Penn State football: 10 reasons the No. 10 Lions have a great shot to upset No. 5 Michigan
Here Penn State is again, 5-0 heading into a top 10 Big Ten showdown as a road underdog.
The Lions’ season unraveled at Iowa last October, and this year the team travels to Michigan as a greater longshot, according to the odds and the point spread. According to ESPN’s matchup predictor, the Wolverines have almost a 75% chance of winning.
Then again, many folks didn’t think the No. 10 Nittany Lions would make it this far undefeated. No. 5 Michigan (6-0), like Penn State, hasn’t faced a ranked or favored opponent yet. So both programs will be out to prove themselves Saturday in FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff game.
One of them will emerge as the top challenger to No. 2 Ohio State in the B1G East. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Can Penn State pull the upset? Here are 10 reasons to think it’s possible:
Penn State’s run defense caved in last year after losing 6-4, 320-pound tackle PJ Mustipher in the loss to Iowa.
Back from injury for a super-senior season, Mustipher started slowly this year but has led the Lions in tackles the past 2 games. He made the initial hit on a key goal-line stand against Northwestern.
Anchored by its big man, the defense ranks 2nd in the B1G against the run, allowing less than 80 yards per game. That’s a 75 yards-per-game improvement over last season.
If Penn State can make Michigan one-dimensional on offense, it’ll have a shot to rattle young phenom quarterback JJ McCarthy.
JJ McCarthy meets his match
McCarthy, a 5-star recruit a year ago, possesses mad skills and athleticism. He can play. He leads the nation in completion percentage (78.3%) and has a 9:1 TD to INT ratio.
But something will have to give Saturday. Led by its tight-covering secondary, Penn State’s pass defense has held opponents to a less than 50% completion rate. In his 6th career start, McCarthy will be facing his toughest test to date. If Joey Porter locks up favorite target Ronnie Bell, McCarthy could be left scrambling, literally and figuratively.
As a 7.5-point underdog, Penn State should be open to taking chances, something new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has done all season regardless of point spreads. With an extra week to prepare, he’ll be unleashing more stunts, blitzes and exotic alignments to mess with McCarthy and Michigan’s first-year co-offensive coordinators.
PSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich should also have some new wrinkles, and Franklin doesn’t shy away from gambles — though he might want to be judicious on those 4th-down decisions.
Health and depth advantages
Michigan starting right tackle Trente Jones was carted off the field last Saturday at Indiana.
Backup quarterback Cade McNamara, tight end Erick All and receiver Roman Wilson were ruled out before the game started. Those 3 accounted for all of Michigan’s touchdowns in last year’s 21-17 victory at Penn State. McNamara, then Michigan’s starter, threw 2 TD passes to Wilson and the game-winner to All.
Though Michigan, like Penn State, isn’t forthcoming with injury updates, it is likely that only Wilson has a shot to return against the Nittany Lions. Those and other injuries, plus the wear and tear of playing for a 7th straight Saturday, will have the Wolverines well below full strength.
Penn State, on the other hand, is rested coming off its bye week and has few if any major injury worries. It also goes 2 deep throughout the defense — with little if any drop-off at most positions.
Penn State must be playing more true freshmen than just about every other Power 5 school in the country. Linebacker Abdul Carter ranks 2nd on the team in tackles. Dani Dennis-Sutton is 1st in sacks (3). Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are 1-2 in rushing. Drew Allar is pushing 6th-year senior Sean Clifford at quarterback, having already appeared in 4 games. At least a handful of others have seen significant action.
Not a single one of them has seemed overwhelmed by the step up from high school to D1 ball.
Even better, none of them carries the baggage of the past 2 seasons. For all they know, being well above .500 is normal in these parts, which generally has been the case.
Harbaugh lets teams hang around
Risk aversion makes sense … until it doesn’t. Jim Harbaugh has reined in his young quarterback through 5 starts. McCarthy finally topped 300 passing yards for the 1st time on Saturday, but only after Indiana played Michigan to a 1st-half draw. The previous 2 weeks, Maryland was within 5 points in the 4th quarter and offensively inept Iowa stayed in striking range until stalling at the Michigan 5-yard line late in the 4th quarter.
If Penn State is still standing late, it’ll have a better chance of landing a knockout blow than the Terps, Hawkeyes or Hoosiers.
2 HR backs are better than 1
Blake Corum, Michigan’s dynamic 5-8, 210-pound lead back, ranks 7th in the country at 122.5 rushing yards per game. He averages well over 6 yards per carry. Put Singleton and Allen together, and the numbers match up almost exactly. That’ll be advantage Penn State if Corum happens to get dinged up or somehow has an off-day.
The Wolverines’ Plan B, Donovan Edwards, has battled injuries and has only 12 carries for 44 yards the past 2 games.
Singleton and Allen both carried a career-high 21 times against Northwestern, netting 87 and 86 yards, respectively.
Michigan is overrated
The AP poll dropped the Wolverines down a notch to No. 5 after last week’s 31-10 victory over Indiana. Those voters probably are factoring in the team’s soft early schedule and injuries both serious and nagging. Many fans aren’t fully sold on McCarthy despite the gaudy efficiency stats, because he’s struggled with the long ball so far.
The Maize and Blue crowd fears its team might have its faults exposed against stiffer competition, and the folks packing The Big House could turn on Harbaugh and McCarthy if the Wolverines struggle early. They want to see a team capable of beating Ohio State again, and they’re not convinced so far in 2022.
Penn State’s ace in the hole
Michigan’s QB depth chart is a mystery. Former starter Cade McNamara exited Week 2’s game with an injury and hasn’t been available since. No one is saying if and when that might change. Last week, Alan Bowman didn’t make the trip to Bloomington, leaving Davis Warren and Alex Orji as McCarthy’s backups. Michigan would be in uncharted waters if forced down the depth chart at QB for any reason.
Penn State, meanwhile, has a McCarthy-level talent as its top backup in the 5-star Allar. The true freshman has played in 4 games and looked impressive enough to engender calls that he replace Clifford as QB1. If called upon, he’d send a jolt of enthusiasm through the Lions’ offense and the Penn State fan contingent on hand.
Indiana showed the way
Despite 2 key injury absences, Indiana’s defense showed what can work against Michigan in a 1st half that ended tied 10-10.
The Hoosiers crowded the box and stuffed Corum on all but 1 play. After he broke free for 50 yards on his 1st carry, Corum gained only 10 yards on 9 carries the rest of the half. For the game, his final 24 carries netted 74 yards, barely 3 per carry.
Indiana’s offense also found 1st-half success, using an up-tempo, no-huddle attack to keep Michigan on its heels. Penn State should pick its spots to do likewise. The Hoosiers ran out of gas after the break and Connor Bazelak was swarmed under for 7 sacks that lost 61 yards. The Lions will need to find a better balance and have their improved offensive line hold up better than Indiana’s did. But the strategy has merit.