either the Nittany Lions or the Michigan Wolverines have done so far. The talent for both sides warrants a top-10 ranking, but with the weakness of the Big Ten, this is one of just a few opportunities for a marquee win.

This has been a good battle during the Jim Harbaugh-James Franklin era. Michigan gritted out the win in Happy Valley last season and looks to repeat the 2018 beatdown from the last non-Covid matchup in Ann Arbor. A blowout is unlikely against this defense, but with the maize out bringing the atmosphere, maybe the Wolverines can convincingly silence the doubters. Big Noon Saturday Round Four!

No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0) at No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (6-0, 3-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Oct. 15, noon ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
TV/Streaming: FOX

A different kind of test

Penn State has the No. 6 defense per SP+ and is no team to be taken lightly. The defense is in the top 10 for turnovers and top 20 for sacks against Power Five opponents. While the front seven is solid, this is arguably the conference’s best secondary with Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King returning at cornerback and safeties Ji’Ayir Brown and Zakee Wheatley each owning a pair of interceptions already.

Against Iowa (still ranked No. 1 defensively), Michigan played fairly conservatively, especially after going up by a couple scores. J.J. McCarthy had an efficient day at 18-for-24 and no turnovers, but he did not exactly light it up in the air, more so by design than because of ability. It will definitely be a challenge to consistently beat the Penn State secondary, but do not be surprised to see the sophomore unleashed a bit more.

Much of that is due to Iowa’s style, which is winning with defense and special teams. It made sense for Michigan to avoid turnovers at all cost, as the Hawkeyes are more than willing to take the air out of the ball and play the field position game. While the Nittany Lions do not have the world’s best offense (more on that in a second), teams can play a little more freely against Penn State. This should be a classic strength-on-strength affair with each side winning drives when Michigan has the ball.

If there ever was a time for the now defunct Speed in Space, this would be it. Blake Corum could be the X-factor given the structure of the defense, and he has continued to impress in terms of efficiency but also physicality. The Wolverines cannot win on handoffs alone, though. If the line can give McCarthy enough time, there are enough weapons for him to move the ball around and sustain some drives, which is what it will take to win this game. Big plays are less likely, but QB1 has the ability to rack up the yards when called upon.

The best offense is...

Penn State’s offense is not nearly as inept as Iowa, but this is not exactly one to fear. SP+ has the Nittany Lions 46th, which is kind of in the middle of all of Michigan’s opponents thus far. It all starts with a familiar foe under center. Sean Clifford is who he has always been, decent enough, but not elite. He will complete around 60 percent of his passes and throw a handful of picks over the season, and his legs are annoying enough to cause some moments of complete frustration.

Last year he threw the ball 43 times against Michigan yet found the end zone just once. That game was dominated by the defensive line, who racked up seven sacks, 12 TFLs, and four other hurries to keep Clifford and the passing game off balance. That should be the recipe again this weekend, as the Wolverines have been dominant on down (or game situations) when the opposing quarterback is forced to throw.

For that reason, the visitors are going to lean on Nicholas Singleton as much as possible. The five-star running back has looked the part, averaging 7.3 YPC this season with five scores in modest touches. Last weekend, Penn State handed him the ball 21 times against Northwestern, and that could be the recipe again in Ann Arbor. When it does come time to pick things up a bit, Parker Washington returns as the one to watch in the passing game.

For Michigan, it all is going to start up front. Keeping Singleton and Clifford under wraps will force Penn State into a pass-first situation, and doing that will make this the side of the ball that should help the Wolverines win the game. There has been some uncertainty regarding the linebackers as of late, but this is a good opportunity for them to play smart behind the line and not allow runners to find the open space. When it comes time to blitz, there are definitely plays to be made.

Open it all up

When fans were calling for McCarthy to take over the quarterback job, it was for games like this. Michigan will not (and should not) rely on him to be the hero in terms of single-handedly carrying the team, but he is able to get the best out of his teammates and orchestrate the offense in ways his predecessor could not. It might not have mattered much against Indiana, but it definitely does this Saturday.

That likely means opening up the playbook a bit and let him showcase his abilities. Since the injury to Cade McNamara, it has been clear that the coaching staff has been cautious having McCarthy use his legs, but that needs to be a weapon for this team. Similarly, it is time to let the five-star use his arm and not allow the offense to become predictable as has been the case against lesser foes this season.

It is good for Michigan to face good teams — it provides experience, it builds outside hype, and it makes for an exciting prospect. Because of the schedule this season, there is not another game like this until the finale, though, meaning the pressure is certainly on to make this one count. The Wolverines are equipped on both sides of the ball to win this game, but it will require a complete effort to do so.