With Michigan’s season-long aspirations in jeopardy, Jim Harbaugh will once again come face-to-face with his nemesis: a road game against a ranked team as an underdog.
The last time U-M visited Happy Valley, it fell victim to Penn State’s full-fledged whiteout. Saquon Barkley racked up 121 rushing yards, Trace McSorley threw for 282 yards and the second-ranked Nittany Lions rolled to a 29-point win under the lights.
This year, undefeated Penn State will look to overwhelm the Wolverines with a similar atmosphere. With the prevalent road underdog woes of the Harbaugh era in mind, the stage is set for Michigan’s season to veer one of two ways — it can prove itself with a win or suffer a catastrophic second conference loss in only October. If the Wolverines lose, it’s all the more difficult to envision wins over other scheduled rivals like Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.
So, how can Michigan keeps its season off life support at State College?
Limit Sean Clifford by neutralizing KJ Hamler
Penn State’s formidable offense is averaging 42 points per game, a number that largely hinges on the connection between quarterback Sean Clifford and star wideout KJ Hamler. Tied for fifth in the Big Ten with 26 receptions, Hamler — a Pontiac, Mich. native — has used his speed to make a name for himself as a receiver and return man.
Hamler has amassed 455 yards and five touchdowns through six games, highlighted by a 115-yard, two-score performance against Idaho in the season opener. With his speed, expect to see plenty of Ambry Thomas and Daxton Hill in coverage.
For the Wolverines, blanketing Hamler is the easiest way to limit Sean Clifford’s conference-best 260 passing yards per game. Clifford, who was vaulted into the starting role after Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State in May, has shown a willingness to use his legs this season. As the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher, Clifford has accounted for several big plays on the ground through six games. He enters Saturday with 59 carries for 327 yards.
If U-M makes shutting down Hamler an emphasis, there’s a good chance Don Brown assigns a linebacker to quarterback spy duties in conjunction.
Opening up the offense starts with pass protection
Last week, Michigan’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack in Champaign. It’ll be significantly more difficult to replicate such a masterpiece against Penn State, but it’ll need to keep quarterback Shea Patterson safe from a defense averaging over five sacks per contest since the end of September.
If the Wolverines’ veteran offensive line can neutralize one of the nation’s top pass-rushing units, Patterson will have the chance to execute. From there, using the pass to set up the run would be a sensible strategy for Michigan. Getting the ball to the likes of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black early — even if it’s just on a quick-hit out route or crossing route over the middle — will make the Nittany Lions respect the pass, thus opening up the run game.
If Penn State eases off on the pressure to combat the passing game, Zach Charbonnet and the rest of the backfield will have an easier time. Josh Gattis’ play designs haven’t been an issue — rather, it’s been a consistent struggle of execution and, at times, play-calling. If there was ever a better time for U-M’s offense to turn the corner, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.
There aren’t many reasons to believe Michigan leaves this game victorious. Even if the Wolverines win the battle in the trenches, Patterson needs to step up in ways he hasn’t proved capable. Given U-M struggles to handle an afternoon road atmosphere in Madison, a daunting whiteout in Happy Valley is going to make an immeasurable impact.
Final score: Penn State: 31, Michigan: 17