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  • Penn State dropped 42 points on an excellent Michigan defense a year ago. Do the Nittany Lions have the weapons to put up points again?
By Sam Chase
October 31, 2018

Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Wolverines (-10.5)

Sat. 11/2, 3:45 p.m. ET

Three things to know before betting on Penn State-Michigan:

1. Coming off a bye week, Michigan has its sights set on a College Football Playoff berth with a 7-1 record and a No. 5 ranking in the AP Poll. The Wolverines are 5-3 against the spread overall and have won three straight ATS. This week, Michigan hosts a Penn State team that has lived and died on the edge. The Nittany Lions are 6-2 straight up and 5-3 against the spread, having suffered back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State by a combined total of five points before winning their last two games against Indiana and Iowa by a total of 11 points.

Since Trace McSorley took over as the full-time starting quarterback for Penn State at the beginning of the 2016 season, the Nittany Lions have gone 23-10-2 against the spread, giving them the second-best ATS winning percentage in that time frame among Power 5 teams. In head coach James Franklin's time at PSU, the Nittany Lions have gone a remarkable 21-3 against the spread when coming off a win against a Big Ten opponent, and 8-0 ATS when coming off a win of seven points or fewer against a conference opponent. Meanwhile, the Wolverines' last two covers have stood out as somewhat anomalous for the Jim Harbaugh era: Michigan is 6-16 ATS when coming off a cover under its current head coach.

2. Shea Patterson is easily the best quarterback Harbaugh has coached during his time at Michigan. Patterson is second in the Big Ten with a passer rating of 155.5, and Michigan's 6.26 yards per play (33rd in FBS) is the most it has averaged in a season since Harbaugh took over in 2015. The running game has been strong, too, with back Karan Higdon ranking second in the Big Ten with 118.7 rushing yards per game. Behind Patterson's steady hand and Higdon's consistency, the Wolverines have rarely found themselves in third-and-long situations. But when they have, a glaring weakness in their offensive attack has been exposed. Michigan's third-and-long success rate is 14.6%, which ranks 127th in the nation—only three teams are worse.

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Penn State's defense has quietly been one of the best in the Big Ten, allowing the third-fewest yards per play in the league at 4.75. It has been especially effective at limiting big plays, allowing gains of 20 yards or more on only 3.5% of plays, the second-best rate in all of FBS. Most crucially, the Nittany Lions have the ability to put the Michigan offense in its most vulnerable position. The PSU defense has made it so that its opponents' third-down situations are third-and-long 59.6% of the time, the 10th-highest percentage in the country.

3. Michigan's defense is one of the best in the country. The Wolverines lead the nation in yards per play allowed (3.71). But last year's defense was similarly dominant (4.52 YPP allowed, sixth in FBS), and that didn't stop Penn State from tearing it up. The Nittany Lions won 42-17 in Happy Valley, matching the most points scored against Michigan in the Harbaugh era.

Running back Saquon Barkley did much of the damage against Michigan in that one. He has since moved on to the NFL, of course. But Penn State's rushing offense has actually improved. Last year it ranked 33rd in the country with 4.9 yards per carry, and this year it's 15th at 5.6. Barkley's replacement, Miles Sanders, is a stud in his own right. He had 162 rushing yards against a Michigan State defense that's allowing 77.4 yards on the ground per game, the fewest in the country. Trace McSorley can run, too, ranking eighth among FBS quarterbacks with 77.1 rushing yards per game.

Michigan's lone loss this season came to a Notre Dame team that relied heavily on ball control, running the ball 47 times and getting 59 rushing yards from its quarterback. If Penn State takes a similar approach, it could have a fighting chance of a straight-up win in Ann Arbor and should stay on the right side of a double-digit line.

Pick: Penn State +10.5

Confidence Level: Very High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)

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