Feng: UM should win, but not without a struggle

Ed Feng
Special to The Detroit News
Taco Charlton pressures Christian Hackenberg during last year's game in Ann Arbor, an 18-13 Michigan victory.

Ohio State versus Michigan at the Big House in Ann Arbor. It's college football at its best, a Thanksgiving weekend showdown less than 10 days away.

But first, Michigan and Ohio State have games this weekend. The Wolverines travel to Penn State while the Buckeyes host Michigan State. If the Michigan and Ohio State both win, then "The Game" determines the winner of the Big Ten East.

While Michigan and Ohio State are both favored, one team faces much more of an upset threat. Let's dig into the details of both games.

Michigan against Penn State's offensive line

In the preseason, Penn State's hopes and dreams depended on the offensive line. If this unit could protect QB Christian Hackenberg, they had the potential to be a top 25 team because of an elite defense. If the offensive line failed to improve, their prospects looked stark.

Penn State's offensive line has improved in the run game. They have run for 5.2 yards per carry, 58th best in the nation (numbers do not include sacks).

Last season, Penn State ranked a miserable 120th out of 128 teams in yards per carry. Freshman RB Saquon Barkley deserves some credit for this improvement.

On the other hand, Penn State's offensive line still can't pass protect. They have allowed sacks on 10.4 percent of pass attempts, worse than the 8.1 percent from 2014. This failure to protect has stifled Hackenberg and the passing game.

Michigan's defense should be able to contain Penn State in both the run and pass game. The Wolverines sorely missed nose tackle Ryan Glasgow last week at Indiana. However, they'll manage without him against a weaker offensive line this week.

Jake Rudock against Penn State's defense

Michigan QB Jake Rudock has looked sharp lately, throwing for 777 yards the past two games. However, these games came against the two worst pass defenses in the Big Ten (Rutgers and Indiana).

Rudock will find it much more difficult to throw against Penn State. The Nittany Lions have allowed a nation-leading 3.98 yards per attempt, a number helped by a fierce pass rush that has sacked the QB on 12.4 percent of pass attempts.

Fortunately for Michigan, Penn State doesn't defend the run nearly as well as the pass. The Nittany Lions have allowed 5.1 yards per carry, 86th in the nation. They're probably better than that rank, but expect Michigan to test the front seven by running the ball with De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson.

Overall, my numbers predict a slim one-point road win for Michigan, which corresponds to a 53 percent win probability. This predicted margin of victory seems low, and the four points predicted by the markets is more reasonable. Still, Michigan needs to play a strong game to leave Happy Valley with the victory.

Connor Cook

Ohio State vs. Michigan State

The Buckeyes remained third in this week's College Football Playoff committee rankings. By my calculations, they have a 56 percent chance to make the playoff.

However, that number might be low. Ohio State caught a break when Michigan State QB Connor Cook hurt his throwing shoulder last week against Maryland. He'll play against Ohio State but may not be 100 percent.

Michigan State relies heavily on Cook. The Spartans can't run the ball, as their 4.3 yards per carry ranks an embarrassing 111th in the nation.

Michigan State also struggles in coverage. Despite a great pass rush, the defense has allowed 6.4 yards per attempt, 77th in the nation. A talented defensive line shows up every once in a while (2.4 yards allowed per carry against Michigan) but not every game.

Cook makes up for these deficiencies with his accurate passing down the field. Michigan State needs his arm to test a strong Ohio State secondary. It would be similar to the Michigan game in which Cook completed less than half his throws but still had a robust 7.1 yards per attempt against an excellent secondary.

To beat Ohio State, Cook must find his inner Isiah Thomas in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. Against the Lakers, Thomas sprained his ankle yet scored 25 points in the third quarter.

An average performance by Cook most likely results in an Ohio State win, as my numbers favor the Buckeyes by 11 points (79 percent win probability). If Cook has a poor game due his shoulder, then this win probability is too low.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Email Ed Feng here.