View from the other side: Michigan at Penn State
Michigan at Penn State
► Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
► TV/radio: ABC/950 AM
► Records: No. 16 Michigan is 5-1, 3-1 Big Ten; No. 7 Penn State is 6-0, 3-0
► Line: Penn State by 9
View from the other side
Ben Jones covers Penn State football (as well as hockey and basketball) for StateCollege.com. He breaks down the Nittany Lions for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday night’s Michigan-Penn State game at Beaver Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ben_Jones88.
► Question: Sean Clifford promised his teammates there would be no drop-off at quarterback this season. Are you surprised by how well he’s playing, considering he had only thrown seven passes before this season?
► Jones: Yes and no. Clifford is a very confident guy who prepares really really well, so I don't think it's a surprise to see him play well, but I sort of assumed there would be more of a learning curve and more bumps in the road. That's not to say he hasn't had his growing pains, but by and large he has gotten better each week from the standpoint of growth and development. It was not that long ago that Clifford was expected to be taking a backseat to Tommy Stevens right about now, but their respective seasons sort of speak for themselves. We'll learn a lot about where Clifford is as a quarterback this weekend and beyond. He already passed his first test against Iowa, but will have to be sharper earlier than he was in Iowa City.
► Question: Michigan has a running-back-by-committee thing going on, and Penn State seems to be doing something similar. Can you explain how Penn State is using its running backs this season?
► Jones: The short version is Penn State has four running backs, all of them are talented and early in the season none of them stood out so all of them played. The longer version is that Noah Cain has emerged as the best of the bunch, but Penn State is still sticking to playing different guys in a somewhat predetermined order (albeit not the same order each week.) The problem James Franklin faces here is that Devyn Ford and Journey Brown are too good not to play, even if Noah Cain is the best option most downs. Ricky Slade has not been great this year, but I might chalk that up just a little bit to how he's used. I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan sees more Cain than anyone else has, but it would be a pretty big change if the other three guys aren't getting snaps. The only thing set in stone by Franklin is that Cain is their four-minute, fourth-quarter back. The rest is TBD each week. For better or worse.
► Question: KJ Hamler is a local product (Orchard Lake St. Mary's) and has had a solid season so far. How impactful do you expect he will be Saturday night?
► Jones: It's certainly possible for Penn State to win without KJ Hamler being part of that equation, but it's hard to imagine. Hamler might be the fastest guy on the field, if he isn't he'll certainly be faster than most everyone on the field. The trick for Penn State is getting him the ball, and that has happened with fairly mixed results. Hamler is a threat to return one, although he has yet to do so this season, mostly because teams don't give him much to work with. Hamler's biggest threat is what happens after the catch, but he is not necessarily as good as a receptions guy as he is playmaker. If I'm Michigan I'm making someone else beat me and not giving Hamler any space. Easier said than done, but it'll make your life a lot easier if you aren't getting into a track meet with him.
► Question: The Wolverines’ defense has definitely taken a step up since the loss at Wisconsin, but had the lapse in focus last week in the third quarter. Has Clifford faced much pressure and how do you think he will fare if Michigan has the type of performance it had against Iowa?
► Jones: Clifford hasn't had to run for his life nearly as much as Trace McSorley did, but when he has I would give him a decent score on both the ability to escape and the ability to get rid of the ball. I think his weakness can sometimes be how fast he decides to make that call. Early against Iowa he held on to the ball too long and it cost him, but he turned it around the rest of the way. Life will obviously be harder for Penn State if Clifford is running around a lot; it'll just be a question of what he decides to do in those moments. So far he has made the right call, but he also has had the luxury of a lead or being early in the game. Only time will tell what happens if Penn State is down late and the pressure is on.
► Question: Penn State is No. 4 nationally in total defense. Is there anything about Josh Gattis’ new offense at Michigan that concerns the Nittany Lions?
► Jones: I'm probably in a similar boat as many Michigan fans when it comes to not being overly impressed by Michigan's consistency on offense this year, but I think the mistake you can make is assuming that's the result of talent. Michigan recruits well, has good athletes and will be ready for this game, so all of those things should concern Penn State's defense. I think if Michigan wants to have luck, chunk plays down the field have been a bit of a weakness for Penn State, but that (to the best of my knowledge) seems to run counter to what Michigan has done so far. If Penn State is getting into single-man coverage situations it has to win those battles, and probably does 70% of the time. The weird thing about this defense is that it gives up yards, especially through the air, but doesn't give up a lot of points. Sooner or later both of those things won't be true. Oh, and screen passes have killed Penn State the past two seasons for unknown reasons, so no need to make it difficult if something simple works. On the flip side, if Penn State can get in the backfield, a lot of these problems go away very quickly.
Players to watch
► Sean Clifford, QB: The redshirt sophomore quarterback has 1,560 passing yards and 13 passing touchdowns, and has rushed for 252 yards and scored twice this season on the ground — he is one of three FBS quarterbacks with at least 1,500 yards passing, 13 passing touchdowns, 250 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns so far. The others are Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman. Clifford leads the Big Ten in total offense per game averaging 302 yards and ranks 11th nationally. He had a big game against Maryland, gaining the third-most yards of total offense in a game in school history with 452 yards (398 pass, 54 rushing). He currently is second on the team with 252 yards rushing.
► KJ Hamler, WR: The sophomore Pontiac native played for Orchard Lake St. Mary’s before finishing his prep career at IMG Academy. He has at least one reception in all 19 games of his career and currently ranks 23rd on Penn State’s career receiving yards list with 1,209 yards. He is tied for 18th all-time in career touchdown receptions with 10. Hamler is tied for the Big Ten lead and 23rd nationally with five receiving touchdowns, and ranks fifth in the Big Ten and 42nd nationally with 75.8 yards receiving per game. He’s also ninth in the Big Ten averaging 17.5 yards per reception.
► Yetur Gross-Matos, DE: The junior defensive end is a big reason why Penn State ranks third nationally in tackles for loss. Gross-Matos leads the Nittany Lions with 8.5 tackles for loss to rank eighth in the Big Ten and 21st nationally. He also is tied for the team’s sacks lead with Shaka Toney — each has 5.5 sacks to rank fourth in the Big Ten. Last season he became the 11th Penn State player in program history to record 20 tackles for loss in a season.
Facts and figures
► Still among the few: Only a dozen FBS teams remain undefeated this season, and Penn State is one of them. The Nittany Lions are 6-0 for the first time since 2017, and for the record, they moved to 7-0 then after beating Michigan during a white-out game.
► A white-out tradition: In 2004 the Penn State student section had the first white out, but Saturday night’s game against Michigan will be the 12th full-stadium white out. The Nittany Lions are 5-6 when Beaver Stadium crowd wears white, and they are 2-1 against Michigan. The Wolverines will tie Ohio State with their fourth appearance in a full-stadium white out.
► Under the lights: Penn State already has played three night games this season, while Michigan has played only one, the season opener against Middle Tennessee State. The Wolverines will play Penn State in a night game Saturday and then the following week will face Notre Dame in a night game at Michigan Stadium. Penn State played a night game at Iowa last week and won, 17-12. The Nittany Lions have lost only twice their last 13 games under the lights — both times to Ohio State.