The question everyone is asking is, can Penn State beat Michigan? James Franklin is 1-3 against Michigan in his tenure at Penn State. The last two seasons the winning team scored more than 40 points. Michigan defensive coordinator, Don Brown, stated last week that he wakes up everyday and thinks about the Wolverines’ 29-point loss against the Nittany Lions a season ago. Further, many Michigan players have been vocal this week about how they didn’t appreciate the way Penn State continued playing until the final whistle last season. The Wolverines must not remember how they acted very similarly in the Michigan thrashing of Penn State in 2016. Michigan won that game 49-10.
There is no love lost between these two teams and it is all going to come to a head on Saturday. So, can Penn State beat Michigan?
A Game of Defense
The Michigan Defense
The Michigan defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation against the pass and pass efficiency. Further, the Wolverines are ranked ninth against the run. SMU is the only team to throw over 175 yards against Michigan this season. Four of the last five offenses have finished with 100 yards or fewer. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has averaged 203 passing yards per game this season and adds even more with his legs.
The senior signal caller yet against proved his toughness last week when an injury scare kept him out of the Iowa game for a few plays. You could hear a pin drop in Beaver Stadium when McSorley didn’t get up and was grabbing his right leg. Back-up quarterback Tommy Stevens came in for McSorley and led Penn State down the field, eventually scoring a much needed touchdown. A few drives after coming back in the game after the injury scare, McSorley scampered down field for more than a 50-yard run. This was to let himself and everyone watching the game know that he was okay. He will have to do a lot more of that and the coaching staff will have to get creative to go against a very tough Michigan defense on Saturday.
A Closer Look
The Wolverines are highlighted by linebacker Devin Bush. Bush suffered an injury against Michigan State two weeks ago, but is poised to play on Saturday. The junior is coming into Saturday with 39 total tackles, six for loss, and four sacks. Outside of Bush, the Wolverines are pretty stacked. Remember the names Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary heading into Saturday. Senior defensive lineman Winovich is a force and one of the best defensive linemen in the country. He enters Saturday with 37 total tackles, ten for loss, and three sacks through eight games this season. Gary has only played in five games in 2018, but in that time has racked up 18 total tackles, 3.5 for loss, and two sacks. The improving Penn State offensive line will have to work hard to keep this trio away from McSorley this weekend.
The Penn State Defense
The Penn State defense has improved steadily over the course of the 2018 season. Two weeks ago I outlined where the Penn State defense stands entering the final half of the season and several players made even bigger progress. Last week against Iowa the quarterbacks only completed 38% of their passes and Penn State gave up free points on special teams with costly mistakes. An area where the Penn State defense struggles the most is pass defense. A young and relatively inexperienced secondary is the reason there.
The Michigan offense got a much needed boost this season with transfer quarterback Shea Patterson. The transfer out of Ole Miss hasn’t been spectacular this season, but he is efficient. He is averaging 190 passing yards per game and 17 rushing yards per game. His high 90 rushing yards came against Wisconsin, a game which also saw a high of nine rushing attempts. Patterson is not a mobile quarterback, something the Nittany Lions can use to their advantage on Saturday.
A Closer Look
When the Nittany Lions are bringing pressure and can make the quarterback hurry is when they are at their best. Specifically look for defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos to have another big game. The sophomore was awarded Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his outstanding play against Iowa. He totaled nine tackles, four for loss, and two sacks in the contest. Gross-Matos enters the showdown with Michigan with 36 total tackles, 12.5 for loss, six sacks, and one forced fumble. Gross-Matos is not the only Nittany Lion that will need to continue making an impact.
Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney, and Micah Parsons must also make noise. Miller should be freed up a little bit this weekend with focus being put on Gross-Matos, look for him to have a big game. The true freshman linebacker, Parsons, made waves this week when he confirmed that he would like to play running back, defensive end, and even wrestle for Cael Sanderson in his time at Penn State. This comes no surprise to anyone that watches Penn State football. There is a change in the energy when Parsons steps on the field. He has a nose for the football and can make plays even when he shouldn’t. If all four guys can work together on Saturday and help get pressure on Patterson, the game should remain close into the fourth quarter.
Can Penn State Beat Michigan?
Hopefully yes, but as we saw last year, a team out for revenge is a force to be reckoned with. There is no doubt that Penn State is not favored to win this game. Michigan is a strong team that wants revenge, but Penn State is used to being the underdog and revels in the underdog mentality. It will come down to game plan. If the coaching staff can put together a full four quarter game plan to keep the Michigan defense at bay and slow down the offense, it should be close entering the fourth quarter. It will then fall into Penn State’s hands to do something they haven’t been able to do consistently; close out a close game.
Penn State vs. Michigan will kick-off in Ann Arbor at 3:45 pm ET on ESPN.