View from the other side: Michigan vs. Penn State
Penn State at Michigan
Kickoff: 3:45 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 7-1, 5-0 Big Ten; Penn State 6-2, 3-2
Line: Michigan by 10 1/2
View from the other side
Ben Jones covers Penn State athletics as sports editor at StateCollege.com. He breaks down the Nittany Lions for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Penn State game at Michigan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @Ben_Jones88
►Question: Quarterback Trace McSorley had a “lower-leg injury” last week against Iowa but was able to return. What is his status this week and will the injury limit him in any way?
►Jones: Penn State doesn't talk about injuries at all so there is nothing official, but Trace sounded fine on a conference call and seems optimistic about where he is health-wise. I'm sure he won't be 100 percent, but I also don't know if you'll be able to notice. It looked like a season-ending injury when it happened and then 45 minutes later he's running untouched for a 51-yard touchdown. It isn't hyperbole to say Trace is tougher than just about everyone you will ever meet. Unless his leg falls off he's playing this weekend, and even then he might have found a way.
►Question: Jim Harbaugh said this week that outside of Trace McSorley as a player Michigan really respects, Penn State’s defensive line is the “best” Michigan has played this year. is he right about that?
►Jones: That's probably more true than it was a the start of the year. Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney have found their stride the past two weeks at DE and continue to look like stars in the making. Shareef Miller is as physical as ever on the outside as well. Penn State has had some depth issues on the interior beyond Kevin Givens, but it hasn't been unusual to see a DE slide inside and with the return of once projected starter Shane Simmons, there are a lot of then. Overall this group is really athletic and is playing its best football of the year right now. How that stacks up against everyone else remains to be seen, but coupled with fairly consistent blitz packages this group has been effective as of late.
►Question: Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown says he wakes up every day thinking about the beatdown his defense took at Penn State last season. The defensive players say they haven’t forgotten how the Nittany Lions tried to score at the end of the game. Knowing what you know about Michigan’s defense, how will Penn State’s offense fare?
►Jones: This is pretty much where the game will be decided. Penn State has been able to put up points, but it hasn't been consistent each drive. For the most part, teams haven't made them pay for it. I think Penn State's defense can keep this game a game, but how long that remains the case will have a lot to do with how fast Penn State's offense is getting off the field. So far this season drops and mistakes have killed otherwise promising drives and (Penn State) has gotten away with it against worse teams. This offense can move the ball, but it has to get out of its own way first. Obviously Michigan's defense is elite and that doesn't favor Penn State, but if I'm James Franklin I'm more worried about self-inflicted wounds than I am worried about Michigan. You can't beat your opponent if you're beating yourself. I tend to lean toward this being a long day for the offense, but I generally don't count Trace out of anything he has his hands on.
►Question: How different is the Penn State offense without Saquon Barkley?
►Jones: That "wow" moment is gone, but Penn State really misses Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki more as a collective more than just Barkley. Miles Sanders has been great at running back this year and while he doesn't have Barkley's skill set, he's getting yards between the tackles. In turn the offense isn't that much different in terms of what it looks like, but it hasn't relied on those 40-yard plays down the field as much. At its best this offense is a homage to 2016 and 2017 but a lot more methodical in its process. This isn't all because Barkley is gone, but it certainly makes a difference not having him out there.
►Question: The Nittany Lions have had some special teams issues this season. Last week against Iowa, there were a couple of botched punt snaps that led to safeties and a fake field goal that went for a touchdown. How bad have special teams been?
►Answer: KJ Hamler (Pontiac) is a fantastic return man in space but other than that this group has done something wrong in a different area each week. The good news, Jake Pinegar made all three kicks of 40-plus yards last week and seems to be rounding into form. And in theory Blake Gillikin should be one of the better punters in America, but he has been in a bit of a slump. On paper this group should be a lot better than it has been, so it's a coin toss when it comes to quality any given weekend.
Players to watch
►Yehur Gross-Matos, DE: The sophomore leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss and is tied for 16th nationally (1.6 per game) and has 19 tackles, including six tackles for loss and four sacks in the last two weeks after making 17 tackles, 6.5 TFLs and two sacks the previous six weeks. In the Nittany Lions’ win over Iowa last week, Gross-Matos had a team-high nine tackles, including seven solo, four tackles for loss and two sacks — the second-straight game he’s had two sacks — and was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week. He is fourth in the Big Ten in sacks with five.
►Trace McSorley, QB: The senior is a mere three yards shy of 9,000 career passing yards and is two touchdowns away from 100 career touchdowns for which he’s been responsible. McSorley also is 121 yards shy of the Penn State career quarterback rushing record of 1,637 yards held by Michael Robinson (2002-05). He has Penn State career records for passing yards (8,997), 300-yard passing games (10), 200-yard passing games (26), rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27), passing touchdowns (71), and total offense (10,513). McSorley also currently holds Penn State’s career passing efficiency (147.1) record. This season, McSorley is responsible for 21 of Penn State’s 42 offensive touchdowns this season, running for nine and throwing for 12. He is second in the Big Ten and 18th nationally with 15.8 points responsible for per game.
►Miles Sanders, RB: Sanders, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior, is averaging 104.3 rushing yards a game, which ranks 19th nationally and third in the Big Ten. He is 12th nationally in yards after contact (537). Sanders had 62 yards rushing against Iowa, to raise his career total to 1,209, moving into 37th place on Penn State’s career list. Sanders’ 162 yards rushing against Michigan State made him the 45th Nittany Lion with at least 1,000 rushing yards and also was the third 100-yard rushing game of his career, and first since a 200-yard effort earlier this season against Illinois. Sanders had a career-long 78-yard rush in the first quarter against Michigan State. His previous long was a 57-yard run at Rutgers in 2016.
Facts and figures
►Big-time opponents: Penn State and Michigan are meeting for the 10th time as ranked teams and for the first time as ranked teams in back-to-back seasons since 1999. The last two games have been decided by an average of 34 points with the home team prevailing each time — the Wolverines won 49-10 in 2016 and the Nittany Lions prevailed, 42-13, last year.
►Slim margins: The Nittany Lions’ last four games have been decided by six points or fewer. They fell to Ohio State and Michigan State, but have beaten Indiana and Iowa the last two weeks. The last time the Nittany Lions played four consecutive games decided by six points or less was 1894 (at Navy, 6-6 on Nov. 10; vs. Bucknell, 12-6 on Nov. 17; at Washington & Jefferson, 6-0 on Nov. 23; at Oberlin, 9-6 on Nov. 24). Penn State has played five games this season decided by seven points or fewer and are 3-2 in those games. The Nittany Lions earned wins over Appalachian State (45-38, OT), Indiana (33-28) and Iowa (30-24), while falling to Ohio State (26-27) and Michigan State (17-21).
►Winners: Michigan has an NCAA-best 950 victories and is No. 1 in all-time winning percentage at .730. Penn State is No. 8 in all-time victories (884) and No. 10 in winning percentage (.688). Both programs are among the most-ranked teams in NCAA history according to the Associated Press poll. Michigan has spent 34 weeks ranked No. 1 (11th all-time) and Penn State has been No. 1 in the AP poll 21 times (tied for 15th all-time). Penn State has been ranked 623 weeks in the AP top-25, ninth all-time, while Michigan’s 842 weeks in the rankings is No. 2.