Penn State defenders wary of No. 14 Michigan passing attack
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Trevor Williams easily remembers the last two games he spent covering Michigan receivers.
Not only were they notable matchups between two of college football's blue-blooded programs, the Penn State cornerback says they were among the most physical games he's ever played.
Williams expects nothing less from the No. 14 Wolverines (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) as they try to keep their Big Ten Title hopes alive with a win inside Beaver Stadium.
''They have a lot of talented guys on offense,'' Williams said. ''We have to match their intensity and be prepared.''
Matching Michigan's physicality might be tougher than usual for Penn State (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten).
Although the Nittany Lions have relied on an aggressive, swarming defense all season, they'll be without safety Jordan Lucas. The secondary's most sound tackler and most experienced player suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Northwestern.
''Whenever you're going to lose a senior starter who's played as much football as Jordan has and a guy who's been a captain, it's going to have an impact,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''You're not going to replace it with just one guy taking a spot. It's going to be a number of guys stepping up to replace his production and his leadership.''
A combination of safeties - Malik Golden, Troy Apke and Koa Farmer along with starter Marcus Allen - will join starting cornerbacks Williams and Grant Haley in attempting to slow down Michigan's red-hot passing offense.
Led by quarterback Jake Rudock, the Wolverines have racked up 946 passing yards and 10 touchdowns the last three weeks. Rudock's completed 68 percent of his passes in that span and has no shortage of weapons.
''I think really the backbone of their offense is their wide receivers,'' linebacker Jason Cabinda said.
Jehu Chesson torched Indiana last week and continues to be Rudock's go-to target as the Wolverines' fastest downfield threat. He's caught all seven of his touchdowns in the last three weeks while Amara Darboh continues to be a reliable target, using his 216-pound frame to outmuscle defensive backs.
Jake Butt has been dangerous when Rudock has needed him, too. The tight end's 38 catches for 500 yards are second only to Darboh's 45 for 567.
''Those four are playing as well as anybody the Big Ten conference as a group,'' Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. ''All four of them deserve any success or accolades that they're achieving because they've earned it.''
The absence of Lucas creates a big void for Penn State's nickel package.
Strong in run support and able to time blitzes well, the former cornerback usually inched toward the line to give Penn State's backend more leverage and create confusion for quarterbacks on passing downs. Without him, Penn State will likely use Haley and John Reid to fill the nickel role.
THAT RUN GAME, THOUGH
Despite their passing success, the Wolverines' ground attack has struggled to get going. Michigan is averaging about 42 rushing yards less per game after averaging 181 per game through the first seven.
If the Wolverines want to end their 11-year Big Ten title drought, they'll need help from their arch rivals. No. 2 Ohio State must beat No. 9 Michigan State and Michigan has to beat Penn State for the Wolverines to have a shot at a trip to Indianapolis.
Junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg won't be among the 19 Penn State seniors recognized before their final home game on Saturday even though it could be his final game at Beaver Stadium. He and defensive tackle Austin Johnson are expected to file paperwork with the NFL Draft Advisory Board and could forgo their senior seasons.
Neither player has addressed their futures and Hackenberg said he would not discuss his until the season is complete.