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Penn State at Michigan: Which team can overcome its issues better?

The Nittany Lions and Wolverines each have uncertainty at quarterback, and their rushing attacks haven't been too sharp. The Lions could have success throwing against Michigan's mediocre secondary.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throwing a third-quarter touchdown pass as Iowa lineman Zach VanValkenburg gets close on Nov. 21.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throwing a third-quarter touchdown pass as Iowa lineman Zach VanValkenburg gets close on Nov. 21.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Penn State and Michigan are going through their worst seasons under their current head coaches. Still, the Big Ten wants them to play a game anyway.

The matchup featuring the No. 1 (Wolverines, 964 wins) and the No. 9 (Nittany Lions, 898) programs on college football’s all-time victory list takes place Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Each team has a long list of issues entering this game, some of which we’ll take a look at:

QB merry-go-round

Penn State coach James Franklin indicated at his weekly press conference that both Sean Clifford and Will Levis will play, but the likelihood is that Clifford will start.

Clifford, the starter for the first four games, came off the bench last week in relief of Levis and showed the inconsistency that has exasperated Nittany Nation. His first two snaps of the game resulted in touchdown passes of 28 yards to Brenton Strange and 68 yards to Jahan Dotson in the third quarter.

However, he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, including a pick-six to defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon. That marked the third straight week that a Clifford turnover (two fumbles, one interception) had been returned for a touchdown.

Levis lost two fumbles in the third quarter, leading Franklin to get out the hook.

While Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did not tip his hand this week about a starting quarterback, Cade McNamara is expected to make his first start. Joe Milton started his fifth straight game last week, but he was replaced in the second quarter by McNamara, who passed for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth in a 48-42 triple-overtime win over Rutgers.

Not-so-tasty turnovers

The numbers are horrifying. The Nittany Lions have 13 turnovers in five games and a minus-9 turnover margin, and have yielded 51 points to opponents as a result of the mistakes.

“We do a ball-security drill every day,” Franklin said. “Before becoming a head coach, I’d never been anywhere where we’d do ball-security drills every single day, not just part of practice but specific drills every single day. We also show them examples of that in games on film.”

Clifford has thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles. Levis has given the ball away three times on fumbles.

A line easily crossed

The rushing attacks of the two teams have been mediocre, with the Lions accounting for 139 yards per game and the Wolverines 123. Penn State’s total has been significantly reduced by 20 sacks, a mark that ranks in the bottom 10 in the nation, and by losing Journey Brown and Noah Cain for the season.

The Lions’ offensive line was supposed to be better this season because four starters returned. But its play has been spotty not only in pass protection but also in short-yardage situations on third and fourth down.

Michigan lost four starters on its line, and its two starting tackles are injured. The line has protected its quarterbacks well (eight sacks) and receivers Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson have averaged more than 16 yards per catch.

Defensive decline

For the past three years, the Wolverines’ defense has been one of the best in the nation, ranking third, second and 11th in total yards allowed from 2017 through 2019.

The unit has been dismal this season, however, giving up 437.8 yards per game, 91st in FBS. The secondary, which also suffered heavy losses, is 103rd in the nation in pass defense at 274 yards per game, a figure that will benefit Penn State’s passing attack if it can throw the ball to the guys in the visiting white jerseys.


We finally saw the light last week and took Penn State to lose for the first time all season. The result at the Big House will depend on Clifford’s confidence level, which quickly went from high to low from the third to the fourth quarter last week against Iowa. The defense also has to play better and keep its head in the game.

Michigan 35, Penn State 31