No. 7 Penn State boasts the clear advantage against No. 16 Michigan in Saturday’s night’s nationally televised Big Ten battle — the Nittany Lions are 9-point favorites — but, if PSU wants to win on the field and not on paper, it needs to dominate its matchups.
Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m., ABC) that we think will directly to determine the outcome:
Josh Moyer: Penn State’s interior DL vs. Michigan’s interior OL
Penn State’s defense absolutely dominated Iowa’s interior last week, with defensive tackle Robert Windsor wreaking havoc on what seemed like every play. Well, that type of performance along the interior is going to be a lot harder to come by against Michigan this week.
This is the best interior offensive line Penn State has yet faced. Those three linemen have already earned a combined four All-Big Ten selections, and each one has the potential to play in the NFL. Let’s quickly go through them so you know what the Nittany Lions are dealing with here.
Left guard Ben Bredeson has started 39 career games, was named a preseason All-American and is ranked by DraftScout as the No. 3 guard in the 2020 NFL draft. Right guard Michael Onwenu is listed at 350 pounds — and maybe even weighs more than that — but the junior’s talent is undeniable; he allowed just four QB pressures all last season, per Pro Fooball Focus. And center Cesar Ruiz, a junior, boasts 24 career starts and was ranked by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler as the No. 4 underclassman center.
If that doesn’t convince you of Michigan’s talent here, maybe you need to hear from someone else. Here’s Penn State DT PJ Mustipher, from earlier this week: “I told Coach (Sean Spencer) that this is going to be our biggest test in the interior. They have three guys in the middle who are very good football players. They’re downhill blockers. They want to get on you, and they want to drive you down the field.”
Why is this such an important matchup? Penn State’s interior, namely Windsor, helped take control in the 17-12 win over Iowa. And if the Nittany Lions’ defense wants to step up in third-and-short situations, it’s going to need that interior to be on top of its game.
No, Michigan’s running game isn’t very impressive. It’s ranked No. 78 nationally by averaging 156.2 yards per game, and it’s also averaging 4.06 yards per carry. But that seems more reflective of the running backs than the interior OL. According to Football Outsiders, which tries to track what rushing yards the offensive line is responsible for, Michigan has the nation’s No. 31 run-blocking line.
If Windsor — who had 2.5 tackles for loss and seven QB pressures last week — and Penn State’s interior play like they did against Iowa, a shutout certainly doesn’t seem out of the question. But, if the Wolverines dominate this battle, it could have a ripple effect on the rest of the defense. It should be one of the most competitive matchups of the night.
Jon Sauber: Penn State WR KJ Hamler vs. Michigan DBs Lavert Hill/Ambry Thomas
Penn State’s top receiver will face a difficult task this weekend. Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler should see a lot of senior cornerback Lavert Hill and junior cornerback Ambry Thomas this weekend, two of the more talented players he’s going to face all season. Hill missed Michigan’s 42-25 win over Illinois last week due to injury, and Jim Harbaugh didn’t give a definitive answer when asked about Hill’s status. If Hill plays, he and Thomas will likely split time on Hamler. If he doesn’t, Hamler is going to see a lot of Thomas.
Hill was a second-team All-Big Ten cornerback as a sophomore, according to the conference’s coaches, and a first-team All-Big Ten cornerback as a junior, according to the coaches and the media. The Michigan cornerback was also a third-team All-American last season as a junior. He has a proven track record of shutting down Big Ten wide receivers, and the only thing that could slow him down is his health.
Thomas, a junior, has come on this season at cornerback for the Wolverines. He was named a midseason All-American by Pro Football Focus this year. Thomas has allowed completions on 9-of-21 attempts where he was the primary defender, according to PFF. He’s also picked off two of those attempts and broken up two other attempts, according to the site. If Thomas is the primary cornerback that Hamler faces, it could force Penn State to look away from its primary weapon.
Of course, Penn State will have an opportunity to scheme around Thomas and Hill. The Nittany Lions can get Hamler the ball behind the line of scrimmage to keep Thomas from making an impact, and they can send Hamler deep to clear out the middle of the field for other pass-catchers.
Hamler, like both Hill and Thomas, is a Michigan native, adding a layer of intrigue to what could be a very interesting matchup this weekend.