Michigan will travel to Happy Valley on Saturday for its 17th meeting against Penn State. So, in preparation of the game, Michigan beat writer Chantel Jennings and Penn State beat writer Josh Moyer sat down to discuss four key questions surrounding the contest.
What's the X-factor for the Michigan-PSU game?
Jennings: Whether Michigan can get control early. If this is close going into the fourth quarter, I don’t like Michigan’s chances. It should come as no surprise -- especially with a young QB like Christian Hackenberg -- that Penn State gets better as the game goes on. The Nittany Lions have scored 21 first-quarter points but 65 fourth-quarter points. The crowd will be behind Hackenberg and his offense so if it comes down to a fourth-quarter stand from the Michigan D I just don’t see it happening.
Moyer: Turnovers. I know, I know -- they're an X-factor in every game. But bear with me here. Neither of these teams often finds itself on the right side of the turnover battle -- both are tied for 97th this season in turnover margin -- and they've both managed to win in spite of that. And it's a toss-up Saturday to see who'll take advantage. Michigan is turning the ball over, on average, a little bit more than twice a game. Only 17 FBS teams are worse. On the flip side, only a dozen teams in the FBS have forced fewer turnovers than Penn State. Something has to give. For either team to finish even plus one would be big.
Which player is the most important?
Jennings: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. This could be a high-scoring game depending on how Michigan’s defense handles Hackenberg and whether Gardner is himself or just a shell of himself. If the Gardner who showed up against Akron and UConn is on the one who takes the field this Saturday, things could get ugly fast. Penn State isn’t the friendliest of environments, and we’ve seen how mistakes pile up on the road. The offense hinges on his performance and if Michigan wants to win, Gardner needs to take care of the ball and run this offense like he can.
Moyer: Gardner. The opponent's passing games have dictated a lot for PSU. Just look at their two losses: Blake Bortles was the key in the UCF-PSU game, and Indiana's passing game posted 336 yards. Gardner might not be a better passer than Bortles, but he's easily the best athlete under center that PSU has faced. If he escapes the pocket, Penn State is in trouble. If Gardner plays like he did against Akron and UConn, Penn State wins. If he plays like he did against Notre Dame and Minnesota, Penn State loses.
What's the matchup to watch?
Jennings: Penn State’s secondary against wide receiver Devin Funchess. After the Minnesota game, teams are going to key in on Funchess. Physically, I can’t really see many defensive backs in the country having the inherent advantage in this battle, but I think it’ll be very interesting to see how the sophomore handles the added pressure and coverage.
Moyer: DT DaQuan Jones vs. U-M interior. The 318-pound tackle is Penn State's most dominant defensive player, and the Wolverines' interior isn't exactly a strength. Graham Glasgow made his first start at center last week, and Jones has the ability to take over a game. He's second -- yes, second -- on the team in tackles with 30, and he leads PSU with two sacks and 6.5 stops in the backfield. If Penn State's defensive line gets a good push Saturday, or U-M's tailbacks have difficulty running up the middle, it'll almost certainly be due to Jones.
Which team has the advantage?
Jennings: If all things were equal and it just came down to each team playing to its potential, I’d say Michigan would have the advantage. However, the Wolverines have not played well on the road and Beaver Stadium is going to provide a huge challenge. Communication issues are going to pop up and considering this will be just the second start for this group as a unit on the offensive line -- and just the second start with Glasgow and Gardner together -- I have to believe mistakes will be made that will heavily favor Penn State.
Moyer: Michigan. The main issue surrounding the Wolverines seems to be which Gardner will show up. The main issue surrounding Penn State is ... well ... there's a lot more than one issue. That's the problem. There has been no No. 2 receiving threat, the running game has been inconsistent, the linebackers have looked lost at times, and the secondary remains a weakness. To me, that seems to be too many question marks against a ranked team. Inconsistent or not, the Wolverines have made the plays when they've needed to. The same cannot be said of Penn State. Could Penn State pull this one out? Absolutely. But it would most certainly be an upset.