Penn State Football: Five Things To Watch As The Nittany Lions Take On Michigan
Penn State takes on Michigan this Saturday night in a game that will help determine the pace of the Big Ten East race, as well as the legitimacy of the Nittany Lions' run toward playoff hopes and a meeting with Ohio State in late November.
There is a lot of football left to go before Penn State can truly have bigger dreams realized, but they don't happen without a win on Saturday. There is a lot to unpack in a big game like this. Can Penn State get to the quarterback and protect its own? Can the Nittany Lions move the chains against the best defense they have seen and hold a struggling Michigan offense to few points?
Those things will dictate the outcome, but so will these five things to keep an eye on.
Punch First, Block Later:
You've got the crowd on your side. You're probably the better team. If you're Penn State, all you want to do is score first and get the game underway. The more the crowd stays in the mix the better off the Nittany Lions will be. White Out crowds are not short on energy, but they will be if Penn State can't find a groove early on. Considering how good Michigan's defense is, an early score will go a long way toward building confidence, and the more of that the better for Penn State. The Nittany Lions will play catch-up if they have to, but that's not the preferred mode of operation on weekends like these.
Sean Clifford started last week against Iowa with happy feet and the case of the yips. Considering it was his first real road test in front of his first real crowd this isn't a shock. Can he start off better this week? The last thing Penn State wants is to flip the field via a Clifford mistake, sack or turnover. As soon as he started completing passes he looked a lot calmer against Iowa, so if I'm offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne I'm getting Clifford a few early and easy throws to settle him down and get him in the zone.
Don't Make It Harder Than It Needs To Be:
This is in a similar vein, but big games so often come down to very simple concepts: avoiding mistakes, staying on schedule and making sure the big plays happening in the game are happening for you, not against you. This comes down to fundamentals and all the things you practiced during the week. It's a little harder to identify this as it's happening, but the point is largely an optics one: Does Penn State look like it's playing the same kind of game it has played the past six weeks? Is this what you expected? If the answer is yes, that's a good sign, even if Penn State isn't playing its best. Sticking to your identity is important in big moments, as well as knowing what that identity is.
Thanks For That:
Only Nebraska has turned the ball over more than Michigan in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have coughed up the ball 13 times, nine of those coming by way of the fumble. Penn State spent all offseason working on stripping the ball and going after turnovers. That's not to say Penn State will win the turnover battle, but the Nittany Lions' focus on turnovers meshes well with Michigan's current weakness in ball security. Can Penn State get a turnover early? Nothing follows up a touchdown better than getting the ball back in good field position.
In the big picture the objective here couples with another goal: get to the quarterback.
Every game is going to have a lull, and Penn State won't be scoring on every drive or even most of them, but the mentality behind that will be key. Is Penn State attacking and moving the chains but eventually stalling out? That's a lot better than going three-and-out. The Nittany Lions won't win big games if they have second quarters and second halves like they did against Purdue. This isn't so much a question of how many points are scored, or how often, but simply how things look. If you get the feeling Penn State might score on the next drive, that's better than feeling like "maybe it'll get a first down for once."