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Penn State-Michigan: Five things to watch in the ‘White Out’

The Wolverines' turnovers (13, including nine lost fumbles) and the NIttany Lions' penalties (20 in the last three games) could play a significant role in the game.

Purdue defenders can't stop Penn State running back Noah Cain (21), who finished with 105 yards on 12 carries, on Oct. 5.
Purdue defenders can't stop Penn State running back Noah Cain (21), who finished with 105 yards on 12 carries, on Oct. 5.Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

The seventh-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions will host No. 16 Michigan on Saturday night in their annual “White Out” game.

Here are five things to watch.

Michigan fumble-itis

The Wolverines’ struggles on offense have been exacerbated by turnovers. They have fumbled the ball 17 times and have lost nine of them, the latter total being exceeded by only one team in FBS. Quarterback Shea Patterson has lost four fumbles and has thrown three interceptions.

Some of the mistakes can be attributed to the Wolverines’ continuing to adjust to the new spread offense installed by coordinator Josh Gattis, a former Penn State assistant. But the turnovers disrupt the offensive rhythm, and opponents have capitalized with 36 points off the mistakes.

The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, have had success in sudden-change situations, scoring eight times — seven touchdowns (including a pick-six by John Reid) and a field goal — off their nine takeaways. They could have more opportunities Saturday night, especially if the “whiteout” noise affects Michigan’s ability to communicate.

Penn State penalties

After nine penalties in their first three games, the NIttany Lions have been flagged for 20 in their last three. That included the eight assessed in last week’s game at Iowa, where holding penalties negated a pair of touchdowns on the same drive.

And they’re not messing around with false-start or delay-of-game miscues. The 20 penalties have cost the Lions 210 yards, or more than 10 yards per penalty. Like with turnovers, penalties at crucial times could be costly against an opponent such as Michigan.

Is Noah Cain the man?

Freshman Noah Cain distinguished himself as Penn State’s fourth-quarter back last week, scoring what turned out to be the decisive touchdown and literally running out the final 2:31. The performance, his second straight 100-yard game, might have won him the job as No. 1 back, but head coach James Franklin continues to proceed cautiously.

“We felt like [our four-minute offense] was going to be something that was good for Noah and his style of running, and it did show up,” Franklin said this week. “But we’re rotating our backs, as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, and really all of them are doing some nice things.”

Michigan’s aggressive pass defense

The Wolverines’ defensive backs play more press coverage than any of Penn State’s previous opponents, and the challenge will be for the two Lions’ speed receivers — 5-foot-9, 176-pound KJ Hamler and 5-11, 175-pound Jahan Dotson — to get smoothly off the line of scrimmage.

Dotson said one way his team prepared for that type of coverage was to get stronger in the weight room. He also said new receivers coach Gerad Parker “has given us the tools” to deal with it.

Lavert Hill, an All-Big Ten cornerback who leads Michigan with two interceptions, did not play last week against Illinois, and his status is uncertain for Saturday.

Recognizing Gattis’ offense

Gattis spent six years with Franklin — two at Vanderbilt, four at Penn State — before leaving after the 2017 season to become offensive coordinator at Alabama. He surely took bits and pieces from Franklin, former Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban in creating an offense for Michigan.

And the attack does look a bit familiar to the Nittany Lions.

“There are certain things that Michigan does in the run game that’s pretty similar to our offense, as well as in the pass game,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “Obviously, we’ve got to study the tape and see how they’re trying to attack you, but having some similarities is pretty helpful.”

Michigan at Penn State

Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

TV/radio: 6ABC; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 6-0, 3-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 7 in AP poll; Michigan, 5-1, 3-1, ranked No. 16.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 51-21; 75-36 overall). Michigan, Jim Harbaugh (fifth season, 43-15; 145-61-1 overall).

Series: Michigan leads, 14-8, winning last year in Ann Arbor, 42-7. The last three games in the series have been decided by an average of 34.3 points, with the home team taking all three.