ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will look to build on last weekend’s comeback victory against Rutgers as it hosts a winless Penn State team Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Thanksgiving weekend hasn’t been kind to Michigan the last two decades, but instead of a battle with Ohio State on Saturday, the Wolverines play a Penn State team that started the season in the top 10 but has since lost all five games.
James Franklin’s team got off to a respectable start in late October, nearly beating an Indiana team that’s currently ranked 12th in the nation and hanging with Ohio State.
Since then, the Nittany Lions have lost to Maryland, Nebraska and Iowa by a combined 43 points.
Michigan has also been a disappointment, though not quite to Penn State’s extent. But last week, the Wolverines found a glimmer of life behind new starting quarterback Cade McNamara.
(No, Jim Harbaugh hasn’t officially named McNamara the new starter, but everyone knows that’s nonsense.)
McNamara took over for Joe Milton with the team down 17-0 and ended up putting 48 points on the scoreboard and winning in triple overtime. He completed 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns.
Now, McNamara will have to beat a much more talented team as the full-time starter. He can’t simply come in and play the role of hero -- the full pressure of the game will be on his shoulders. How he responds is critical for the rest of Michigan’s season.
Michigan’s offense will have to put up a crooked number because, frankly, the defense has been a disaster. Allowing 42 points and 486 yards to Rutgers was just the latest in a string of poor performances for Don Brown’s unit.
The Wolverines made Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi look like a Heisman Trophy candidate and then surrendered 87 points combined against Indiana and Wisconsin.
Aside from being the two most disappointing teams in the Big Ten this season, Michigan and Penn State have something else in common: They’re both playing extremely shorthanded.
Michigan lost some critical pieces when Ambry Thomas and Nico Collins opted out of the season. Since then, Michigan has lost four of its best players to injuries: Jalen Mayfield, Ryan Hayes, Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye.
One could argue those were the six best players on Michigan’s roster. They’re certainly all in the conversation.
Last week against Rutgers, star linebacker Cam McGrone and starting safety Brad Hawkins also went down. Team captain and starting center Andrew Vastardis missed the game with injury, as well.
A few of those players might return for the Penn State game, but so far, Michigan hasn’t had any luck in terms of injuries and missing players.
Penn State can certainly relate. Micah Parsons, the team’s undisputed star, opted out of 2020. Top running backs Journey Brown had to medically retire from football and Noah Cain is out for the year with a leg injury.
Pat Freiermuth, a matchup nightmare at tight end, is now done for the season, too.
Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields has missed some time, and his status is unclear for the Michigan game.
Penn State, like Michigan, has had to improvise at quarterback, switching between last season’s starter Sean Clifford and backup Will Levis.
Both Clifford and Levis are completing around 57% of their passes for about seven yards per attempt.
Clifford has thrown 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in 152 attempts, while Levis has yet to throw a touchdown or a pick in 47 passes.
Michigan’s changing of the guard happened incrementally, with McNamara leading a touchdown drive in mop-up duty against Wisconsin, relinquishing the role back to Milton for the start of the Rutgers game and cementing himself as the top option in the second half.
Penn State might be somewhere along in that same process. Levis got a chance against Nebraska after Clifford threw his sixth interception in four games. The backup came in and nearly led a comeback, though his stat line -- 14 of 31 for 219 yards -- didn’t exactly jump out.
Last week, Levis threw 16 passes and Clifford threw 22. Levis completed a higher percentage for fewer yards, and Clifford had two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Franklin hasn’t named a starter yet, but whoever gets the nod against Michigan will have a chance to really take a firm grip on the job against a struggling secondary and depleted pass rush.
Again, which Harbaugh insists Michigan’s quarterback situation is fluid, there’s no way he can go with Milton after McNamara revived the offense so suddenly against Rutgers.
Which team will do less to lose this game? That’s kind of how you have to look at this matchup between teams with a combined 2-8 record.
Michigan doesn’t have a goose egg hanging over its head, but it also hasn’t had any success at the Big House this season. Will desperation to get into the win column be enough to fuel Penn State?
The defense for Michigan has so many issues, from the secondary to the pass rush and even some weakness against the interior run game. Penn State’s offense is still dangerous, but losing Freiermuth, Brown and Cain is a big deal.
This game could go either way, but considering what McNamara showed last week, I’ll go with a final score of Michigan 35, Penn State 31.