ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will put its season on the line once again this weekend at Penn State, and even though the Wolverines are the better team, it’s hard to trust them to get the job done.
We’re three-quarters of the way through this college football season, and that’s plenty of time to form a strong opinion about teams.
Penn State is very solid. With a road victory against Wisconsin, a home win over Auburn and a shutout of then-healthy Indiana, the Nittany Lions proved they can play with anyone in the Big Ten. Even their trip to Columbus was a surprisingly close battle.
But there have been rough patches, too. Before knocking off Maryland last week, Penn State had lost three games in a row, including one at home to Illinois. As a result, James Franklin’s team is out of the Big Ten title race and reduced to playing spoiler.
Michigan, on the other hand, is still squarely in the hunt.
If Michigan State loses at least one of its final three games (perhaps at Ohio State), then Michigan controls its own destiny in the Big Ten East. That means this weekend, while the Spartans are beating up on Maryland, Michigan needs to keep pace.
Offensively, Michigan has found a nice rhythm in the passing game and paired it with a lethal rushing attack to average more than 450 yards per game. Penn State, meanwhile, averages just 384.8 yards. The Wolverines score nearly 10 points per game more than Penn State, on average.
Cade McNamara played his best game at Michigan State and carried that over into last week against Indiana. While he still struggles with accuracy down the field, he’s consistently making good decisions and delivering the ball on target in the short passing game.
Hassan Haskins, meanwhile, is establishing himself as the team’s sure-fire No. 1 running back.
For Penn State, it’s all about Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson -- probably the best quarterback-receiver duo in the Big Ten. Dotson will be a massive challenge for a Michigan defense that fell victim to big plays (albeit, on the ground) against Michigan State.
Both teams rank among the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, though Michigan allows about 50 fewer yards per game.
It’ll be a battle, but there are a few reasons it’s hard to trust Michigan.
Finding ways to lose big games
I said it before the Michigan State game (here and here and here) and I’ll say it again: Until Jim Harbaugh’s team proves it can win one of these critical, season-defining road games, it’s hard to go in with any confidence.
The Michigan State game was a perfect example. Michigan looked like the better team throughout, even building a 16-point lead in the second half. It took an embarrassment of unforced errors to give that game away, and Michigan still found a way to do it.
Whether it’s the “trouble with the snap” game, the Ohio State loss in 2016 or countless others since, Michigan has always found ways to lose these types of high-stakes road games under Harbaugh. Even though the Wolverines are better than Penn State, why should we expect that to change now?
Michigan’s win over Indiana proved stress-free, but the toll it took on the roster could linger into this week.
Blake Corum, Andrel Anthony, A.J. Henning and Gemon Green all left with injuries and didn’t return. Erick All and Donovan Edwards didn’t see the field at all.
The gap between Michigan and Penn State isn’t wide enough for the Wolverines to be without this many key contributors. Corum has been a spark for the offense all season, while Anthony emerged as perhaps the No. 1 receiver at Michigan State.
Green will be especially critical against a dangerous Penn State passing attack, as the secondary isn’t a spot where Michigan can afford to lose a starter.
Harbaugh didn’t reveal whether Michigan will be without any of these players on Saturday. But it’s certainly a factor that could change the outcome.
Trouble with Penn State
After beating Penn State in back-to-back seasons when he arrived at Michigan, Harbaugh has quietly started to struggle against Franklin’s teams.
Michigan won at Penn State in 2015 and demolished the Nittany Lions in 2016, but since then, Franklin has gotten his revenge with three wins in four years.
Happy Valley is a difficult place for opposing teams to win, even with a noon kickoff. Beaver Stadium will be rocking, and Michigan needs to respond better than it did two weeks ago.