ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Big Ten Conference schedule opens in earnest on Saturday, and it pits a program that’s on the rise against a program that continues to develop its identity, in spite of its rich yet maligned history.
No. 4 Michigan (3-0) hosts Penn State (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium, and Michigan looks to continue its momentum following a comeback win last weekend against Colorado. Penn State needed a last-minute interception to beat Temple last Saturday in State College, Pa.
Two of the conference’s rising quarterbacks, Michigan’s Wilton Speight and Penn State’s Trace McSorley, will be showcased Saturday, but each will face one of the conference’s top pass defenses.
When Michigan has the ball
The Wolverines will continue to pass, pass and pass some more. After he struggled in the first quarter against Colorado, Speight found his rhythm and finished with a tidy 229 passing yards and a touchdown.
Michigan will face a Penn State pass defense that is second in the conference and came through with John Reid’s game-clinching interception in the final minute against Temple.
Michigan doesn’t have stellar rushing numbers, individually or as a team. Penn State coach James Franklin has said he’s making it a priority to stop Michigan’s run and make the Wolverines one-dimensional. Penn State, though, could be without three linebackers this week, including Nyeem Wartman-White, who will miss the rest of the season (knee injury), and had seven defensive players miss parts of last week’s win against Temple.
When Penn State has the ball
Penn State will be the third no-huddle offense Michigan will face in as many weeks but will likely rely more on the pass than on the run, as the Nittany Lions average only 111.7 yards rushing so far this season.
Saquon Barkley is Penn State’s primary rusher (51 carries for 258 yards and 6 touchdowns), but protecting McSorley will be key. McSorley has taken all of Penn State’s snaps this season (58-for-90 passing, 828 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) and Penn State needs to protect McSorley, as the Nittany Lions have allowed 5 sacks in their first three games.
Penn State has also struggled with ball security — of its 12 fumbles in three games, it’s lost 6. Michigan has the nation’s top third-down defense, allowing a scant 10.5 percent conversion rate (4-for-38), and has the Big Ten’s top pass defense.
Aside from two wobbles by Kenny Allen on field goals — and Allen is handling all three phases of Michigan’s kicking game — the Wolverines were otherwise stellar on special teams against Colorado and Central Florida. Michigan has blocked punts, blocked field goals, and has produced points off those turnovers.
Aside from his primary role as a pass-rushing linebacker, Jabrill Peppers has also made an impact on special teams, notably with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown last weekend against Colorado.
Penn State is averaging 21.6 yards average on kickoff returns — Miles Sanders has 117 yards in kick returns — and 6.4 yards on punt returns. The Nittany Lions have allowed only four kickoff returns for 120 yards and only three punt returns for 3 yards. Franklin said this week that his special teams unit has to cut down on penalties.
Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin are two of the Big Ten’s more scrutinized coaches, each for very different reasons. When he’s not pitching protein-enriched milk or making the rounds on national sports-talk radio shows, Harbaugh and his staff prepare every week for each game as if it’s a title game.
Meanwhile, Franklin is coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons and needs more balance from his offense and a healthier defensive corps. Franklin also needs a marquee win against a team such as Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State.
Michigan is on course to reclaim its spot among college football’s juggernauts while many wonder what direction the Nittany Lions will go in. But the focus isn’t on the past for these two programs this weekend — it’s on the Big Ten opener in a stacked East Division. Penn State could earn a signature win this weekend, or Michigan could earn its first win in pursuit of a division title.
Rachel Lenzi’s prediction: Michigan 35, Penn State 14
Brandon Justice’s prediction: Michigan 56, Penn State 14