Last week’s game was such a pasting it isn’t really worth looking at, so let’s dive right into the keys to the Penn State game:
- Get pressure on Darryl Clark — Penn State ranks 16th in the country in sacks allowed (just one per game), so this won’t be the easiest of tasks. However, those of you who watched the Nittany Lions take on Iowa know how important it is to rattle Darryl Clark. While the Hawkeyes only sacked Clark twice, they were able to get in his face and force a lot of bad throws, and I believe two of Clark’s three picks came on passes that were tipped at the line. When he has time to pass, Clark can pick apart a defense, but when he feels pressure, he loses some composure and can become turnover-prone. Michigan will need that edge against this stout Penn State defense.
- Make a big play in the return game — The Nittany Lions have had a terrible year when it comes to special teams — they’re 86th in net punting yards (despite having a punter who leads the conference in average yards per punt) and 87th in average yards allowed per kick return. I don’t expect much out of Michigan’s punt return game, as Greg Mathews hasn’t shown much ability to do anything besides catch the ball (and he failed to do that against Iowa, and was subsequently benched for Junior Hemingway). However, Darryl Stonum has looked good returning kickoffs, and his return TD against Notre Dame changed the course of that game. If Stonum can give Michigan good field position, like he did against Indiana, or simply break one off for a score, it could be the difference.
- Punch it in — Against a defense as good as Penn State’s, you can’t afford to miss opportunities. The Nittany Lions are tied for first in the nation in red zone defense, allowing scores just 61% of the time. When Michigan gets into the red zone, they have to get points out of it, and the difference in the game could be which team can turn their red zone trips into touchdowns instead of field goals. With Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown at least healthy enough to play, there’s really no excuse for Michigan to not be able to convert when they drive deep into Lion territory.
- Slow down the pass rush — Penn State has one of the best front sevens in the country, and should be even stronger with the return of Sean Lee this week. Their linebackers play aggressive, cover the field from sideline to sideline, and get to the quarterback. Michigan will have to find a way to slow down the pass rush, and I don’t think this simply comes down to the offensive line blocking well. With how aggressive their linebackers play, Penn State could be susceptible to the play-action pass or a well-timed screen. I fully expect Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee to utilize both in an effort to make the linebackers hesitant. If Michigan can keep the Lions away from Tate Forcier, they should have an opportunity to attack the weakest part of the Penn State defense — their secondary.
- Get off the field — Michigan just could not get off the field on defense against Iowa, allowing them to convert several third-and-longs. Penn State ranks third in the country in third down conversions, getting the first at a 57% clip. Their rate can’t be that high if Michigan wants to have a chance in this one, and it will take an effort from the whole defense to slow down Clark and Co. Avoid those back-breaking third-and-long conversions, and the Wolverines have a shot at this one.
After watching Penn State play, I get the feeling that they’re quite vulnerable to an upset. However, the flaws on Michigan’s defense, in conjunction with the strength of Penn State’s, make it very tough for me to think Michigan will take this one. I think it’ll be a close game that comes down to a couple possessions late, but I think the Lions pull away at the end: 31-21 Penn State, in a game even closer than the score would indicate.