Can Michigan football upset Penn State? Here's the recipe

Wolverines travel to Happy Valley this weekend as major underdogs

James Franklin head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions congratulates Jim Harbaugh head coach of the Michigan Wolverines after the game at Beaver Stadium on November 21, 2015 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Every college football team has moments that define each season, whether it's a big win that vaults them into championship contention or a devastating loss that crushes their hopes.

For Michigan, this weekend will qualify as one or the other. The Wolverines can erase the negativity surrounding the program since the loss to Michigan State, or they can take their second loss and say goodbye to any Big Ten and national championship aspirations.

READGame against Penn State will make or break Michigan football's season

It's unusual to see a Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan team open as a double-digit underdog, but that's exactly what happened. Michigan is expected to lose to Penn State by more than a touchdown despite its recent success against James Franklin's Nittany Lions.

Can Michigan pull the upset? Harbaugh certainly has the weapons at his disposal to keep Michigan in every game, but so far the Wolverines haven't played a style of football that's conducive to beating better teams.

Here's what Michigan has to do to shock the college football world and leave State College with a victory.

Take care of the football

This is the most obvious, and most important key to the game.

Michigan has been one of the worst teams in the country in terms of turnover margin, ranking 95th out of 130 schools. The Wolverines have committed 12 turnovers in six games, which isn't a recipe to pull off an upset, but a recipe to suffer an upset themselves.

Interceptions have taken center stage for Michigan because of the quarterback struggles, but fumbles have actually been just as much of a problem. Michigan has thrown six interceptions and lost six fumbles, so there's blame to go around on offense.

In the loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines committed five turnovers and only lost by four points. If that turnover battle hadn't been so lopsided, Michigan would still be undefeated.

The offense needs every possession it can get as Harbaugh searches for something that works.

Win field position

Field position works hand-in-hand with the turnover battle, but there's more to it that Michigan has to do well.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers in the second quarter of a game at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Michigan won 28-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

First, Bradley Robbins has to be excellent in the punting game, because Michigan will punt often. Robbins was called on nine times at Indiana and averaged just over 40 yards per punt, so he was pretty average.

On the season, Michigan ranks 101st in average punting distance, which isn't entirely indicative of a punter's abilities. But only one Big Ten team has punted more than Michigan this season, so it's an important part of the game plan.

Michigan also has to avoid going three-and-out, which will gradually wear down the defense and give Penn State short fields. When the offense couldn't pick up a first down at Indiana, the Hoosiers slowly clawed their way out of a deep field position hole and eventually tied the game.

Donovan Peoples-Jones hasn't been much of a factor on punt returns since his touchdown against Air Force, and Robbins needs to make sure Saquon Barkley doesn't have room to burn Michigan in the return game, either. Penn State has enough firepower on offense without big returns.

Make a big special teams play

Other than turnovers, the most common ingredient for an upset in college football is special teams madness, because it can completely reset a game at any moment.

Ironically, this is exactly what got Penn State to where it is today.

Last season, Penn State was in an even worse situation than Michigan currently is when it hosted heavy favorite Ohio State. The Buckeyes dominated the game, outgaining Penn State by 137 yards and possessing the ball for 37 minutes. Ohio State even won the turnover battle.

Donovan Peoples-Jones of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates after running a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown during the third quarter of the game against the Air Force Falcons at Michigan Stadium on Sept. 16, 2017. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

But despite everything that happened in the first 55 minutes of the game, the only play that mattered came with about 4:30 left on the clock. Ohio State was lining up for a field goal to extend its lead to seven points, but instead, Penn State blocked the kick and returned it for the winning score.

It was a sudden, unexpected turn of events, and propelled the unranked Nittany Lions to a Big Ten championship, even though they were outplayed in the game.

That's what Michigan is looking for this weekend.

If Michigan can block a field goal, return a kickoff or recover a muffed punt, it would be a huge lift. Penn State will try to make sure Michigan's offense has to start each drive 70 yards away from the end zone, and that would put the Wolverines at a huge disadvantage.

Like last season's Nittany Lions, a win would vault Michigan back into the Big Ten title conversation, even if it gets outplayed.

Continue success on the ground

The regular season has reached its midway point, so we have a pretty good understanding about what teams can and can't do.

Michigan clearly doesn't have a capable passing game, and there isn't much hope for improvement. Between the quarterback struggles, the wide receiver mistakes and the offensive line's pass-blocking abilities, there's no reason to believe Michigan's offense will have success through the air against Penn State.

Karan Higdon #22 of the Michigan Wolverines runs for a touchdown during the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

That means Karan Higdon will have to carry the offense once again and build on his 200-yard, three-touchdown performance at Indiana. He'll have to do it against a Penn State defense determined to stop the run.

John O'Korn could also become a factor in the running game if Michigan decides to turn him loose for the first time. It's a risk, considering the quarterback situation behind O'Korn, but this is the defining game of the season, so there's no better time to pull out all the stops.

Between O'Korn and Higdon, Michigan has to move the ball without the threat of play action, which is a tall order. Could Chris Evans finally break a big play? It would be a welcome sight for Michigan, which sorely needed a boost against Michigan State and simply couldn't get one.

Ty Isaac, who started the season red-hot and took over the starting job, hasn't been much of a factor in Big Ten play, gaining just 67 yards in three games and committing the biggest turnover of the season against Michigan State.

Play with nothing to lose

It sounds simple, but this could truly be the trump card for Harbaugh in a game few people expect Michigan to win.

The Wolverines have an inexperienced team, and that has shown the last two weeks as they deal with adversity for the first time. When things started going south against Michigan State, it was obvious the players tightened up and got overwhelmed by the moment.

But now there's no pressure. Michigan is a heavy underdog in a hostile environment against the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. The Wolverines haven't played well in Ann Arbor this season, and that might be because of the pressure to live up to certain expectations from the impatient home crowd.

There will always be championship expectations at Michigan, but this team is still trying to figure out how to win. On Saturday, they'll just go out and play.

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