Michigan vs. Penn State Prediction: Who Wins This Big 10 Showdown in Happy Valley?

Matt Hayes
Mon, November 8, 12:06 PM EST

Michigan vs. Penn State Prediction: Who Wins This Big 10 Showdown in Happy Valley?

Michigan vs Penn State - Out of the Tunnel

Michigan vs. Penn State odds

This is the biggest game of Jim Harbaugh’s coaching career at Michigan. Unless that is, the Wolverines win.

Then the Ohio State game in Ann Arbor on Nov. 27 becomes the biggest game of his Michigan career.

Welcome to the highly scrutinized and wildly unsettling world of Jim Harbaugh, where every week is a referendum on when Michigan will be Michigan again.

This time it’s another big road game at Penn State, which is out of the Big Ten East Division race but still has enough juice to sidetrack Michigan’s flickering hopes. The Wolverines have played one significant game this season – and blew an 18-point lead on the road to Michigan State and lost.

This season will be judged – fairly or not – on Michigan making it to The Game against Ohio State with a chance to win the East and play in its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game.

Penn State began the season with Big Ten title hopes, but quickly became a prime example of what happens when you don’t have a healthy quarterback.

An upper-body injury to QB Sean Clifford cost the Lions a win at Iowa, and again a week later against Illinois. Clifford didn’t play in the second half against Iowa and played hurt against Illinois.

Penn State’s three-game losing streak – including a 9-point loss at Ohio State – finally ended last week with a win over Maryland. Clifford still isn’t completely healthy, but he’s gutting out games and the Lions’ stout defense is dictating tempo.

Michigan Preview - When Michigan has the ball

There’s a philosophic battle within the Michigan offense, and it centers around the most important position on the field.

Cade McNamara is a solid starter (9 TD, 2 INT), a quarterback who can make plays within the confines of a run-based system while throwing off play action. But if Michigan can’t run the ball and McNamara must throw – and the defense knows he must throw – there are limitations in both velocity and ability.

Then there’s freshman J.J. McCarthy, an elite dual-threat whose big-play ability is tampered only by the reality that he’ll make mistakes and he has been careless at times with ball security. And it’s too late for Michigan to be concerned about ball security.

So McNamara is the guy, and McCarthy will run designed sets. But that also limits the offense. For now, it hasn’t been a debilitating issue because Michigan can run the ball with Hassan Haskins (829 yards, 11 TD) and Blake Corum (778 yards, 10 TD).

But when the Wolverines need to throw without play fakes (see: the end of the Michigan State game), there are issues in the passing game. Penn State’s active defense will crowd the line of scrimmage and force McNamara to win the game.

It won’t be a surprising move; it’s what Michigan sees week after week. They’ve handled the overloaded boxes in most games, but a road game at Penn State isn’t most games.

The Lions’ defense is aggressive in pass rush and affecting the quarterback in obvious passing situations. Michigan must run the ball efficiently.

Penn State Preview - When Penn State has the ball

It’s all about Clifford. The offense hasn’t been remotely close to its potential when Clifford has missed time.

When Clifford is healthy – he’s close now – the offense is efficient and the passing game is dangerous with intermediate and deep throws. When he’s not, the running game – which has struggled all season – becomes an anchor around the offense.

When Penn State can’t run the ball, it can’t throw it efficiently. That’s how you lose a nine-overtime game to one of the worst teams in the Big Ten (Illinois). That’s how you lose a game to Iowa when the offense did whatever it wanted for a half against the Hawkeyes – then couldn’t string together first downs with Clifford injured and out.

When Clifford is healthy, the offense is more dangerous because Jahan Dotson comes into play. He’s the most dynamic wideout in the Big Ten, and leads the league in receptions (71), and is second in touchdowns (9) and yards per game (103.6).

He’s a big play waiting to happen, and his ability to run after the catch and his deep speed stresses defenses and forces them to adjust and move off run support. That’s the only way the Penn State run game has had a modicum of success this season.

The Lions are averaging a pitiful 107 yards per game rushing. The middle three of the line struggles to get a push on isolation runs, and the big play runs typically come from blown defensive assignments. It’s not that RBs Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee don’t have ability, there’s no room to find a crease.

Michigan will do what everyone does against Penn State: stop the run, then tee off on Clifford in obvious pass situations. Can Clifford find Dotson enough to make them pay?

Michigan vs. Penn State Prediction - The Bottom Line

There’s too much uncertainty on the Penn State offense and has been all season. As long as Michigan protects the ball and deals with the wild environment (see: eliminate drive-killing false start penalties), they can find enough offense to get out of Happy Valley and move toward the next biggest game of Harbaugh’s coaching career.

Michigan vs. Penn State Pick

Prediction: Michigan, 20-16

Pick: Michigan +1 @ -110

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