Penn State hosts Michigan on Saturday with a chance to beat a ranked team for the third time this season.
Perhaps that would be enough to get the College Football Playoff selection committee's attention. But the Lions have a long way to go before making their 2021 CFP rankings debut. It begins with finding enough offense to beat the Wolverines.
Penn State (6-3) vs. No. 6 Michigan (8-1)
- When: Noon EST Saturday
- Where: Beaver Stadium
- TV: ABC
- Broadcast Team: Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge, Molly McGrath
- Streaming: fuboTV
- Betting Line: Michigan is a 1-point favorite, according to SI Sports Book
- Series History: Michigan leads 14-10
- Last Meeting: Penn State 27-17 in 2020
- Streaks: Penn State has won the last two games
How much passing is too much passing?
Penn State passed on 50.5 percent of its offensive plays through seven games. Over the past two weeks, Penn State has thrown 61.5 percent of the time. Too much?
"I guess for me, it's whatever we have to do to win," coach James Franklin said. "And that's going to be different year to year. That's going to be different game to game."
Quarterback Sean Clifford threw 99 passes against Ohio State and Maryland, a number unseen in Penn State history over a two-game stretch. It's not that Penn State has abandoned the run entirely; Franklin said he reminded coordinator Mike Yurcich to continue mixing runs against Maryland.
Instead, Penn State understands that its run game, which averages 3.2 yards per carry, doesn't consistently move the chains.
"I think the important thing is, you can win by throwing it 50 times a game," Franklin said. "But I also want us to be in a position that, if we need to run the ball 30 times, 40 times in a game, that we can do that and still win."
That's unlikely to happen Saturday, since Penn State doesn't have a run game like Michigan State's, or a back like Kenneth Walker III, who put 197 yards and five touchdowns on Michigan two weeks ago. Penn State still is looking for its first 80-yard rusher this season, much less its first 100-yard rusher, and might find Michigan's secondary more exploitable than its defensive line.
Further, Clifford is confident throwing the ball. He hasn't run as much recently, which he called less a function of his health than his desire to make plays in the passing game.
"I feel like there are some plays that I can make outside the pocket, and when they’re there I’m going to make them," Clifford said. "But I’ve also grown up a little bit. I’ve understood that standing in the pocket and waiting that extra second or two, there are going to be guys coming open. Getting through your full progression, there are guys that will come open in the third, fourth, fifth part of the progression. And if I can get to them in time, those are explosive plays.
'"... I feel good. I feel great, actually, from a health perspective — 100 percent, I would say. So it’s not as much that I don’t want to run. It’s just because there are things downfield I’d rather get to passing."
Penn State Players to Watch
Jahan Dotson: Can the Big Ten's receptions leader catch 11 passes for the third consecutive game? If he continues at this pace, Dotson (71 catches) can become the first Penn State receiver with 100 receptions in a season.
Rasheed Walker/Caedan Wallace: Penn State's tackles, who have been inconsistent this season, must square off against two of the conference's top defensive players in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. For Walker in particular, this game could make him some NFL money if he stands up to the pass rush.
Brandon Smith: Gap-sound linebackers are compulsory against Michigan's run game. Smith, with 24 tackles the past three games, has played inspired football of late and needs to lead in getting Michigan into third-and-longs.
Michigan Players to Watch
J.J. McCarthy: Though Cade McNamara is the starting quarterback, Michigan inserts its talented freshman into a variety of situations. McCarthy has thrown three touchdown passes, including one at Michigan State, and is more than a changeup pitch.
Hassan Haskins: The running back certainly can shoulder his offense if fellow back Blake Corum (injured vs. Indiana) doesn't play. Haskins is 220 pounds of power, having gained 427 of his 829 yards after contact, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Daxton Hill: He has started at free safety and nickel back, leads the team with two interceptions and six pass breakups and plays all over the secondary. Hill vs. Dotson will be a compelling matchup to watch.
Five Things You Should Know
1. The Penn State-Michigan series is tied 6-6 at Beaver Stadium, but the Lions have won five of the past six at home.
2. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is 1-2 at Beaver Stadium, with consecutive road losses in 2017 and '19.
3. Penn State ranks second nationally in touchdowns allowed (14), and no opposing offense has scored more than two in a game against the Lions.
4. Penn State's top three running backs (Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, John Lovett) have combined for 745 total yards rushing. Michigan backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum have combined for 753 yards after contact, according to Sports Info Solutions.
5. The over-under is 48.5 points, according to SI Sports Book. Four of Penn State's last five games have gone under; Michigan has gone over in its last five road games, per Oddsshark.
The most surprising development of Penn State's season has been its inconsistency in scoring touchdowns. The offense hasn't scored more than 28 points against a Power 5 team. Through nine games, the Lions have scored fewer touchdowns (29) than they did in 2021 (34). That, in part, got former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca replaced.
Mike Yurcich has arrived with a pedigree as a points-producer, but the offense hasn't really broken out of its shell. As a result, the Lions win via defense, turnovers and field position. The strategy relies on a healthy, vital defense, but Penn State's has played a lot of snaps this season. Ultimately, the Wolverines will capitalize on that.
Michigan 24, Penn State 20