Penn State vs. Michigan Odds & Betting Debate: Our Writers Argue Saturday’s Spread
Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: The Michigan Wolverines offensive line (left) and Penn State Nittany Lions defensive line (left).
- The Penn State Nittany Lions host the Michigan Wolverines in another Big Ten East classic on Saturday.
- The Wolverines jumped Michigan State in the CFP rankings, but the Nittany Lions are a tough challenge.
- Tanner McGrath and Mike Ianniello discuss which side to bet in Saturday's game.
Penn State vs. Michigan Odds
|Penn State Odds|
-113o / -109u
-113o / -109u
Like many other die-hard Michigan fans, I consider Jim Harbaugh largely a disappointment. However, I’m the eternal optimist, and every year, I believe things are going to be different.
Well, things are actually, really, totally, 100% different this year. I promise you.
Let me explain why.
The Big Ten is known for three things, in this particular order: Run the ball, punt the ball, play defense. Nobody in the conference does those three things better than Michigan.
Among Big Ten teams, Michigan has the most rushing yards at the second-most yards per carry, the third-best scoring defense, and the second-best SP+ special teams ranking (Ohio State and Michigan have the top two special teams units in the country).
All-in-all, this is the most balanced team Harbaugh has had at Michigan, and it’s one that’s primed to make some noise.
Michigan is 8-1 straight up and 6-2 against the spread, with its one outright loss coming in a fluke to Michigan State. The Wolverines outgained the Spartans, 552-396, total yards, and Michigan controlled the ball for 35 minutes.
The College Football Playoff Committee saw right through that fluke and placed Michigan a spot ahead of Michigan State in the current playoff standings at No. 6. If Big Blue wins out, it’ll be in the playoff competing for a National Championship.
That starts this week in Happy Valley, as Penn State has a litany of shortcomings that I’m ready to run out throughout the course of this article.
We are going to be fully transparent here and admit that both of us are very biased about this game.
Tanner grew up a die-hard Michigan fan and has been wearing that hideous yellow and blue his whole life. I’m a graduate of Penn State and spent four years in the best game-day environment in college football.
I earned a degree from one of the finest institutions in the country, while Tanner has the same amount of degrees from Michigan as Jim Harbaugh has Big Ten Championships. Boom, roasted.
You vs. the guy she told you not to worry about pic.twitter.com/EVx5J2Ykm0
— PSU FACTS (@PSU_FACTS) December 4, 2016
The beauty of this is that one of our biased picks will be right.
Penn State has bounced back from a brutal 2020 season, a year in which it still beat Michigan, by the way.
The Nittany Lions have gone 6-1 in games when Sean Clifford was fully healthy, with the lone loss being a close one at Ohio State — you know, the team that Harbaugh has never beaten.
The development of Clifford has been the big story for Penn State this season. In his third season as the starter, his third offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, has really implemented a system that allows Clifford to thrive. He has a career-high 73.9% adjusted completion rate, and his 14 big-time throws are a career-high and his seven turnover-worthy plays a career-low.
Yurcich’s offense thrives on pace and getting the ball to Penn State’s skill players in space. The Nittany Lions rank 15th in the country in plays per minute, and Clifford has done a great job getting the ball to weapons Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith.
Dotson leads the Big Ten with 71 catches and is second with 932 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s coming off a school-record 242-yard game on 11 catches with three touchdowns.
Michigan has not played a competent passing attack all season.
Nebraska has the best Pass Success Rate of any of the Wolverine’s opponents, and Adrian Martinez threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns against this defense. Nebraska ended the game with a 62% expected post-game win percentage.
Since fully recovering from injury, Clifford has thrown for over 360 yards in each of the last two weeks. He is 2-0 against the Wolverines in his career with 345 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
McGrath: Before I refute every argument Mike has about his mid-tier football team, I first need to defend my honour (with a “u”).
I do have a degree from a fine institution, not from this country, but from North America. In fact, it’s where the first college football game ever in Canada was played. Fun fact!
This week is the 145th anniversary of the first college football game in Canada as Harvard visited McGill and won, 3-0; they played 2 earlier games in May—the series was important in the transition from a more soccer-like game to organized football: https://t.co/D8uKH5wOdr 🇺🇸🏈🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/GicP6V0mbB
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) October 25, 2019
I find it important to relay my fine educational history so that people trust my analysis as much as Mike’s. I also wanted to share that fun fact. I also wanted to dunk on Mike.
But I digress.
Yurich’s offense doesn’t thrive at all. It encompasses inconsistent Clifford-to-Dotson chunk plays, and that’s it. The Nittany Lions play fast and can be explosive (disregarding the fact they rank 97th in big plays), but they don’t move the ball on a consistent basis.
It starts with the offensive line, which ranks 120th in Line Yards and then trickles into the backfield. Penn State averages 3.2 yards per carry and ranks 125th in Rush Success Rate, resulting in a standard downs Success Rate that ranks outside the top 90.
When they do manage to move the ball, the Nittany Lions don’t convert yards into points. They rank 75th in points per opportunity and outside the top 100 in red-zone efficiency.
So, while Clifford has made strides this season, the inconsistent offensive mess that surrounds him makes the point moot.
That formula has resulted in losses to Iowa and Illinois.
Meanwhile, Michigan excels at all the things Penn State doesn’t.
The Wolverines rush for over five YPC, with their top two backs having amassed a combined 1,700 rush yards at 5.5 YPC. As such, the Wolverines rank inside the top 20 in Rush Success Rate.
Michigan doesn’t have a passing attack because it doesn’t need one. The ground game moves the ball down the field with consistency and ferocity.
That formula has resulted in the Wolverines bowling over their schedule.
If Penn State wants to win this game, Clifford will have to outperform the Michigan rush attack. He’ll attempt to do so against a Wolverine defense that ranks third in pass rush, eighth in Finishing Drives, 11th in preventing big plays, 11th in passing downs Success Rate, and 13th in PFF’s coverage grades.
Good luck with that, pal.
Ianniello: Don’t you “pal” me, buddy!
First of all, Tanner, if you want to talk about punting being the key for Big Ten games (the only thing I’ll agree with you on), let me introduce you to Jordan Stout. The Nittany Lions punter leads the Big Ten in net punt average this year and has the strongest leg in the conference, unloading a 76-year bomb earlier this season.
Sure, Michigan is third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 16.0 points per game, but Penn State is right behind it at 16.7 points. Michigan has also allowed four more touchdowns than PSU this season.
Penn State might not have as high of a Success Rate, but it allows fewer yards per play on defense than Michigan and gives up the eight fewest yards per play in the country.
It also keeps opponents out of the end zone. The Nittany Lions are second in the country in preventing points past the 40. They have the best red-zone defense in the conference, allowing opponents to score just 64.7% of the time and touchdowns on a miniscule 29.4% of red-zone trips.
Michigan has allowed scores on 81.3% of red-zone rips and touchdowns 56.3% of the time.
Penn State cannot run the football, I will concede that. But Michigan’s run game is so dynamic because of the duo of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, right?
Well, Corum left last week’s game after one carry and left in a walking boot. If you take away peanut butter, you just have jelly. You take away salt, you just have pepper. You take away John Harbaugh, you just have Jim. See, not as good.
Without Corum in the backfield, Michigan will be forced to throw the ball with Cade McNamara and a weak wide receiver unit against a Penn State secondary that ranks eighth in coverage grade.
The Nittany Lions might have the best safety duo in the country led by All-American Jaquan Brisker, along with Ji’Ayir Brown. Cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. are both excellent in coverage as well, and this secondary will stifle a Michigan pass attack that has topped 260 yards just once.
McGrath: I’d hardly compare Jim and John Harbaugh to a PB&J. More like orange juice and toothpaste. But that’s besides the point.
I don’t think the loss of Corum will “force” Michigan to pass the ball. I believe Haskins will continue to run just fine, especially considering he’s PFF’s 19th-highest graded back.
— Nolan Bianchi (@nolanbianchi) November 7, 2021
But let’s say, hypothetically, McNamara is forced to pass the ball. He’s been pretty good when he’s had to, completing 62.5% of his passes for 8.4 adjusted yards per attempt and a 9:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Heck, he has a higher rating than Clifford (142.1 to 141.1, per Sports-Reference), and he tossed for 380 yards against Sparty.
Plus, Penn State’s ability to create pressure has been handicapped with the PJ Mustipher injury. And need I remind you that Michigan is the best team in the country in preventing Havoc.
Sure, Penn State scores when it has the opportunity, but I doubt it’ll receive many chances.
Clifford withers under pressure, as he’s recorded just a 29.8 PFF passing grade when pressured this season. That includes a 21% drop in adjusted completion percentage compared to when he’s kept clean, and he’s managed just one big-time throw and five turnover-worthy plays on those dropbacks.
Again, I remind you that Michigan has the third-best pass rush in the country. Aidan Hutchinson and Co. will feast against a Penn State line that ranks outside the top 50 in pass blocking.
Clifford won’t be able to complete deep passes to Dotson, as he won’t have enough time or composure to let the play develop. Penn State can’t move the ball any other way, so the offense is in for a long afternoon.
Ianniello: Milk and toothpaste would probably have been a better comparison because milk is the only thing your weirdo coach drinks despite being a grown man.
Michigan has some solid numbers this season because that’s what Michigan always does. It runs up the score and inflates its numbers against bad competition. The Wolverines have the 47th-ranked strength of schedule. The best team they faced was Michigan State, which beat them.
Penn State, meanwhile, ranks 13th in strength of schedule. It’s already faced four teams currently ranked — No. 4 Ohio State, No. 17 Auburn, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 20 Iowa. It beat Wisconsin and Auburn, was up two touchdowns on Iowa before Clifford got hurt, and lost by nine on the road against the Buckeyes.
The loss of Mustipher was certainly a big one, but the Nittany Lions have other studs on their defensive line. Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie is second in the Big Ten with 13.5 tackles for loss, six more than Hutchinson.
Over the last three games, Michigan has turned the ball over five times. It’s turned it over in five straight games. The Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten in takeaways.
Eventually, McNamara will need to throw the ball, and he will not have the success against this secondary that he did against Sparty.
McGrath: Bet Michigan -1
Michigan is a complete team that can compete at the highest level in all facets of the game.
Meanwhile, Penn State is an incomplete team that has serious weaknesses in the rush game, on the offensive line, and in the defense. Penn State’s supposedly “elite” defense ranks outside the top 50 in:
- Rush Success Rate
- Line Yards
- Pass Success Rate
- Pass Rush
The Nittany Lions also rank just 49th in PFF’s tackling grades. I’m not even remotely worried about the Michigan offense on Saturday.
This is a no-brainer. The Wolverines would never lose to Illinois. Michigan rolls and continues its quest for a playoff berth.
Ianniello: Bet Penn State +1
Penn State is 5-1 in its last six games against Michigan at Beaver Stadium. Happy Valley will be rocking and show that library you call “The Big House” what a real college football atmosphere is.
Against Big Ten East rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, Michigan is just 6-12 under Harbaugh and 1-5 over the last three years.
This line has jumped back and forth between Penn State -1 and Michigan -1. When the Wolverines have been a favorite of less than three or an underdog, it’s just 3-12.
The Nittany Lions would be 8-1 if Clifford didn’t get hurt. The Penn State quarterback is now back healthy and playing the best football of his career. Back Clifford and the Nittany Lions to secure the win over Michigan at home.