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Michigan at Penn State: Stop the run and Nittany Lions likely stop Wolverines

The Nittany Lions need to get off to a fast start and keep Michigan from controlling the game in the trenches.

Ellis Brooks (13), Arnold Ebiketie (17) and the Penn State defense will be challenged by stopping a potent Michigan run game on Saturday.
Ellis Brooks (13), Arnold Ebiketie (17) and the Penn State defense will be challenged by stopping a potent Michigan run game on Saturday.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Michigan loves the run game. The Wolverines have rushed with the football on more than 62% of their plays through nine contests and they’ve had success, ranking seventh in FBS with a 234.1-yard average and 11th in time of possession at 32 minutes, 38 seconds per game.

So the challenge Saturday for Penn State’s defense will be to try to slow down the visitors’ ground attack and get off the field on third down. It’s easier said than done.

“We know it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our group,” Nittany Lions defensive line coach John Scott Jr., said Thursday. “We’re going to have to do a great job of being physical and striking our keys and getting off blocks and our guys will practice and prepare that way.

“We’ll have our work cut out for us, but I believe the one thing that our group is showing us, we’re resilient and our guys will be ready to go on Saturday. We’ve got to do a great job of being physical up front and playing on their side of the ball.”

The Lions are likely on occasion to face a formation with six offensive linemen much like they did with Illinois, a game that is still a nightmare for their fans since they allowed 357 rushing yards in their nine-overtime loss on Oct. 23.

Michigan started six offensive linemen last week against Indiana. If the same six guys start Saturday, the Wolverines will feature a line that averages 6-foot-5½ and 315 pounds. Senior Hassan Haskins has rushed for 829 yards and 11 touchdowns but the status of his running mate, sophomore Blake Corum (775 yards, 10 TDs) is uncertain. Corum sat out last week with an injury.

Michigan is converting third downs at better than 44%. Scott believes the key is to limit the Wolverines on first and second downs and not face so many third-and-short situations defensively.

“They can’t have third and short every time either because they’re very big up front so they can lean forward and get a half-yard,” he said. “So we’ve got to do a great job of managing first and second down to where it’s not third-and-1 or third-and-2 every time.”

What to expect

  1. Faster start. Penn State’s first two possessions last week resulted in minus-11 yards on six plays. Sean Clifford threw four incompletions and the pass he did complete lost 7 yards, while a run went for a 4-yard loss. The need is glaring for the Nittany Lions to come out executing, especially since their opponent loves to control the football, leaving fewer possessions for them. “If you want to be an elite team, you’ve got to start fast,” Clifford said. “I thought that we were in spots and places where we could have made some big plays to change the game’s momentum. We didn’t exactly do that in the first half.”

  2. Blanketing Dotson. After his 11-catch, 242-yard, three-touchdown output at Maryland, Jahan Dotson must figure he’ll have many eyes on him in the Michigan secondary. He has seen special defenses before. Iowa wouldn’t let him catch anything beyond 10 yards. Ohio State held him without a target until late in the second quarter. He wound up with 11 catches anyway. There should be constant safety help on Dotson, which means the other Lions receivers, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith, need to step up and get open. Given Michigan’s pass rush, the ball often is going to be coming out of Clifford’s hand a second or two more quickly.

The other guys

  1. A great balance: The Wolverines have done an admirable job on both sides of the ball. They are one of three teams in the FBS top 25 in both total offense and total defense, and among the eight teams in the top 25 of points scored and points allowed. They have outscored their opposition by an average of 36.2-16. The Michigan secondary has been exceptionally strong under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, allowing an average of 173.4 passing yards in nine games compared to 255.5 yards per game in the COVID-shortened six-game 2020 season.

» READ MORE: Penn State's Ji’Ayir Brown leads the way in taking the football away from opponents

  1. No sacks for you: We’ve always referenced the big dudes on the Wolverines’ offensive line in the run game, but they also can protect the passer, whether it’s junior Cade McNamara or freshman J.J. McCarthy. Michigan quarterbacks have been sacked just six times in nine games, third in FBS, and opponents have tackled runners for a loss an average of twice per contest, tied for first in the nation. Haskins and Corum combined have rushed for 1,604 yards, but have lost just eight (8!) yards between them behind the line of scrimmage. Penn State averages less than two sacks and six tackles for loss per game.

Keys to the game

  1. The home crowd returns: Penn State fans may not be able to duplicate what they achieved in the 2019 White Out game against the Wolverines when they made so much noise that quarterback Shea Patterson had to call timeout before they could run their first play. The home crowd will help Saturday and they’ve had three weeks to erase the memories of the team’s awful performance against Illinois. They’re going to be needed; the Lions are looking at a 7-5 record if they can’t knock off at least one of their two remaining ranked opponents.

» READ MORE: The red-zone play of the Penn State defense has its opponents seeing red

  1. Turnovers and field goals: The Nittany Lions were plus-2 on turnovers last week and both their takeaways took place in Maryland’s red zone. On the season, they have three more takeaways than Michigan (15-12) but they also have three more turnovers (10-7). Ball security is paramount. As for the battle of the kickers, the Wolverines’ Jake Moody is 21-of-23 on field goals, missing only from 47 yards twice. Penn State’s Jordan Stout is 13-of-18 with two of his bad efforts being 23 (Wisconsin) and 40 (Illinois) yards. This game very well could come down to a pressure kick.

Prediction: Michigan 26, Penn State 20