4 biggest concerns Michigan should have to avoid an upset vs. Penn State
Not to just breeze right over yet another dominating Michigan victory over a lowly Big Ten opponent, but the Wolverines continued their trend of not letting a single team even keep a game close this year in Saturday’s 41-13 drubbing of Purdue.
Jim Harbaugh’s club isn’t just winning, it’s absolutely destroying teams.
By the time the second quarter had rolled around, Michigan already led 17-0. That came as a result of Blake Corum scoring 2 touchdowns in the first 9 minutes of the game.
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Right now it’s safe to say Harbaugh’s group could make a serious run at winning it all after CFP semifinal flameouts the past 2 seasons. Some analysts tab the Wolverines (9-0, 6-0 B1G East) as the favorites.
Still, CFP No. 3 Michigan’s toughest test of the 2023 campaign so far — and it isn’t even close — comes next Saturday at No. 11 Penn State (8-1).
Clearly Harbaugh hasn’t taken a single team lightly this season, and Michigan has executed from the opening whistle to the last, with a common trend of resting the major starters in the fourth quarter. That likely won’t be the case against the Nittany Lions, whose only loss came to No. 3 Ohio State in a game decided by one score, 20-12.
Here are the 4 biggest concerns for Michigan to avoid an upset in front of 110,000+ Saturday at Beaver Stadium:
Penn State’s defense
The Nittany Lions boast the No. 2 defense in the country, behind only Michigan.
Michigan hasn’t faced a defense even close to this caliber yet this season. In terms of yards allowed, Rutgers (No. 20) and Nebraska (No. 22) are the closest comparisons — but not anywhere near the level of Manny Diaz’s bunch.
The biggest chess match will involve JJ McCarthy and the Wolverines’ offense, a unit that ranks 2nd in the country in completion percentage on third down, vs. the Nittany Lions’ secondary, which ranks 4th in the nation in opposing completion percentage on third down.
Under aggressive 2nd-year coordinator Diaz, Penn State ranks 2nd in the country in sacks with 38, more than 4 per game. So McCarthy’s mobility might be put to the test.
It’s hard to find a statistic where the Nittany Lions rank higher than the Wolverines, but the Nittany Lions rank 1st in the country in turnover margin at +16 after winning that battle 4-0 in their 51-15 thrashing of Maryland.
Michigan lost one fumble and gained an interception against Purdue to remain at +9 on the season, good for 2nd place in the B1G and a tie for 6th nationally. On the season, Penn State has 10 interceptions and 10 defensive fumble recoveries, while the Wolverines have surrendered 4 picks and 2 fumbles lost. Turnover margin is arguably the most important stat when it comes to losing and winning games, so Harbaugh and company will need to put an extra emphasis on that heading into this game.
Home field advantage?
Statistically, James Franklin hasn’t fared well against Michigan. The Penn State head coach has a 3-6 record against the Wolverines since taking the helm, but 2 of those victories came at Beaver Stadium, Michigan has won its last 2 contests against the Nittany Lions, but Michigan can’t overlook the hostile environment they are stepping into.
Penn State is notoriously one of the toughest places to play in all of college football — and this is a team and fan base that is well aware they can’t afford another loss — if they want to stay in the College Football Playoff picture. It will be loud, and the crowd will play a factor.
JJ McCarthy vs. Drew Allar
On paper, most anyone with a pulse on college football would give the edge to McCarthy. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender and has proven himself among the elite signal-callers in today’s college game. Still, much like Allar was exposed against a formidable defense in the loss to Ohio State, McCarthy hasn’t faced a defense of this caliber.
The PSU QB is coming off a strong performance over a decent Maryland squad in which he threw for 240 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions while adding another 39 yards on the ground. The Terps are far from an elite defense, but they entered the matchup allowing 340 yards per game and gave up over 400. If Allar can open up his game while still protecting the ball (1 turnover in 9 starts and 19 career appearances), Penn State might stand a chance.
It will be an interesting chess match to see how Harbaugh and company will attack Allar early to make him uncomfortable, similar to Ohio State, which held him to 43% passing and sacked him 4 times.
When it comes to the Wolverines’ offense, we have seen Michigan beat teams in multiple ways without relying on McCarthy, but this Penn State front seven is as good as anyone at taking away the run (though not against Michigan last year).
It will be fascinating to see how the coaching battle unfolds. For both teams, smart game plans and avoiding self-inflicted wounds will be key.