3 keys to a Michigan football win vs. Penn State

·6 min read

Michigan moved up one spot in the college football playoff rankings on Tuesday evening — it now sits at No. 6.

The Wolverines have all of their goals still in front of them with a Big Ten title and a playoff spot still squarely in the picture. The path is simple, Michigan just needs to take care of business one game at a time and this week the maize and blue have to take care of the Nittany Lions.

Penn State is currently unranked in the playoff rankings, but this 6-3 team is still a formidable foe that Michigan cannot take lightly — especially with the game being on the road. PSU had lost three straight games this year to the likes of Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State — before getting a win against Maryland — but it also has a couple of quality wins under the belt as well, such as at Wisconsin and hosting Auburn in Week 3.

The Nittany Lions have won the last two contests between these two teams, but the Wolverines will look to break that streak on Saturday afternoon.

Here are three keys for Michigan to get another win on the road.


What Jim Harbaugh said about Michigan football before Penn State

Score touchdowns inside the 20

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Wash, rinse, and repeat — here we go again.

A couple of quick notes: Michigan is second in the nation with 17-made field goals in the red zone this year, and Jake Moody is tied with Kenneth Walker III with the most points scored in the Big Ten with 96 points — not great for the Wolverine offense.

The Wolverines lost a heart-breaker to Michigan State a few weeks ago due to the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone — among a few other things that didn’t go Michigan’s way. That game was on the road in a tough environment, and it will be the same way this weekend against Penn State.

The only difference is this weekend could even tougher to score in the red zone. The Nittany Lions’ defense is close to impenetrable in the red zone. PSU has only allowed 10 touchdowns out of 34 tries inside the 20-yard line this year to opposing offenses. In fact, PSU is the sixth-most efficient defense in the red zone since it only allows the opponent to score points 62% of the time.

The Nittany Lions may have a really good red-zone defense, but teams have been able to move the ball on them — PSU allows 350.8 yards-per-game which ranks it at No. 40 in the country. Michigan should be able to move the ball between the ’20s on Saturday, but the key to this game will be punching in touchdowns once it gets down there.

If Blake Corum is unable to play this week, then Hassan Haskins and Cade McNamara will need to shoulder the load once again. It will be interesting to see if Josh Gattis will try to mix it up a little more once the Wolverines get inside the red zone this week, and maybe he will get the tight ends involved even more — like against Indiana when Luke Schoonmaker got a couple of scores.

Make Sean Clifford uncomfortable in the pocket

Nov 28, 2020; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Kwity Paye (19) grabs Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Photo: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Clifford is the third-most sacked quarterback in the Big Ten this season, he averages getting sacked a little over two times per game.

Michigan has arguably the best duo in all of football with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo at the edge. In his media session, James Franklin talked about his concerns that the Michigan edge defenders may cause some issues for his team this weekend — that’s exactly what will be needed.

If Sean Clifford has time to throw the ball, and feel comfortable, then he can sling the ball with the best. Clifford has the fourth-most yards in the Big Ten with 2,371 yards, and the Nittany Lions are the 25th-best passing offense in the nation. Clifford’s favorite target is Jahan Dotson — who is the key to the offense — and he is second in the Big Ten with 932 receiving yards and nine scores.

If the Wolverines can’t create some havoc on Clifford then the Michigan defense could allow some big plays this weekend. On the flip side, if Michigan forces some errant throws by Clifford or makes the Nittany Lions try to run the ball more, it could be a great day for the maize and blue.

The PSU running game is almost irrelevant. The Nittany Lions have the 117th-ranked rushing offense since they average 107 yards per game on the ground. Noah Cain, the starting running back, only has 293 yards this season, and he is ranked 21st in the Big Ten in rushing.

This game will be largely impacted by how the Michigan defense treats Sean Clifford.

Passing game needs to step up

Photo: Isaiah Hole

While we don’t have any updates on any of the players that were injured last weekend against Indiana, we do know that the Wolverines could still be a little banged up going up against Penn State this weekend.

On the offensive side of the ball, Blake Corum got hurt on the second drive of the game — Donavon Edwards was already out due to an undisclosed injury — which meant Hassan Haskins had to take all the carries.

If Corum isn’t back or isn’t 100%, then Michigan may need to rely on the arm of Cade McNamara against the Nittany Lions — can’t run Haskins 50 times.

Penn State has the 45th-best passing defense in the nation, allowing 213.6 yards-per-game thru the air. The Nittany Lions have a better than average secondary which could be challenging for McNamara, but we have seen him attack the Spartans secondary, so we know that he is capable.

Michigan is still looking for the true No. 1 receiver to step up with the absence of Ronnie Bell, but we have seen Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson, Andrel Anthony — who got hurt last week — and Mike Sainrsitil all show glimpses of extreme talent. The Wolverines have plenty of options of attack for the Nittany Lions on Saturday, but it will be up to McNamara to get them the ball.

Not only will McNamara be asked to step up this week, but he will probably be vital for the red zone success. The Nittany Lions, like every other team, will likely shift focus on stopping the run inside the 20, so the play-action pass could become useful when that time comes.

You can watch how this game unfolds on ABC this Saturday at noon EST.