Three Nittany Lions to Watch at Michigan

By Dylan Burd on November 27, 2020 at 3:30 pm
Nov 21, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) runs with the ball against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 0-5 Penn State Nittany Lions will head to the Big House on Saturday to play the 2-3 Michigan Wolverines. Prior to the 2020 season, this was set to be a marquee game fought over by ESPN and FOX between two storied programs. Now, it’s a game between two disappointments hoping to avoid an even greater disaster of a season than they've both already had.

Despite being winless and not having won in Ann Arbor since 2009, Penn State is only a two-point underdog in the game. Here are three Nittany Lions who will be crucial if their team is to finally get into the win column.

Quarterback Sean Clifford

Currently, it’s unclear who is going to start at quarterback for Penn State, as the depth chart listed QB1 as Sean Clifford ‘OR’ Will Levis. That being said, after what we saw last week, all indications point to Clifford starting on Saturday. 

Despite his struggles this season, Clifford did have some bright spots last week. Well, two very specific bright spots, at least. After replacing Will Levis in the second half, Clifford started 2/2 with 96 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, his 68-yard touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson was almost undoubtedly his best throw as a Nittany Lion.

However, his success did slow down after that, as he threw two interceptions that were caused by his staring down receivers and allowing defensive linemen to alter the throws, one of which turned into a pick-six. He finished 13/22 passing for 174 yards. Regardless of the turnovers, however, it’s clear that Kirk Ciarocca and Penn State feel more comfortable running their offense through Clifford, not Levis.

Levis didn’t necessarily play poorly against Iowa, as he completed 13 of his 16 passes for 106 yards. There was no reason to believe that the big-armed backup shouldn’t be allowed to air it out like Clifford, but the play calling was extremely conservative while he was in the game. A 6.6 yards per attempt average with only three incompletions is a sign of that. Levis also ran the ball 15 times for 34 yards.

If Clifford does start, this is a good game for him to get back on track. Michigan’s defense has been struggling tremendously in some games against the pass. Last week, Rutgers’ starting quarterback Noah Vedral threw for 381 yards (he had surpassed even 200 yards just once prior) and three touchdowns against Michigan. Indiana's Michael Penix and Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi also had career days against this defense.

If Clifford can have one of his own, his team will have a chance.

The Linebackers

It has been anything but a banner year for Linebacker U, as Brent Pry's unit has struggled mightily from day one. Penn State is allowing 138.6 rushing yards per game, whereas last season, it allowed just 97.7 rushing yards per game (good for fifth in the FBS). While that failure is a group effort, it starts with the linebackers' struggles with tackling. Urban Meyer explained this issue a couple of weeks ago on FOX. 

Last week, Penn State allowed four rushing touchdowns to Iowa, including 101 yards and two touchdowns to Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent on just 15 carries. Additionally, Iowa running back Tyler Goodson had 78 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. His touchdown was scored simply due to a missed tackle by Jesse Luketa. 

Looking at Michigan, it has had minimal success running the ball this season. The Wolverines had only 13 rushing yards on 18 carries in their loss at Indiana. Michigan also had only 47 yards rushing against Wisconsin. Against Rutgers, the rushing total looked better with 147 yards, but the ball carriers averaged just 3.42 yards per carry on their 43 carries.

Penn State's linebackers have a great chance to not only build confidence against a weak running game but also make their opponent one-dimensional.

The Safeties

When Penn State has played a good quarterback this season, the secondary has been torched. Against Maryland, Taulia Tagovailoa completed 18 of his 26 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns. Against Ohio State, Justin Fields completed 28 of his 34 passes of 318 yards and four touchdowns. In both games, chunk passing plays were a killer for the Nittany Lions. Many of them occurred because safeties Lamont Wade or Jaquan Brisker were late to the play.

The safeties wouldn’t be as much of a concern against Michigan if Joe Milton were playing, but it’s likely that Cade McNamara will start for the Wolverines on Saturday. If last week is any indication, McNamara will be the guy the rest of the way in 2020. After replacing Milton against Rutgers, McNamara completed 27 of his 36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns. He also had a one-yard touchdown run.

Considering the struggles of the Michigan rushing attack and the Penn State secondary, expect to see offensive coordinator Josh Gattis air it out on Saturday. If Brisker and Wade aren't at their best, the defense won't be able to do much to stop it.