The Michigan football team puts its 6-0 record to the test this Saturday as the fifth-ranked Wolverines host No. 10 Penn State in what looks to be the toughest tests of either team of the season.
There are undoubtedly unknowns on how both teams will handle a slight rise in competition, but how do the two teams compare on paper going into the game? We break it down in our weekly By the Numbers preview segment below. As always, the numbers show where both teams rank nationally in each category out of 131 FBS teams.
So far this season, Penn State has passed every test in front of it, but hasn’t always looked as dominant in these games as other top 10 teams. The Nittany Lions were beaten by Purdue in Week 1 , allowed 415 total rushing yards against Auburn, let Central Michigan trail in a 33-14 victory and turned the ball over five times in a 17-7 win over Northwestern.
Still, Penn State is 5-0 with four double-digit wins and two road wins, and has the knack to tie a top 15 so far.
Michigan Offense vs. Penn State Defense
A good IQ test of fans and the media this week is how they discuss Penn State’s pass defense. Because even though the Nittany Lions are outside the top 100 passing yards allowed per game, they’ve also faced more passing-first teams and more passes per game (45.2) than any team in the country. In that sense, Penn State is still in the top 12 in every category per snapshot on such a large sample size, which is remarkable. Similar to Michigan, the Nittany Lions have an elite cornerback duo in Kalen King and Joey Porter Jr., but have been suspect at times in nickel, safety and linebacker coverage.
Penn State’s run defense also ranks quite high, as it has in recent years, but it’s worth remembering that the group didn’t face a rushing offense ranked above 75th in rushing yards by rush or yards per game this season. The Nittany Lions are holding serve on third down and in the red zone better than any Michigan team has faced so far.
Penn State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
While Penn State’s defense has brought him in consistently over the past few weeks, his offense has been a little more up and down. The Nittany Lions are more balanced this season, rushing 74.6 more yards per game and 1.73 more yards per rush than last season, thanks to freshmen Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. This balance helped Penn State improve its production in the red zone and ultimately reduce sacks and negative plays from last season. In the passing game, the Nittany Lions are led by tight end Brenton Strange and slot receiver Parker Washington, but sometimes struggle to get the ball into the hands of their wides. Penn State’s turnover stat is a bit misleading, as five of the Nittany Lions’ six turnovers this season have come in a rainy game against Northwestern.
Special teams and miscellaneous
As has been the case for the past several years, Penn State and Michigan are both strong showcases for the best special teams in the country. Barney Amor has been as good as any punter in the country, bowling 14 inside of 20 and allowing only one touchdown and five returns this season. Jake Pinegar is a fifth-year senior with 41 field goals this season, but has been wobbly throughout his career, including a 10-for-20 clip on attempts of 40 yards or more. In the return game, the Nittany Lions trailed Singleton on kickoffs and Washington on punt returns. Neither has broken one for a touchdown this season, but both have top-notch athleticism to do it with a low enough kick.
Pro Football Focus Ratings
Although PFF ratings are subjective, they are nuanced and researched opinions on each team’s strengths and weaknesses. While Penn State is only 41st in sacks and even lower in sack rate, the Nittany Lions produced 131 total quarterback pressures against 226 pass attempts. It’s not as good as Michigan’s rate (128 pressures for 196 attempts), but it’s still a good example of how sacks aren’t the only relevant metric in the pass. According to PFF, Penn State has a miss tackle rate of 21.7% — a very high clip (Michigan is 11.9) and something that could play a legitimate role in Saturday’s game.
However, PFF isn’t as high on Penn State as other resources, so it will be interesting to see if the Nittany Lions’ strong overall defensive numbers hold up against the most physical offense they’ve faced this season.