If Sean Clifford simply does what he’s always done against Michigan, Penn State will have a great shot to win Saturday’s showdown in Ann Arbor.

The 4th-year starter has never turned the ball over against Michigan, going 96 throws and 36 rush attempts in 3 starts against the Wolverines without surrendering a possession. And, oh yeah, Penn State won 2 of those games. The loss came last year, a 21-17 verdict that in no way suggests Michigan should be a monumental favorite this year. The 7 points oddsmakers are giving Penn State might be a bit much.

Judging by 3 years’ worth of head-to-head data and what we’ve seen so far in 2022, this is an even matchup. Will that prove to be true on the field when the No. 10 Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G East) meet the division rival No. 5 Wolverines (6-0, 3-0) for FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff game? We shall see. Neither team has faced a ranked opponent yet, so both have things to prove.

From a Penn State perspective, several data points provide hope for an epic road victory:

  • Michigan beat Maryland only 34-27 this year, and Penn State’s defense is way better than Maryland’s.
  • Michigan beat Iowa 27-13. Penn State’s offense is way better than Iowa’s.
  • Michigan needed a late score to edge Penn State last year, and lost 2 premier pass rushers from that team, demoted the starting QB and lost TE Erick All — who caught the game-winning pass with 3:29 remaining — to an injury.

Of course, Penn State lost its top 2 tacklers from last year. And Michigan’s new quarterback, JJ McCarthy, is pretty good, leading in the country in completion percentage and all.

Still, the main reason Michigan is higher ranked and favored is because it played in the CFP last year while Penn State petered out to a 7-6 finish.

James Franklin’s team is back from the abyss, sitting at 5-0 for the 3rd time in 4 seasons. In fact, the parallel to 2019, Clifford’s first year as the starter, is striking. Then, the 5-0 Lions were — wait for it — No. 10 heading into a hostile Big Ten road environment, Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. In his 6th start, Clifford provided only 117 passing yards, but Penn State committed 0 turnovers and gutted out a 17-12 victory. The next week, Penn State parlayed a hot start into a 28-21 win vs. Michigan as Clifford threw for 3 TDs and ran for another.

To make a similar run and erase the bad vibes from going 11-11 from 2020-21, Penn State on Saturday will need:

Another clean game vs. Michigan

Penn State’s offense hasn’t turned the ball over the past 3 games against Michigan. Jordan Stout coughed up the ball on a fake field goal last year. Clifford fumbled twice in that game, but the Lions recovered both. Over those 3 games, PSU leads the takeaway battle 3-1.

Though it committed 5 turnovers in the pouring rain against Northwestern, Penn State still leads the B1G in turnover margin. The Lions had lost the ball only once in the previous 4 games.

The o-line to hold up

The new starters and the first 2 off the bench up front are way better than the guys they replaced. Olu Fashanu is so much better at left tackle than Rasheed Walker, it boggles the mind that Walker made Green Bay’s NFL roster. Landon Tengwall, Sal Wormley, transfer Hunter Nourzad and veteran Bryce Effner have all been upgrades over their 2021 counterparts.

Going against Michigan’s d-line is another matter, though. In run blocking and pass protection, this will be their toughest challenge of the season. The Wolverines are No. 5 in the country in total defense, No. 7 vs. the run and No. 4 in sacks.

Some explosive runs

Nick Singleton still leads the nation in runs of 40+ yards with 5, but the last of those came a month ago against Auburn. Take away those 5 runs for 269 yards, and Penn State would be averaging about 3.7 yards per carry rather than almost 5. Singleton, fellow freshman Kaytron Allen and/or Keyvone Lee will need to bust a couple for at least 20 yards, or Penn State will probably be shut down on the ground.

Dirty up JJ McCarthy

McCarthy leads the nation with a 78.3% completion rate and has thrown just 1 INT (vs. 9 TDs) through his 5 starts and 1 relief appearance this season. Penn State’s secondary holds opponents to less than 50% passing, so something will have to give.

If Manny Diaz’s defense can pressure the young QB and put some grass stains on his No. 9 jersey, it might lead to some bad decisions. If things go Penn State’s way, McCarthy’s uniform and his stats won’t look nearly as pretty at the end of the game as they did at the beginning.

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Prediction

I said yesterday that Penn State is trying to beat Michigan at its own game. Several days ago I came up with 10 reasons Penn State has a solid shot to prevail against the Wolverines.

But matching up position groups, I can only give the Lions the nod for defensive backs and tight ends. They might be really close in other areas, but we won’t know until after this game plays out.

If it comes down to kicking, Michigan’s Jake Moody trumps Jake Pinegar by a wide margin.

If it comes down to quarterback, I like McCarthy — despite 33 fewer college starts — over Clifford. A 5-star recruit last year, McCarthy throws darts and hits what he’s aiming at. He’s missed some longballs and failed to take off and run a couple times when he should have. But he’s connected on almost 80% of his passes, throwing 30-yard frozen ropes on the money a number of times.

He shows poise and confidence, and I don’t think he’ll rattle easily. I think he beats Penn State with his arm and his legs in his first spotlight game.

Because of the great completion percentage, McCarthy keeps drives alive. Michigan has only punted 3.3 times per game in B1G play. Penn State has averaged 6.5 punts in its 2 B1G games.

The Wolverines simply have a better chance of controlling the ball and winning a slugfest. The Lions have closed that gap, but not all the way.

Michigan 17, Penn State 13