Sports

Who has the edge? Penn State vs. Michigan

OFFENSIVE LINE

The tape from the Northwestern game has served as a blooper reel for the Penn State offensive line — which isn’t good six weeks into the season. It won’t get any easier for the Nittany Lions against a tough Michigan defensive front. Left tackle Donovan Smith and the rest of Penn State’s line will have to hope little corrections will yield big improvements, as there aren’t many other game-ready options. Right guard Miles Dieffenbach is still targeting a return from a torn knee ligament. Michigan has run the ball fairly well this season, averaging 180 yards per game behind a unit that is fairly young but coming together nicely. True freshman left tackle Mason Cole joins guards Erik Magnuson and Graham Glasgow, center Jack Miller and tackle Ben Braden to lead the Michigan offense. Advantage: Michigan

QUARTERBACK

Devin Gardner’s trip to the bench didn’t last long and he’ll start against Penn State with Shane Morris in a backup role. Gardner isn’t always accurate as a passer but can keep plays alive and extend situations with his legs. He’s rushed for three touchdowns in the last two games and has 23 in his career. He’s mismanaged the football, throwing seven interceptions so far in 2014 to push his career total to 24. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg is coming off a rough two-game stretch. Perhaps no player on Penn State’s roster benefited from time away like the sophomore who has been sacked 14 times already. Hackenberg attributed his recent struggles to poor mechanics. Some film study and a sturdier pocket should help the strong-armed quarterback get back on track. Advantage: Penn State

RUNNING BACKS

Michigan lost leading rusher Derrick Green for the remainder of the season when he suffered a broken collarbone against Rutgers. The Wolverines will turn to De’Veon Smith, who has 47 carries for 282 yards and four touchdowns this season. He and Justice Hayes will likely both get chances as suddenly there are plenty more snaps to go around. As always, the shifty Devin Gardner can always contribute to the team’s rushing efforts. Penn State’s stable of running backs has had a week to rest up. Openings have been there for senior Bill Belton, and the senior continues to provide value in the Wildcat formation. Akeel Lynch has cut well and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry, albeit quietly, and Zach Zwinak hasn’t lost any physicality. Against Northwestern, Zwinak made a few big hits on kickoff returns and improved his pass protection though he was called for a questionable penalty on one such occasion. Advantage: Penn State

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The Wolverines have a quick, athletic bunch but the passing offense has not clicked consistently. Junior Devin Funchess is big and physical and leads Michigan with 29 catches for 392 yards and three touchdowns. He broke loose against Penn State last season for 112 yards on four catches with touchdowns of 59 and 37 yards. Jehu Chesson hasn’t scored this season but has contributed with 13 catches for 151 yards. Dennis Norfleet is a player Michigan tries to gain matchup advantages with, as the speedy wide receiver can fly in space. Penn State is holding steady with Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton as solid 1A and 1B options who have both made big plays. They both need to start finding the end zone. Lewis has the duo’s lone score — and that came in Ireland. Penn State’s Jesse James has developed a nice rapport with Hackenberg. Jake Butt is an athletic, quick-handed tight end who can make big plays for the Wolverines. Butt is the last Michigan receiver to catch a touchdown pass. That was 13 quarters ago against Miami. Advantage: Push

DEFENSIVE LINE

Frank Clark leads a solid Michigan front four. The defensive end has 20 tackles and leads the Wolverines with 61/2 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer is a stalwart on the other end while Ryan Glasgow and Willie Henry anchor the middle. Henry can rush the passer from inside and he and Beyer each have a pair of sacks. Taco Charlton rotates in and leads the team with 21/2 sacks. Two of Penn State’s starting defensive linemen — tackle Anthony Zettel and end C.J. Olaniyan — are both Michigan-raised. Zettel has been one of Penn State’s most consistent players. Olaniyan has two sacks and 41/2 tackles for loss. Austin Johnson and Deion Barnes have played good complimentary football. Barnes has been close — few feet and a few steps have kept him from earning more than his credited two sacks. Advantage: Push

LINEBACKERS

Michigan has a stable corps led by veteran middle linebacker Jake Ryan, who will make his 11th consecutive start and 36th overall. Ryan’s 46 tackles are bested by only junior Joe Bolden’s 48 this season. James Ross III has played well for Michigan. Penn State should get outside backer Nyeem Wartman back to add stability alongside Mike Hull and Brandon Bell. Von Walker started in place of Wartman and was relieved by true freshman Jason Cabinda. If Wartman is limited in this game, Penn State may have to play more STAR and move Adrian Amos up into the box to account for the lack of range Wartman’s loss would create. Advantage: Michigan

SECONDARY

Michigan’s pass defense had been solid. Then it was shredded for 402 yards by Rutgers. Still, the Wolverines are third in the Big Ten, allowing just 215 yards per game. Starting corners Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess and safeties Jeremy Clark and Jarrod Wilson have been susceptible to big plays, however. The Michigan secondary has allowed 21 passing plays of 20 yards or more. By comparison, Penn State has allowed 14. Trevor Williams has continued to play well while safety Ryan Keiser continues to quietly put together a nice season and is second with 23 tackles. Corner Jordan Lucas is the lone starting defensive back without a pick this season. Michigan could be without talented freshman Jabril Peppers again. He hasn’t played since Sept. 20 with an undisclosed injury. Advantage: Penn State

SPECIAL TEAMS

Michigan return man Dennis Norfleet can flip field position quickly and is second in program history with 1,977 kick return yards. He has not returned a punt or kick for a score, however, and the Wolverines are averaging just 18 yards per return. Penn State has the edge in the kicking game, where Sam Ficken has hit 10 of 12 field goals this season while the teams’ punting situations are comparable. Michigan punter Will Hagerup has done a good job of keeping the ball away from returners with five touchbacks. Advantage: Push

INTANGIBLES

Some students and Michigan supporters have called for the resignation of Athletic Director Dave Brandon and for coach Brady Hoke to be fired in recent weeks. Students were also attempting to organize a boycott of the 7 p.m. kickoff. The root cause of all of it? Losing. Michigan isn’t used to it this soon. The Wolverines had never in their history lost three games before October — until this season. A loss to a beatable Rutgers team doesn’t help. Sure, Penn State has issues, but Michigan is in full meltdown mode. That could be amplified in the first official Big Ten night game at The Big House. James Franklin has turned bye weeks into follow-up wins before in his career. Advantage: Penn State

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