Evan: I only see two scenarios where that isn’t true:
LSU beats Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Alabama, LSU win out.
- Notre Dame
Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC Championship, Notre Dame, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, win out.
- Notre Dame
I can’t see any scenario where Oklahoma, West Virginia, or Washington State jumps Michigan, so other than those two scenarios (neither of which are particularly likely), yes I agree.
Alex: Well scenario one could be ruled out on Saturday because it’s the biggest week of the season in terms of huge matchups, with LSU taking on Alabama. To condense those scenarios above, Michigan just wants Alabama to win out. Which seems like a pretty safe assumption at this point in time.
Evan: About half of the playoff contenders could be eliminated this weekend. Every team still in contention either has their biggest or second biggest remaining game (not including conference championships). It should be a wild weekend… Speaking of which, the buildup to this Michigan v Penn State matchup sure has made its mark on social media. Before we get into the Xs and Os, what are your thoughts on how comments from the coaching staff and players will factor into the game?
Alex: I’m not really sure. We know that this Michigan team has been playing with a particular fire against teams they lost to a year ago, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Penn State is also on that list and so I would expect the Wolverines to be ready and raring to go from the opening kickoff. As for Penn State? I’m not entirely sure.
Evan: If you believe Don Brown, then this team has all the motivation they need for Saturday already. Jim Harbaugh teams don’t traditionally do well after bye weeks, so I’m most interested in how they start the game offensively, and how the coaching staff comes out of halftime.
Alex: The nice thing about the bye week is that it’s hard to overlook this game. There was reason to be concerned about Michigan overlooking the Nittany Lions given that it’s right after the Michigan State game. But with a bye week to think and prepare and draft a game-plan for the contest, I think it’s hard to believe that the Wolverines will be unprepared.
Evan: I agree that the game plan should be good. With a bye week, I worry more about the team coming out flat, which was a problem early in the year but has become less and less of an issue. This team just feels motivated in a different way, so I think they’ll come out strong. Anyways, how do you feel about Penn State’s offense that torched Michigan last year? They don’t have Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, or Joe Moorhead, and Trace McSorley might have an injured knee, but they still can’t be overlooked.
Alex: The biggest loss is Joe Moorhead. He was an absolute offensive wizard who saved James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State. While Saquon Barkley’s emergence was an important factor, Penn State’s offense went from 62nd the year before Moorehead arrived in S&P+ to 18th his first season to 10th last year. But they have also lost some weapons. Miles Sanders is very good but he’s not Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki was an infuriatingly good tight end target. DaeSean Hamilton is an underrated loss too. After reviewing game film from the matchup between the two teams a year ago, Hamilton was the second most potent offensive weapon in that game behind Barkley. He repeatedly toasted Tyree Kinnel in that game and was a menace all night long. But yes, McSorley’s potential injury is important because of his mobility. He hurt Michigan with that a year ago, abusing the Wolverines when they over compensated on Barkley for three rushing TD’s.
Evan: One thing I’ll be watching for is how often Michigan gets Penn State in 2nd and 3rd and longs and forces them to go to the air. McSorley hasn’t thrown more than 36 passes in a game this season, and he’s had at least as many carries as completions in half of Penn State’s games. If those two trends hold, that probably means Penn State has success on the ground and keeps the game close. However, I expect him to have to throw the ball a lot more. If he is healthy, the way he can beat Don Brown’s defense is by being patient in the pocket while the line absorbs the Michigan pass rush and then taking off on designed or un-designed QB draw plays. But that’s what makes his health a huge factor.
If Michigan gets an early lead and takes the run game out of the picture for Penn State, McSorley is not a good “stand in the pocket and throw it QB”. He’s struggled to complete passes (52.8% completions), with interceptions (3:1 TD to interception ratio), and yard per attempt (7.0). All those numbers are his career lows since he became the starter. How much does that have to do with Moorhead, Barkley, and his top two targets being gone? Probably a lot. But Penn State isn’t going to beat Michigan on the power of Trace McSorley’s arm, and that’s before even bringing up that Michigan has the best pass defense in the nation.
Alex: I think that’s a fair assessment. Let’s flip it around then. What do you make of how Michigan’s offense matches up with the Penn State defense? I think that’s the less talked about aspect of the game, yet just as important.
Evan: Penn State is 64th in opponent yards per game, but 34th in opponent points per game. Michigan will move the ball, but the key will be finishing drives. That was a problem against Notre Dame week 1 and again against Michigan State. Both those games were on the road though, and the Wolverines have been notably better at finishing drives during home games. Still, the Bill Belichick/Green Bay Packers style bend-don’t break defense is tough to play against. Both teams will look to have long drives and wear down the opposing defenses. Red zone efficiency is the x-factor in this game.
Alex: Finishing drives will absolutely be critical. I also think that getting an early lead and allowing Michigan to get the crowd behind the home team is important in this game. I’m looking to see if the Wolverines can impose their will on the ground. That’s been the winning strategy over the last two games, especially in the second half. Penn State is only 54th against the run in S&P+ so there is an opportunity for Michigan to bully their way to victory. We’ve seen the game plan against MSU and Wisconsin: take the lead, let your defense do the work, and salt the game away on the ground.
Shall we do predictions?
Evan: We shall. What’s the season series at? I propose the leader goes first from here on out.
Alex: If I remember correctly, it’s at 5-3 me.
Evan: Sounds right. The floor is yours then. I need to win at least 3/4 to level the series going into the North Carolina basketball game… which is where our stakes lie. If it’s tied we can cross that bridge then.
Alex: I already mentioned I’m watching for the Michigan running game versus the PSU defense. Score prediction is Michigan 24-14. MVP is Karan Higdon.
Evan: And I already mentioned I’m watching for red zone efficiency. I’ll go Michigan 27 - Penn State 13. I think Michigan goes into halftime with a two score lead and just grinds the clock down in the second half. I’ll go with Khaleke Hudson as MVP… He will have a critical role in stopping McSorley, and I think he’s up for the task.