UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa — Since losing 49-10 at Michigan Stadium in 2016, Penn State has lost only five games, all by three points or fewer. They’ve also only lost to Michigan State, Ohio State and USC in that timespan.
Last year, it was the Nittany Lions who got the best of Michigan with a 42-13 victory within the friendly confines of their own Beaver Stadium.
Many things have changed since that game, as Penn State enters Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor clinging to a slim hope they can run the table and find themselves back in the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years.
Michigan, on the other hand, enters Saturday in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten East division. They are undefeated in conference play, though the Wolverines still have a date with Ohio State to end the season with, most likely, that berth in the Big Ten Championship game on the line.
This year’s Michigan team boasts an offense and defense that have vastly improved over last year, and the Wolverines are squarely in the College Football Playoff picture. The growth of the offense under Ole Miss-transfer Shea Patterson has been immense, and that unit looks as though it is clicking on all cylinders for coach Jim Harbaugh.
But on the other side, Michigan is currently No. 1 in total defense in the country with the No. 1 pass defense and No. 8 in run defense. The Wolverines have played stellar football all season long, aside from a disastrous first quarter of the season against Notre Dame in which they gave up all of 14 points.
Do the Nittany Lions have a chance to leave Michigan Stadium victorious for the first time since 2009?
Yes, but there will be nothing easy about it. Penn State needs to finally play a complete game, something they have yet to do this season. The special teams gaffes over the last two weeks have been head-spinning to have happen this late in the season.
This game has all the makings of a knock-down, drag-out, Big Ten classic featuring a boatload of defense and very little offense. It’s a game with the potential to be decided up front defensively and, much like many games for the Nittany Lions recently, come down to the wire.
Against a defense as overwhelming as Michigan’s, it will be interesting to see the game plans for both teams, as Trace McSorley has been dinged up since the Iowa game.
The defense of the Wolverines is predicated on putting the opposing quarterback under duress as a result of man-press coverage against receivers. Michigan, hands down, has one of the most athletic, if not the most athletic, defenses in the Big Ten.
Up front, the Wolverines are led by defensive end Chase Winovich, who played high school football at Thomas Jefferson High School in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. He has a team high three sacks and is third in total tackles with 33.
Winovich will cause fits for the Penn State offensive line Saturday, but if there’s a team capable of taking what the defense gives them, it’s Penn State. The Wolverines will give up quarterback scrambles and yards thanks to their stifling coverage leaving open running lanes.
It will be imperative Penn State receivers get open, and there’s a good chance crossing routes featuring KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson and DeAndre Thompkins will be used to combat the coverage and create separation across the middle.
The complete game that has eluded Penn State week in and week out can be had by staying within the comfort zones of their offense and defense. Keeping it simple defensively will allow the athletes along the Nittany Lions front — Yetur Gross-Matos, Shareef Miller and Kevin Givens — to move freely in attempts to get Patterson down in the backfield.
It’s also important for Penn State to keep Michigan’s offense off the field, as the Nittany Lions’ defense has been on the field for a great number of plays over the last two weeks. The Wolverines, instead, were off last weekend. Wearing down the Michigan offense gives the Nittany Lions a greater chance of forcing mistakes by Patterson and company.
For Penn State to be victorious, it’s as simple as staying simple and putting their athletes on both sides of the football in positions to succeed. If they are able to do that and wear down the Michigan defense, their chance to win should be as good as any team. And with the way these defenses have been playing, this one could be another instant classic.