Woe bowl: Michigan, Penn State meet in midst of troubled 2020 seasons

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

This wasn’t the type of matchup anyone imagined before the season, but here they are – Michigan, struggling to climb out of a hole and reach .500, and Penn State, looking for a bit of respectability after a program-worst 0-5 start.

Michigan is 2-3 after a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at Rutgers last weekend and appears to have found some rhythm in the offense with quarterback Cade McNamara taking over as starter and Hassan Haskins getting in the groove at running back. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions have been undermined by shaky quarterback play and turnover challenges.

The teams play Saturday at Michigan Stadium, where UM is 0-2 this season. Three games remain during the abbreviated Big Ten season and there is an additional crossover game during what the Big Ten is calling “Champions Week.”

Donovan Jeter

Both have been heavily outscored in the first half this season. Penn State has been outscored 117-33 while Michigan's deficit is 100-59, including a 28-0 halftime deficit in a 49-11 loss to Wisconsin. Getting off to a fast start obviously is a goal for both teams on Saturday.

Michigan players have said since the win over Rutgers that the Wolverines’ mantra is taking it week-by-week, starting from scratch at 0-0 and looking to make it 1-0 each Saturday. They’re trying to avoid being emotionally flat as they appeared to be – and as some players admitted – during the three-game losing streak.

“The defense, we’ve got to find a way to bring our own energy whether the offense is struggling or whether they’re not struggling, whether it’s Joe (Milton) in or Cade (McNamara) is in there,” defensive lineman Donovan Jeter said this week. “We as a defense have got to find a way to bring our own energy and feed off each other.”

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But how do players find that energy?

"One, celebrating big plays with each other, hyping each other up, and when things do go sideways and things do go wrong, just coming back to the sideline, not yelling at each other, not any of that,” Jeter said. “It’s sticking together and sticking to the game plan and just keep playing hard for each other.”

It has been difficult all around for the Wolverines, not just because they were sinking during a three-game losing streak before finding a way to win at Rutgers. But they’re losing starters, too.

On defense, end Aidan Hutchinson is done for the season after an ankle injury the first series of the Indiana game, and end Kwity Paye has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury but could return to face Penn State. Starting linebacker Cam McGrone was removed from the field on a motorized cart during the Rutgers game and safety Brad Hawkins suffered a shoulder injury. The offense has been down two starting tackles the last three games, and a starting center last week.

For Penn State, which endured a major blow before the season when linebacker Micah Parsons opted out, one of its most glaring challenges has been turnovers. The Nittany Lions are 124th nationally and 13th in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They’ve given up eight interceptions, all by quarterback Sean Clifford, who has competed 57.2 percent of his attempts for 1,070 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Sean Clifford

The Nittany Lions also have lost five of six fumbles. Michigan and Penn State have only scored seven points apiece off turnovers.

“We have to protect the football on offense,” Penn State coach James Franklin told reporters this week. “That is going to be, obviously, emphasized all week long going into our Michigan game.”

Franklin has a lot to figure out on his offense, which is ranked 125th nationally in red-zone production. He has an issue at quarterback with Clifford and Will Levis, and both could play against the Wolverines. Michigan, meanwhile, is expected to start McNamara, who has given the Wolverines a spark the last two games, in place of Milton, who started the first five games.

“We’ve got two quarterbacks that are very passionate and very competitive and want to help the team win and be part of the solution,” Franklin said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sean, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Will. I expect them to play well on Saturday and help give us a chance to be successful.”

More: Detroit News scouting report: Penn State at Michigan

Penn State’s offense and defense, statistically have been solid. The Nittany Lions rank 49th nationally in offense, averaging 418.0 yards a game, while the defense is 36th, yielding an average of 360.2. Michigan’s defense, meanwhile, is 92nd, allowing an average of 437.8.

Michigan is trying to finally win a game at home, and Penn State is trying to finally win a game, period. Who imagined this?

“I think we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to beat Michigan,” Franklin said. “I think that has got to be our focus. We have to find a way to win on Saturday, obviously based on a lot of different factors. You know, there’s going to be more guys that get to play, some of that out of necessity. But it’s all about getting better today, and it’s all about what do we have to do to beat Michigan.”

Penn State at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor 

TV/radio: ABC/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 2-3, Penn State 0-5

Line: Michigan by 2