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State College, PA
||5 PM Eastern
October 12th, 2013
||partly cloudy, mid 60s dropping to 50s, 10% chance of rain
I ADMIT IT, AND I'D DO IT AGAIN, SEE? YEAH, SEE?
Penn State enters their game against Michigan reeling after their first-ever loss to Indiana, that by a whopping 20 points. While Penn State's attempts to get back into the game created a bit of a point avalanche for the Hoosiers, Indiana racked up almost 500 yards in a decidedly non-fluky victory.
With a 37-34 loss to UCF that wasn't really that close also in the rear view mirror, Penn State is teetering on the brink of a sanctions-imposed abyss. A win against Michigan forestalls that for a while yet. A home loss to go 3-3 with two gimmies and spirits will deflate.
Run Offense vs Penn State
Glenn Carson tackles will hit double digits
Penn State's rushing defense has been schizophrenic. They've obliterated Eastern Michigan and Kent State. Those teams are really terrible at offense, sure. Syracuse is actually decent-ish and Penn State held them under a hundred yards; their main backs combined to acquire 3.5 yards an attempt on 28 carries.
In their other two games they've been shredded.
- UCF got two runs of 40+ yards and averaged 6.7 yards an attempt, quarterbacks excluded.
- Indiana was a bit less prolific but also ripped off a 40-yarder and averaged 5.2 a pop, team and QB rushes excluded.
Ace hopped on Google Talk to describe with wonder IU's backbreaking 75-yard touchdown drive to go up 28-17, because it was all rushes and screens. Vintage Penn State defense this isn't.
Sanctions have started to bite heavily, especially in the linebacker corps, where Nyeem Wartman and Ben Kline have been knocked out of the lineup and Mike Hull has been playing hurt, visibly. He missed EMU and Kent State and has limped through the last couple games. That leaves senior returning starter Glenn Carson, a fringe NFL prospect, as the only fully healthy starter. Hull's making do at one spot and 5'10" converted safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong is operating as a permanent nickelback at the other. Against Indiana, PSU used Carson and Hull as the ILBs; against Michigan they'll have to hope all three guys can read and react in the box, because if you think Michigan sees 5'10" linebacker and 250 pound SDE and isn't going to manball faces you've got another thing coming.
Given Michigan's success at reducing turnovers with a grinding style, expect them to continue that until Penn State proves they can stop it—and I mean stop it, not just reduce it to 3 or 4 yards. This is actually a situation in which you may be able to "wear down the opponent," because the opponent is operating with 61 scholarship players. Penn State has a tough task against tackle over: shift under and Lewan's blowing your DE off the ball. Shift over and you're asking a lot of Obeng-Agyapong.
The cat-and-mouse game will play a large role in success here, as Michigan's overload is susceptible to a similar overload from Penn State and counters were limited and not particularly effective against Minnesota. They had a couple of weakside isos and one honest-to-God counter; only one of those plays was particularly successful.
With Fitzgerald Toussaint obviously instructed to get upfield fast and hard on threat of pudding bath, Michigan will grind out another low-TFL, low-YPA, lots of third-and-short running performance, leaving big plays to relatively infrequent passes.
Key Matchup: Kerridge, Butt, and Kalis/Bryant against Penn State linebackers. Yeah, I'm taking it for granted that the Red Sea will part on these power plays, whether it's by playing straight up for Lewan adjusting to slant games PSU comes up with. That'll leave the lead block convoy against PSU's hallowed but flagging LB corps.
[Hit THE JUMP for Come to Penn Shhhhhhtate!]
Pass Offense vs Penn State
Like the rush defense, PSU throttled Syracuse, EMU, and Kent State and was crushed themselves against UCF and Indiana. Passing lines in those two games:
- Blake Bortles, UCF: 20/27, 288 yards, 10.7 YPA, 3 TD, 1 INT
- Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: 23/38, 321 yards, 8.4 YPA, 2 TD, 1 INT
If you're thinking that defending probably didn't go too well in those games if Penn State couldn't defend either the run or the pass in them, well, yeah. Here is the Bortlesing:
Hitches hitches hitches, and then getting beat over the top. Penn State's in damage control mode at corner.
Short on players, Penn State moved corner Adrian Amos to safety before the season and generally makes due with Obeng-Agyapong as their nickel in passing sets. The corners are both sophomores who committed in the immediate aftermath of Penn State's sanctions and had one other BCS offer each, and that's only if you count Temple. Lucas was thought to be a safety by the sites, Williams a wideout. Williams is a position switch starter that signals desperation, as he was still a wideout until PSU's spring practice.
They've got size, but if they're not playing off Jeremy Gallon he will eat them alive, and this seems like a defensive backfield that is going to have trouble sticking with Funchess just like Minnesota did.
Penn State's pass rush has collected 11 sacks on the year, with no more than two from any one person. Ace said they didn't blitz much against Indiana but they've got to be bringing guys at least sometimes since DBs and LBs have 4 of their sacks.
The question for Michigan is: are they the kind of offense that disassembles these guys or vice-versa? If you're going by career Gardner YPA, the answer is hell yes. If you're going by your eyes, the answer is closing your eyes and praying. Against Minnesota, Michigan mitigated the eyes thing by working Gardner into the game slowly and putting him in a lot of situations where they were able to get him time and his receivers space because Minnesota was overplaying the run.
They're not going to be able to get away with quite as much crunch in this one—Michgian's going to have to throw more than 17 times. That'll up the pressure on Gardner and AJ Williams and expose Michigan to more danger. The potential rewards from Michigan's newly sexy WR corps demand exploration of the possibilities, though.
Key matchup: Gardner versus himself, still.
BONUS key matchup: AJ Williams versus PSU DEs in pass protection. Feels like Michigan's going to have some opportunities to hit big plays over the top as long as they can keep Gardner clean on tackle over play action.
Run Defense vs Penn State
Hyyyyarrr! Prepare for the GINGERBEARDENING
Starting tailback Zach Zwinak is a Weisman-like moose good at pounding his way forward and not much of a breakaway threat. He was highly effective against UCF but only moderately so against the rest of the schedule. Like Michigan's ground game against Minnesota, he's likely to get you a small number of yards play in, play out.
Backup Bill Belton is a smaller, quicker guy with a better YPC and more sparing usage. He'll probably see around ten carries; sophomore Akeel Lynch got plenty of effective run late in the Kent State and EMU blowouts but has seen little time in competitive games.
This is a Notre Dame-like offense that spreads the field and hands off too infrequently for fans' taste, which could pose Michigan some problems. They've responded to passing spreads with a lot of nickel packages that lift their nose tackle in favor of another pass-rush threat. It says here that practice should stop immediately since the extra pass-rush threat has not actually threatened any pass rush and it's time for senior Quinton Washington to get the playing time he deserves. He was Michigan's best lineman against Minnesota, easily, and if his presence can cut down on third and shorts he should be in there.
Even if he is, the rest of Michigan's line is young or undersized or liable to miss assignments and Zwinak should have a relatively productive day as Michigan's excellent inside linebackers have to work through too much trash to keep him to two yards very often.
Key Matchup: Quinton Washington and Three Tech Du Jour against double teams. Michigan is going to flee the box and
Pass Defense vs Penn State
This will be a stern test for Michigan's passing defense. Despite having a true freshman slinging the ball around, Penn State has shown no compunction against having Christian Hackenberg fling it plenty. He's had one game under 30 attempts, that 28 against UCF, and is coming off an arm-wearying 55 against the Hoosiers.
After a torrid start with 70% completions over his first three games, he's come back to earth with a 13 of 35 performance against Kent State(!) and a mediocre 6.2 YPA in that pass-happy Indiana game. He's been interception prone, as you might expect: four on the year and it probably should be more after he was fortunate to get away with some throws against the Hoosiers. Ace:
…when the game was close, he was very erratic, alternating gorgeous darts to the opposite hash with late throws to the perimeter that should've been intercepted (I have four of those in my notes) and several passes either behind or over his receivers. …this is a talented true freshman who plays like a talented true freshman. Some of his passes actually elicited a "wow" from me while watching; others produced a "whoa"—as in "whoa, how did that not get picked off?"
Par for the course there, and Hackenberg hasn't faced a defense that would strike anyone as even average unless you want to count UCF. Do you want to do that? I'm guessing probably not.
Hackenberg's primary target is of course Allen Robinson, who's probably the best receiver in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. With Penn State basing out of three-wide formations with a standup tight end, Michigan's desire to stick Blake Countess in the slot and ride or die with Taylor and Avery on the outside in the nickel package will be put to the test. I expect they'll stick with it. Also something they'll stick with: all two deep safeties playing conservative, all (most) of the time.
Penn State's prolific tight end corps has also been damaged by injury. Matt Lehman went out for the year in the Syracuse game and Kyle Carter "nearly broke an arm" in the same game; he's been limited. Spectacularly-named Jesse James has found more playing time, but he's in the Funchess mold: all catch, no block.
Michigan has played mostly soft zone coverages this year, giving teams seven-yard hitches and bleeding yardage as they prevent big plays. This would be a great strategy if they could just get to the quarterback by themselves. They can't. Hackenberg is a statute, so their tendency to vacate rush lanes may be a little less painful than it was against Minnesota… or more so if a guy breaks open deep.
Jake Ryan may return in this one; if he does the assumption here is that he becomes a nickel DE opposite Brennen Beyer, and is about as good as Frank Clark is because even bionic men take some time to get back into the swing of things.
Key Matchup: Robinson versus Avery/Taylor. Michigan's D is predicated on not giving up big plays. Robinson is going to get his, but as long as they're 15 yard chunks and not 60 yarders Michigan will have time to get Hackenberg in mistake mode.
After a confidence-shattering start to his career, PSU kicker Sam Ficken has recovered to become a reliable option. He's 8/10 on the year with both misses outside of 40 and he's hit 3/5 from that distance, including a 54-yarder against Kent State. This has unfortunately not caused Bill O'Brien to revert to a more old-timey fourth down approach.
Punter Allen Butterworth is not so fortunate. After averaging 37 yards a pop last year he's nosed that up to 40 this year. This is still short enough that only a third of his attempts are getting returned, those for an average of six yards each.
Penn State got big punt returns in their first two games from Jesse Della Valle, and you know the thing about Michigan's punt coverage. That's going to be a nervous few moments; call the punting even.
Key Matchup: YOU DO NOT LET THE BALL TOUCH YOU UNLESS YOU ARE THE DESIGNATED PUNT RETURNER AND THEN YOU CATCH THE BALL, NOT DROPPING IT, AND SO FORTH AND SO ON.
- Devin Gardner's first pass, which comes in the third quarter, bores through the chest of Hull and pops out into the waiting arms of another Penn State defender, whereupon he returns the ball 30 yards until Gardner ninja-kicks him, reclaims the ball, runs 90 yards the other way balancing the ball on his head like it's Calcutta laundry, and runs all the way out of the endzone for a Penn State touchback.
- Michigan again has trouble defending runs out of spread nickel stuff.
- The manball isn't working.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Hackenberg is the magic turnover guy in this game.
- Redzone items become decisive what with Michigan's ability to manball up and Penn State's general lack of blocking guys.
- Devin Funchess is going King Kong on PSU's secondary.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for Road Spells Trouble, +1 for Vegas Line Is Unaccountably Tight For A Team That Just Got Blitzed By Indiana, –1 for They Did Just Get Blitzed By Indiana, –1 for Funchess Versus Converted WR, –1 for Manball Seems Like A Good Idea, +1 for BOB Is Just As Good At Decisions As Hoke)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for WE'RE GONNA WIN THIS HORRIBLE CONFERENCE, –1 for We're Probably Not Going To Do That, +1 for BUT WE MIGHT, +1 for Must Add To Spectacular Blues Brothers PSU Excuse Shirt, –1 for Coinflip Game On The Road Against An Okay Team, +1 for Winning Is Fun)
Loss will cause me to... mutter something about how this was probably going to happen after the whatnots against Akron and UConn, maybe punt a cow or something.
Win will cause me to... Akron and UConn were flukes! And none of those players are even on the team anymore! Why don't you bring up Michigan's loss to Iowa Pre-flight, you nattering nabob! S-E-C! We're #1!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
While there's zero similarity between Michigan's offense and the drag-race approach Indiana takes, a lot of the weaknesses exposed against the Hoosiers are the same ones exposed against a more conventional UCF team: Penn State doesn't get a ton of pass rush and lacks anything approximating a star. This makes them like Michigan's defense, except lighter (the SDE is 250, a LB is 200) and more injured. Michigan should be able to manball them, or at least force them into similar overplays against manballing that leave secondary members on islands with Gallon and Funchess. Michigan will move the ball and score.
On the other side of the ball, it's another passing spread. Expect an outing similar to the one Michigan had against Notre Dame where Michigan has its issues stopping the opponent until it reaches the redzone, whereupon the constricted field and general inability of the opponent to grind it out causes them to be less efficient than M. One factor in Penn State's favor if this scenario comes to fruition: O'Brien is a full-on Romer convert who will go for anything plausible. Michigan's going to have to make some fourth down stops to win.
While I think Michigan will win, there's a huge swing in the QB turnover category that means I won't be surprised if Michigan loses or runs rampant.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Gardner turns it over six times. Spencer Brinton replaces him in the second half.
- Tackle over is still quite frequent; Michigan passes more from it, using a back to help AJ Williams and going max protect deep several times. Gardner's YPA is over 10.
- Two PSU drives in the redzone come up empty as BOB goes for it and Mattison dials up a stuff.
- Michigan, 32-24.