It’s a top-10 matchup in Ann Arbor, as #5 Michigan will play host to the 10th-ranked team in the country, Penn State’s Nittany Lions. The Wolverines remain undefeated, although they’ve been somewhat less dominant as they’ve started to play legitimate Power-5 teams, and have slipped a spot down to #5 behind Clemson. Penn State are also undefeated, albeit unspectacular at times other than a blowout win in a visit to an extremely dysfunctional Auburn team. Only one of these two teams will leave Saturday undefeated, and the other will have finally fallen victim to their general shortcomings. Let’s take a look at the odds for this huge Big Ten clash, and make some picks.
Penn State Vs. Michigan Odds
Michigan are installed as around a touchdown favorite in this game, sitting at -7 at most books. It’s worth shopping around for 6.5 or 7.5 though, depending on which side of the line you choose to play. The points total is set at 52.5, an intriguing total given the two teams’ recent offensive outputs.
Penn State Vs. Michigan Prediction & Pick
After encounters with Maryland, Iowa, and Indiana that some might consider too close for comfort, some of the minds around college football are losing faith in Michigan, as they’re barely but noticeably sliding down the polls. EPA, however, does not share these doubts: the metric still has the Wolverines as the #2 team in the country, although that total is still somewhat propped up by the output from Michigan’s 3 cupcake games to open the season. The defense has been solid once again, and U of M has their most talented quarterback in recent memory in JJ McCarthy. But of course, the story of the season has been running back Blake Corum, considered by many to have a real Heisman case as he’s sprinted, plowed and juked his way to 735 yards and 11 scores on the ground in 11 games.
Penn State are a somewhat less impressive undefeated team, as PFF and EPA both see them as somewhere in the 20s overall. Their 17-7 win over a pretty bad Northwestern this past weekend, a game in which they coughed up 4 fumbles and a pick, was hardly the confidence-inspiring performance they’d have hoped for before heading into Ann Arbor. Still, the weather should be better this time out, and things should be different for the Nittany Lions offense, led out once again by Sean Clifford, now in his fourth year as the team’s starting QB. The offense has also enjoyed the outstanding performance of soon-to-be NFL left tackle Olu Fashanu, who stands at an extremely athletic 6’6 and 308lbs, and is PFF’s 12th-favorite pass blocker amongst Power-5 teams. On the other side, PSU have a top-3 pass rush, again as per PFF, and are allowing the third-fewest rushing yards per game of any Power-5 school
Realistically, Michigan’s offense has been solid but not exceptional ever since they’ve been put up against legitimate opposition; Penn State’s has been nothing to write home about either. Both defenses have some incredible strengths as well, leading me to comfortably lean towards the under in this game. In terms of the spread, I’m leaning Penn State, but I think this is a really tough one to pick. I do like Michigan to win the football game; it’s a close call talent wise and I just don’t know if PSU will be able to put together enough offense in a road environment like the Big House. But I’m not projecting enough offense in general to pick one team to truly pull away, so I’d have to side with the Nittany Lions to stay within that 7-point spread.
Penn State Vs. Michigan Key Matchups
Will this Penn State front be able to slow down Blake Corum? How will this Penn State line stop Michigan’s edge rushers?
Penn State Run Defense vs. Blake Corum
The regular season is halfway gone, and the takeaway should be clear when it comes to playing the Wolverines: you HAVE to slow Blake Corum if you want to have a chance, especially in Ann Arbor. Corum’s utter dominance has been a large reason the team has been able to keep winning with relative comfort, despite the rest of the offense sputtering a bit. Michigan’s O-Line has been top-20 in Power-5 in terms of run blocking, per PFF, but Corum has really been able to add further value on his own by way of making defenders miss; his PFF run score is over 10 points higher than the next-best Wolverine.
Luckily for Penn State, and unluckily for Corum, they are one of the very few best-equipped teams in the country to stop him. They have a top-10 rush defense in all of FBS as per EPA, and they allow less than 3 yards per carry. They’re led by edge rushers Demeioun “Chop” Robinson, who has earned a PFF grade of just about 90, and Adisa Isaac, who has a team-leading 4.5 tackles for loss. The front 7 is supported by safeties Jonathan Sutherland and Zakee Wheatley, who have both been excellent coming up to prevent the run. If this Nittany Lions defensive unit can limit Corum, it’s hard to see where Michigan gets offense against a very good secondary and elite pass rush. If Corum is allowed to assert himself, however, Michigan will control the ball all day and win the game.
Penn State O-Line vs. Michigan Front 7
Last year when Michigan visited Happy Valley, Clifford was sacked 7 times, as Michigan’s d-line made his day extremely challenging and limited him to just 4.8 yards per attempt. When Penn State last visited a Big House full of fans, it was Trace McSorely under center, but he took a similarly, if not more, epic beating; the Wolverines racked up only 5 sacks this time, but McSorely was limited to 5 completions on 13 tosses, amounting to just 83 yards and a pick. He also rushed the ball 12 times for a total of -6 yards. So suffice it to say that Penn State will be laser-focused on protecting their quarterback in this edition of one of the best annual fixtures in the Big Ten. Fashanu will be key in this pursuit, and he is well-supported by center Juice Scruggs, who has allowed just a single hit and no sacks this year. However, both guards and Caedan Wallace, the tackle opposite Fashanu, have all struggled, and provide an opportunity for Michigan’s pass rushers to gain traction.
Of course, gone are Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who put together 5 of the 7 sacks Clifford endured a year ago. Michigan still has a good amount of pass rushing talent though, and have earned PFF’s 8th-highest pass rush grade thus far. Edge player Mike Morris has been one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten thus far, with a conference-leading 6 sacks and 5 additional QB hits. Edge transfer Eyabi Anoma has also been solid, and Derrick Moore joins Morris with a pass rush win rate of over 20% (Morris is over 25% himself). There are certainly vulnerabilities across the Penn State line for these players to exploit; if they’re able to do so, it will be tough for Clifford to take advantage of a very solid group of skill players, as he will spend most of his Saturday on his back in this scenario.