12:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Michigan -4.5, Over/Under: 44.0
As the Regular Season barrels closer to its final act, one of the BIGGEST matchups of the year takes centerstage this weekend, as the undefeated (No. 3) Michigan Wolverines travel to Happy Valley for an affair with the upset-minded (No. 10) Penn State Nittany Lions from Beaver Stadium. With nine games in the books, it has already been one helluva campaign for Michigan (9-0, 6-0 in BIG 10), though not necessarily for all of the right reasons. Simply put, their success on the gridiron this Fall has failed to mask the ongoing controversy off it, with the team currently embroiled in a sensational sign-stealing scandal that could result in significant discipline for not only the program, but (Head Coach) Jim Harbaugh as well. Needless to say, it has been quite the ride for the former Wolverines’ Quarterback, who in the last two seasons has managed to author a pair of perfect regular seasons, two titanic victories over (bitter rival) Ohio State, back-to-back BIG 10 Championships, and consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff. Oh, and the 59-year-old has made himself quite a bit of money along the way, earning at least one new contract extension from the university. However, Harbaugh was suspended by the school itself (not the NCAA) for the first three games of this season due to reported recruiting violations during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the aforementioned sign-stealing saga has placed he and the program firmly under the microscope. Dating back to last season, reports of low-level Michigan assistants going undercover to spy on future opponents, sometimes as members of that school’s own staff, gained traction within the media, with the most concrete example being that of (former staffer) Connor Stalions, who is purported to have dressed as a Central Michigan staffer earlier in the season in an effort to steal their signs. When news broke last week, Harbaugh stated he had no knowledge of any covert plot by members of his staff, while the university itself reportedly pulled the latest extension offer that was on the table. Furthermore, Stalions recently resigned from his post, stating that his HC wasn’t involved in the operation in any manner. As you can imagine, this has created quite the !@#$storm around Harbaugh and the program, with rumors circulating that he could very well bolt back to the NFL in the event of severe punishment from the NCAA. As for their performance thus far on the field, Michigan is what their record states they are: undefeated. In his second season as the starting QB, (Junior) J.J. McCarthy has grown along with the offense, completing a surgical 75.7% of his passes for 2,134 yards on a healthy 10.4 yards per attempt, with eighteen touchdowns opposed to three interceptions, while rushing for another three scores to boot. As a whole, the attack has scored 40.7 points per game (5th in FBS) on 424.2 total yards equating to 6.8 yards per play. The ground game, which is churning out 167.1 yards per game on the strength of (Junior Tailbacks) Blake Corum (649 yards, 16 TD) and Donovan Edwards (457 scrimmage yards), has been buoyed by a more productive passing attack than we’ve seen in recent years. McCarthy’s growth has coincided with three different pass-catchers posting 400+ receiving yards, chief among them (Junior Wideout) Roman Wilson, who leads the team with thirty-six receptions, 589 yards, and ten touchdowns. Defensively, the Wolverines have relinquished the fewest points in the country (6.7) on a scant 231.4 yards per game, with a total of fifteen takeaways, while relegating every opponent (save for one) below 300 total yards. When we last saw them, the Maise & Blue dismantled Purdue in a 41-13 affair at the Big House; Harbaugh’s charges began the afternoon on a 20-0 run, which was interrupted by a pair of Boilermaker field goals, before the hosts ran off another twenty-one unanswered points. In the end, Michigan outgained the visiting side 445-269, primarily on the arm of McCarthy, who completed 24-of-37 passes for a season-high 335 yards, with Corum and Edwards capping drives with four touchdowns. For those paying attention to the unveiling of the first College Football Playoff Rankings of the season earlier last week, one of the biggest reasons that the Wolverines fell to third overall was due to their schedule, which has been less than arduous to say the least; Harbaugh & Co have yet to face a ranked opponent this season, with their opponents thus far owning a mediocre win percentage of .451. Simply put, this clash with Penn State marks their first true test of the campaign, which should offer plenty of insight as to just how strong this team really is.
From a betting perspective, Michigan may be a perfect 9-0 straight-up this Fall, but they have been a much more middling 4-4-1 against the spread, with a streak of four consecutive covers coming to an end with last weekend’s win over Purdue (+31.5). Under Harbaugh’s leadership, this is a program that is 53-52-3 (.490) versus the spread over the past nine seasons, including a 16-14-1 mark as a road favorite, though have covered all three such games on their schedule thus far. Dating back to last season, the Wolverines are 4-5-1 against the spread in their last ten games overall, including a stelar 9-1 mark in that regard in their past ten games away from Ann Arbor. Looking at this particular matchup, the Maise & Blue have won covered each of the last two meetings after a stretch in which they earned just one outright victory in four tries. Michigan is 6-3 straight-up and 7-2 against the spread in this series since 2014, with both sides coming into this affair ranked in five of the past six encounters. These clashes have often gone the way of chalk, with the higher-ranked team winning FIVE straight meetings and covering all but one of them along the way. In their most recent battle, a 41-17 rout of the (No. 10) Nittany Lions last October, the Wolverines (-7) proved to be too much for the visitors in the second half; trailing 16-17 early in the third quarter, Harbaugh’s troops ran off TWENTY-FIVE unanswered points on the strength of back-to-back rushing touchdowns of 60+ yards, the first from Edwards and the second from Corum. The hosts dominated on the ground, rushing for 418 yards and four scores on fifty-five carries, with Corum and Edwards both topping 160 yards on the afternoon. McCarthy didn’t have to do much, completing 17-of-24 passes for 145 yards and an interception, though he did chip in on the ground with fifty-seven yards of his own on seven attempts. On the injury front, this is a largely healthy team with no notable absences to report. Looking ahead, Michigan will stay on the road one more week for a trip to College Park to face reeling Maryland, before returning home for the biggest game of the season, a titanic clash with (No. 1) Ohio State, which will likely decide not only the BIG 10, but who will be participating in the College Football Playoff as well.
Meanwhile, given the ongoing saga that has hovered over Ann Arbor, it is easy to forget about Penn State (8-1, 5-1 in BIG 10), who for all intents and purposes is still very much alive in the discussion for not only a BIG 10 Title, but a spot in the Playoff as well. It was just three weeks ago that the Nittany Lions found themselves in the very same position as their opponent this afternoon, looking to pass their first true test of the campaign after bulldozing their way through a rather comfortable schedule. Granted, (Head Coach) James Franklin’s troops did BODY (No. 24) Iowa in a 31-0 shutout back in late September, but on the whole, they were not faced with a trying gauntlet by any means. However, when they traveled to Columbus for a date with (No. 3) Ohio State, they were hit with a cold dose of reality; the visiting Lions struggled mightily offensively in that 12-20 defeat, failing to convert a single third down until they were trailing 6-20 inside of four minutes to play in the fourth quarter. A defense that was ranked statistically as the best in the nation was left stranded on the field for far too long, shipping 365 total yards, including 286 through the air, while (Sophomore Quarterback) Drew Allar experienced a particularly hard day at the office, completing just 18-of-42 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown, while suffering four sacks and countless pressures. To their credit, they managed to bounce back with victories over Indiana (33-24) and Maryland (51-15), setting up their second major test of the season against another undefeated powerhouse. Make no mistake about it, folks, this afternoon’s showdown at Beaver Stadium is a HUGE game for Franklin, who in his ten years in Happy Valley has struggled to take down the two giants looming within the BIG 10 East; the 51-year-old is a stellar 86-37 (.699) at PSU, though has mustered a 4-15 (.210) mark against Ohio State and Michigan in comparison to an 82-22 (.788) record versus everyone else. Since winning the BIG 10 Title back in 2016, he has finished second or third behind one or both of those schools in five of the last six seasons. With a win over the Wolverines this afternoon and a potential loss by the Buckeyes in two weeks’ time when they travel to the Big House, the Nittany Lions could very well rise to the top of the division, which would book their trip to Indianapolis for the Conference Championship Game in which they would likely be heavy favorites, setting up a possible trip to the Playoff, which would mark the first time that they have participated in the tournament since its advent in 2014. Remember, this is a school that hasn’t won a National Title since 1986 and is desperate to relive their years of glory. There is a sense in Happy Valley that Franklin has them on the cusp of getting there, thanks in large part to his stellar performance on the recruiting trail. That loss to Ohio State aside, this defense is LOADED with talent, yielding just 11.9 points per game (3rd in FBS) on 234.2 total yards, including a scant 60.3 yards against the run on 2.0 yards per carry, while forcing TWENTY turnovers thus far. Offensively, the aforementioned Allar (pictured below) is the highest-rated passer that Franklin has brought to Beaver Stadium, and in his first season as the starter has provided plenty of glimpses into his lofty potential. Standing 6-5, 230 pounds, Allar has plenty of NFL traits, completing 62.8% of his passes for 1,895 yards on 6.6 yards per attempt, with twenty touchdowns opposed to just one interception. Granted, Franklin and (Offensive Coordinator) Mike Yurcich have largely played it safe with the underclassman, but the talent is clearly there. When we last saw Penn State, they stormed into College Park and dismantled Maryland in a 36-point blowout; the visitors raced out to a 21-7 halftime lead, while (Defensive Coordinator) Manny Diaz’s unit began to squeeze the Terps as the day progressed, limiting them to 232 total yards, totaling SIX sacks, and forcing FOUR turnovers. (Sophomore Tailback) Kaytron Allen rushed for ninety-one yards and a score on fourteen carries, while Allar completed 25-of-34 attempts for 240 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. He will be tested by Michigan’s staunch defense today, while on the other side of the football it will be on Diaz’s defense to slow down the Wolverine’s vaunted rushing attack. It is strength versus strength in Happy Valley today, with the action unlikely to be conducive to the faint of heart.
From a betting perspective, Penn State may be 8-1 straight this season, but they have been slightly lesser against the spread, covering all but two of their nine games on the schedule thus far. They did, however, get back into the good graces of the betting community after suffering back-to-back losses versus the spread, winning and covering with relative ease as 7.5-point favorites at Maryland last Saturday. Under Franklin’s leadership, this is a program that 68-52-3 (.552) against the spread over the last ten seasons, including a 4-5 mark in that regard as a home underdog, with today’s affair marking the first time this Fall that they have been branded as such by the oddsmakers. Dating back to last season, the Nittany Lions are a stellar 8-2 against the spread in their last ten games overall, including 7-2-1 at Happy Valley. Furthermore, this is a team that has generally found their stride come November, covering FIVE consecutive contests in this particular month of the year. They’ve also fared well at home against opponents with winning records, covering four straight games against such opponents. With all that being said, being an underdog has not been an advantageous position for these cats, who have covered just one of their last five outings when receiving points, while posting a similar 1-4 mark against the spread as a home dog of 3.5-10.0 points, which is the case this afternoon. Looking at this particular matchup, PSU 7-6 straight-up and against the spread in this series since 2008, including 3-3 in each regard since 2017. In last year’s clash in Ann Arbor, the game was far more competitive than the final score would lead you to believe as the visiting Nittany Lions led 17-16 after kicking a field goal early in the second half. Unfortunately, Diaz’s defense was trampled from that point on, shipping over 200 rushing yards in the final two quarters alone. (Former QB) Sean Clifford started the game and completed just 7-of-19 passes for 120 yards and rushed for another seventy-four yards on six attempts, which marked the extent of the success that Franklin’s troops would enjoy on the ground (111 yards on 22 carries), with (Sophomore Tailback) Noah Singleton and Allen accounting for just thirty-five yards and a score on a dozen attempts. As for Allar, he would see some action against Michigan’s staunch defense, completing half of his ten passes for thirty-seven yards. On the injury front, Penn State is in a different situation than their opponent this afternoon, with the availability of a number of players hanging in the balance. (Sophomore Receiver) Harrison Wallace is out indefinitely with an ailing right arm, while (Junior Defensive) Demeioun “Chop” Robinson is day-to-day after missing the last two games with an unspecified malady. In seven games, Wallace has totaled fifteen catches for 161 yards, while Robinson has logged three sacks and a forced fumble since transferring from Maryland in the Spring. Looking ahead, the Nittany Lions will remain at Beaver Stadium for the penultimate matchup of the regular season against Rutgers, before hitting the road for a trip to East Lansing with Michigan State awaiting int he finale.