UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the non-conference slate wrapped up, Penn State hits the road this week traveling to No. 4/5 Michigan.
The Nittany Lions (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten) head to Michigan (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) for a challenging Big Ten conference opener as the Wolverines prepare host Penn State in their fourth of five consecutive home outings in Michigan Stadium.
Quarterback Trace McSorley continues to leads the newly installed Penn State offense, ranked first in the Big Ten in passing yards and 20th nationally in the FBS standings.
"I feel like the offense in general is really comfortable with running the new system with coach Moorhead and going through three games now we have a really good feel for the offense and how a game week goes from Monday to Saturday," McSorley said.
Among a host of offensive options that have continued to emerge throughout the season, McSorley found Chris Godwin for 117 yards on seven receptions against Temple. Godwin's 6.0 completions per game is also among the best in the Big Ten at sixth in the standings. DaeSean Hamilton joins Godwin highlighting the Penn State passing game as the duo has combined for more than 50 percent of the Nittany Lions' completions this year. Add in running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki, who each accounted for a pair of plays measuring at least 52 yards against Temple.
The Nittany Lion offense will have to find a way to execute against a Michigan defense that's currently leading the FBS in third down conversion and red zone defense, while also ranked second in tackles for loss. Led by do-it-all Jabrill Peppers, the junior leads the team in tackles (28), sacks (2.5), tackles for loss (9.5) and is also leading the nation in punt retuning with 173 yards.
Offensively, the Wolverines are fourth nationally averaging 53 points per game, guided by quarterback Wilton Speight. His targets include a combination of quick wide outs in Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh along with tight end Jake Butt. Between the three, combo is responsible for seven touchdowns on the year, with all three averaging at least 42 yards per game.
"They're just a big, strong, physical, mature team, and then they do have some speed aspects," Franklin said. "Jabrill does that for them on defense, special teams and offense. Their receivers do that as well as their tight end, (Jake) Butt. So it's a challenge, there's no doubt about it."
Penn State will look to new faces to lead the defensive effort this week, with injuries impacting the linebacker unit.
"We've adapted to the situation fairly well," linebacker Jake Cooper said. "I know that there's injuries around and it's the next man up mentality and we've taken each other under our own wings and we've taken each other accountable for our own positions and we're growing together as a unit. We're highly supportive of each other, we're a very enthusiastic group and I think that we're going to get the job done."
Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks stressed earlier this week that the Nittany Lions would have to trust their keys on defense to shut down down a dynamic Michigan offense that presents threats in both the pass and the run game.
"If you trust your key 99 percent of the time you'll be right," Banks said. "For the most part our keys are our keys and it's up to us to be extremely disciplined in reading them and then reacting to them."
Led by second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan will square off against Penn State for the 20th time in program history. The Wolverines have not dipped below the Top 10 in the rankings this year, completing their non-conference schedule with wins against Hawaii (63-3), Central Florida (51-14) and Colorado (45-28).
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on ABC with Dave Fleming (pxp) and Brian Griese (analyst) and Todd McShay (sideline) on the call.
What To Watch For -
1. Penn State has continued to embrace the 'next man up' mentality, truly demonstrated last week by junior Brandon Smith, who stepped in at middle linebacker and finished off the day with a career-high eight tackles and a half of a tackle for loss. Smith will look to continue growing the unit, not only through leadership but effective communication, having confidently called the defense in the win against Temple.
2. James Franklin has stressed ball security throughout the season, as the Nittany Lions have struggled at times to keep the ball off the ground. Quarterback Trace McSorley noted earlier this week that although there have been issues, each has been correctable. McSorley said that specifically from the quarterback position, the key this week would be making the correct reads and taking time to be accurate with each throw.
3. Cornerback John Reid has not been under the radar on punt returns in the last few games, as his 8.8 yards per game ranks fourth in the Big Ten standings. Reid highlighted the Pitt game with his second career fumble recovery, while also registering a 59-yard punt return in the first quarter. He followed that performance with his first interception of the season against Temple to lock up a 34-27 Penn state victory.
1. Having made his first career start against Hawaii, Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight is averaging 228.7 yards per game with a 63.8 completion percentage on the year. Speight's best performance in the non-conference slate was in a win over UCF with 312 yards, completing 25-of-37 passes, adding four touchdowns for an all-around career-high effort. Speight sat out during the 2014 season before playing in seven games during the 2015 season.
2. James Franklin was quick to point out that Michigan would enter Saturday's matchup looking to establish their run game, mainly with a big, physical and experienced offensive line.
"They want to establish the run with their offensive line," Franklin said earlier this week. "They want to run the ball. They want to play-action pass. They're obviously averaging a bunch of points a game."
3. All-American tight end Jake Butt has caught at least one pass in each of the last 19 games heading into Saturday's matchup. As Michigan's second-leading active career receiver with 107 receptions for 1,292 yards and 10 touchdowns, Butt is coming off back-to-back games with a team-high seven catches for at least 86 yards against UCF and Colorado.
Final Word -
Penn State and Michigan are each among the most storied programs in collegiate football. Both programs are among the Top 10 in NCAA history in winning percentage in total victories. Michigan and Penn State also share some of the largest venues nationally, with both stadium capacities stretching beyond 100,000.
The Nittany Lions will open the Big Ten schedule at Michigan for the first time since 2007. Opening the 24th season of conference play, Penn State is 11-12 in openers, since defeating Rutgers, 28-3 in last year's opener. Penn State is 7-7 when beginning conference play on the road.