Devin Gardner and Christian Hackenberg are two completely different players. Hackenberg, a pocket passer, got off to a hot start in which he completed over 70 percent of his throws. He has cooled off considerably and is connecting just 48 percent of the time over the last two games. Still, Hackenberg has confidence to throw deep and can stretch a defense with his arm strength. Gardner does more damage with his legs and is averaging 64 rushing yards per game. He’s been effective in goal line situations and has three runs of 17 or more yards. Neither quarterback is immune to turnovers but Gardner’s been much more careless throwing the ball. His interception total (8) is double that of Hackenberg (4). Gardner is second in the Big Ten in total offense (271 yards per game). Advantage: Michigan.
Zach Zwinak was effective when he touched the ball against Indiana, and continues to bounce off tacklers and punish defenders for extra yards after first contact. Bill Belton continued to showcase his shiftiness with the limited touches he got last week, and has added the spin move and stiff arm to his repertoire effectively. Belton showed off his receiving skills with a nice touchdown grab late last week. He can be more of an asset in the passing game. Belton has tripped himself up a few times in holes so far, and if he can control his balance could develop into a home run hitter. Michigan’s Fitzgerald Toussaint is a complete back who can handle heavy workloads, as evidenced by his 96 carries on the season. He hits holes quickly and gets upfield immediately with a straight-ahead style. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he’s not a massive back but he possesses good acceleration, and his elite balance makes him hard to bring down when he’s in full stride. Akeel Lynch can’t help out if he doesn’t get touches. The Wolverines’ Derrick Green has carried the ball just 23 times. It’s a push.
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Allen Robinson is on pace to ransack the single-season mark he set last season for receptions (77). Robinson, who is on pace for 91 catches for 1,490 yards, is coming off another stellar game — but one that saw him go down with an injury. Robinson said he was a bit sore after landing on his back, but was able to return to the Indiana game and will play versus Michigan. Penn State will also get back Brandon Felder, who sat out the Indiana game with an ankle injury. Felder’s steady presence will be a welcome one. True freshman Richy Anderson and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis seemed not to be on the same page with Hackenberg last weekend, as throws to them were often off the mark. Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon is the Wolverines’ leading receiver with 24 catches for 367 yards. Advantage: Penn State.
Kyle Carter is working his way back into the gameplan for Penn State. He ran more deep routes against the Hoosiers but needs to limit the mental mistakes — a critical false start by him killed a late drive last week. Jesse James must bounce back after a rough outing wherein he gave up an uncontested sack in the red zone and dropped his only target. Adam Breneman didn’t play last week but will likely see the field against Michigan, Bill O’Brien said. The Wolverines’ No. 2 receiver is Devin Funchess, who has contributed with 15 catches for 296 yards. Jake Butt has also been involved with six grabs for 61 yards. Advantage: Penn State.
Michigan’s front five struggled mightily in the first four games, giving up 32 tackles for loss and six sacks. So it underwent a few changes last week that paid off. Previously the unit’s left guard, Graham Glasgow took over center duties for Jack Miller. Glasgow is bigger at 6-foot-6 and heavier at 305 pounds and more athletic. Chris Bryant is the new face and made his first career start at left guard. Left tackle Taylor Lewan is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick and has shifted over to tight end in a tackle-over formation on the right side to add versatility. Penn State struggled with its communication up front, failing to block an Indiana stunt that resulted in a turnover on downs on the first drive of the game. Both units have been up and down. It’s a push.
There’s a reason Michigan’s run defense is ninth in the nation, giving up just 90 yards per game. The Wolverines’ defensive line stuffs gaps and occupies opposing linemen so the Michigan linebackers can attack running backs downhill. Sacks are shared by Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Chris Wormley who each have one. Clark has five hurries on the season. DaQuan Jones continues to play well for Penn State while C.J. Olaniyan is quietly having a solid season. Penn State would be better off with a more consistent pass rush, however. Advantage: Michigan.
The healthier Mike Hull gets the better off the Penn State corps will be. Nyeem Wartman’s status is concerning as his playing time was severely limited against Indiana due to a shoulder injury. Glenn Carson and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong continue to hold down the fort and there’s no telling if Ben Kline will be able to play as much as he did against Syracuse after injuring his shoulder last week in practice. Michigan’s linebackers are athletic and opportunistic. A four-man rotation of James Ross III, Brennen Beyer, Desmond Morgan and Cameron Gordon have combined for 121/2 tackles for loss and five sacks. Morgan is the squad’s leading tackler with 34. Meanwhile, Jake Ryan is on his way back from injury and has been practicing. It is not known if Ryan will be able to play, however. Advantage: Michigan.
Penn State’s secondary was out of sorts against Indiana’s rapid-fire passing attack and will get a chance to improve its interception total against a Michigan passing game that has tossed nine picks so far. Adrian Amos made a nice play to snag his first interception of the year while Jordan Lucas is becoming a versatile weapon as a blitzer from the corner spot. This unit will have to be ready to play run support. It has the size and physicality to do so. Communication must be better, however. Michigan hasn’t been very good defending the pass. The Wolverines gave up a combined 470 yards to Akron and Connecticut and field a smaller pair of corners. Courtney Avery and Blake Countess check in at under 6-feet tall and 175 and 182 pounds, respectively and struggle to defend big, physical receivers. Advantage: Penn State.
The Nittany Lions are coming off a special teams debacle after two bad snaps, a blocked field goal and a fumble on a kickoff return helped seal their fate against the Hoosiers. Simply put, they cannot afford this many special teams blunders against Michigan. With that said, Alex Butterworth is coming off his best game of the season. He punted four times for an average of 45 yards. Michigan’s punting situation is comparable, with big junior Matt Wile handling fourth-down duties. Brendan Gibbons has led a pretty successful career at Michigan, with 34 of 45 makes. His longest this season is from 44 yards. Both teams’ return games are comparable, with Penn State slightly more productive per kick and punt return. It’s a push.
Michigan has turned the ball over 12 times and will have to deal with a raucous Beaver Stadium crowd that will number near 108,000-strong. It is a white-out game and Michigan will have to deal with the constant noise unless it can get a big lead and quiet the masses. Bill O’Brien and Brady Hoke meet for the first time, and both have suffered ups and downs so far this year. Hoke’s squad was nearly upset by Akron and needed a late run to beat Connecticut. O’Brien has made a few questionable calls — going away from the running game against Indiana — and continuing to attempt fourth down plays. Michigan averages 41 yards in penalties per game to Penn State’s 29. The Wolverines have a huge edge on third-down plays as they are converting 54 percent of the time compared with Penn State’s 30 percent. The crowd, though... Advantage: Penn State.