James Franklin and his revamped coaching staff are imprinting a new identity on the Penn State program.

It’s a dramatic change from recent seasons. The Nittany Lions’ aim is to be tougher in the trenches, more physical and aggressive in every phase, more classically ground-based and less quarterback-centric on offense. Smart. Patient. Efficient. Ball-secure.

It’s a work in progress, but it has worked well enough so far.

One could argue that they’re modeling Michigan, their opponent Saturday in the programs’ first top-10 clash since the 1990s.

The question is: Are the No. 10 Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G) far enough along in the makeover process to go into The Big House in Ann Arbor and beat the No. 5 Wolverines (6-0, 3-0) at their own game?

Both teams will be playing a ranked opponent for the first time this season, so it’ll be a first look at whether either team’s stats or early-season impressions carry any substance.

Let’s look at how Penn State has become more Michigan-like this season, and what it might mean for Saturday:

Back-to-basics offense

Run first, run often

Last year, Michigan’s offensive line was rated the country’s best, while Penn State’s was rated a liability. Michigan had power back Hassan Haskins and a couple of skilled understudies to make the most of the work up front. Penn State ranked among the worst teams in the nation in yards per game (108.0) and per carry (3.21), with no breakaway ability.

This year, Michigan’s line remains stout but maybe isn’t quite as dominant, especially after losing right tackle Trente Jones to an injury Saturday at Indiana. Penn State’s is markedly better, but hasn’t seen anything like Michigan’s defense yet. Still, the Lions are averaging 192.6 yards per game and 4.94 per carry. Freshman backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen have shown breakaway ability that didn’t exist a year ago, and both got a career-high 21 carries last time out against Northwestern.

The change in philosophy is obvious: This year, PSU has run the ball 30 more times than it has thrown it. Last year, the team passed on 52.6% of its plays for 71.3% of its offensive yards. This year, it has thrown on 45.8% of plays for 56.6% of its yards.

Running often — and effectively — primarily with the running backs and only as needed with the quarterback. That’s Michigan’s game. And now, apparently Penn State’s, too.

Steady, safe QB play

Michigan’s JJ McCarthy has thrown only 1 interception this season, Penn State’s Sean Clifford just 2. Every other Big Ten starter, other than game-manager Tommy DeVito of Illinois, has thrown at least 3.

Both McCarthy in his 5 starts and Clifford in his 38 over 4 seasons have proven they can post big numbers and make clutch plays when called upon. With the competition ramping up Saturday, they both might face moments of truth. But only if the game situation dictates.

If they can get away with it, they’ll stick to short and intermediate-level throws, hit the open man, move the chains. Take what the defense gives, and keep taking it until said defense adjusts. Trust the tight end.

Jahan Dotson led Penn State last year with a typical game of 7 or 8 catches for just under 100 yards. Parker Washington leads this year with averages of 4 catches for 57 yards. He and Mitchell Tinsley together are barely on pace to match Dotson’s production. Brenton Strange, on the other hand, is on pace to blow away his numbers that led the team’s tight ends a year ago.

Like Michigan, Penn State is mastering ball-control and hoping its QB can hit some longballs to put the icing on the cake.

Dynamic, aggressive defense

Michigan got after opposing QBs with 2 edge-rushing sack specialists last year, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The Wolverines are back at it with a new cast of characters this year. They have a B1G-best 22 QB takedowns.

Penn State, under new DC Manny Diaz, is trying to keep pace. The Lions are 4th in the league in sacks per game (2.4), and that number will climb if Diaz has his way. He’s stunting and blitzing, risking the occasional big play, to speed up opposing quarterbacks. QB hurries are way up (23, just 1 less than all of last year).

Trusting the secondary, Penn State is also crowding the box and stuffing opposing ground games. The Lions are currently 5th in the country, allowing only 79.8 rushing yards per game. They ended last year 67th at 153.8. Michigan is 7th so far this year after finishing 27th last year.

Final thoughts

Maybe Michigan’s breakthrough 42-27 victory over Ohio State last year got Franklin’s attention. Maybe the 9th-year head coach just realized he couldn’t win big in the Big Ten playing like Purdue. Maybe he’s just adjusting to the strengths of this year’s highly regarded recruiting class.

Whatever the case, Michigan circa 2021-22 does serve as a solid model.

Matching up Penn State’s units vs. the Michigan standard, I worry most about the o-line. If the Lions can run on the Wolverines, I’ll be sold. If they can’t, Clifford’s shortcomings get exacerbated. I’ll save my final thoughts and prediction for tomorrow. For now, I’ll just say that Penn State is a 7-point underdog for a reason.

The extent of change the Lions have made through 5 games is truly amazing, so maybe they’ll surprise yet again. But Michigan has been playing Michigan-style football for a lot longer than Penn State, and the Wolverines will be at home in front of perhaps as many as 115,000 maize-clad zealots.

Barring a blowout, I’ll remain high on these new-look Lions regardless of the outcome.