Michigan looks to spoil Penn State's unbeaten home season
Michigan's last two road games were against unranked opponents and came down to the wire, and their next could make it difficult to remain in the Big Ten title race.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines head to Penn State on Saturday with the Nittany Lions trying to complete their first unbeaten home season since 2008.
If Michigan (8-2, 5-1) keeps winning, beating Penn State (7-3, 4-2) and Ohio State, it will need one rival to beat another in order to reach the conference championship game for the first time.
The second-ranked Buckeyes must beat No. 9 Michigan State at home Saturday - at the same time as the Michigan-Penn State game - to give the Wolverines their best shot to win the Big Ten title for the first time since 2004. The Wolverines, of course, are simply trying to focus on what they can control.
That includes throwing to Jehu Chesson early, often and deep because he has found a knack for scoring after a slow start.
Chesson didn't catch a TD pass during the first seven games before hauling in seven over the last three, including four while setting career bests with 207 yards and 10 receptions in last Saturday's 48-41 double-overtime win at Indiana. He equaled Derrick Alexander's single-game team record for TD catches set in 1992.
"I think he's improving tracking the deep ball," said coach Jim Harbaugh of his speedy receiver. "You watch him run, you watch him catch, you watch him block, cover kicks. Tracking down the deep ball has really come along. That's the final piece he's acquiring."
Most of the scores have been necessary to keep Michigan in the race. He scored once in a 49-16 home win over Rutgers on Nov. 7, but the two before were crucial in a 29-26 win at Minnesota on Oct. 31, including the winning TD with just under five minutes remaining.
It's not a coincidence that Chesson's emergence as a threat through the air has happened at the same time that Jake Rudock has gotten into a groove. The quarterback was 33 of 46 for 440 yards with a school-record six TD passes against the Hoosiers and has thrown two interceptions in his last five games after having six through his first five.
"We've come along as an offense," tight end A.J. Williams said. "We've been able to connect a lot better and a lot more and you're starting to see the results of that."
In the last two games, the Wolverines have averaged 534.0 yards of offense after posting a 358.6 mark through their first eight - and they might be lucky to reach even that mark this weekend.
Penn State is coming off a bye week with a 6-0 home record at stake. The Nittany Lions are yet to allow 300 yards at home for an average of 250.7, though all of their tougher opponents have come on the road. That includes a 23-21 loss at Northwestern before the bye that came on a field goal in the closing seconds after they overcame a two-possession deficit entering the second half to take a 21-20 lead.
Coach James Franklin gave his players last weekend off, hoping a team that's struggled to put complete games together just needed some time to unwind. But recent history shows that rest doesn't always lead to success. Penn State is 0-4 after bye weeks the last two seasons and Franklin will wonder until kickoff if his team has had enough reps lately.
"As a coach you want to run as many plays, full speed," he said. "There's a part of you that thinks that's the right thing to do. And then there's the part of you that's looking down the table at your trainer and what he thinks we should be doing."
They'll all agree they need more offense versus top competition. Against the winning teams they've faced - Temple, San Diego State, Ohio State and Northwestern - the Nittany Lions have averaged 19.5 points and 314.2 yards.
Michigan, meanwhile, ranks second in the FBS with 268.7 yards of total offense allowed, though that didn't hold up against Indiana with the Hoosiers gaining 527 and 307 on the ground. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley probably took notice, and the freshman could be 100 percent with the bye giving him time to deal with a ankle injury.
The Nittany Lions have dropped their last three against ranked opponents but have won their previous three home meetings with Michigan.