It’s the final game of the non-conference season for the Central Michigan Chippewas (1-2), who are trying to shake off a slow start with a major upset to gain momentum into the MAC season, traveling to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (3-0) in a noon matchup on Saturday.
The Chips were a dark horse favorite to make a run at the MAC West division at the start of the season, but there have been some calibration issues in all three phases over the last three contests. A good result here would do a lot for their confidence as they focus on conference clashes.
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are on the warpath, going from unranked to 14th in the Associated Press Top 25 in just three weeks, with emphatic results over Purdue, Ohio and Auburn. They’re seeking to end their non-conference season with an undefeated slate to rise up the rankings further and set the table for a divisional run towards the Big Ten title.
We dig a little deeper to see how these two teams will match up when they hit the field on Saturday:
- Time and Date: Saturday, September 24, 2022, at noon Eastern time.
- Network: Big Ten Network (A valid subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: Beaver Stadium in College Park, Pennsylvania
- Spread/Total: Penn State is a 26-point home favorite, with an over/under of 60.5, per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Penn State won the only meeting between these two programs back in 2005, by a final score of 40-3.
Getting to know the Nittany Lions
Penn State has been a truly fascinating riser over the first month of the college football season.
They started the season unranked, and had to struggle in a hostile environment to pick up a tough road win against Purdue in the waning moments to start 1-0. After a blowout against Ohio on home turf earned them enough points to rank #22, the Nittany Lions traveled down to Auburn and summarily blew out the Tigers, jumping eight spots to the #14 berth of the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Right now, this feels like a team who has figured something out, a dangerous thing to compete against for any college football team.
The Nittany Lions are the 26th best offense in the country, averaging 485 yards of offense per game and 6.7 yards per play, with a balanced approach which has made them hard to pin down for opposing offenses, averaging 292.7 yards per game through the air (30th in the country) and 192.3 yards per game on the ground (50th in the country).
Sean Clifford is still at the controls at QB for Penn State, and has shown dual-threat ability in the past, something which CMU will have to take into account. The last time CMU faced a similar threat, Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders made them pay for it with six total touchdowns, with two of them on scramble scores. Clifford, who has three rushing scores so far, is 53-of-83 for 676 yards, five touchdowns and one interceptions through the air in 2022, and looks to exploit an in-progress CMU secondary.
Penn State loves to depend on the running game, and they have a fairly deep stable which should be up to the task. Freshman back Nick Singleton is by far the scariest of the runners in the PSU offense, averaging 11.1 yards per run on just 30 carries, scoring four times. He’s a home run hitter who makes good decisions at the line for maximum gain. Fellow freshman Kaytron Allen has also been a great complimentary back, with 106 yards on 23 attempts, scoring twice.
On the receiving front, four Nittany Lions are over 100 yards so far, with tight end Brenton Strange leading the way with nine receptions, 169 yards and a touchdown. Strange averages 18.75 yards per reception, makig him a reliable deep play target downfield. Senior receiver Mitchell Tinsley leads PSU with two touchdowns and 13 receptions for 158 yards, while Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith will also get some good target share down the stretch.
Defensively is where this team has really made their bread, giving up only 17.67 points per game as a unit.
It’s a true bend-don’t-break unit, giving up about 368 yards per game to opponents, with a 30.7 percent third-down conversion rate allowed. This team is predominantly built on stopping the run; they average 93 yards allowed per game, with just three scores on the ground and an average opponent run of 3.32 yards per carry. If there’s one concern, it’s in the back end, as PSU gives up 275 yards per game through the air— though it must be noted they’ve only allowed two total passing scores.
Despite the numbers for the secondary, this is still an extremely fierce unit from an individual talent standpoint, and serves as the highlight of the defense.
Safety Ji’Ayir Brown is the catalyst of the defense, with 15 tackles (13 solo), 1.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, and one each of an interception, pass break-up, QB hit and a forced fumble. He’ll certainly have the eyes of NFL scouts in this game, as he’s trending to be a potential Day 2 pick. Joey Porter Jr. (11 tackles, team-leading six pass break-ups) leads as the team’s best cover corner, while fellow defensive back Johnny Dixon (seven tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks) leads the team in sacks from the nickel spot.
Adisa Issac will be the team’s biggest pass rush threat from the EDGE spot, with four tackles-for-loss, a sack and three QB hits. All three linebackers list at 2-3-4 behind Brown on the tackles chart, with Curtis Jacobs (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack), Tyler Elsdon (13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss) and Abdul Carter (13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one sack) maintaining a tough interior behind the defensive line.
Redshirt senior Jake Pinegar is 3-of-4 on field goals, with a long of 48 yards, while Barney Amor handles punts, with 14 punts for 651 net yards and a 46 yard average, including seven inside-the-20 boots and six 50+ yarders.
Getting to know the Chippewas
The Chips have languished in the first half over the last three games, scoring 15, 10 and 7 points in the first 30 minutes of each respective contest, which has grown to be quite a concern.
It’s not quite the start we were all expecting from a Top 25 offensive unit in the country in 2021, to say the least. But this is still a fairly talented crew from top to bottom across all positions, and should feasibly hold up against a tough, ranked opponent, much like they did vs. Oklahoma State.
Even with all their efficiency issues, the Chippewas are still 33rd in the country in total offense, with 476.3 yards per contest and 15 scores, averaging 5.8 yards per play. It’s a testament to the on-roster talent and second-half adjustments they’re able to post such numbers despite the struggles.
Front-and-center for Chippewa intrigue will be what happens at quarterback. Daniel Richardson is still the undisputed starter, but there will be a legitimate chance the spot could open up if he starts flat again.
Richardson is 73-of-127 for 889 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions, for a completion percentage of 57 percent in 2022. The passing numbers yards and scores wise are encouraging, and in fact, above pace for career-best marks, but he’s also shown a lot of accuracy issues and has panicked into interceptions in a way he did not in 2021. His lack of a running presence can also make the offense one-dimensional if Lew Nichols doesn’t get going either, nullifying the sheer strength of what his arm brings to the table.
It makes the potential for Jace Bauer seeing time all the more interesting after a breakout performance last week, blazing his way to two rushing touchdowns in the late going vs. Bucknell. He has great potential, being chased by multiple top FCS programs and Iowa in the recruiting world, and could be called upon if CMU needs a spark offensively.
The running back situation is still the same as last season, with Lew Nichols at lead back after leading the NCAA in rushing yards last season. Penn State will match up pretty well against CMU in the rush game, so Nichols will have to take his new-found confidence from last week and find the holes where he can. Myles Bailey will get looks in the passing game and outside runs as a stretch back, while Marion Lukes has some intriguing speed CMU likes to employ on occasion in both passing and running situations.
This is basically a brand-new receiving unit for CMU after two graduations and an injury have rotated the names around. It’s resulted in some acclimation issues to start the year, but it’s an immensely talented unit. Transfers Jalen McGaughy (11 rec., 200 yards, two touchdowns) and Carlos Carriere (nine rec., 144 yards, one score) are big, physical presences with enough speed to win matchups against Power Five competitions, scoring three touchdowns against OK State as a unit in Week 1. The slot spot will see a rotation after Dallas Dixon’s season-ending injury, with Sam Hicks, Irone Jackson and Langston Lewis all expected to see time there. Tight end Joel Wilson is currently the second-best passcatcher, with a team-leading 16 receptions for 165 yards and two scores.
Defensively, CMU still has some work to do, with only three starters from 2021 still on the roster after the departure of Rolliann Sturkey for undisclosed reasons last week. CMU ranks as the 95th defense overall with 402.3 yards per game allowed, giving up 13 scores to opponents.
The defense seeks to stop the run and stick to havoc fundamentals, with highlight players being the pair of Thomas Incoom and Michael Heldman at the EDGE positions. Both players have 4.5 sacks each, with Incoom picking up three sacks, while Heldman has 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble so far in 2022.
Kyle Moretti (18 tackles) and Justin Whiteside (16 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss) fill the run gaps as the lone linebackers on the field, while Donte Kent (10 tackles, three pass break-ups in two games) returns as the lone returning starter in the secondary. Trey Jones and De’Javion Stephney (16 tackles apiece) have looked good at safety, with Stephney, a former halfback, leading with five pass break-ups. Cam Wiley, Jayden Davis and Lavario Wiley will also see time in rotation at the various defensive back spots.
CMU will also have eyes on the kicking spot, with Marshall Meeder sitting at 1-of-4 on field goals, with his lone make on the road. Luke Elzinga continues to be one of the MAC’s best punters, averaging 45.25 yards on 12 boots, with five inside-the-20 kicks and three 50+ yard kicks.
What to Expect
CMU had their feel-good game against Bucknell last week, which was desperately needed after an unexpected trouncing at the hands of South Alabama and a disappointing outing against Oklahoma State.
But considering how many issues they’re still fighting through, it’s tough to feel good about them heading into Happy Valley against a team who will be starving to prove they are a legitimate threat in the Big Ten title race.
CMU will be a popular pick in the sportsbook to cover the game, and as a potential trap opponent who will be much more talented than Ohio (who PSU beat handily) when these two teams hit the field on Saturday, and they should, as CMU was given the same line as Ohio at the open.
Ultimately, however, the Penn State home field advantege might be too strong to overcome for CMU, whose long-term outlook is to set up for a MAC West divisional run.