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Penn State’s third-down issues will be magnified by Michigan’s dominant defense

The Nittany Lions have been poor on third down, converting only 25 percent in the last four games. The Wolverines are one of the nation's best in stopping opponents on third down.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott is stopped by the Michigan defensive line during their game on  Oct. 20.
Michigan State running back LJ Scott is stopped by the Michigan defensive line during their game on Oct. 20.Read moreCarlos Osorio / AP

It was clear to anyone who heard or watched James Franklin's weekly teleconference Tuesday that Michigan's sturdy defense certainly has the undivided attention of the Penn State head coach.

When the Wolverines welcome the Nittany Lions to the Big House on Saturday, Michigan will display a defense that is ranked in the top 10 of FBS in several categories. Perhaps the most challenging area for the Lions offense, however, is Michigan's third-down efficiency.

The Wolverines (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) rank ninth in the nation, allowing opponents to convert just 28.7 percent of third-down opportunities. That doesn't bode well for Penn State (6-2, 3-2), which is just 15 of 60, or 25 percent, on third down in its last four games and has sunk to 35.8 percent for the season, 11th in the Big Ten.

"They're not just good in one area, they're really good in general on defense," Franklin said. "Statistically they are dominant. Obviously their time of possession has been impacted because they get off the field on third down … by being great on first and second down and creating challenging third-down situations and either getting to your quarterback or breaking the ball up.

"So that's going to be a big story line for the game … Can our defense get off the field on third down and create opportunities for our offense, and then is our offense going to be able to execute on third down and try to swing that time of possession back into more of a balanced situation?"

The third-down execution started out well. In their 4-0 start, the Lions converted almost half (24 of 49) of their third downs, but then went 6 of 31 in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.

They were 4 of 14 last week in the win over Iowa, earning three first downs on runs, including Trace McSorley's 51-yard touchdown dash. McSorley, who was sacked twice on third down, threw a 39-yard completion to K.J. Hamler for Penn State's only passing first down on a third-down play.

"That's going to be a big story line of the game," Franklin said. "But it's not just third down. It's all of it and there's not a whole lot of change in how they try to defend you. They've got a bunch of different calls and they've got a bunch of different wrinkles that they do. But for the most part you're going to have to be able to handle the pressure."

The Penn State offense has been better in the red zone, scoring on 34 of 36 opportunities from the opponent's 20 on in, including 29 touchdowns for a 80.6 percentage.

"The teams that typically are best in the red zone are the ones that are able to run the ball," Franklin said. "So I think that's probably one of the bigger differences this year, is our ability to run either with the quarterback or with the running back down there. I think we've made some plays. I think our tight end development has helped us in the red zone as well."

McSorley looks to be a go

Franklin did not comment on the injury that sidelined McSorley for most of the second quarter last week, and said, "I'm not going to talk about how it's going to affect him on Saturday," but all indications were that McSorley would play.

McSorley has been named among 20 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award.