2013 Opponent Preview: Penn State

Submitted by Heiko on June 28th, 2013 at 6:59 PM

The narrative so far:

  • Aug. 31: Moments prior to kickoff, Brian Cook tweets. I predict he uses the words “student” and “section.”
  • Sept. 7: A million years from now, astronomers will observe the sudden appearance of a football in a void. They will have only milliseconds to identify it as the one last seen leaving Tommy Rees’s hands in the year 2013 before it explodes.
  • Sept. 14: I am strongly reminded of my lab work, the part where I rip testicles out of fruit flies.
  • Sept. 21: Michigan’s steady run offense wins the game in the same manner that a steady drip of water wears through rock.
  • Sept. 28: BYE.
  • Oct. 5: Michigan debuts the pistol formation and wastes the surprise on Minnesota.


Penn State

Last year

Raise your hand if you thought Penn State was going to miss their bowl game after starting the 2012 season 0-2, losing to Ohio and Virginia.

Do you see what I did there?

Sorry. Horrible, horrible, I know. For real, though, raise your hand if you thought Penn State was going to recover from those losses and end up 8-4 with an OT victory over Wisconsin. Yeah, that’s nobody. The Nittany Lions’ quick turnaround was pretty impressive considering all the negativity from the Worst Offseason Ever. And they did it the old-fashioned way, by playing smart and efficient football and by developing and motivating players to replace the ones who jumped ship. 

Unfortunately, while a winning season and a degree of recruiting success marked a promising start to the Bill O'Brien era, nothing will change the fact that Winter Is Coming. 

That actually makes Penn State a really intriguing team to follow over the next few years. No major college team has been struck down this heavily by sanctions while still being allowed to play football. What’s the protocol for recruiting, developing players, and game planning when figuratively you’re going to be short a pint of blood at every phase compared with your competition? I’m kind of curious to see whether this kind of stress will force that staff to invent new strategies that could potentially revolutionize how a college football program is run.

Either way, if Bill O’Brien sticks out his tenure in Happy Valley -- not a given, since he interviewed with NFL teams after last season and declined their offers only because he didn’t want to be “one-and-done” kind of guy -- and has decent success, i.e. a winning record in conference games, Penn State will be back by the end of the decade and in much better shape than it was before the “penn state awful thing” tag was ever created.


O'Brien / Brady. 

If you want to know how much better Penn State’s passing offense was after O’Brien started coaching, you only need to take a look at Matt McGloin’s 2012 stat line:

That’s a former walk-on going ham after his team got scuttled by mass transfers following the NCAA penalties.

Compare that to how Tom Brady did in 2011 when O’Brien was New England’s offensive coordinator:

Great. Given the admittedly short but nonetheless impressive track record of turning a so-so passer into one performing on the level of a three-time Superbowl-winning QB (okay maybe not that dramatic, but still pretty good), I think it’s pretty safe to expect that whoever takes the reins of the Nittany Lions offense this season will do pretty well. Eventually, at least.

That guy will probably be incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked the top pro-style passer in his class above Michigan’s Shane Morris. If he doesn’t win the job immediately, he’ll at least be seeing the field by the end of season and fighting for playing time with JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson, who has gotten only lukewarm reviews so far.

The QB battle will be interesting to watch, but I don't think Michigan needs to worry much. The Mathlete has already reassured us that true freshmen generally suck, and it won’t help that O’Brien’s system is reportedly so complex a caveman couldn’t do it. Ferguson has been on campus for a semester and is still struggling, so I wouldn’t expect either to dazzle anyone until late in the season, if at all.

Let's hope I'm right, because aside from the QB the rest of the offense is pretty loaded. WR Allen Robinson, who led the Big Ten in receiving yards last year (77 rec, 1013 yards, 11 TDs), will be a nice, experienced target to throw to. At 6-3, 200-lbs with decent speed, he’s a guy Borges would want wearing a winged helmet.

And he’s not the only downfield weapon Penn State has in the passing game, nor the most terrifying. While the other wideouts are pretty so-so, the tight ends will be a unit to watch out for, particularly with O’Brien, famous for the two-TE monstrosity he perfected at New England, calling plays. Sophomore TE Jesse James exploded towards the end of his freshman campaign with 15 catches for 276 yards and five touchdowns. The former 19th century train robber is a lot like Devin Funchess, except two inches taller (6-7) and 30 pounds heavier (260 lbs). Okay so he’s nothing like Funchess. Let’s call him “Gronk.”

To complement him, the Lions have a slightly smaller guy in Junior TE Kyle “Aaron Hernandez minus the murder” Carter, who was the team’s second-leading pass catcher with 36 receptions for 453 yards and 2 TDs before missing the last four games of the season with a wrist injury.

I’m a scurred, but not because the guy I compared you to has been killing dudes, allegedly.

The passing game has a lot of potential, but realizing it will depend on how quickly the QB can learn the system. That guy will probably have plenty of time to take chances, get messy, and make mistakes without too much detriment, though, because hey, look, a running game.

If you ignore the shuffling, the offensive line basically returns everyone except for center. They weren’t great last year (not that I watched them a whole lot, but there were grumblings about their run blocking ability), but continuity is never a bad thing.

So we can probably expect a lot of production from their running backs. Junior Zach Zwinak was a nice surprise after the Silas Redd transfer -- he averaged 4.9 yards a carry and broke 1000 yards, ain’t no thang -- and makes me wonder why Michigan can’t have nice things when teams that shouldn’t be able to have nice things have them. At 6-1, 240 pounds, Zwinak makes Brady Hoke wonder the same thing.

As a bigger dude, Zwinak is fairly similar to Iowa’s Mark Weisman, who converted from fullback, was really hard to bring down -- just ask James Ross -- and had surprising speed. Unlike Iowa, however, Penn State also has a couple smaller, shiftier backs that may see signifcant playing time this year. No, they are not like Danny Woodhead. 


Outrunning Penn State linebackers is probably the better way to go.

Coaching-wise, I don’t know. John Butler was promoted to defensive coordinator over the offseason after Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech. Previously he coached DBs, and before that he was doing a lot of special teams all over the place.

Butler doesn't have many laurels to rest on, so consider this season to be somewhat of an extended job interview for him. It won’t help that all the stars from last year are gone: LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, and DT Jordan Hill. They led the team emotionally and in tackles. Hill in particular was instrumental (12 tackles, 2 sacks) in their OT win against Wisconsin to end the season.

That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, though. Plenty of starters return, and the recruiting implosion from the sanctions is only just beginning to nip at the Lions' depth. If Butler can coach, the Penn State defense shouldn’t backslide too dramatically. If he can’t … kerplunk.

The guy who will anchor the defensive effort and be a huge pain in the backfield will probably be LB Glenn Carson. At 6-3, 235 lbs, he played SAM next to Mauti and Hodges last year. This year he’ll probably slide inside. He was an active presence (85 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack) last year and is relatively unknown only because he was overshadowed by his more decorated cohorts.

At the WILL, the Nittany Lions will probably go with 6-0, 225-lb Mike Hull (58 tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 sacks), who got a lot playing time back up Mauti and getting some starts after Mauti’s injury. A redshirt freshman and a sophomore, both undersized, will probably duke it out for SAM. I’m guessing that’s going to be a soft spot for Linebacker U.

The defensive line will be comprised mostly new starters, and none that you’ll recognize unless you’ve been actively following Penn State football, in which case good for you. Wait -- here’s a name you might recognize, and not in the good way: Anthony Zettel. Remember him? Well, he’s not starting, but he’ll be backing up fellow sophomore DE Deion Barnes, who for all intents and purposes has that spot locked down with a 2012 stat line of 25 tackles, 10 TFLs, and 6 sacks. Zettel collected 15 tackles and 4 sacks of his own last season as a situational guy, but is on the outside looking in and probably will stay that way unless he switches positions. Penn Shtaaate.

On the interior, The Nittany Lions have converted DaQuan Jones, a 6-3, 330-lb former offensive lineman, to play tackle (probably nose) and Austin Johnson, a 6-4 310-lb former offensive lineman, to play the other tackle position. Sweet. C.J. Olaniyan (15 tackles, 1 sack) is the other defensive end. Nothing to see here. Move along.

The secondary returns three starters. They were okay last year and look to continue to be okay this year. Behind them are a bunch of guys that decommitted and went to Ohio State or Michigan instead. Secondarymaggedon, man. Never forget.

This team is kind of like: A blinking fuel light 100 miles from the nearest gas station.

Vs. Michigan: Well. A lot of things can happen between now and Oct. 12. I know that’s a stupid thing to say, but here’s what I mean: both teams are evenly matched now, but it’s a very unstable equilibrium.

While both teams meet at roughly the same place in terms of overall talent and depth, Michigan is on the upswing from its own tumultuous coaching changes. Penn State is dropping. Michigan has a lot more potential to develop in its young, inexperienced players. We’re waiting to see if any of the rookies or players returning from injury can exceed expectations: Derrick Green, the sophomore receivers, the interior O-line, Blake Countess, Jake Ryan’s replacement, Jake Ryan when he returns … Penn State needs to milk every last ounce of production from its veterans because Winter Is Coming and won’t be bringing in a whole lot of warm bodies. My feeling is that they aren’t waiting for guys to blow up so much as just praying that they’re viable.

Yes, that’s just a circuitous way to say I’m going to punt on any sort of prediction.

Due to conflicting allegiances, I don't know how to feel about this photo.

What will be exciting about this game is the O’Brien vs. Mattison matchup. As you may know, O’Brien was hired by the Patriots around the same time Mattison went to Baltimore. While O’Brien wasn’t officially New England’s offensive coordinator until 2011, after Mattison came to Michigan, he was Tom Brady’s QB coach as well as official “play-caller,” whatever that means.

Over the three year stretch that both were at their respective NFL teams, the Patriots and Ravens split pretty evenly in the win-loss category. Interestingly, the box scores suggest that the New England O vs. Baltimore D battle usually ended in Baltimore’s favor. Specifically, the Pats were nowhere near as prolific as they were against other teams and often struggled horrifically on third down.

I’m sure that’s usually what happens when Ray Lewis is on your team, but it’s a promising sign.


  • Aug. 31, Syracuse
  • Sept. 7, EMU
  • Sept. 14, UCF
  • Sept. 21, Kent State
  • Sept. 28, BYE
  • Oct. 5, @ Indiana
  • Oct. 12, Michigan
  • Oct. 19, BYE
  • Oct. 26, @OSU
  • Nov. 2, Illinois
  • Nov. 9, @Minnesota
  • Nov. 16, Purdue
  • Nov. 23, Nebraska
  • Nov. 30, @Wisconsin

Outlook: 9-3

Wins: Syracuse, EMU, UCF, Kent State, @Indiana, Illinois, @Minnesota, Purdue

Losses: @OSU

Flip of a biased coin: Michigan, Nebraska, @Wisconsin



June 28th, 2013 at 7:41 PM ^

The Gophers have historically given Penn State problems and it's a late-season game (i.e. one in which the lack of depth with which to replace injured players could be a very significant factor) on the road.  So I would put the Penn State-Minnesota game in the coin-flip category, myself. 

Then again, Max Shortell exists.


June 28th, 2013 at 8:52 PM ^

Penn State didn't have many injuries last year.  Who knows what the injury Gods will bring this year, it's always a pure roll of the dice in that regard.


Only 68 players saw action in ANY game last year for the Nittany Lions --- that in a season where there were a couple home games that PSU won handily, affording the opportunity to empty the bench.


That 68 number was well below participation numbers from previous years (for the 7 prior PSU seasons, there was never a year when less than 76 players saw action).


PSU's roster, also, isn't fully "set" just yet --- the "free transfer" window remains open for everyone who was on the team last July.  It closes on the first day of practice this August.


Harvard Wolverine

June 28th, 2013 at 7:54 PM ^

Thanks for a very interesting review. I thought Penn State will take a step back this year due to the graduation of its senior class, but looks like it will keep at it. It will also be tough to play at State College as well. I don't know enough of their roster to make a prediction. Anyone willing to take a stab at analyzing/predicting the game?

Generic MGoBlogger

June 29th, 2013 at 12:59 AM ^

I don't know much more than you probably know about Penn State, but from what I saw last season, they are a very beatable team.  Playing in State College will definitely be a challenge, but as mentioned, depth will finally become key for Penn State this season.  They definitely overachieved in a very bad Big Ten last season, and with the Big Ten not looking so bright with the exception of us, Ohio, and Northwestern, I can see them doing something similar to last season.  Michigan and Penn State will definitely improve during fall practice, but with the talent we have coming in and already there, I think we have the edge in how much we end up improving. 

The game will definitely be a hard fought battle, and I will go as far as to say that the first half could be a stalemate, but I think our talent and depth on each side of the ball prevail in the second half. 

Final: 31-20 Good guys. 

Again, though, it is VERY early and much has yet to change... Just what I'm thinking based on last season and our spring.  Other factor that I really didn't take into effect is Hoke's road performance... He hasn't performed relatively well on the road in his time at Michigan.  This game will definitely be a test of grit and ability for our guys to play on a big stage.


June 29th, 2013 at 2:04 AM ^

If we lose to PSU on the road then we will have problems beating NU and Purdue on the road. This would not bode well for our season unless we beat the above two teams and defeat MSU on the road? Just my opinion but if we lose to PSU we are probably looking at a 7-5 season.

I think we will win 38-24.


June 28th, 2013 at 7:42 PM ^

Good read, I have a question: will my HTTV magazine have some of these write up copy and pasted from here or will it be original material. I all ready assume it going to be more in depth in its analysis. I cant wait to get my copy in the mail!


June 28th, 2013 at 8:17 PM ^

I think 9 wins would be a unicorns-and-rainbows best case scenario for PSU next season. McGloin was a senior and multi-year starter which probably contributed to his great season as much as anything O'Brien did. Now, PSU will have either a "meh" JUCO QB or a true freshman and I expect the passing offense to suffer a pretty significant drop.

Fortunately for PSU, that schedule has a LOT of really bad opponents on it and they should win 7 or 8 games next season even though they won't actually be all that good.


June 28th, 2013 at 8:23 PM ^

PSU is getting 2 1/2 in this game (early line).  I've already doubled that and given a couple of PSU friends 5 points.  Michigan has a 4th year QB going against a freshman.  Michigan has reasonable depth everywhere except O-Line.  PSU can't spell "depth".  Michigan has more athletes and playmakers at this point.  This might be naive, but I'm chalking this one up as a "probable win" for the good guys.


June 28th, 2013 at 10:35 PM ^

This game is huge for us. A measuring stick if you will, because it will show either that we've made the jump from the era of losing to beatable teams away from AA or that we still have work today in the new system that Hoke and Co. brought. In theory, this should be an 6 point or more victory for Michigan. PSU's strengths match up well with our strengths, and in this game I'll take our QB, depth and staff over theirs.


Michigan 24

PSU 14


June 29th, 2013 at 8:28 AM ^

Uh, that wasn't the game that exposed us. We were exposed in game 4 when Indiana shredded our defense and we needed a last minute touchdown to pull out the win at the big house.

People were scared as hell after that game and for good reason. I personally wanted the season to be over at that point even though we were 4-0.


June 29th, 2013 at 10:57 AM ^

Well, I guess this sort of thing may differ from one person to the next.  

At the time, I was not really all that worried after the IU game.  Our offense had moved the ball all day against them, but Molk had gone out with an injury forcing Moosman to play center;  Moosman kept snapping the ball all over the place, leading to turnovers that prevented us from putting the game away.  And one of IU's long scores came on a running play which RVB later blamed on himself for missing some kind of check.  Despite all the adversity, M did find a way to pull out the W in the end.  So, I know that lots of people were freaking out after that game, but I wasn't one of them.  I've been watching Michigan football for 30 years, and even our best teams have sometimes struggled against inferior opponents.  I figured we just had a bad day and that the problems would likely be corrected later.  

Michigan then went on to lose an OT game in East Lansing and a close, 4th-quarter battle at Iowa.  I found the Iowa game pretty concerning because our back 7 could not handle play-action and got completely abused by their TEs; that was really the point at which I started to wonder how bad things could get.  But I still remained confident that Michigan would get it together and finish out the season strong.  Our defense, if less than stellar, had usually been good enough to win.  And our offense had been strong all season--especially in clutch situations.

The week after Iowa we played a terrible FCS team (Delaware St), so it was almost a de facto bye week to get ready for a good Penn State team in the Big House.  I grew even more optimistic when that game started, and Michigan went on a long drive to go up 7-0 at the start of the game.  From that point on, however, Penn State absolutely destroyed us--dominating all phases of the game and outscoring us 35-3 from that point forward.  Unlike (what seemed to be the case in) the IU game, our problems did not result from a couple flukey turnovers or missed defensive calls.  Unlike the Iowa and MSU games, the loss could not be attributed to a couple key mistakes in a tight game in a hostile envirnoment.  No, the Penn State game left no doubt that the 2009 Wolverines were just a deeply-flawed team that was probably much closer to the 3-9 squad from the year before than the perennial Top-25 team we were accustomed to having.

At least, that's how I saw it.

Harvard Wolverine

June 29th, 2013 at 12:09 PM ^

I saw that game too, and I think you're absolutely right. Penn State in 2009 really exposed our team. AHHHH brings back all kinds of memories I want to forget and how much I hated (and still can't stand) Greg Robinson.

Let's make this a pay back!! GO BLUE!!!


June 28th, 2013 at 10:58 PM ^

"But continuity is never a bad thing." I understand you're really talking about players, and especially offensive lines as a group, but that's a pretty a tough blanket to throw out there considering GEEERRRGGG. I know he's a coach, but did anyone get better under his tenure?


Interesting look at Penn State. Looks to me like just one automatic loss and three tossups to small dogs (Mich, Nebraska, Wisco -- with M and Neb at home and Wisco probably leaning strongly to a loss being in Camp Randall -- but who knows whats up with the Badgers now?) The easily could get tripped up in spots like last year, then upend someone in return. Considering the depth and the true frosh qb, I'd say 7.5 wins is the over under and it becomes personal preference as to which way you go. The schedule looks pretty cake, so I'd lean slightly to 8-5. 


June 29th, 2013 at 1:49 AM ^

coming to Happy Valley.  PSU will be the talk of the Big Ten and maybe college football.  Night game so all eyes will be there to see Michigan stake their claim as best in the Big Ten.


June 29th, 2013 at 10:34 AM ^

One of Michigan's all-time great QBs vs. an ugly-dancing Miami thug who was involved in a murder?

Who's coaching them could not be more irrelevant to how I feel about any photo of Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, but I guess that's just me.


June 29th, 2013 at 8:46 AM ^

I wouldnt immediately put games @Indiana and @Minnie in the WIN bucket for PSU. Those look like toss-ups, given subtle improvements on those teams and a death-cliff beside PSU if some things don't break their way.


July 2nd, 2013 at 12:08 PM ^

As someone who doesn't have a dog in the fight, I personally expect Michigan to beat some ass in State College. PSU will be coming off a potentially tricky road game at Indiana where if they look ahead to Michigan at all, Indiana can easily beat them. Also, I expect the Michigan D to have things pretty well figured out by game 6 and freshman QB-who-doesn't-have-wildcard-athleticism vs. Mattison = mismatch so big it's stupid. PSU won't be as cray a road environment as normal and Hoke will be up for this game.

I'm calling 35-14, UM.

Unless PSU comes in undefeated, treats the game like their super bowl, and has some kind Remember-the-Titans-overcoming-adversity karma going for them. Then all bets are off.


July 7th, 2013 at 11:57 PM ^

While I do believe penn state still has the players to compete with us I feel like we're not "evenly matched" or even close. I see penn state hanging with us for a quarter until we make adjustments and overwhelm them. Michigan 27 psu 17 the last psu score is a garbage td vs backups