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Scouting the Michigan Wolverines

Can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan finally deliver a November to remember? Their road runs through Penn State.

Who faces more pressure Saturday? Penn State or Michigan? It's a fascinating question, one each fan base can argue in its direction.

Michigan, however, might be on a hotter seat, as coach Jim Harbaugh seeks to bring the team to its first Big Ten championship game. To get there, the Wolverines have to beat Penn State on Saturday.

Trouble is, Harbaugh is 1-2 at Beaver Stadium, beating only the Lions' 2015 team that still was playing sanctioned football. So is this the year?

To help answer that, we asked Brandon Brown, publisher of Wolverine Digest, to scout not only Michigan on Saturday but also for its future. Here we go.

November has been a rough month for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh. What's different about this year?

Can I say nothing? I’m not a believer when it comes to Jim Harbaugh, and I think this November is going to look a lot like the ones we’ve already seen. This game coming up against Penn State feels like a toss-up at this point, but Harbaugh is 0-for the world in these kinds of games on the road.

If Michigan can beat the Nittany Lions, it’ll be the first time Harbaugh wins a game as an underdog. They need it more than ever, so the motivation is there. However at the end of the month, I still see U-M falling short against Ohio State, so in the grand scheme, this November ends up being a rerun.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is 1-2 vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is 1-2 vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

What grade(s) would you give to the quarterback so far, particularly Cade McNamara as the starter?

I'd give Cade McNamara about a B- on the year. He hasn’t been very bad but also hasn’t been very good. He’s only thrown it a lot against Michigan State, which the Wolverines lost. He was good on that day, but not quite good enough. He has only one turnover on the season and rarely takes sacks. If Michigan can run the ball well, he’s much more effective, which is typically the case, but it’s especially true for McNamara.

As for the freshman JJ McCarthy, I honestly can’t even give him a grade. He’s been used so weirdly and thrown into games at such bizarre times that it’s unfair to give him a grade. He’s also been used primarily as a runner, which makes no sense since he’s such a talented thrower. He’s a better athlete than McNamara, has a better arm than McNamara and takes more big-play chances yet rarely plays. Go figure.

Penn State's offense this season has been defined by the passing game and, particularly, quarterback Sean Clifford's health. What will the Lions face in Michigan's pass defense?

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The pass rush is nasty, and the secondary is a little suspect. Between edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, Penn State may be facing two future first-round picks. Hutchinson has been Pro Football Focus’ top-graded edge rusher all season, but it’s actually Ojabo who is leading the team in sacks with eight. Both are long, athletic and extremely versatile, so Clifford and the Penn State offensive line will have their hands full with them all day long.

As for the secondary, it’s just OK. The Wolverines are playing much more zone than last year and have a dynamic player in Daxton Hill, who moves all over the place. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him locked up on Jahan Dotson for most of the afternoon. But all three, true corners who play — Vincent Gray, DJ Turner and Gemon Green — are just not elite. They’re good, but I don’t think any of them would be described as dynamic. They’ve been serviceable, but Penn State seems to have the athletes and a star in Dotson who could get loose here and there.

Who are the two or three difference-makers for Michigan in this game?

The previously mentioned Hutchinson and Ojabo are definitely at the top of the scouting report when it comes to Michigan’s defense. On offense, it depends on who is available. Freshman wide receiver Andrel Anthony blew up against Michigan State but left last week’s game due to injury. Similarly, sophomore running Blake Corum, who has been outstanding this season, also left last week’s game with an injury and might not be available this weekend.

Finally, junior tight end Erick All was much more involved two and three weeks ago but did not play last Saturday against Indiana. If all or any of those guys are out, focus squarely on running back Hassan Haskins, who carried the ball 27 times for 168 yards and a score against the Hoosiers.

Michigan wins this game because...

They’re healthy and motivated. If Michigan gets all or some of its injured players back, they should be equipped enough to beat Penn State talent-wise. If not, things could get pretty dicey. It’s also worth noting that Michigan has to win this game. The game against Michigan State a couple of weeks ago was also a must-win, and they fell short.

Harbaugh and his staff have got to show up in this one and get a win. They’re still firmly in the running for a Big Ten title, and the chances of making that game hinge on this weekend’s result.

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