Preview: Michigan vs. Penn State

Preview: Michigan vs. Penn State

November 27, 2020
Jahan Dotson (image via The Morning Call)

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Michigan trimmed its running back rotation a little last week, finding its most efficient running back: Hassan Haskins. Haskins notched 25 carries for 109 yards (in three overtimes), the most carries for any single back since Zach Charbonnet’s 33 attempts against Army in 2019. Even so, Michigan is #102 in rushing (122.8 yards/game) and #69 in yards per attempt (4.21). Rumor has it that Michigan’s starting offensive tackles may return from injury this week, which might fortify a running game that was supposed to be solid, though maybe not great. Blake Corum has the second most carries despite averaging 3.0, -1.5, 0.7, and 2.3 yards per carry over the past four weeks. Penn State is #39 in rush defense (138.6 yards allowed/game) and #34 in yards per carry allowed (3.63). Last week Iowa ran for 4 touchdowns, but at just 3.8 yards per rush. Sophomore defensive end Jayson Oweh (6’5″, 252) leads the team with 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, matched in tackles by junior linebacker Ellis Brooks (6’1″, 233) and in tackles for loss by senior defensive end Shaka Toney (6’3″, 252). The Nittany Lions are down star linebacker Micah Parsons, but they still have a fair amount of talent in the front seven. Also, keep an eye on #97 P.J. Mustipher, a 6’4″, 300 lb. defensive tackle who doesn’t rack up a lot of stats, but messes things up in the middle. Especially if it’s the revamped Michigan line and not the group that began the year, he could cause some real problems up front.
Advantage: Penn State

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Michigan is #29 in passing offense (278 yards/game) and #64 in passer rating. “Starter” Joe Milton is #8 in the conference in passer rating (57.2% completions, 4 TD, 4 INT), but it would be surprising if “backup” Cade McNamara (67.4% completions, 5 TD, 0 INT) doesn’t get the nod after leading Michigan to a comeback victory against Rutgers. If McNamara qualified, he would be the #2 quarterback in the conference in passer rating behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields. The receivers are led by Ronnie Bell (22 catches, 361 yards, 1 TD), while Cornelius Johnson (13 catches, 221 yards, 3 TD) has emerged as a solid target, too. Penn State is #47 in pass defense (221.6 yards allowed/game) and #93 in passer rating defense. Toney leads the team with 4 sacks, and the team overall is #56 in sacks per game (2.4). They’re similar to Michigan in that they have good players in the front seven, but players on the back end haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’re #97 in passes defended (14) and #90 in interceptions (2). As bad as PSU’s 0-5 record sounds, unless Michigan improves up front (by getting Jalen Mayfield and/or Ryan Hayes back), there are going to be guys in McNamara’s face and around his feet.
Advantage: Penn State

Michigan is #63 in rush defense (163.8 yards allowed/game) and #46 in yards allowed per carry (3.94). I thought Rutgers would do a little better running the ball last week, but their only real successes came when the QB decided to run. They held a respectable running back, Isaih Pacheco, to 43 yards on 15 carries. Michigan was down three front seven players last week (defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, plus middle linebacker Cam McGrone), and while Hutchinson won’t be back, it’s unclear whether the other two will play. Walk-on Adam Shibley did a good job in McGrone’s stead, but he doesn’t have the same upside, particularly as a blitzer. Michigan is led in tackles by weakside linebacker Josh Ross (41) and safety Brad Hawkins (39), and Ross seemed to play better last week than he did earlier in the season. Penn State is #85 in rush offense (139 yards/game) and #104 in yards per carry (3.44). Sophomore running back Devyn Ford (5’11”, 198) gets the bulk of the carries, but he averages just 3.73 yards and has just 2 touchdowns this season. Quarterbacks Sean Clifford (6’2″, 217) and Will Levis (6’3″, 222) are both capable runners, but they average 2.84 and 2.74 yards per carry, so they’re not game breakers. The offensive line is largely ineffective, except left tackle Rasheed Walker (6’5″, 310). I don’t think Michigan will shut down this running game, but I do think they can hold down the big plays.
Advantage: Michigan

Michigan is #103 in the country, allowing 274 yards per game, but they’re a slightly more respectable #78 in passer rating defense. The Wolverines are #96 in sacks and tied for #71 in passes defended. Players who set their career passing records against Michigan this season: Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi, Rutgers’s Noah Vedral, and Indiana’s Michael Penix (note: Penix quickly set a new career record last week against Ohio State). It’s been an ugly season at all three levels, with no pass rush, poor coverage by linebackers, and inexplicable play in the defensive backfield. Linebacker Josh Ross had an interception in week one, and safety Dax Hill made a pick on a bit of a last-ditch chuck by Vedral last week, and that’s it when it comes to forcing turnovers through the air. Meanwhile, cornerback Gemon Green has 8 pass breakups, partly because he’s been targeted a lot, but also partly because he’s Michigan’s most talented corner. Penn State is #28 in passing offense (279 yards/game) and #82 in passer rating. Clifford has all 11 touchdowns and all 8 interceptions, and I expect him to play. Whether it’s him or Levis, both have similar per-play numbers: completion percentage is 57.2% to 57.4% and yards per attempt is 7.0 to 6.9. The star receiver has been junior Jahan Dotson (5’11”, 182) with 31 catches for 527 yards (17.0 yards/catch) and 6 touchdowns, but star tight end Pat Freiermuth is out for the season. The only other notable producer in the passing game is freshman wideout Parker Washington (21 catches, 256 yards, 3 TD), a 5’10”, 205-pounder. The Nittany Lions are tied for #122 in the country, allowing 4 sacks per game. If the Wolverines had their traditional pass rush, I would feel better about this matchup, but the current group of guys can’t get to the quarterback. I would expect Dax Hill to follow around Dotson as much as possible. I do not feel like Penn State has a very effective passing game, so this should be an advantage for Michigan . . . but the numbers don’t lie for the likes of Lombardi, Penix, and Vedral.
Advantage: Penn State


  • Penn State players offered by Michigan: LB Ellis Brooks, RB Noah Cain, OL Jimmy Christ, DT Josh Culpepper, LB Lance Dixon, WR Jahan Dotson, DT Dvon Ellies, OL Olu Fashanu, RB Devyn Ford, OL Will Fries, DT Fred Hansard, DB Daequan Hardy, DT Aeneas Hawkins, RB Caziah Holmes, DE Adisa Isaac, S Enzo Jennings, CB Donovan Johnson, TE Theo Johnson, TE Zack Kuntz, OL Michael Menet, DE Bryce Mostella, DT P.J. Mustipher, DE Jayson Oweh, LB Brandon Smith, OL C.J. Thorpe, S Lamont Wade
  • Penn State players from the State of Michigan: S Enzo Jennings, CB Donovan Johnson, DE Bryce Mostella
  • Penn State CB Joey Porter, Jr. is the son of former Pittsburgh Steelers OLB Joey Porter


  • On October 19, 2019, Penn State beat Michigan by a score of 28-21
  • Penn State receiver K.J. Hamler caught 6 passes for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns
  • Penn State QB Sean Clifford completed 14/25 passes for 182 yards and 3 touchdowns, adding 1 touchdown on the ground
  • QB Shea Patterson completed 24/41 passes for 276 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception
  • RB Zach Charbonnet ran 15 times for 81 yards and 2 touchdowns


  • Penn State 31, Michigan 24

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