It’s gameday, and one of Michigan’s biggest tests of the season is here. The No. 4 Wolverines are set to take on the No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, with kickoff set for (big) noon.
As expected, it’s the closest spread of the year for the Wolverines. The Wolverines are seven-point favorites with the total set at 51 points.
Many national critics have had their doubts about this Michigan team, as while the home team is 6-0, there hasn’t exactly been a murderer’s row of opponents. A convincing win against a top-10 team should make those critics change their tune.
Here are some keys to victory for the Wolverines.
Get creative in the passing game
The strength of Penn State’s team is the secondary. I highly recommend Mark Wogenrich of All Penn State’s piece on that unit, as he does a great job laying out why that secondary has been so good this year.
The Nittany Lions have more pass breakups (51) than anyone in the country, and according to Football Outsiders, rank fifth in defensive efficiency. They also lead the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-6) and third nationally in completion percentage allowed (49.6 percent).
This will be the toughest matchup of J.J. McCarthy’s relatively short collegiate career. Michigan’s co-offensive coordinators, Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss need to get creative with their play calling and keep Penn State on their toes.
This might be the game where you throw in the trick plays that you’ve been saving on the bottom of your play sheet. Additionally, if you can get McCarthy’s confidence up with completions in the flat and on screen plays, the chances for securing a victory only go up.
Lean on your star running back
While it will be important to get J.J. going in this game, Michigan also needs to differ to what has been the number one strength all season long: the run game.
The offensive line and Blake Corum have had a solid season so far, as Corum is fourth in the nation in rushing yards (735) and second in the nation in rushing touchdowns (11).
Star players are supposed to perform in big games. If Michigan can piece together quality runs on consecutive plays throughout their drives, not only will it make McCarthy’s life easier, but it will help Michigan dominate time of possession and tire Penn State’s fearsome defense.
Make life hell for Sean Clifford
After an inconsistent start to the year, Michigan’s pass rush was able to dominate against Indiana, racking up seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. That sack total is tied for the season-high, matching the seven sacks in the week one win over Colorado State.
For Michigan to win this game, the sack total needs to be around that number again. Sean Clifford certainly has played a lot of college football, but he’s struggled with accuracy issues his whole career and has a bad habit of throwing off his back foot, affecting his accuracy.
In Penn State’s last game before the bye week, the Nittany Lions won an ugly matchup against Northwestern, despite Clifford throwing a pick and Penn State ball carriers fumbling the ball away four times.
If Michigan can pressure Clifford and force him into those quick decisions, they could force him into throwing a pick or two. Winning the turnover battle seems like the path to victory for Michigan in this one.