Michigan Wolverines Football: Keys to the Game - Michigan vs. Penn State
football Edit

Keys To The Game: Penn State at Michigan Wolverines Football

Michigan was a two-point favorite per most sportsbooks as of late Wednesday afternoon in its home game with Penn State, a battle of two of the Big Ten’s more disappointing teams.

Granted, both the Wolverines and Nittany Lions have been crippled by opt-outs and injuries — tight end Pat Freiermuth is PSU’s latest casualty, apparently done for the season, while U-M redshirt sophomore starting linebacker Cameron McGrone and senior starting safety Brad Hawkins left the Rutgers game with what appeared to be serious injuries — but Penn State is 0-5, Michigan 2-3.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara
Michigan Wolverines redshirt freshman quarterback Cade McNamara (left) will likely start against Penn State Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

Nobody would have predicted that before the season, but that’s the reality. Iowa crushed the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley last week, 41-21, and looked more physical from the start. U-M survived a triple-overtime affair at Rutgers but seemed to find its quarterback in redshirt freshman Cade McNamara, a gunslinger who oozes confidence.

There are cautionary tales here, however. Opt-out transfer Dylan McCaffrey looked good in his first taste of action at Notre Dame a few years back, and before him, John O’Korn shined at Purdue and looked like the gamer the Wolverines needed before coming back to Earth. McNamara will face much tougher tests than the Scarlet Knights, potentially starting this weekend (if PSU shows up to play).

RELATED: Michigan Football Second Look: U-M vs. Rutgers Thoughts, More

RELATED: Zak Zinter's 'Impressive' Ascent To Freshman Starter On Michigan's O-Line

We’ll see how he responds. Teams haven’t moved the ball up and down the field at will on the Nittany Lions, and U-M has had its issues up front with injuries.

Here’s what the Wolverines need to do to be in position to beat Penn State Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor:

Michigan Football Key: Make Penn State One-Dimensional On Offense — And Make The Quarterbacks Earn Their Yardage

Penn State is averaging an anemic 3.4 yards rushing per attempt, hurt by the losses of running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain. Devyn Ford leads the team with 209 yards and is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. He’s not among the top four running backs U-M has seen this year, and the Wolverines have fared well slowing the run against teams with suspect offensive lines (Michigan State and Rutgers in particular, but Indiana didn’t gash them on the ground, either).

So that’s where it starts. PSU has a quarterback problem, but backup Will Levis can move a bit (61 yards on 18 carries at Nebraska), and U-M has made heroes of bad signal-callers this year. MSU’s Rocky Lombardi and Rutgers’ Noah Vedral both had career passing days.

The defense needs to keep the quarterbacks in the pocket and not allow the ball to go over their heads and get behind them, something they’ve not done well this year. If that means being a bit less aggressive and employing the Iowa strategy, for example, then so be it — easy to ask of defensive coordinator Don Brown, but not as simple to expect him to comply.

PSU has put up around 500 yards against both Indiana and Nebraska. This offense is capable of moving the ball.

Michigan Football Key: Have More Success On Early Downs On Offense

Michigan is not a good third-down team this year, due in large part to facing a mile or two on too many of them. Only one of the Wolverines’ 11 third-down plays in a loss to Wisconsin was less than six yards to gain, and they converted — but they were just 3 for 11 overall.

These stats were exactly the same a week prior against Indiana, and 7-for-17 and 6-for-17 showings against Michigan State and Rutgers, respectively, indicate a significant issue. Only five of the 34 third-down situations in those games were five yards to go or less.

Subsequently, and not surprisingly, Michigan ranks 93rd nationally in third-down conversions at 36.51 percent.

It got better under McNamara, who avoided third down altogether on a couple of scoring drives. He got the ball out quickly and avoided sacks that starter and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton couldn’t. But the line will need to be better against a Penn State team that, at 0-5 and banged up, still has more talent than Rutgers.

Michigan Football Key: Don't Leave Points On The Field

Penn State’s defense is athletic, and even in losses it’s done a good job limiting yardage. Indiana’s potent offense couldn’t break 200 total yards until overtime in the opener, though it still put up 36 points total. Nebraska was short of 300 yards and even Iowa needed only 361 yards to get its 41 points.

Big plays, turnovers and breakdowns have been PSU’s undoing, a sign of a team lacking focus. U-M has missed on some long balls this year (particularly Milton) that should have been easy scores, and the field goal kickers are 2 for 8 this year.

So much for the “best kicking combination in the country” that U-M was thought to have.

This is a game in which field goals could be (and we’ll predict, “will be”) very important. Fifth-year senior Quinn Nordin needs to start producing.

The Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Penn State

Michigan has been without its top seven players, arguably, for long stretches of the season, including all of its projected NFL talent. Corner Ambry Thomas, receiver Nico Collins, tackle Jalen Mayfield, ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, and more recently McGrone and Hawkins have all missed time, the former two opting out.

Those listening closely to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit might have caught his response to colleague Rece Davis when Davis said, “Michigan is more talented.”

“Mmmm … maybe a little,” Herbstreit said.

U-M has some areas to shore up in recruiting, and at the positions in which they appear to be quite talented — offensive line, for example — they’re extremely young and haven’t had a lot of time to jell. Some of the players on this team also need to invest more passion.

Penn State, meanwhile, has started 0-5 for the first time in school history, but Michigan could bring out the best in the Nittany Lions. They’ve got nothing to lose, and while a victory over U-M won’t turn their season around — it’s over — beating a “name” program can at least ease the sting.

Expect a down-to-the-wire affair, but a lot depends on McNamara being more than a flash in the pan.


• Talk about this article inside The Fort

• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel

• Listen and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes

• Learn more about our print and digital publication, The Wolverine

• Sign up for our daily newsletter and breaking news alerts

• Follow us on Twitter: @TheWolverineMag, @Balas_Wolverine, @EJHolland_TW, @AustinFox42, @JB_ Wolverine, Clayton Sayfie and @DrewCHallett

• Like us on Facebook