Michigan at Penn State Preview 2019

Previewing the next "Defining game" for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh

Kickoff time: 7:30 EST
Beaver Stadium - Happy Valley
Penn State -8.5, O/U 45.5

Welcome to the gauntlet half of the season, what better way to kick it off than a white out in Beaver Stadium? What's that? Any other way would be better? Yes, agreed.

The last three meetings between these two teams have resulted in a blowout victory by the home team and given Michigan's offensive and road game struggles, history looks to potentially repeat itself. If this were a noon game I might have different opinions but Jim Harbaugh's teams have not fared well against ranked road opponents, and especially ranked road opponents at night.

In theory, all of Michigan's goals are ahead of them. We may not have to wait until November to know if they're still realistic in the slightest. A win on Saturday would be Jim Harbaugh's first ranked road win at night and 2nd at Michigan. But with Ohio State looking better and better every week, now the #1 SP+ team in the country, it's probably best not to look ahead for now. For now let's just focus on one of the toughest road environments in the country.

Penn State Offense vs Michigan Defense

QB Sean Clifford (#14) has beaten up on a lot of low ranked defenses to get the #21 QB Rating in the country. Against Maryland, Purdue, and Buffalo - 72% completion, 12 TD, 2 INT. Against Iowa and Pitt, top 15 defenses, 48% and just one touchdown. A solid quarterback but not elite against top talent by any means.

His top target is slot receiver KJ Hamler (#1). Hamler believes that he can break the Penn State 40 yard dash record by running between 4.25-4.28. Whether or not that is possible, Hamler is the type of speedy slot receiver we've seen gash Michigan many times (except literally last year when he had only one reception for 20 yards against Michigan). Against Iowa he scored the only passing touchdown:

That burst of acceleration is going to be a problem. Especially in space. He has a lot of dangerous speed. In space. That the offense designs around.


Three running backs have 30 or more attempts, but freshman Noah Cain (#21) is solidifying himself as the true starter. Against Iowa he cracked 100 yards averaging 4.6 per carry and gaining a touchdown. With a long of only 12, most of his yards he gained by grinding out:

Cain is the Penn State version of Charbonnet - a freshman running back that grinds out some tough yards. With only five receptions on the year, Michigan should not have to worry about him as a passing threat at least.

Finally tight end Pat Freiermuth (#87) is an NFL-ready tight end who is one of the best in the Big Ten. His 203 reception yards and three pass touchdowns are both third on the team. He's also a good blocker and has helped pave the way for Cain.

Penn State's offense has put up big numbers against bad defenses. Against Iowa they looked much more mortal, and Michigan's defense will be the toughest they'll have faced all year. Penn State's offensive line is not the best in the Big Ten and could be ripe for TFLs against Michigan's ends/linebacker blitzes. For what it's worth, Shea Patterson passed for more yards against Iowa than Sean Clifford.

Penn State Defense vs Michigan Offense

While accumulating the #10 offense on SP+, Penn State has also accumulated the #10 defense.

Penn State's starting defesnive ends, Shaka Toney (#18) and Yetur Gross-Matos (#99) have combined for 11 sacks on the year. PFF projects Gross-Matos as a first-rounder in the draft and could leave Shea scrambling for his life on Saturday. This is where a healthy Jaylen Mayfield and Jon Runyan will be critical.

Buying Penn State's defensive line some time are star corners Tariq Castro-Fields (#5) and John Reid (#29), both guys that could be late round picks in the draft.  Way back when Penn State was struggling in the first half against Buffalo, Reid's pick-six sprung the Nittany Lions back to life:

Nate Stanley saw better success against Penn State than against Michigan but the Nittany Lion defense still held the Hawkeyes to only 12 points in a slugfest. They held the Maryland defense to 128 total yards of offense. Purdue ended up with -19 rushing yards.

Expect Michigan to play an offensive game similar to Iowa. They showed flashes against Illinois but against a top 10 defense in a night game atmosphere, it's hard to predict the Wolverines will have a productive day. Gattis will have a difficult time establishing a run game and if that backfires and we see a similar panic-mode style play as the Wisconsin game, things could get ugly. At least in panic-mode they unleash the "just chuck it downfield" strategy.

If there's one thing Michigan has going for them it's that Penn State returned a lot of starters on this defense and Michigan tore them apart a year ago. Very few signs indicate that that could happen again this year but crazier things have happened.

Best Case Scenario
Michigan's defense will need to keep the Wolverines in this game as long as possible while the offense figures out their identity. I don't see a Michigan win happening on the scale of last year's beatdown, but a close game going into the 4th quarter could go either way. Best case scenario would be about a touchdown win.

Worst Case Scenario
2017 part two. Michigan's offense goes nowhere as the Penn State offense led by Sean Clifford marches downfield enough times to put this game away. I don't anticipate Michigan's defense getting absolutely obliterated, but if the offense is unproductive and morale begins to drain, the defensive morale may also begin to deplete. Again, Michigan has not played well in away night games in the Harbaugh era.

The Part Where Patrick Gets the Score Completely Wrong

Penn State - 24
Michigan - 13

Past Highlights 

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