ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will face its toughest test outside Columbus this weekend when Penn State comes to Ann Arbor for a battle of top-10, undefeated teams.
The Wolverines are off to a 6-0 start after back-to-back Big Ten road wins at Iowa and Indiana. Now, they return home to make the 10th-ranked team in the nation.
READ: JJ McCarthy lives up to 5-star hype in the first half of the Michigan football season
Last year, Michigan’s 21-17 win at Penn State was a seminal moment on the road to the College Football Playoff. Trailing by three points with under four minutes remaining, Cade McNamara hit Erick All for a 47-yard touchdown that would ultimately pave the way for the Wolverines to take home a Big Ten championship.
James Franklin’s team is hungry to avenge that loss on Saturday. This doesn’t look like the 2021 Nittany Lions, who dropped six of their final eight games after a 5-0 start.
Penn State has already had great success on the road. It went into West Lafayette and knocked off a strong Purdue team on Sept. 1, and blew out Auburn by 29 points at Jordan-Hare Stadium two weeks later.
Jim Harbaugh said the Nittany Lions are impressive across the board, but what’s most dangerous about this game for Michigan?
Say what you want about some of the Sean Clifford moments that have been memorable for the wrong reasons. The bottom line is he’s been in the program for six years, and he knows how to win.
A starter since his redshirt sophomore season in 2019, Clifford has racked up 8,869 passing yards and 71 touchdowns in his Penn State career. He also rushed for 964 yards and an additional 14 scores.
Two years ago, during the COVID-shortened season, Clifford marched into the Big House and earned Penn State’s first win in Ann Arbor since the Rich Rodriguez era. He threw for 163 yards while rushing for 73 yards and a touchdown.
The year before, Clifford scored four total touchdowns in a Penn State victory.
A series that was once dominated by blowouts has been competitive for three straight seasons, and having a veteran quarterback like Clifford is an advantage in those types of games.
Michigan’s pass rush took over in the second half of the Indiana game, punishing Connor Bazelak and propelling the Wolverines to a three-touchdown win.
But there have been times this season when Michigan struggled to get to the passer. Iowa held up against Mike Morris, Eyabi Okie, and the other edge rushers for the first three-and-a-half quarters, which allowed Spencer Petras to throw for 246 yards.
Clifford is much better than Petras, so Michigan will need to spend more time in the backfield.
Penn State teams have struggled to protect quarterbacks in the past, but that’s not the case this year. Clifford has only been sacked four times in five games, and the Nittany Lions are only allowing an average of 1.4 sacks per contest.
The Penn State passing attack has been middle of the pack so far this season, but giving Clifford time to stand in the pocket is a bad defensive recipe.
Young running back duo
There isn’t a better young running back duo in the nation than Penn State’s Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
Singleton, a five-star true freshman, has already rushed for 463 yards and five touchdowns this season. He’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
Allen, a four-star true freshman, has 303 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 57 carries — an average of 5.3 yards.
Michigan’s interior defensive line has been excellent against the run this season, allowing just 2.62 yards per attempt. But this will be by far the greatest challenge Mazi Smith, Mason Graham, and company have faced.
Turnovers, and especially fumbles, can be a bit fluky in small sample sizes, but Michigan will have to put more emphasis on taking care of the ball this weekend.
Only four teams have recovered more fumbles than Penn State this season, and the Nittany Lions are the only team in the nation to recover at least seven in five games.
On the other hand, Michigan’s solid turnover margin is a bit deceiving. The Wolverines have only lost one fumble this season despite putting the ball on the ground six times, three times by quarterback JJ McCarthy.
Penn State has obviously emphasized forcing fumbles this season, so McCarthy and the rest of Michigan’s skill players will have to be a little more careful with the ball in their hands. Every possession will be important, and the last thing Harbaugh wants to do is give Clifford better field position.
Penn State has the sixth-best defense in the country, according to SP+, largely because it can stop both the run and the pass.
The Nittany Lions allow 2.96 yards per rush attempt and 5.8 yards per pass attempt — both ranked among the top 15 nationally. Michigan’s ability to be balanced and break tendencies will be critical.
At times last weekend, the Hoosiers were filling the box and daring Michigan to pass the ball, and that resulted in more negative or short-gain runs from Blake Corum than we’ve seen all season. When asked to win the game with his arm, McCarthy answered the call, passing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.
But Michigan didn’t have many big plays. Corum’s 50-yard run on the first possession was the only gain of 30+ yards. The same was true at Iowa, when Michigan recorded just one play over 20 yards (a 29-yard completion to Andrel Anthony), albeit against an excellent defense.
Can Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss put together a game plan that creates more explosive plays? Remember, it was a 47-yard touchdown that lifted Michigan over Penn State a year ago. One play over 30 yards probably isn’t going to cut it in this top-10 rematch.
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