7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Penn State -9.5, Over/Under: 44.5
A huge Big Ten clash is on tap tonight with MAJOR College Football Playoff implications, as the Nineteenth-Ranked Michigan Wolverines travel to Beaver Stadium to battle the Second-Ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. After a perfect 4-0 start to the campaign, Michigan’s (5-1, 2-1 in Big Ten) CFP hopes have been potentially derailed after a disappointing, turnover-laden, 14-10 defeat at home to then unranked Michigan State in what appeared to be a monsoon, followed by a less than inspiring 27-20 victory at Indiana, in which the visitors needed Overtime to put away another unranked opponent. Needless to say, the Wolverines are in dire need of something to boost their confidence, for with a loss tonight you can all but write them out of the Big Ten Championship Game, and by extension any chance of being selected by the Playoff Committee. However, with meetings with Penn State and Ohio State remaining, and both opponents currently ranked in the Top-Ten, all is not lost for Jim Harbaugh and his charges, who with victories over their Eastern Division brethren can inject themselves back into the Playoff Discussion. The lingering issue though is one that appears to be a bit more serious than it was when initially diagnosed, which is the loss of Starting Quarterback Wilton Speight (54.3%, 145.3 Y/G, 7.2 Y/A, 3 TD, 2 INT), who fractured three vertebrae in his back during a victory at Purdue nearly a month ago, and in all likelihood will miss the remainder of the season as a result. The Senior has been Harbaugh’s preferred choice under Center since arriving in Ann Arbor back in 2015, with his injury placing the Offense in flux ever since. Replacing him is Fifth-Year Senior John O’Korn (54.9%, 140.8 Y/G, 6.9 Y/A, 1 TD, 4 INT), a former Transfer from Houston, who has been with the program since Harbaugh’s arrival as well. While certainly as versed in the system as anyone on the roster, the results simply haven’t been there with O’Korn piloting the Offense; over the past two outings, Michigan has averaged just 20.5 Points on 314.5 Total Yards, a steep decline from the 31.5 Points and 407.3 Total Yards they had posted throughout the previous four contests in which Speight had started. Simply put, O’Korn needs to play better, particularly when you consider that his team’s chances of getting into the Playoff hinge on their performance over the next six weeks; despite playing well in relief of Speight in the victory over Purdue (18-of-26, 270 YDS, TD, INT), the Backup has left little to be excited about after the cumulative stat line that he put together against the likes of the Spartans and Hoosiers, completing just 26-of-55 Passes (47.3%) for 256 Yards, zero Touchdowns and three Interceptions. Furthermore, Harbaugh and Co. don’t need him to necessarily sling the ball all over the field, for with a Running Game and a Defense like the Wolverines possess, playing complementary football is oftentimes playing successful football. The three-headed monster of Karan Higdon (70 CAR, 401 YDS, 5 TD), Ty Isaac (68 CAR, 403 YDS, 1 TD), and Chris Evans (67 CAR, 252 YDS, 2 TD) is capable of overwhelming many an opponent, with Higdon trampling Indiana for a career-high 200 Yards on twenty-five Carries, including the game-winning 25-Yard Touchdown Run that eventually won them the game. Despite losing seven starters from last year’s highly-regarded unit, Michigan hasn’t appeared to lose much of a step at all, relegating the opposition to just 14.7 Points (8th Overall) on an FBS-Best 223.8 Total Yards per Game, including 138.0 versus the pass and another 85.8 against the run, while no opponent has been able to muster anywhere close to 300 Total Yards, let alone 200 Passing Yards. Pressure is the name of the game here, folks, for the Defense has racked up an impressive 45.5 Tackles for Loss and 20.0 Sacks, while forcing eight Fumbles, with the likes of Devin Bush (48 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 5.0 SK, 5 PD) and Chase Winovich (36 TKL, 7.5 TF, 5.0 SK, 1 FF) wrecking havoc in the Backfield. They’ll surely be put to the test against one of the most explosive offenses in not just the Big Ten, but the entire country, though these guys fared rather well against them the last time they met; in last year’s 49-10 drubbing at Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Defense manhandled the visiting side, relinquishing a scant 191 Total Yards and twelve First Downs, while registering six Sacks and a pair of Turnovers.
Meanwhile, Saturday Night’s contest at Beaver Stadium will be about two things for Penn State (6-0, 3-0 in Big Ten): making a statement and gaining revenge. While one may not think that James Franklin’s charges are in need of a statement-like victory, a quick look at their Resume’ would suggest otherwise, with their miraculous, come-from-behind victory at Iowa (21-19) serving as the only proverbial pelt on their wall. None of their previous six opponents have been ranked, while hardly forming an imposing group in sporting a mediocre 19-18 record (.514), with all but two of those affairs contested in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium. Now however, begins a significant step-up in competition, as the Nittany Lions embark on the most crucial part of their schedule, facing No. 19 Michigan, followed by trips to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State in successive weeks, made all the more important with each program calling the Big Ten East Division their home. Simply put, any Playoff aspirations this team has will be secured or dissolved in the following three weeks. With all that said, these guys have handled their business as expected to this point, on the strength of an explosive Offense coupled with the stingiest scoring Defense in the country (9.0 Points per Game). Trace McSorely (67.0%, 266.2 Y/G, 8.2 Y/A, 13 TD, 4 INT, 72 CAR, 178 YDS, 4 TD) and Saquon Barkley (102 CAR, 649 YDS, 6 TD, 29 REC, 394 YDS, 2 TD) have picked up where they left off a year ago, working their magic to startling effect, leading a unit that has averaged 39.7 Points per Game (16th Overall) on 456.2 Total Yards, including 291.5 through the air and another 165.0 on the ground. McSorely has really rounded out his game in second season as the Starting Quarterback, with the Junior completing a much higher percentage of his throws (67.0%, up from 57.9%), while exhibiting more sound decision-making, instead of leaning too heavily on the big plays that became his hallmark in 2016. As we mentioned earlier, Barkley has been arguably the most dangerous weapon in the country, with his ability to shred opponents as both a Rusher and Receiver raising his NFL Profile to lofty heights. One might even argue that the Junior Tailback has accounted for TOO MUCH of the Nittany Lions’ Offense (he’s also their leading Receiver), owning 1,060 of his team’s 2,737 Yards, which in other words equates to 38.7% of their Attack. Oh, and did we mention that Franklin has also utilized him as a Kick Returner as well? Needless to say, these two kids will be coming into this battle with Michigan with quite the chip on their shoulders, as they look to pay back the team that absolutely embarrassed them a year ago, ironically kicking off their recent run of success. Back on September 24th, 2016, it was a day to remember for all the wrong reasons, as McSorely turned in arguably his worst performance on 16-of-27 Passing for 121 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception, while getting sacked six times, and Barkley, despite racking up 36 Total Yards on twenty touches, had to fight for everything he earned and was ultimately kept out of the End Zone. As embarrassing as it was, that loss served to galvanize the team, which has been on a torrid run ever since, winning fifteen of their last sixteen outings, with their only blemish being the epically entertaining 52-49 loss to USC in last January’s Rose Bowl. If Penn State truly believes themselves to be the championship caliber team that the rest of the country has professed tem to be, then this is the kind of game they need to win, particularly given Michigan’s recent struggles offensively at Quarterback, and the fact that Wolverines have literally owned them of late; the denizens of Happy Valley have dropped three in a row to their Big Ten neighbors by an average margin of 18.7 Points, and haven’t defeated them since 2013.