Has Michigan football changed enough last 3 weeks to challenge Penn State?
Wolverines ride three-game winning streak into top 20 matchup
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When Michigan football got destroyed by Wisconsin three weeks ago, it was clear the Wolverines weren't good enough to compete with the likes of Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, especially on the road.
The question is: Has enough changed the last three games to change that?
Michigan has gotten the season back on track, beating Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois by a combined score of 104-28. The Wolverines went 5-1 in the first half of the season, including a ranked win over Iowa.
It doesn't look as bad as it once felt when the Badgers scored touchdown after touchdown in Madison. But it's impossible to know if anything has truly changed.
We're about to find out this weekend.
Penn State provides Michigan's toughest challenge since Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions have an elite defense, a dangerous pass rush, a mobile quarterback and plenty of playmakers on offense.
Pulling an upset Saturday starts with slowing down the ferocious front seven on Penn State's defense. Only Ohio State has more sacks than Penn State this season, and the Nittany Lions rank No. 1 nationally in terms of yards allowed per rushing attempt.
Michigan wants to run the ball. Penn State doesn't allow teams to run the ball. It's obvious the game could be decided by Michigan's ability or inability to run the ball. Those types of games typically haven't gone in Michigan's favor.
Instead of insisting on opening up the passing game with early runs against this stout rush defense, Michigan could try to open up the ground game with some early attacks through the air.
Shea Patterson hasn't been as consistent as expected this season, but if he has all four of Michigan's top receivers -- Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Ronnie Bell -- at his disposal, he needs to use them.
When Michigan got in trouble against Illinois, it finally started going to those players downfield. Against Penn State, Michigan shouldn't waste any time doing so.
The offense has enough pieces to be successful. Those pieces just haven't been properly arranged yet, and that's a hard feat to pull off against Penn State.
On defense, Cam McGrone is the key for Michigan. Since he earned a starting spot, the defense has hit another level, shutting out Rutgers, holding Iowa to a single field goal and playing mostly dominant against Illinois outside the strange third quarter.
If the offense can avoid turnovers and give the defense long fields, McGrone will have to be cognizant of Sean Clifford's ability to improvise on broken plays. He burned Iowa with multiple long runs last week and will make Michigan pay if blitzes don't hit home.
McGrone is fast enough to track him from sideline to sideline. Can Michigan stay in coverage long enough to allow McGrone, Josh Uche and Aidan Hutchinson to get to Clifford? If so, the Wolverines have a good chance to win the game.
If not, Saturday will look like the 2017 matchup.
Everyone knows Michigan needs a statement win. It could happen this weekend at Penn State, but Michigan needs to do everything just right.
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