Penn State Needs To Get Back On Track Against Michigan

In what has become a bit of a rivalry, Penn State will face the Michigan Wolverines under the lights of Beaver Stadium on national television tomorrow with kickoff set for 5 p.m. The teams have faced each other 16 times with Michigan leading the series 10-6. The last time they played was in 2010 with Penn State winning 41-31.

If Penn State wants to avoid starting the Big Ten conference schedule 0-2, the team will need to put up a similar number of points. The Wolverines will be able to push around a weak Penn State defense. Dual-threat quarterback Devin Gardner is as dangerous as they come and he’ll be able to do damage all game long.

The matchup hinges on the Nittany Lions’ ability to slow down Gardner and the Wolverines offense as much as possible in order to allow Christian Hackenberg to do as much as he can against a mediocre Michigan pass defense. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch are arguably one of the best running back trios in the nation, but the Wolverines are allowing just 90.4 rushing yards per game. It would be great to see the three-headed monster put an end to that trend, but don’t count on it.

I don’t like to make guarantees, mostly because I’ve seen how badly they’ve worked out for Rex Ryan, but it’s just about a sure thing that Michigan will put up a lot of points. Can Hackenberg and his receiving corps do enough to out-score Michigan? Can the running backs stay strong against a tough Michigan front seven? Can John Butler’s defense find a way to counter the Wolverines’ pragmatic offensive attack?

I wouldn’t count on it, but we’ll find out for sure tomorrow evening. In the meantime, let’s take look at some Michigan players to keep your eye on.

Devin Gardner #98 — While Gardner doesn’t perfectly fit the definition of a dual-threat quarterback because his running ability is superior to his passing ability, he remains dangerous. So far this season, Gardner has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns with eight interceptions. He’s added 318 rushing yards on just 56 attempts — that’s 5.7 yards per attempt — with another six touchdowns. Penn State’s weak secondary will make Gardner look like a better passer than he is.

Fitzgerald Toussaint #28 — Michigan’s starting running back has 397 yards on 96 carries with seven touchdowns. He’s a deadly combo with Gardner and the two play off each other quite well. Having a good running back like Toussaint to line up behind a very mobile quarterback is a scary situation for opposing defenses.

Jeremy Gallon #21 — A senior wide receiver, Gallon is climbing up the Michigan record books and is a Biletnikoff candidate this season. Gallon has caught 24 passes for 367 yards and four touchdowns this season. That’s nine more catches than Michigan’s No. 2 receiver, Devin Funchess, and 17 more than anyone else. Gallon isn’t exceptionally sized at 5-foot-8 and 187 pounds, but he gets the job done and will be a handful for Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams to try and contain on Saturday.

Desmond Morgan #48 — This junior linebacker, measuring at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, is wreaking havoc on the Michigan defensive line this year. Morgan has racked up 34 tackles (2.5 for a loss) with an interception and two pass breakups.

Blake Countess #18 — Countess is a sophomore cornerback from Maryland. He’s extremely athletic and is showing up all over the stat sheet this season, grabbing four interceptions in Michigan’s five games. Countess will likely be lined up against Allen Robinson often on Saturday. He has a tough challenge ahead of him, but if anyone can slow down Robinson, it’s Countess.

Some things to watch for from the Nittany Lions:

Christian Hackenberg — He seems to show up on this list every week, but until Hackenberg can play consistently good football he will be a question mark heading into each game. Hackenberg struggled against Kent State despite a shutout 34-0 victory two games ago, and don’t let his three-touchdown turnover-less performance against Indiana fool you. He was bad in that game. Michigan doesn’t have a good pass defense by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s no guarantee that Hackenberg will take advantage of that.

The three-headed monster — Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch seem to pop up in this section every week too, but they continue to prove me wrong when I question their ability to gain yards against tough defensive lines. Let’s see if they can do it again Saturday against a very strong Michigan front seven.

Bill O’Brien — If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about O’Brien this season, it’s that he isn’t the perfect coach he appeared to be for most of last season. His play-calling and decision-making is questionable at times; he has been the first to admit that. If Penn State is going to beat the Wolverines, it starts with O’Brien and his ability to implement a strong offensive game plan.

This is what it’s all about, folks: a primetime football game under the lights of Beaver Stadium against a tough conference opponent in Michigan.

By the Numbers: Penn State is 0-2 when allowing 30+ points this season. Either the defense has to step up big time or the offense has to put up 40+ points if Penn State wants a win.

Blast from the Past:  In a primetime matchup in October of 2010, the Nittany Lions came out on top 41-31. Evan Royster ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the game with Matt McGloin adding another 250 yards and a score of his own.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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