Penn State game poses unique challenge for Michigan football

Wolverines enter matchup coming off bye week

Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin shake hands after a Michigan win at Penn State in 2015. (Evan Habeeb/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - At the start of the Michigan football season, and especially after the loss to Notre Dame, three games in October and November were pegged as the defining stretch of the year.

So far, Michigan has survived tests against then-No. 15 Wisconsin and then-No. 24 Michigan State. The final and most difficult chapter of that stretch arrives this weekend.

No. 14 Penn State travels to Ann Arbor after a win over No. 16 Iowa. The Nittany Lions have gotten their season back on track after back-to-back losses against Ohio State and Michigan State.

Last season's blowout

Penn State is the highest ranked team Michigan has faced since Notre Dame, and it presents a unique challenge for a team that hasn't faced much adversity during a seven-game winning streak.

Last year, Penn State was the only team to truly crack the code against Don Brown's elite defense. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley led an offensive attack that finished with 506 yards and 42 points, gained 25 first downs and averaged 6.4 yards per rush.

Michigan got embarrassed in Happy Valley.

Trace McSorley passes in the first half against Michigan on Oct. 21, 2017, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Barkley is gone, but McSorley is still at the helm of a potent offense. Miles Sanders has taken over the starting running back spot and averages more than 6 yards per carry.

McSorley hasn't been quite as dominant this season, completing just 52.8 percent of his passes and averaging 7 yards per attempt, but he's even more dangerous with his legs. The senior has run for a career-high 617 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring nine touchdowns.

It's the type of offensive attack that has given Michigan fits in the past, and one that did so last October.

Outside factors

Brown and Michigan defensive players said the memories of last year's beatdown motivate them, but it's a dangerous game for Jim Harbaugh's team.

The Wolverines have struggled after bye weeks under Harbaugh, needing a miracle to beat a bad Minnesota team in 2015 and losing at home to Michigan State a year ago. Michigan was heavily favored in both games but came out sluggish after a bye week.

Michigan had won on seven straight Saturdays and got better every week, so coming off a bye week will be a new challenge.

This is also the first game after the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. Michigan is officially the No. 5 team in the country and controls its own destiny to play for the championship.

That adds a little bit of extra pressure, even though the team wouldn't freely admit it. When Michigan was ranked in the top five of the CFP poll in 2016, it suffered losses at Iowa and at Ohio State after starting the season 9-0.

Most of Michigan's top contributors haven't played into November with championship hopes on the line, but now, those are the stakes.

Penn State's talent

Despite its two losses, Penn State is the most talented team Michigan has played since Notre Dame.

James Franklin has brought in four straight top-20 recruiting classes, so Penn State is much more than just McSorley.

Sanders is a former five-star and No. 1 running back recruit who is flourishing in his new starting role. K.J. Hamler is a dynamic freshman wide receiver and leads the Nittany Lions with 27 catches, 497 receiving yards and five touchdown grabs.

Penn State has enough weapons on offense to be Michigan's toughest defensive challenge to date.

Trace McSorley #9 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after rushing for a 12 yard touchdown in the first quarter against the Appalachian State Mountaineers on September 1, 2018 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo…

Michigan's improved offensive line will be tested this weekend, as Penn State ranks third in the country with 28 sacks through eight games. If Ed Warinner's group struggles to protect Shea Patterson, this could take on a similar look as the Notre Dame game.

Penn State is known for its offense, but with the No. 34 scoring defense in the nation, it will be among the toughest tests so far for Michigan's offense.

Michigan's playoff hopes are on the line this weekend, and the outside circumstances surrounding the game are unique. If Harbaugh's team is truly improved this season, it will find a way to survive at home and keep its very real championship hopes alive.

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