Entering the year, Michigan was earning College Football Playoff hype thanks to a new offensive coordinator, veteran quarterback, strong defensive pedigree and impressive wide receivers. Penn State, meanwhile, was looking to answer major questions at the quarterback spot, with a first-time starter taking over for a program legend, and at running back, following the departure of Miles Sanders. It was assumed they would be at least a year away from a possible push for the Big Ten title due to the youth on offense.
Midway through the season, it would seem the teams have swapped places. Though there is plenty of football left to be played, James Franklin’s squad, sitting at 6-0, appears poised to challenge Ohio State at the top of the conference. Michigan, on the other hand, got trounced by Wisconsin, barely survived Iowa at home and nearly squandered a 28-0 lead over Illinois last week. The offense has never really clicked for the Wolverines, and CBS Sports Network analyst Houston Nutt thinks the main catalyst has been turnovers.
“Just seems like the first few games it was a lot of turnovers, whether it was Shea Patterson or the tailback hanging on to the ball,” said Nutt. “Michigan, when they played the last two games against Iowa and Illinois, they have taken care of the ball better. If they do that, it gets them to the fourth quarter.”
The Wolverines rank 118th in the country in turnovers lost, having given up nine fumbles and thrown four interceptions this season. Penn State meanwhile, has been very protective of the football, coughing up just six turnovers on the year (four fumbles, two interceptions).
The turnover battle is always an indicator to watch in football, but the biggest advantage coming into the game for Penn State is their stop rate on defense. Stop rate is a measure that takes into account the percentage of opponents’ drives that end in a punt, turnover, turnover on downs or expiration of the half without allowing points. According to The Athletic’s Max Olson, Penn State ranks second in the country, with an 87.3% stop rate on 82 opponent drives this season. Furthermore, the Lions have a 47.3% three-and-out rate, meaning that nearly half of their opponents’ drives have ended in a three-and-out this season.
Fellow CBS Sports Network college football personality Brent Stover told me last week that he believes the Nittany Lions defense is a top-five unit in the country, and Nutt agrees pointing out their disruptive nature as a point that stands out.
“They get the ball back to the offense, and they get it back to them quick,” said Nutt.
When Penn State’s offense has the ball, they have torched opponents, to the tune of 42 points per game. Sean Clifford has been strong in his debut season, completing 64 percent of his passes, averaging 9.8 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The running game has been by committee to this point, though sophomore Noah Cain seemed to take over as the lead back last week against Iowa with 22 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown.
The oddsmakers have Penn State as nine-point favorites, while Bill Connelly’s SP+ projection system sees Franklin’s squad as having an eight-point advantage. Kickoff on Saturday night from Beaver Stadium between #16 Michigan and #7 Penn State is set for 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time.