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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Back from a restful bye week, No. 2 Penn State football (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) returns to Beaver Stadium, set to host No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) in a Penn State White Out Saturday.
The Nittany Lions and the Wolverines will meet in a primetime matchup set for 7:30 p.m. on ABC with Chris Fowler (pxp), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sideline) on the call.
Earlier this week, head coach James Franklin called Saturday's matchup a real challenge for the Nittany Lions, as the two storied programs prepare to collide with a variety of intriguing storylines coming to life under the lights.
At the midpoint in the year, Penn State storylines have continued to take shape, including an explosive offense, an efficient special teams unit and a powerful defense highlighted by a secondary loaded with ball hawks who have proven key in pivotal moments.
Outscoring opponents 76-0 in the first quarter, Penn State's defense is limiting opponents to a national-best 9.0 points per game. In the big plays category, Penn State ranks within the top 25 nationally and second in the Big Ten with 38 plays of 20 or more yards.
Turning toward Michigan, the Wolverines head to Happy Valley for their second weekend on the road, coming off a 27-20 OT win at Indiana last week. Ranked within the top 10 of nine defensive categories in the NCAA standings, Michigan's defense is tops in FBS in total defense (223.8 avg.), third down defense (20.5 pct.) and passing efficiency defense (88.85). At the midpoint in the year, the Wolverines have also limited five of six opponents to a season-low points total an all six to a season-low in yardage.
Regardless of what the statistics say though, Franklin and the staff have stressed focus above all things this week, with University Park buzzing ahead of the Penn State White Out, the Nittany Lions' highest AP poll ranking in nearly 20 years and ESPN's College Gameday [MORE: College Gameday Info] taking over the Old Main lawn.
"My message for the team this week is, they've earned these things," Franklin said. "These things are nice. The rankings are nice. The fact that ESPN and College GameDay is coming is nice. The fact that this is a white-out is nice. At the end of the day none of those things matter. It's about our preparation."
What To Watch For -
1. Franklin noted that Saturday's matchup will bring some interesting chess matches between coordinators, also putting on display, as he says, two of the best defensive coordinators in college football. Having coached together at a previous stop, Franklin was quick to note Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown's success.
"Don's big thing, it shows up on tape, they're going to solve their problems with aggression. That's something I remember years ago Don talking about. It still shows up on tape. His answer for the game of football is to be aggressive, be aggressive in the way he calls the game, be aggressive in how their players play. They're a big wreck-the-decision-maker, try to get to the quarterback as much as they possibly can and either sack him or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, and don't give any yards away, no free-access throws."
2. Penn State is tops in the Big Ten and second in FBS in turnover margin at plus-12. With 17 takeaways in the in the first six games marking the most for the Nittany Lions in a six-game span since 1993, the mark is also tied for third in FBS. With the Nittany Lion secondary contributing a Big Ten leading nine interceptions, it's more than just the secondary that has helped Penn State make take such a significant step forward.
"I don't think it's just our secondary," Franklin said. "I think it's our D-line. I think it's the linebackers. "Christian is a senior and has been playing since his freshman year. Grant is a senior, has been playing since his freshman year. Amani, his role just continues to grow every season. I think those guys have had a dramatic impact. But, again, to play really good defense, all three phases, D-line, linebackers, secondary, all got to be coordinated and working together."
3. Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki enters Saturday's matchup looking to eclipse a career milestone. Coming off of the road trip win at Northwestern, Gesicki is just 249 yards shy of the a nearly 50-year old career receiving yards record for a Penn State tight end. He also needs just one touchdown reception to match the career touchdown catches record, also tying his own record for single season touchdown grabs.
What to Watch For -
1. Franklin identified Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst as both explosive and disruptive for the Wolverines.
"I think Hurst is really fun to watch on tape," Franklin said. "He's a really good player. He's explosive. He is quick. His get-off is what really jumps out. You watch the ball snapped, he's the first one across the line of scrimmage. They move their defensive line a lot. He uses his hands well."
Hurst is second on the team with 7.0 tackles for loss with defensive end Chase Winovich leading the team with 8.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. On the year, Michigan's defensive line has accounted for nearly 50 percent of its 20 sacks. The Wolverines are sixth in FBS and tops in the Big Ten averaging 3.33 sacks per game.
2. From his early film study Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins mentioned Michigan's trust in the secondary, noting that winning the contested matchups will be key.
"Basically we've just seen guys who are very sound in their technique with footwork and attention to detail," Thompkins said. "These guys are very comfortable with being one-one-one on the outside and that's something that they do pretty much every game, so that's something that's not different for them. They kind of live in that environment, and they thrive in that environment."
3. Michigan running back Karan Higdon enters Saturday coming off of a career-high 200-yard performance with three touchdowns against the Hoosiers. With starts in three consecutive games, Higdon has totaled 401 yards at the midpoint of the season.
The Final Word -
Nearly every Nittany Lion asked about the Penn State White Out this week explained the electric atmosphere as something you'd have to experience to be able to describe. Penn State and Michigan have met for a Penn State White Out four times since 2004. Under the lights though, the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines' last primetime meeting came Oct. 12, 2013 when Penn State battled to a 43-40 win in four overtimes.