Eyes on the Enemy: Penn State

Football


Through two games of its midseason ‘gauntlet,’ Michigan has emerged looking like one of the nation?s most dominant teams. It unleashed its best performance of the Jim Harbaugh era in a 38-13 demolition of Wisconsin before going on the road and exorcising a decade?s worth of demons in a resounding 21-7 win over in-state rival Michigan State.

Saturday afternoon, Penn State comes to Ann Arbor in what should be the Wolverines? toughest game since their season opener against Notre Dame.

Both Wisconsin and Michigan State came into their matchups with Michigan engulfed in serious questions. The Badgers had dropped a game to BYU and have since lost by 14 to Northwestern. The Spartans also lost to Northwestern in addition to a 16-13 loss to Arizona State. In Tuesday?s first College Football Playoff ranking release, neither had a spot in the top 25.


Michigan’s defense faces a challenge in Penn State’s speedy offense and strong defensive front. (Andy Shippy)


Penn State and a different challenge

The Nittany Lions present a different challenge. Their 6-2 record and no. 14 ranking come with a notable lack of big time wins ? their best being a 30-24 escape at home no. 16 Iowa last weekend ? but also none of the bad losses that mar Wisconsin and Michigan State?s r?sum?s.

Their two defeats have come by a combined five points against the Spartans and Ohio State, both games in which they relinquished last-minute leads. Had late drives gone differently in either of those games, Saturday?s showdown would be a de-facto CFP eliminator between two teams in the thick of playoff contention.

Instead, that only holds true for Michigan. It?s no accident that the Wolverines have worked themselves into this position. They have done so by doing the exact task that they?ll be faced with on Saturday ? disproving the theory that their opponent is a legitimate threat.

PSU’s offense, behind McSorley, still potent

Despite its two losses, Penn State?s offense comes to Ann Arbor flying high. Quarterback Trace McSorley is averaging 280.6 yards of total offense per game while Saquon Barkley?s heir apparent at running back, junior Miles Sanders, is gaining over 100 yards per game on the ground at a 6.1 YPC clip.

In suffocating performances against Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, Michigan has proven its ability to flummox one offensive standout. The question on Saturday is whether they can handle Penn State?s threats both on the ground and in the air.

The Nittany Lions? dual threat offense is personified by McSorley, who will be the most dangerous runner the Wolverines have faced at quarterback since they allowed Notre Dame?s Brandon Wimbush to gain 59 yards with his legs. Thanks to him and Sanders, Penn State is averaging 41.0 points and 459.5 yards per game. Somehow, Nebraska has posted more yards per game but no Michigan opponent has averaged over 34.0 points per game.

While the Nittany Lions? offense will be the Wolverines? toughest test of the season, their defense ranks 31st and 57th in points and yards allowed, respectively, and has allowed over 200 yards in four consecutive games.

Final verdict

Before Michigan?s game against Wisconsin, I critiqued the narrative that it couldn?t win big games, instead arguing that its problem has been beating better teams. Since then, the Wolverines have proven my point, thrashing the Badgers in prime time and Michigan State in a top 25 road game. Now, the question is whether Michigan?s defensive edge makes it better than Penn State ? its toughest Big Ten opponent yet.


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