As the page turns to Week 11, one thing sticks out on the schedule and it's Michigan's road trip to Penn State.
While there are plenty of questions about Michigan off the field, there's been only one about Michigan on the field: how will it fare when it faces an elite opponent? The Wolverines have blitzed every opponent in its path this season, winning by an average margin of 31 points per game, but haven't faced a ranked foe yet.
That changes Saturday as the two-time defending Big Ten champions go to Happy Valley to face Penn State and a hostile Happy Valley environment.
The Nittany Lions failed its lone test of the season at Ohio State a few weeks back, but have put up two massive scoring games in a row since, has the team started to unleash its offense? Will it be able to hang with the two-way dominance of Michigan?
Here's how I view this marquee matchup on the Week 11 slate.
J.J. McCarthy Will Cook vs. Penn State
McCarthy has been putting up one of the most efficient seasons in recent memory. No, the numbers aren't huge like Jayden Daniels, and the plays aren't full of highlights like Michael Penix Jr.'s incredible touchdown throw against USC last week, but the numbers are clear: McCarthy is engineering a behemoth of an offense.
McCarthy has the third-highest opponent-adjusted EPA/Play of any individual quarterback, meaning he is adding nearly as many points to his teams' output due to his performance than any player in the country. He is completing more than 75% of his passes and hasn't thrown an interception since Week 3 against Bowling Green.
Further, he has thrown only eight passes in the fourth quarter this season considering Michigan has been beating foes so badly.
That'll change on Saturday in an expected slobber knocker against Penn State. However, I expect the Heisman Trophy candidate to excel yet again.
Penn State's defense has put up monster numbers this season, but we saw the team look middling against a pedestrian Ohio State offense. Further, we can look at the data this season and see that the team's defensive profile is a bit overrated. When the team has played a half-decent passing game, the numbers don't grade out so nicely.
Penn State's coverage grade over the balance of the season rates this group as a top 25 group, but when you zoom in on the four times it's played a national average or better passing game in terms of EPA/Play, the team's numbers are far worse. Against West Virginia, Ohio State, Indiana, and Maryland, the Nittany Lions have a coverage grade of about 61, which would put them outside the top 125 when scaled out across the entire season.
Against a vulnerable secondary, I expect McCarthy to continue to cook. The 6'3" signal-caller has made serious strides as a downfield passer this season as well. He has thrown more than 37% of his passes further than 10 yards down the field and is completing 66% of those passes with 19 big-time throws to three turnover-worthy plays according to Pro Football Focus.
It's worth noting that Michigan's offensive line should give McCarthy plenty of time, the unit is arguably the best in the country allowing only 29 tackles for loss this season. PSU was down Chop Robinson last week due to injury, one of the teams key pass rushers. if the Nittany Lions can't get pressure, it'll be open season for the Wolverines' passing game.
Penn State's resume is clouded by beating up on inferior foes, and we'll see yet again that the team can't punch up in weight.
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Penn State's Lack of Explosiveness Stands Out
Since sputtering in Columbus, you'd think Penn State's offense is on track after scoring 33 points against Indiana and hanging 51 on Maryland on the road last week.
Against Indiana, Penn State averaged less than five yards per play but scored nine points in the final two minutes to help pad the final score line. The offense did move the ball better against Maryland, but in the end only posted 409 yards, benefitting from forcing four turnovers. The team posted a 5% explosive play rate in the win, 16th percentile when compared to all games in 2022, per gameonpaper.com.
Quarterback Drew Allar continues to not be a threat to push the ball down the field, averaging less than seven yards per pass attempt with only nine big-time throws. Overall, about 30% of Allar's throws have been more than 10 yards down the field and he's completing 47% of those passes.
Penn State doesn't have the game-breaking speed at wide receiver to test Michigan if the offense is going to play close to the line of scrimmage. Michigan is top 10 in tackling according to PFF, and top 10 in both completion percentage and yards per pass attempt allowed.
Overall, PSU is bottom 10 in both explosive rush and pass rate this season.
I know what you're thinking, Michigan hasn't faced a worthy foe yet this season and I just finished bashing Penn State for beating up on lesser foes.
While I can poke holes in Penn State's defense and the quarterback is struggling, Michigan is fresh off back-to-back College Football Playoffs and has done nothing to insist that this team isn't a cut above every team in the Big Ten. The team is disposing of foes with such ease that I don't believe Penn State has the talent to test Michigan even if the defense is a touch overrated.
The Wolverines are yet to face a goal-to-go this season after nine games. The team will make Penn State work methodically down the field and force them to string together a long sustaining drive. I don't trust Allar and Co. to do that against a Michigan team that is third in pass rush grade.
Michigan vs. Penn State Prediction and Pick
I've been banging the Michigan is the best team in the country drum all season long. The team has arguably the best quarterback in the country this season at the helm and will face a worse than the numbers indicate secondary in PSU that has failed in its few tests this season.
Meanwhile, the PSU offense isn't equipped to challenge the Wolverines' defense. To take down a team that is top 10 in success rate on both sides of the ball, you need to hit explosive plays and generate turnovers. While the Nittany Lions are second in the nation in turnovers gained (20), the team has one of the lowest explosive play rates in the country.
Some may point to Michigan not playing a formidable opponent as a reason to knock them, but I believe it's generating value on Saturday's point spread. I can't trust Penn State to sustain drives against Michigan's sturdy defense where I believe McCarthy can stretch the field vertically to generate separation and another convincing win that will jumpstart his November Heisman campaign.
I envision Michigan wins 27-13.
Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.
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