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Can Penn State Play Big Ten Spoiler Against Michigan?

As the final month of the 2023 College Football season gets underway, it’s looking like once again the Big Ten will come down to the conference’s biggest rivalry. Entering Week 11, things are setting up for a regular season finale showdown between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan for the Big Ten East’s bid into the Big Ten Championship, and likely a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Each team has two games left before that matchup. Three of those collective four games either Ohio State or Michigan will be a heavy favorite (Ohio State hosts Michigan State this week and Minnesota next week, Michigan visits Maryland in two weeks). The last real chance for a shakeup is this week, when No. 10 Penn State will have a chance to play spoiler (and so much more) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

This is a spot Penn State is all-too familiar with in the James Franklin era. The Nittany Lions have so often been the ‘B-tier’ team in the Big Ten – cleaning up on most opponents but struggling to get over the hump against Ohio Sate and Michigan. Since Franklin took over the program in 2014 the Nittany Lions are 4-15 against those two powerhouses, and 50-16 against everybody else (48-12 outside of his transitional first year).

Penn State already had one chance this year to upset the balance of power, but lost 20-12 to Ohio State in Columbus earlier this season. That means if the Nittany Lions want a shot at a Big Ten title they’ll need to beat Michigan this week, and then hope Michigan beats Ohio State to set up a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten East.

For all their struggles between Ohio State and Michigan, the Nittany Lions have had more success against Michigan. They’re 3-6 head-to-head since 2014. Additionally, the last time a lower-ranked team beat a higher-ranked team in this series was a Penn State win in 2013, when the unranked Nittany Lions knocked off No. 18 Michigan 43-40 in State College.

What would Penn State need to do to create a similar ending 10 years later? It starts with their defense.

This season Penn State ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring and second in total defense. In particular the Nittany Lions have been great against the run, allowing a nation-low 60.7 rushing yards per game.

That certainly makes them a tough matchup for a Michigan team that likes to run the ball. The Wolverines, led by the running back duo of All-American Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, are running the ball 36.6 times per game this year, while throwing just 25.9 passes per game.

The question is, will Michigan turn this into a ‘strength-on-strength’ game and put the ball in the hands of its running backs? Or choose to force the Nittany Lions to defend the pass and put the game on the shoulders of junior quarterback and Heisman contender J.J. McCarthy?

McCarthy’s role has been more limited within the context of his offense than some of the other top quarterbacks in this class but he’s been good when called on. In nine games this year he’s completing 75.7% of his passes, throwing for 237.1 yards per game with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions.

This will be the biggest spot McCarthy has faced yet this year, in a hostile environment against an elite defense. It’s a spot set up well for him to have his ‘Heisman Moment’ and establish himself as a potential first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

When Penn State has the ball all eyes will be on their quarterback, sophomore Drew Allar. In his first year as the full-time starter Allar hasn’t put up explosive numbers (62.8% completions, 210.5 yards per game) but has been efficient (he’s thrown 20 touchdowns to just one interception).

However in his only other matchup against an elite opponent – that Ohio State game a few weeks ago – Allar struggled. He completed just 18 of his 42 pass attempts for 191 yards. In that game he was sacked four times – a third of the sacks he’s taken all year.

Was that Allar having flaws exposed by playing one of the best defenses in the nation? Or a young quarterback struggling on the road in a tough environment? Likely a bit of both, but Allar will have the benefit of home field advantage this time around and needs to make the most of it.

A great rush defense, homefield advantage, and a Michigan program (and coach) that has been dealing with the fallout of the Connor Stalions sign-stealing scandal along with preparing for the Nittany Lions (as I’m writing this, there’s some doubt over whether or not head coach Jim Harbaugh will even be on the team flight to the game, with a Big Ten ruling on a punishment expected to be handed down Friday afternoon). Will all of that be enough for Penn State to turn the Big Ten race for a playoff spot on its head? This should be as good of a shot as any the Nittany Lions have had in recent years.

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