Monday Measure: Is this the worst Penn State vs. Michigan game ever?

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
·7 min read

In an ordinary year, the Big Ten East matchup between Penn State and Michigan would be one of the most-watched games of the weekend. That might still be the case in 2020, but for far more sinister reasons — to watch the train wreck.

The Nittany Lions and Wolverines are two of the Big Ten’s most prominent programs. They have routinely played in New Year’s Six bowl games during the tenures of James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh. In 2020, however, both programs are in states of tumult.

Michigan is 2-3 on the year, having just snapped a three-game losing streak by squeaking past Rutgers 48-42 in triple-overtime. Penn State, meanwhile, is off to a miserable 0-5 start — an unimaginable turn of events for a program that had gone 42-11 over its previous four seasons.

The two programs have met 23 times, dating back to when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor marks the first time the two historic programs will meet when both teams have a losing record. In five previous meetings — 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008 and 2014 — there was one team with a losing record. But there has never been a Penn State-Michigan game like the one we’ll see on Saturday.

To further contextualize the 2020 misery in Ann Arbor and State College, the teams had a combined six losses ahead of their previous four matchups. They have combined for eight in this year alone with just two wins, both by Michigan.

Michigan’s win over Rutgers wasn’t pretty. Michigan had beaten Rutgers by an average of 43.8 points over their last five meetings, but the Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead and led 27-21 entering the fourth quarter before the Wolverines staged a comeback behind backup quarterback Cade McNamara. Rutgers even had a chance to win the game with a 45-yard field goal in overtime, but the game-winning try sailed wide to keep Michigan’s hopes alive.

It was a much-needed win for the Wolverines, but the rallying effort needed to beat a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder like Rutgers is not going to make Michigan fans feel better about the trajectory of the program under Harbaugh.

And if things are bad for Michigan, they are way, way worse at Penn State. The Nittany Lions opened the season ranked in the top 10. Now PSU is 0-5 for the first time in program history, dating back to 1887.

Saturday’s 41-21 loss to Iowa was especially ugly. Penn State started Will Levis, who came in on relief of Sean Clifford after Clifford had two ugly turnovers early in the loss to Nebraska. Levis was largely ineffective, and PSU fell behind 31-7. Clifford then came back in the lineup and threw touchdown passes on his first two attempts. From there, though, the turnovers popped back up. Clifford threw two interceptions, including one that was returned 71 yards for a touchdown by Daviyon Nixon, a 305-pound defensive lineman, to put the final nail in the coffin for another deflating loss for Franklin’s program.

It’s hard to see how Penn State, a team that had College Football Playoff aspirations when the season began, will be motivated heading into Michigan Stadium. At least Michigan has a bit of juice with McNamara at quarterback. There’s no silver lining for Penn State. It’s just a bad team.

- Sam Cooper

The state of the Big 12 title race

It’s still a four-team race for the two spots in the Big 12 championship game.

Iowa State has a one-game lead in the loss column over Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State ahead of a huge game between the Cyclones and Longhorns on Friday.

If Iowa State beats Texas, then the Longhorns are pretty much eliminated from championship contention. Texas would have losses to both Oklahoma — currently half-game ahead of everyone else in second at 5-2 — and Iowa State. That wouldn’t work out well for UT in any tie-breaking scenarios.

If Texas wins, things can get really interesting down the stretch. While Texas has that loss to Oklahoma, the Longhorns would have wins over both Iowa State and Oklahoma State. That means that Texas could get into the Big 12 title game with Oklahoma if there’s a three- or four-way tie atop the standings at 7-2.

Here’s how a Big 12 tiebreaker would work with three or more teams. The conference goes to a round-robin format among the tied teams to figure out who the top two would be. If there’s a four-way tie with a Texas win over ISU, the records against each other are as follows:

Iowa State: 1-2 (win over OU, losses to OSU and UT)

Oklahoma: 2-1 (wins over UT and OSU, loss to ISU)

Oklahoma State: 1-2 (win over ISU, losses to OU and UT)

Texas: 2-1 (wins over OSU and ISU, loss to OU)

In this case, it pays to have losses to teams outside the top four like Oklahoma (Kansas State) and Texas (TCU) have. They would get to play each other for the Big 12 title.

The chances for a three-way tie for a title game spot are higher because that tie could happen for either first or second place. If Iowa State wins on Saturday and beats West Virginia to end the regular season, the Cyclones are in the title game.

In that scenario, any three-way tie would be for second place. And since Oklahoma has beaten both Texas and Oklahoma State, it would advance to the championship game for a chance for revenge on Iowa State.

That’s why Oklahoma State’s loss to OU on Saturday night was so pivotal to the Cowboys’ championship hopes. While OSU is still technically alive for the Big 12 title, it needs a lot of help to get to the title game because it’s on the wrong end of the two most likely group tiebreaker scenarios even though it can say it has the best losses of the top four teams.

- Nick Bromberg

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) carries for a touchdown, between Oklahoma State's Kolby Harvell-Peel (31) and Tanner McCalister (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Spencer Rattler threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in Oklahoma's 41-13 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Ohio State’s pass defense woes

Do we need to worry about the Ohio State pass defense?

The Buckeyes allowed Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. to throw for 491 yards and five touchdowns in OSU’s 42-35 win on Saturday. That’s the most passing yards Ohio State has given up to an opponent since Purdue threw for 497 all the way back in 1985. Simply put, teams don’t often throw for over 450 yards against OSU and why coach Ryan Day said after the game that Penix’s yardage total was “way too much.”

None of Ohio State’s first three opponents had thrown for more than 300 yards this season. So Penix’s yardage performance is an outlier. But his completion percentage is an outlier too. And that’s not good news for Ohio State either.

Penix was just 27-of-51 passing and completed 53 percent of his passes. It was the first time all season that an OSU opponent had completed less than 60 percent of his passes.

Ohio State is allowing opponents to complete 63 percent of their passes through the first four games of the season. A year ago, opposing QBs completed just over 50 percent of their passes.

So what’s the deal? On Saturday, DB Shaun Wade said that blown coverages helped lead to Penix’s lofty yardage total.

“We had a couple blown coverages," Wade said (via Buckeye Grove). "Sometimes they just make a play, that’s part of playing football. Receivers are going to make plays, DBs are going to make plays.”

Thankfully for Ohio State, there’s plenty of time to get its pass defense issues fixed before another game against good competition. Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan remain on the Buckeyes’ regular-season schedule and none of those teams can claim to boast a high-powered passing offense.

But if the woes continue until the postseason, watch out. Alabama and Clemson could carve the Buckeyes up.

- Nick Bromberg

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