Last week’s bye came at a perfect time. The Nittany Lions had played six straight weeks, albeit to inferior opponents, but six weeks in a row, nonetheless. They were beginning to show glimpses of being tested. The offense was being exposed for the flaws that it has, and the defense was playing exuberantly, but was certainly tired. At the midway point in the 2017 campaign, the bye week was perfect for Penn State. But it wasn’t just perfect looking back. It was well placed moving forward. The next three weeks are grueling. The gauntlet that the Nittany Lions will go through will prove their merit among the country’s elite. The #2 ranking will be tested for three consecutive weeks against three straight ranked opponents. If Penn State can find a way to prevail for the next 16 days and come away with three victories, a Big Ten Championship game would be almost certain. It would give all three teams that would lie in their wake two losses.It would also drop one team further down the totem pole with two conference loses, effectively eliminating them from the east division.
That second scenario would play out for this week’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines. Just two games ago, the Wolverines dropped a 14-10 heart-breaker to “Little Brother” Michigan State. With wins in four of the last five meetings, I’d hardly call them the little one any longer. Whatever Michigan State does against Michigan, every team in the country should pull film from and emulate. That loss, however, is the Wolverines only blemish to this point, as they sit 5-1 on the season, ranked 19th in the nation.
There is one thing that this team is not: offensively efficient.
This week, the Wolverines will be led by quarterback John O’Korn, who replaced opening day starter Wilton Speight after Speight cracked his vertebrae a few weeks ago. Needless to say, he’ll miss some time. So it will be O’Korn barking out the signals for the Wolverine offense. The 6’4″ senior is physically imposing, but doesn’t have the downfield ability that many larger quarterbacks possess. He’s averaging under seven yards per attempt this season. In the three games he’s started this season, O’Korn 44 of 81, for 563 yards, just one touchdown and four interceptions. He’s completing just 55 percent of his passes this season, as well. O’Korn hasn’t been stunning. He hasn’t even been average. It would be surprising to see the Michigan passing game get going against the stout Penn State secondary.
The running game is split extremely evenly between three running backs. The three backs have split carries 70, 68 and 67 this season. The majority of touches, if you can nominally call it that, belong to junior Karan Higdon. Higdon is the smallest and quickest of the three backs that Michigan features. While Higdon began the year by receiving the least amount of carries in week one, he handled the lion’s share of carries last week against Indiana, when he ran 25 times for 200 yards. He’ll get a bulk of the outside runs, especially if the Wolverines line up in the shotgun. Higdon also lead the rushing attack in touchdowns with five. Following behind him in touches is the bruiser, senior Ty Isaac. Isaac is a dominant force, weighing in at 228 pounds. He was heavily involved in the first few weeks, but has carried the ball just 11 times over the last two games for 47 yards. He had the best splits in week one despite getting the second most touches, but hasn’t been as effective in weeks past. Finally, with 67 carries, sits Chris Evans. Evans touched the ball 22 in week one, but followed that up with 11 carries over the next two weeks, rushing for just 45 yards. This is a true “running back by committee” situation, as Jim Harbough will likely ride the hot hand throughout this one. It’s been clear that through the first half of 2017, the Wolverines still don’t have a true replacement for De’Veon Smith, who was the workhorse for the team last year. Smith ran for 846 yards on 181 carries, scoring ten times. He’ was a true bell cow for the Wolverines last year. He’s now with the Miami Dolphins. Any one of these backs will have to contend with the teeth of the Penn State front seven, which is never an easy task.
But the biggest difficulty that Michigan has been having, throwing the football, has been directly correlated with the receiving core. Last year, the Wolverines had a legitimate downfield threat on either side of the line and a tight end who was one of the better pass catchers I’ve witnessed since beginning to cover college football. Now, they’re all in the NFL, and the Wolverines are still scratching their heads as to how to replace 138 catches, 1908 yards and 13 touchdowns. Amara Darboh, the teams leading receiver from a year ago, is now with the Seattle Seahawks. His opposite, Jehu Chesson, is with the Kansas City Chiefs. And tight end Jake Butt is currently with the Denver Broncos. It’s extremely difficult to replace three NFL receivers in one year. Grant PErry is doing everything he can, but there’s clearly been an adjustment from being a number three to becoming the solidified number one target. He has just 18 catches for 224 yards and one score.
There is one thing this team is: defensively scary
While the offense has certainly had its share of struggles, the defense has been other worldly. The unit as a whole ranks number one in the country in yards allowed per game at 223.8. The next closes, Washington, is three full yards behind. To put that into perspective, Penn State allows the ninth most, at 285.2 yards per game. Running the ball? Forget it. Michigan allows sixth fewest yards per game on the ground, at 85.8. In total, the defense has only surrendered 515 yards on 195 attempts, a 2.64 average, and three touchdowns in six games. They’re tied for sixth in the nation in sacks with 20. They’re incredible at getting off the field on third down, as opposing teams are just 18 of 88 on third down conversion attempts. That 20% opponent success rate is good for best in the country. The unit has allowed the second least first downs, at 73, just one behind Mississippi State thus far.
This stat driven, monotonous looking paragraph is meant to prove a point. This Michigan defense is legit. It’s a scary unit that could cause some serious problems for Penn State, especially in the trenches. The front four will get to Trace McSorley and cause havoc in the backfield for Saquon Barkley if the offensive line doesn’t improve its play. The bye week should help with the overall health of the offensive line, which has been battered by injuries all season long.
The one negative of the Michigan defense is that they don’t force a ton of turnovers, having picked off five passes and recovered four fumbles. That’s tied for just 74th in the nation. If the Nittany Lions can be methodical and move the football efficiently, they could keep the Michiga defense on the field for chunks of time, tiring them out in the latter portion of the game.
This game will come down to a handful of factors Saturday night. The first, is which team plays more sound mistake free football. Both teams feature feasting defenses that can cause serious turmoil. If Penn State can secure the football, they should be in business. Next, the energy of the crowd can be invigorating, but the Nittany Lions need to be careful. Often times, teams will get juiced up to play a rivalry game, at night, during a themed color night, in front of their home fans and millions watching on TV. They’ll fly around the ball and make big hits for the first quarter, then be gassed. Penn State must play with intensity, but not let the atmosphere get to them. Finally, and this is going to sound more bizarre than most things I say, keep the Michigan offense on the field. They’re so susceptible to turnover riddled football that it makes sense to keep John O’Korn on the field. I believe the first to 20 wins this game.
While I think Michigan easily has the best defense in the nation, Penn State’s isn’t shabby either. I’d generously rank them top 15, and maybe even top 10. If the front four can put pressure on O’Korn and the backs, the secondary will chew O’Korn up. I’d expect a low scoring affair in this one.
Final Prediction: 23-13 Penn State
Mandatory Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports