Penn State has a chance to ruin Michigan’s championship hopes– both Big 10 and national– Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
With a conference loss to Michigan State and only two games left after Saturday, one would think the Wolverines have to win out to win the Big 10 and, subsequently, make their first trip to the college football playoff.
For some Penn State players, it will be the last chance to face a marquee Big 10 opponent at Beaver Stadium (all due respect to Rutgers). A win would make the Nittany Lions 7-3 and almost certainly put them in the College Football Playoff Top 25, where they’ve been absent in the first two rankings.
As with any game, Penn State has things working for and against it. Here’s what those things are headed into the Michigan game.
WHAT THE NITTANY LIONS HAVE GOING FOR THEM
Jahan Dotson has become the type of player who makes many good things possible for whatever team he’s on.
Penn State is looking for another monster day for No. 5 against Michigan, and the star receiver can help the Nittany Lions simply by existing.
As arguably the best receiver in college football, Dotson will always be an opposing secondary’s No. 1 focus, and Michigan will be thinking about him, especially after last week’s record-breaking performance at Maryland.
The more attention Michigan’s secondary gives Dotson, the more opportunities there could be for KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington.
Washington, in particular, will be an interesting player to watch Saturday. Against Ohio State, the sophomore had one of the best games of his young college career, catching nine balls for 108 yards. But he was quiet last week at Maryland, only catching two passes for 16 yards. If Clifford can connect with Washington as he did against Ohio State, it will help Penn State’s offense.
While Michigan has the second-ranked pass defense in the Big 10, it hasn’t yet faced a quarterback of Clifford’s caliber, so both parties will be tested Saturday.
If recent history means anything, it plays in Penn State’s favor. James Franklin has won three of his last four meetings with Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines haven’t won in Happy Valley since 2015.
WHAT THE NITANNY LIONS HAVE GOING AGAINST THEM
If it turned out defensive coordinator Brent Pry lost multiple hours of sleep thinking about Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, nobody would blame him.
Depending on how Saturday goes, he might lose multiple hours of sleep thinking about them after the game, too.
Although Corum left last week’s game against Indiana with an injury and isn’t certain for this week, Michigan’s pair of running backs are as good or better than any in college football. They’ve combined for 1,607 yards, 21 touchdowns and 5.4 yards per carry. In Tuesday’s press conference, James Franklin said that the Nittany Lions’ run defense has been good all year aside from the loss to Illinois. While Franklin wasn’t wrong, the Illinois game was the only time the Nittany Lions faced one of the Big 10’s top five run offenses in the four games since defensive tackle PJ Mustipher went down, and the Illini ran for 357 yards.
Michigan runs the ball better than anybody in the Big 10 and has one of the nation’s best rushing attacks. With Mustipher out for good and Fred Hansard suspended for the first half, the Nittany Lions defensive front has some things going against it, and this is a bad week for stuff to be going wrong.
My gut tells me Penn State will win this game. Since the Nittany Lions returned to national prominence in 2016, James Franklin has done well against Jim Harbaugh.
But I don’t pick games based on my gut. I do so based on the matchups and logic.
I don’t have too many concerns for Penn State’s offense. Clifford is healthy, and while the Nittany Lions would probably prefer not to have their quarterback throw the ball 40-50 times, they’ve grown used to doing so and have shown that they can have some success with that formula.
Ultimately, this game boils down to how effective Michigan can be running the football. Without Mustipher and with the Illinois game still somewhat fresh, I think the Wolverines could have some success.
Penn State will come ready to play, but Michigan’s run game is hard to stop, and much like the Iowa game left Nittany Lions fans wondering what might have been if Clifford didn’t go down, this one might have people thinking a lot about Mutipher’s absence.
FINAL SCORE: MICHIGAN 34, PENN STATE 27.