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The Wolverines and Nittany Lions have developed a bit of a rivalry over the last few years. In each of the last three years, the home team has won by a comfortable margin, as Michigan won in 2016 (49-10) and 2018 (42-7), while Penn State won in 2017 (42-13).
This season hasn’t gone the way many expected it would for the Wolverines. Michigan entered the year at No. 7 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll, but the Wolverines have slid to No. 16 through seven weeks. The Maize and Blue suffered a tough loss at Wisconsin in week four, 35-14, but have come back to win their last three games and improve to 5-1 overall. The last two wins, however, haven’t been the most convincing. The Wolverines defeated Iowa, 10-3, at home two weeks ago, then barely scraped past Illinois last week.
Michigan’s offense has been hit or miss this season, and they’ll need to be on point against a tough Penn State defense. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson has been good at times, but inconsistent game-to-game. The good news for the Wolverines is that they seemed to have found their rushing attack last week against Illinois. Freshman Zach Charbonnet and sophomore Hassan Haskins each surpassed 100 yards on the ground and scored a touchdown. As a team, Michigan ran for a season-high 295 yards in the win over the Illini.
It has been said all season, but this Wolverine defense doesn’t quite stack up to those of the past few years. Despite that fact, Michigan is still a top-15 defense in points against and yards allowed. The Wolverines have had more success against the pass than the run this season, aided by a strong pass rush. Seniors Jordan Glasgow and Josh Uche, along with junior Kwity Paye, have four or more sacks each. In the secondary, senior safety Josh Metellus and senior corner Lavert Hill combine to make one of the nation’s toughest duo’s to pass against.
Penn State has quietly gone about their business this season, slowly moving up from No. 15 in the polls in the preseason to No. 7 after seven weeks. The Nittany Lions haven’t played the toughest schedule to this point, but PSU grinded out a win over Iowa last week to improve to 6-0.
Penn State’s offense is different than it has been over the last few seasons. The Nittany Lions of the past featured a dynamic running back like Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders, along with a deep-ball oriented passing attack behind the arm of Trace McSorley. All of those players have moved on, but McSorley has been replaced by sophomore Sean Clifford, while the star running back hole has been filled in by a committee of players. Clifford leads the conference in passing yards per game and is one of four Penn State players who has run for more than 200 yards this season. Last week against Iowa, freshman Noah Cain was the hot hand in the backfield, as he ran for 102 yards. This week it could be Cain, sophomore Journey Brown or freshman Devyn Ford who steps up for PSU.
Defensively, Penn State’s success is based on their outstanding defensive line. Senior defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney are averaging a sack per game each while constantly drawing double teams. That leaves openings for interior linemen like senior defensive tackle Robert Windsor, who was consistently causing problems in the backfield against Iowa last week. The defensive line anchors the defense that ranks in the top-five in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. Penn State hasn’t given up more than 13 points in a game this year, but Michigan will represent the toughest task thus far.
With College GameDay in town for a white-out night game in Happy Valley, it’s sure to be a raucous setting at Beaver Stadium. The Wolverines will need to run the ball with success and stay out of third-and-long situations to win the game. Penn State’s key to victory is similar to Michigan’s, run the ball with success, but also avoid costly turnovers.
Arizona State and Utah are tied at the top of a crowded Pac-12 South where, technically, all six teams have a chance to win the division. The Utes were the preseason consensus favorite to win the Pac-12 South, while the Sun Devils are a bit of a surprise under second-year coach Herm Edwards.
The Sun Devils are off to a 5-1 start this season, including two road wins over ranked opponents. If ASU were to beat Utah, it would be the first time in school history that the Sun Devils defeated three ranked teams on the road. The last time Arizona State started a season 3-0 away from Sun Devil Stadium was back in 1996, a year that finished in Pasadena.
True freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels has been a revelation for the ASU offense this season. The 18-year-old from San Bernardino, Calif. has seemingly gotten better with every game and has already orchestrated three game-winning drives in his young career. But Daniels hasn’t had to single-handedly lead the Sun Devil offense because he has one of the Pac-12’s best running backs and best wide receivers in his huddle. Junior running back Eno Benjamin was a Third Team All-American last season and senior receiver Brandon Aiyuk is second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards.
The Sun Devil defense has improved markedly in the last two seasons under head coach Herm Edwards. In 2017, ASU ranked 103rd in the country by allowing 32.8 points per game. This season, Arizona State is ranked 16th nationally, allowing just 17.7 points per game. The improvement, in large part, is due to the Sun Devils limiting opponents’ big plays. ASU has allowed just seven plays of 30 yards or more this season and have yet to allow a 50-plus yard play in 2019. Junior defensive back Jack Jones, a transfer from USC, has played a big role in limiting explosive plays with nine pass breakups this season.
Utah is off to a 5-1 start for the fourth time in the last six seasons. The lone loss was at USC on a short week, but otherwise the Utes have controlled every other game they’ve played in, winning all five by at least 18 points.
Utah plays a controlled style of offense, predicated on running the ball and passing efficiently. This season, they’ve not only done both well, but are the best in the Pac-12 in both rushing offense and passing efficiency. Senior running back Zack Moss is a bruiser and has averaged more than 7.5 yards per carry this season. Moss was injured in the loss to USC and missed the win over Washington State, but came back last week and racked up 121 yards and two touchdowns on just five carries in the victory over Oregon State. Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley has been great through the air and on the ground with 12 total touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Utes’ defense is basically a mirror image of its offense. Utah leads the conference in stopping the run and has made a living on forcing turnovers. Despite graduating its top tackling linebackers from a year ago, this Utes defense is holding opponents to just 52 yards per game on the ground. Utah has also forced eight interceptions this season and taken three back for touchdowns. Senior linebacker Francis Bernard and senior defensive back Julian Blackmon have two picks each, while junior defensive back Jaylon Johnson has one interception and leads the team with seven pass breakups.
Arizona State has played in more close games in the Herm Edwards era than any other team in college football. Utah plays a style of football that isn’t affected by a close game and may even thrive in a tight scenario. This one may come down to turnovers and the team that has fewer should win the game.
It’s a Pac-12 double-dip this week as Oregon and Washington represent the National Game of the Week.
The Ducks dominated this series from 2004-2015, winning all 12 games by an average of 23.75 points. The Huskies bounced back with big wins in 2016 (70-21) and 2017 (38-3). Last year, these two teams played an overtime thriller, with Oregon prevailing, 30-27.
The Ducks opened the season with a last-minute loss to Auburn, 27-21, but have rattled off five straight victories to enter this game 5-1. In the five wins, Oregon has outscored opponents 195-25 and scored 27 touchdowns compared to just one touchdown allowed.
The high-octane Ducks offense is led by senior quarterback Justin Herbert, who has thrown a touchdown in 34 consecutive games. Herbert’s top target, senior tight end Jacob Breeland, is now out for the year with an injury, but the Ducks have plenty of other targets. Junior receivers Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson III have combined for seven touchdowns this season. Additionally, dynamic freshman receiver Mycah Pittman has returned from a foot injury and could pick up the slack from Breeland being out. On the ground, sophomores CJ Verdell and Travis Dye lead the team in rushes and yards, while sophomore Cyrus Habibi-Likio has dominated goal line carries.
Defensively, there isn’t another team playing better than Oregon. The Ducks have allowed just one touchdown in their last five games. The defense is led by do-everything senior linebacker Troy Dye, who leads the team in tackles, is second in tackles for loss and has an interception. In the secondary, sophomore safety Jevon Holland leads the team with three interceptions, while freshman cornerback Verone McKinley III has two interceptions, both of which were last week in the win over Colorado.
Washington enters the game at 5-2, with both losses coming against Pac-12 North opponents – Cal and Stanford. In a bounce back game last week, the Huskies defeated Arizona, 51-27, to give the Wildcats their first conference loss this season.
The Washington offense has a very similar look to that of years past, though the faces and names have changed. A trio of running backs, juniors Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew, along with freshman Richard Newton, lead a run-first offense. They’ve combined for more than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Junior quarterback Jacob Eason has taken over at quarterback and played efficiently. The big-armed transfer from Georgia has thrown for 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions in seven games. Senior receiver Aaron Fuller and junior tight end Hunter Bryant lead the Washington receiving corps.
On defense, the Huskies have been very opportunistic. Washington ranks second in the Pac-12 with 13 turnovers forced this season, which the Huskies have turned into 11 scores, eight touchdowns and three field goals. Washington has also limited the big play this year by allowing just one play of 40 or more yards and only 11 plays of 30 or more yards. Senior defensive back Myles Bryant is the only returner in the secondary from a year ago and is playing like the leader of the defense. Bryant leads the team with 44 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions, which is second on the team behind freshman defensive back Cameron Williams, who has three picks this season.
In this century, these two Northwest rivals have had just three games where the outcome was within 10 points. One of those three was last season, and I’d expect a similar outcome this year.