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Containing Winovich, stopping Michigan ground game key for Penn State

November 23, 2018

A lot remains on the line when No. 14 Penn State travels to Ann Arbor, Mich., at 3:45 p.m. Saturday to take on No. 5 Michigan. The Wolverines still are trying to earn a spot in the playoff, and the Nittany Lions are hoping to win out and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.

Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game:

Chase Winovich vs. Penn State’s tackles

Michigan star Chase Winovich (Thomas Jefferson) never received an offer from Bill O’Brien and Penn State. Instead, he committed to the Wolverines in 2013 before James Franklin had a chance to sway him.

“When we got here in the state of Pennsylvania, we tried to get involved,” Franklin said. “But it was just too late.”

The Nittany Lions missed on Winovich, and now they’ll have to deal with him.

Winovich, who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss last year, is a nightmare for linemen. The senior plays both ends of the line, so left tackle Ryan Bates and right tackles Will Fries and Chasz Wright will see plenty of the high-motored, long-haired speed rusher.

Winovich leads the Wolverines with 11 tackles for loss and seven hurries. His production has dipped in recent weeks with only one half of a tackle for loss in his last three games.

Still, there’s a reason why Winovich is the No. 47 overall prospect for the 2019 NFL draft according to CBS Sports. Michigan is the No. 1 total defense in college football, allowing only 220 yards per game, and Winovich is a major part of that.

Meanwhile, despite improvements to the Nittany Lions’ offensive line, quarterback Trace McSorley is taking a lot of hits. Penn State has let up 13 sacks in five conference games; the only Big Ten team to give up more is Indiana.

Of course, McSorley came back from an apparent right leg injury against Iowa, logged a gutty performance and helped earn the Nittany Lions a much-needed win. But if the signal-caller is hampered at all by that injury in Ann Arbor, it will be on Bates, Fries and Wright to make sure Michigan’s vaunted front four, Winovich especially, is staying away.

Penn State DL vs. Karan Higdon

Michigan QB Shea Patterson is undoubtedly important to the Wolverines’ success, but Jim Harbaugh’s offenses historically have been at their best with solid running backs. Think Toby Gerhart at Stanford or Frank Gore at San Francisco.

The numbers tell a similar story with Higdon. Only once this season have the Wolverines rushed for fewer than 170 yards in a game -- and that was their sole loss of the season in Week 1 against Notre Dame. Since that loss, Higdon has rushed for at least 100 yards in six straight games.

The longtime Adrian Peterson fan doesn’t run backward. Ever. When asked to describe his running style, he once said, “I want to hit you before you hit me.” Higdon has been able to wear down defenses, and the Nittany Lions should provide a strong challenge.

After all, Harbaugh said Tuesday Penn State’s defensive line “is the best we’ve played so far.” Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos is coming off a Big Ten Player of the Week performance, and Shareef Miller is playing well enough where declaring early for the NFL draft is a possibility.

The defense hasn’t always been gap accountable. And, sometimes, it fails to set the edge. But it also has played better over the last four weeks, holding all but Indiana to less than 3.6 yards per carry. Franklin acknowledged the improvement, saying the defense is playing better because “our D-line is starting to get better and play with more confidence.”

If you look at Michigan’s six losses over the last two seasons, a clear pattern emerges. In those games, the Wolverines averaged just 82.5 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry. In the wins? Try 234 rushing yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry.

Since Harbaugh joined Michigan in 2015, it’s 1-11 when rushing for less than 110 yards. If Penn State shuts down Higdon, and, by extension the Wolverines’ rushing attack, the Nittany Lions have a solid chance at the upset.

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