Preview: Penn State
Run Offense vs. Penn State
This could go either way. Minnesota chose to run up the middle against Penn State instead of using their pull-crazy perimeter game and had disappointing (but not awful) results. Amir Pinnix had 76 yards at just under three yards per carry. Ohio State, however, got Antonio Pittman to the edge frequently (or he got himself to said edge -- guy loves, loves, loves to bounce it outside) and was rewarded with 5.5 YPC and a win on a day where Troy Smith was awful except one play where he was magnificent. The clear implication is that you should get it outside as often as possible versus Penn State to take advantage of their weak defensive ends and stay away from Ed Johnson and Jay Alford as much as possible.
Michigan's zone game is poised to do that. Over the last two weeks Mike Hart has picked up dozens of yards when he bounces outside of a properly sealed defensive end. Penn State's linebackers might have better luck containing Hart after he gets the corner -- Minnesota's lack of pitch sweeps still puzzles -- but good play at that point is damage control. Also of note is last year's Penn State game, when Mike Hart ran a ton of draws for good yardage against essentially the same defensive front with a markedly worse offensive line. Alford loves to penetrate, but that tendency works against him in both Michigan rushing scenarios: get upfield the wrong way against either a draw or the zone and you've taken yourself out of the play and opened up a huge hole for the opponent.
It's doubtful Penn State can control the Michigan running game without drawing an extra defender into the box regularly and having him contain the perimeter. The defensive ends have proven themselves wildly subpar and Michigan is poised to attack them. I think there's a chance excellent play from Connor, Poz, Johnson, and Alford does the same thing to the Michigan running game they did to Minnesota, but I think another 120 yards for Hart at 4 per is more likely.
Key Matchup: DeBord versus Alford. Weird, but hear me out: he's Penn State's best defender, bar none, but has exploitable tendencies. Keeping him off-balance -- running when he thinks pass, passing when he thinks run -- will keep his first step a tentative one and do much to neutralize his impressive penetration.
Pass Offense vs. Penn State
Apparently some guy is injured or something, but I forget his name.
Right, right: Mario Manningham will be a huge loss for the Michigan passing attack. Much is being made of his nine touchdowns in comparison to the 13 the rest of the team has. He'll obviously be missed by everyone not named "Justin King," but the Penn State secondary has taken on three actual teams and been torched by two. They were spared from a third by heavy rain and an off day from Troy Smith. My constant harping on the lack of Penn State pass rush seems odd given that they have more sacks than Michigan does, but all I can say is that've watched Penn State's games versus Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Minnesota and the image of a quarterback surveying the field seemingly forever has burned itself into the cathode ray tube of my mind.
The loss of Manningham reduces the chances of the long bomb touchdowns that have featured in every Michigan game since The New Math's coming out party versus Notre Dame but it doesn't eliminate them entirely. Adrian Arrington has been open deep twice in the past two weeks, catching one touchdown and watching one underthrown pass bounce off a beaten Spartan defender's helmet. A hyped recruit coming out of high school and a secondary breakout star in the receiving corps, his combination of height and speed makes him a dangerous person to single up. Steve Breaston's contributions to date have been mostly chain-moving third-down conversions and the occasional dropped slant, but putting him in man coverage against a secondary that's proven itself to be a missed tackle factory also seems... unwise.
Key Matchup: Bihl/Mitchell/Kraus versus blitzers and DTs. Without pressure up the middle, there will be little pressure at all from Penn State, and Henne's proven himself accurate enough this year to replicate Brady Quinn's slice-and-dice performance versus the Nittany Lions. If Henne has time, game over.
Run Defense vs. Penn State
Tony Hunt is a good back who is about to get Dayned by the Michigan defense. He's powerful but not particularly elusive or fast and he's running behind an inexperienced offensive line featuring four new starters and a potentially banged-up Levi Brown, who missed the Minnesota game. Even with a fully healthy Brown, the Penn State run game is a near duplicate of Wisconsin's, featuring a huge, powerful back with some burst, one top-ten NFL draft pick on the offensive line, and a bunch of question marks elsewhere, two future stars and two dodgy at best. Penn State does feature a smattering of ISQDs, predictable end-arounds to AJ Wallace, and ineffective pitch sweeps to Derrick Williams, but those are window dressing on the main course: Hunt left, Hunt right, Hunt up the middle.
After some initial shakiness, the Michigan defense swallowed PJ Hill whole by getting penetration into the backfield and forcing him to cut. One can't move that much beef fast enough to make a backfield cut and outrun Crable, Burgess, and Harris.
I foresee doom for PSU here. Penn State fans will point out his 60-some-yard run against Michigan last year, but that was mostly due to a terrible angle taken by a freshman safety, Brandon Harrison, in his first-ever start. Also, that was the worst Michigan run D in recent memory. This... uh... is not. Hunt's been great at powering through tacklers and reliably picking up big hunks of yards by running north-south. Meanwhile, David Harris and Prescott Burgess have spent the year thumping guys bigger than Hunt and the defensive line has put a lot of unexpected east-west in the opponent's game plan. Michigan matches up perfectly.
Key Matchup: Linebackers versus Hunt. Hunt's main asset as a back is a Hart-like ability to carry a tackler three yards forward before going down. If he turns one yard into four consistently Penn State will have a semblance of a run game and thus an offense.
Pass Defense vs. Penn State
There is a point at which Anthony Morelli might suddenly become damn good. This is not the week. He had the best day of his career against Minnesota, but still threw three balls that should have been intercepted. That's a neat trick against a Gopher secondary court-ordered to stay ten feet away from wide receivers at all times. Season-to-date, Morelli is completing 56% of his passes, has 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. For reference, Michigan fans were very upset when Chad Henne completed 58% of his passes with a 23-8 TD-INT ratio in 2005. The kicker: the only defense Morelli has played that people would describe as "not utterly crapulent" was Ohio State, against whom Morelli was 16 of 25 for 106 yards with three interceptions.
It's safe to project a better performance than that with a more experienced Morelli at home, but how much better? And how much better when Michigan projects to do much better versus Tony Hunt, forcing the Lions into obvious passing downs? Probably not much.
Meanwhile, over the last two games Michigan's struggled to get as much pressure as they did in dominating wins over Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Both Minnesota and Michigan State found that they did have time to throw in certain situations, though Minnesota went with a lot of three-step drops and Michigan State rolled the pocket all day, limiting their offense in an attempt to keep their quarterbacks whole. Both managed that trick but couldn't manage more than seven points before garbage time.
Morelli isn't mobile, so rolling the pocket is out, and his accuracy and decision-making are iffy, making a three-step West Coast game unlikely to not run into a third-and-long eventually.
He does have a wide array of tiny bastards at WR well-suited to wide receiver screens. With Morgan Trent still sporting a soft cast and Michigan vulnerable to middle screens versus Wisconsin and Michigan State, I expect a ton of screens of all varieties.
Key Matchup: Morelli versus Various Coverages. Penn State can't win this game if they lose the turnover battle, and if Morelli throws three or four balls that should be intercepted, one or two will likely will be. That's curtains. Without a "0" in the interceptions column, Penn State loses.
Kevin Kelly, like Garret Rivas, is generally reliable but will flake out on short field goals occasionally. He's 12/17 so far. Derrick Williams has been all right in the punt return game; Rodney Kinlaw hasn't done much with kick returns. Their punter, Kapinos is good.
Slight advantage Michigan here in the form of Steve Breaston.
Key Matchup: Punters versus Common Sense. Kapinos is the kind of guy who might outkick a coverage or two, and you know Zoltan has that ability.
I've been ragging on Penn State all year, but I'll give them the respect their program and crazy stadium demands by breaking out a kitten photo. Though it is a kitten photo that reflects the way the series has gone over the past decade.
- Penn State sells out on the run and we are stubborn.
- Morelli looks magically more competent at home.
- I'm totally wrong about Hunt.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Adrian Arrington lopes downfield, behind the defense.
- Their defensive ends crumble like girly cookie.
- The DL resumes its perforatin' ways.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -1 for Hunt == Dayne, -1 for Morelli == Not Good, +1 for They Really Hates Us, Precious, +1 for It Will Be Damn Loud, +1 for Wither The New Math?, -1 for Their Defensive Ends Are In No Position To Argue).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +5 for Eff It, We Must Go To Columbus Undefeated)
Loss will cause me to... experience the worst drive home of my life.
Win will cause me to... omigod omigod omigod. Beat Iowa. Please beat Iowa.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Like the Wisconsin game, I have a hard time believing Penn State's offense is capable of driving the field even once versus the Michigan defense. An unfortunate interception and a David Harris bust proved me wrong about the Wisconsin game, though, and Michigan seems to have one major breakdown due to excessive aggression or just plain stupidity per game. I expect Penn State will claw together a couple drives here and there, get one big play and end up with around 10 or 13 points unless they get a huge turnover or return.
Michigan goes up against a tough defense but one they match up well against. Their weakness at defensive end will have to be either endured or compensated for. Of all the teams we've played so far the Lions are least capable of taking advantage of Rueben Riley's weaknesses in pass protection. I don't think Manningham's loss is as big as it might have been versus other teams, as I do expect Penn State to lay back like they have in every game they've played against real competition. Henne will have to be on and Breaston will have to make those hands behave for Michigan to drive down the field. It'll be a struggle, but I figure Michigan gets its share of short fields and chunks of yardage... enough to score in the mid-twenties.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Hart outrushes Hunt by 60-70 yards.
- Morelli throws at least one interception.
- 24-10, Michigan.