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Nittany Lions have chance for signature win

It has certainly been an interesting month of Penn State football to say the least. The Nittany Lions, just a little more than a month ago, back on Oct. 8 were in the thick of the College Football Playoff, ranked No. 4 in the country.

But a loss at Iowa to the No. 3 ranked Hawkeyes at the time followed by a loss in Beaver Stadium to Illinois dashed any hopes of a Big Ten East title and a trip to the Big Ten championship. Penn State then lost its third straight game at Ohio State and all of a sudden you have a team that is reeling and that needs a win at 6-3 Maryland to try and turn its season around.

The Nittany Lions were able to get that win last week, a tough and gritty win on the road against the Terrapins - a win they couldn’t come up with against Illinois a few weeks earlier. Now, there’s no doubt Penn State’s struggles started when Sean Clifford was injured against the Hawkeyes. With a healthy Clifford, the Nittany Lions probably beat both Iowa and Illinois, but unfortunately for them and their faithful they did not.

It’s time for Penn State fans to focus on the present and with the No. 6 ranked Michigan Wolverines coming to Happy Valley there will be another opportunity presented to the Nittany Lions to grab a signature win.

The series between Penn State and Michigan over the past six years has been back and forth. The teams have split the last six meetings, 3-3, but Penn State has won each of the last two matchups. Last year, the Nittany Lions earned a 27-17 win in Ann Arbor.

The Penn State defense was yet again impressive in the takeover department against Maryland as it forced two turnovers, including an 87-yard pick-six by Ji’Ayir Brown - the fifth-longest interception return in program history, which put the game away last week.

Stopping the run will be the main focus of the Nittany Lions defense as Michigan boasts an impressive rushing attack led by Hassan Haskins (829 yards, 11 TD) and Blake Corum (778 yards, 10 TD). The duo is averaging 178.5 yards per game and 5.45 yards per carry. Corum is not expected to play this afternoon.

Penn State has been playing better against the run since its horrifying performance against Illinois, holding Maryland to 48 rushing yards. The Nittany Lions have limited opponents to under 100 yards rushing 38 times since 2014. Penn State is 32-6 in those games. It will obviously be tough for the Nittany Lions to hold Michigan below 100 yards rushing, but the more Cade McNamara and the Wolverines passing offense is forced to make plays through the air, the more that benefits a Penn State defense that flies to the football and creates turnovers.

Nittany Lions defensive end Arnold Ebiketie will serve as a key player later today. He registered a solo sack in the first quarter against Maryland. Ebiketie has at least one tackle for loss in five-straight games. He’s tied for ninth in the country and leads the Big Ten with 12.5 tackles for loss.

If the weather cooperates, the Nittany Lions passing offense will look to continue their success as Clifford has looked healthy over the past two week. Clifford has thrown for over 360 yards with four touchdowns and just one interception in his last two ball games. There’s no doubt he will be looking for Jahan Dotson today after his record-breaking performance last week. Dotson had a career-high-tying 11 receptions for 242 yards and three touchdowns. Dotson’s 242 yards are a Penn State single-game record, bettering Deon Butler’s 216 yards against Northwestern in 2006. Dotson had touchdown receptions of 38, 21 and 86 yards. The 86-yard touchdown is tied for the fourth-longest pass play in school history. Dotson is the only Power Five receiver, and one of two FBS receivers, with 240 yards and three touchdowns in a game this season.

Michigan’s defense sits third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.0), second in total defense (298.1), second in passing defense (173.4) and sixth in rushing defense (124.7).

The Wolverines are coming into this game a bit banged up, and it looks like Penn State should be relatively healthy at all its key positions. This is a tough game to pick as if the rain, which is expected to be over by kickoff continues into game time (Noon ET, ABC) then that certainly does not favor the Nittany Lions because of their struggles running the football. But I think the defense comes to play and has a good game plan against the Michigan rushing attack.

I’ve really been impressed with the defense’s ability to play with its back against the wall in the red zone on the season. Penn State held Maryland to two-of-five in the red zone last Saturday and have held opponents without a score in 12 of 34 red zone possessions.

This one certainly won’t be pretty.

My pick is Penn State 20, Michigan 17.