5 things to watch: Penn State at Michigan


The "hype" -- if you can call it that -- surrounding this game isn't exactly where most people thought it would be during the preseason. But like last year's matchup, this still has the potential to be pretty entertaining.

Here's a look at some of the specific things you should keep an eye on:

1. Michigan pass-rush vs. Penn State offensive line: This is the game's key matchup. If Christian Hackenberg has time to throw, like Rutgers' Gary Nova did last week, then chalk up another win for the Nittany Lions. But Greg Mattison dared Rutgers to beat him through the air ... and Mattison isn't so foolish as to try that same game plan against a talent like Hackenberg. This is an aggressive defense that, for the most part, has played well this season. (U-M ranks No. 19 nationally in yards allowed.) If it pressures Hackenberg enough, there's a good chance U-M either picks up its first conference win or that this game comes down to the wire. Northwestern, Rutgers and Central Florida all sent plenty of blitzers after Hackenberg, and all of those games were tight heading into the last quarter.

2. Can Devin Gardner build off last week's performance? Only three teams have turned the ball over more than Michigan, and a big reason for that is Gardner's penchant for fumbles and interceptions. Still, he turned the ball over just once last week and played relatively well. He rushed for 40 yards and two TDs and turned in a QBR of 65.6. If Gardner plays more like that -- and less like his performances against Notre Dame and Utah -- then the Wolverines might actually be able to move the ball against maybe the toughest defense they've played all season. This is a turning point for Gardner.

3. Impact of Derrick Green's absence: Green is out for the season, so U-M will have to find another way to run against the nation's second-best rush defense. De'Veon Smith should take on most of the workload, but Brady Hoke also plans to use a rotation involving both Justice Hayes and Drake Johnson. Smith's running style is more similar to Green's, but Smith has never before carried the ball more than 10 times in a game. He might Saturday.

4. Penn State linebacker health/rotation: Without OLB Nyeem Wartman two weeks ago, the defense clearly took a step back. Wartman is expected to play Saturday night, but he's not yet at 100 percent so it's unknown just how effective he'll be. Penn State is thin at the position, and the Jason Cabinda-Von Walker experiment didn't go so well in his absence. Wartman is a big part of this defense, and there's a big dropoff between him and his backups. A healthy Wartman means a healthy Penn State defense. An unhealthy Wartman, on the other hand ...

5. Crowd at the Big House: Calls for a boycott have been dialed back, but it'll be interesting to see just how lively the Big House is Saturday night. Fans haven't had much good football to watch and, after the Michigan State fiasco, more eyes than usual will be on whether the student section stays until the end. Hoke had to address the home crowd booing him a few weeks ago, and the boo birds could come out in full force if Michigan starts off slow. Just how intimidating will Michigan Stadium be?