7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Penn State -9, Over/Under: 45.5
Pursuit of the Big 10 East Division realistically ends for one of these teams tonight, as the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines travel to Happy Valley to battle the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions from Beaver Stadium, in , Pennsylvania. Tenuous would be the most appropriate way to describe the season thus far for Michigan (5-1, 3-1 in Big 10), who were expected by many to step up and lay claim to the East Division, particularly given the circumstances of their direct competition, most notably a powerhouse hailing from Columbus, Ohio. After all, the Buckeyes parted ways with their Head Coach, Urban Meyer, who had absolutely OWNED the Wolverines over the course of his seven years with that program, leading many to believe that they would be taking at least a small step backward as they transition to a new regime. The same feeling could be applied to Penn State, who we’ll get into in shortly, leaving a theoretical void that the Maize & Blue were tabbed to fill. However, that hasn’t been the case at all, as the program has come under plenty of scrutiny, with Jim Harbaugh bearing the brunt of that criticism. After years of mediocrity, the 55-Year Old’s appointment at his Alma Mata was a HUGE deal, intended to signify a paradigm shift for a program that had fallen so far behind Ohio State that has long been the sport’s greatest rivalry, had been rendered into a punch line. Now in his fifth year on the job, it’s safe to say that the honeymoon is over in Ann Arbor, for while he’s won plenty of games, going 43-15 (.741), including three 10-Win Seasons, he’s 1-3 in Bowls, has yet to win the Big 10 or compete in the College Football Playoff, and most damningly, never beaten the Buckeyes. Making matters worse, is that the longer he’s been in charge, the more and more the team has grown more stagnant, particularly on Offense. While the Defense has remained consistently solid throughout his tenure at the Big House, the Offense is hustling backwards; after a mediocre 2018 in which the attack averaged just 35.3 Points per Game (21st Overall) on 419.5 Total Yards, this unit is scoring just 30.3 Points per Game (58th Overall) on 388.0 Total Yards. The Passing Game has been the biggest point of contention for the faithful in Michigan, with Shea Patterson (57.1%, 1,246 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 9 TD, 3 INT) failing to show much improvement in his first full season as the Starting Quarterback. The former Transfer from Ole Miss settled into the job after injuries rocked the position early a year ago, but time hasn’t necessarily aided him within this system; the Senior has performed rather poorly in two of the Wolverines’ contests, completing 14-of-32 Passes for 219 Yards, Two Touchdowns and an Interception in a 35-14 beatdown at No. 13 Wisconsin, and 14-of-26 for 147 Yards and an Interception in 10-3 victory over No. 14 Iowa wo weeks ago. Harbaugh has continued to preach patience, but the reality is that nobody will care much for any of that so long as he and his troops keep coming up short against their rivals within the conference. Indeed, the criticism has been so loud that what was clearly one of the Quarterback’s better showings of the season went largely unnoticed; in last weekend’s 42-25 thumping of Illinois, Patterson overcame completing just 11-of-20 Attempts to strike gold with Three Touchdowns, while rushing for another midway through the Fourth Quarter. With that said, the context is what really matters with this particular performance, folks, for the visiting Wolverines got off to a torrid start, scoring twenty-eight unanswered points in the first twenty-five minutes of play, only to see the home side rally back to cut the lead to 28-25 early in the final stanza. Thankfully, the Offense, which at that point had meandered through the Second Half, flipped the proverbial switch, stringing together a stellar 10-Play, 79-Yard Drive culminating in a 5-Yard Touchdown from Patterson to Receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones (12 REC, 129 YDS, 10.8 Y/R, 2 TD), before silencing the home crowd with that aforementioned 1-Yard jaunt into the End Zone. The Ground Game was essential to their success, rushing for a whopping 295 Yards and three scores on Forty-Eight Carries, with Tailbacks Zach Charbonnet (79 CAR, 376 YDS, 4.8 Y/C, 5 TD) and Hassan Haskins (26 CAR, 189 YDS, 7.3 Y/C, 1 TD) rushing for 116 and 125 Yards respectively. Needless to say, a week after compiling a season-low 271 Total Yards against the Hawkeyes, their season-high of 489 was a welcome sight. Granted, the Illini have a long habit of making their opponents look good, so we’ll have to see how Michigan performs against Penn State’s staunch Defense before we can start buying into Harbaugh’s pleas for patience. And based off of recent history, the likelihood of that happening appears positive, for since taking over in Ann Arbor, the former Quarterback has gone 3-1 against the Nittany Lions, including last year’s 42-7 romp at the Big House.
Meanwhile, what was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year in Happy Valley is turning out to be a pleasantly surprising one for Penn State (6-0, 3-0 in Big 10), who certainly appear to be ahead of schedule. For the second time this season, the Nittany Lions emerged victorious from a defensive slugfest, which if you buy into what James Franklin has been preaching of late, continues to build character in his young side. With half of the season in the books, it can no longer be said that this team has not been tested as that we don’t know how they’ll respond to adversity. Just as they did in an earlier 17-10 win over instate rival Pittsburgh, they went on the road into a hostile environment against one of the most formidable Defenses in the country, escaping with a 17-12 triumph at No. 17 Iowa. Clinging to a slim 10-6 lead heading into the Fourth Quarter, the visitors made their opponent pay for their mistakes, turning the tide following a crucial Interception of the Hawkeyes’ Nate Stanley midway through the final stanza, and traveling thirty-five yards before Tailback, Noah Cain (57 CAR, 310 YDS, 5.4 Y/C, 6 TD), barreled into the End Zone with just over five minutes left to play. Iowa would strike back shortly afterward, with Stanley hitting a 33-Yard Strike to pull within one score, but a failed Two-Point conversion left the deficit at five, setting up a game-clinching conversion on Third Down from Cain to seal the deal. Though they amassed 308 Total Yards, Franklin’s charges were efficient enough, converting 10-of-19 Third Downs, while managing to come up with a pair of Takeaways that robbed the hosts of their momentum. Much like their opponent tonight, the Nittany Lions came out with a very clear Game Plan, and that was shoving the football right down the home side’s collective throat, rushing for 191 Yards on a whopping Fifty-One Carries, 102 Yards coming courtesy of Cain, while Quarterback, Sean Clifford (64.2%, 1,560 YDS, 9.8 Y/A, 13 TD, 2 INT) piled up another Fifty-Two Yards on Sixteen Carries. it was far from Clifford’s most impressive performance, completing just 12-of-24 Passes for 117 Yards and a Touchdown, but the Redshirt Sophomore nonetheless continued to make the requisite plays to win games; facing a monumental 3rd-&-10 in the ensuing Drive after Stanley’s Interception, the young Signal-Caller scrambled right on an Option, ultimately deciding to tuck the football and plow through an opening, gaining Eleven Yards on what would prove to be the decisive Drive of the affair. Franklin described the performance as gutsy, which is appropriate for a Quarterback that appears to be growing into the job with each passing week. Clifford has thus far connected on 64.2% of his Attempts for an average of 260.0 Yards per Game on 9.8 Yards per Attempt, with Thirteen Touchdowns in comparison to Two Interceptions, while also factoring heavily into the Rushing Attack, gaining another 252 Yards and a pair of scores on Fifty-Nine Carries. Where one Quarterback seems to have hit a proverbial wall nearing the end of his collegiate cycle, this one is certainly trending upwards, which can only mean good things for the program moving forward. Of course, it certainly helps to have a Defense which ranks among the nation’s elite, which is precisely where Penn State have found themselves this season, allowing a scant 8.2 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on just 259.7 Total Yards, including 205.8 Yards against the Pass and another53.8 Yards versus the Run, where they’ve been particularly stout, yielding a paltry 1.6 Yards per Carry. Apart from allowing Buffalo of all teams to rush for 184 Yards back in Week Two, the Nittany Lions haven’t permitted more than Seventy Rushing Yards this season, with Iowa managing that figure last weekend. The key is that this group routinely makes plays behind the Line of Scrimmage, accumulating a staggering 59.5 Tackles for Loss and 27.0 Sacks, both of which lead the Big 10. Sophomore Linebacker, Micah Parsons (31 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD) leads the team with Thirty-One Tackles, while Defensive Ends, Yetur Gross-Matos (18 TKL, 8.0 TFL, 5.0 SK) and Shaka Toney (13 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 5.5 SK), have been nightmares off the edge, combining for 10.5 Sacks thus far. The former exited last weekend’s affair at Iowa with a lower-body injury, leaving his status for tonight’s game up in the air.