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5 keys for No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 16 Michigan tonight

Five things to look for as No. 7 Penn State hosts No. 16 Michigan in a huge white out game with major implications for both programs.

No. 1: In search of offense

Both these teams have big questions marks on offense, so whichever squad can move the ball consistently should win.

For Penn State, the key is to throw the ball down the field trying to pick up chunk plays to set up scores.

For Michigan, the key is committing to running the ball, see if the Lions can stop it and try to be patient.

That’s Plan A for each side. But finding offensive consistency likely will depend more on Plan B and even Plan C.

The Nittany Lions must be able to run the ball. As has been pointed out all week, the offense just looks different with more Noah Cain in the game and less of the tailback-by-committee rotation. Penn State can’t have a bunch of empty possessions simply because it’s someone else’s turn to be in the game and run the ball.

Furthermore, PSU’s receivers must get open. That’s been a problem at times against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, which always have excellent athletes in the secondary and run good defensive schemes.

The Wolverines’ defense will do whatever it can to take away KJ Hamler, so it could be up to Justin Shorter, Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth to pick up the slack.

Sean Clifford had happy feet and looked nervous in the pocket at times last week against Iowa, especially early, so he will have to be settled down and on point throwing the ball.

Penn State is strong against the run, so if Michigan struggles on the ground, quarterback Shea Patterson will need to have a big game. But what would that mean? Will Jim Harbaugh be aggressive and let Patterson throw the ball around trying to make big plays?

History says no. But if Harbaugh wants to win this game, he’d better change his conservative stripes and take some chances, which often is the only way to beat an outstanding defense.

No. 2: Down and dirty

Defense very well could rule the night in this one. Both teams are excellent defensively, and as pointed out above, both have their issues with offensive consistency.

The game plan for Michigan will be to take away the deep throws and force Penn State to methodically drive the field. The Lions had trouble with that last week against Iowa. If PSU can move the chains with runs and short throws, it will open things up for Clifford to throw the ball deep.

Penn State’s defensive game plan will be to load up against the run and force Patterson to win the game with his arm. It’s doubtful he can do that on the road against the Lions’ defense.

PSU made a lot of mistakes in the secondary against Iowa, particularly senior John Reid, who had a tough night. Those things need to get cleaned up.

Penn State gave up 286 yards passing to Iowa’s Nate Stanley, but the Hawkeyes scored only 12 points. The Lions’ bend-but-don’t-break style could be on display again tonight, with Michigan moving the ball but having to settle for field goals.

Tackling is always big for a defense when it plays Michigan’s strong running game. Penn State is an excellent tackling team, so that shouldn’t be an issue.

The Lions do an excellent job rotating players in and out on the front seven, so that everyone is fresh come the fourth quarter. Michigan is the kind of team that hopes to wear down a defense with its run game, but it’s difficult to do that against PSU because of the depth.

No. 3: Coaching

decisions

James Franklin by and large lets his coaches oversee their units and do what they think is best with schemes and playcalling.

Jim Harbaugh interferes with his offense when he should stay the heck out of the way and let his playmakers make plays.

That has been and continues to be a big problem for Michigan, and Wolverine faithful are getting tired of it.

New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis should have a good understanding of how to attack PSU’s defense, having served on the staff for several years and being good friends with defensive coordinator Brent Pry. If Harbaugh leaves Gattis alone and lets him attack the Lions’ defense the best way he sees fit, it would significantly help Michigan’s cause.

No. 4: White out

wonders

It truly is an incredible scene, one of the most amazing in all of sports.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking with 110,000 fans — 99% wearing white — and the atmosphere absolutely makes a huge difference in these white out games.

Penn State is the better team, and with the incredible home-field advantage, it’s just tough to see the Lions losing this game.

No. 5: Players to watch

Penn State: The receivers, collectively, need to have a big night. As previously pointed out, the wideouts often have struggled against Michigan’s defensive backs, but they have to run good routes and get separation so Sean Clifford can have some comfortable throws.

Michigan: QB Shea Patterson: Michigan will not run over this PSU defense, so the quarterback must play well and be given the chance to make big plays by Gattis and, more importantly, Harbaugh.

Prediction: The 9-point line seems too high, but PSU is a solid choice to win. Penn State earns a win, 23-17.

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