Previously: Rutgers Offense
Very legible uniform numbers, Rutgers.
Penn State's nearly nonfunctional offense managed to just enough to take down Rutgers a few weeks ago, but it certainly wasn't pretty—the Nittany Lions averaged just 2.9 yards per rush (sacks removed) and 6.0 yards per pass (sacks included), and the numbers were even worse than that until a couple big plays late in the game. The Scarlet Knight defense looked formidable, especially up front, and while it's difficult to tell how much of that fell on PSU's inept offensive line... well, you've presumably seen Michigan play football this year.
Once again, let's just try to get through this.
Personnel: I'll post Seth's diagram first, then explain why this could look rather different on Saturday [click to embiggen]:
So, we did our best to project the Rutgers lineup, but it's one very muddled by injuries right now. Starting MIKE Kevin Snyder missed the entire Navy game and most of last week's Tulsa contest with a lower body injury and is listed as questionable for Michigan. Free safety Delon Stephenson is also questionable; if he can't go, redshirt freshman walk-on Andre Hunt must spell him at least for the first half, as last week's starter, Johnathan Aiken, must sit out the first half due to suspension (targeting penalty). The top four corners on the roster all made the injury report, though all are probable save sophomore Anthony Cioffi (questionable).
Even if Rutgers manages to trot out their usual starting lineup, it's doubtful they'll be at 100% strength.
Base Set? 4-3 under. Rutgers did show a few three-man fronts, usually in third-and-very-long situations, and they'll stand up one of their DEs on occasion, giving them the look of a 3-4.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? A pretty even mix of both here. Rutgers usually kept two safeties deep, either running a pure Cover 2 zone or playing man coverage in front of the deep safeties.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Rutgers brought a ton of heat in this game, possibly because they smelled blood in the water given how poorly Penn State protected Christian Hackenberg—RU's five sacks don't begin to cover the pressure he was under. The Scarlet Knights sent seven rushers on multiple third-and-longs and were able to take down Hackenberg or force incompletions on just about all of them.
Dangerman: Former five-star Darius Hamilton seems a little undersized for a DT spot at 6'4, 255 pounds, but he so consistently slashes into the backfield that doesn't matter much. He's tied for the team lead with 6 TFLs this season. Just about every time Penn State tried to single-block Hamilton, something happened along these lines:
Hamilton looked equally good against the run; he's a disruptive force, and will pose a huge test for Michigan's interior line. Yes, that sentence should make you nervous.
A disclaimer: Penn State often went high-tempo and Rutgers wore uniforms with near-illegible numbers, so deciphering the ability of individual players was a tough task while watching the BTN broadcast. I'll do my best here; mostly I'm going to address each unit as a whole instead of the individuals unless something really stood out. As an example, here's a great play to blow up a run and draw a hold by... some defensive lineman:
Even with the benefit of replay, I can't tell who did that.
The above is representative of what Rutgers did to Penn State's running game. Here's their starting nose tackle, Kenneth Kirksey, annihilating PSU's center so badly Bill Belton's only option is to make a futile effort to get the edge. At first this play looks like a well-timed corner blitz, but the corner shouldn't come into play—Belton can't hit the intended hole because WDE David Milewski got instant penetration up the gut. Rutgers makes up for their undersized front by shooting the gaps hard, and against PSU's line this led to great success.
The key backup to watch on the D-line is WDE Kemoko Turay, a pass-rushing specialist who already has a team-leading five sacks this year. Turay is also dangerous on special teams, which I'll cover in a later section.
The linebackers looked solid, with the caveat that Snyder was healthy for this game and I didn't get a look at his possible replacement in the middle. WLB Steve Longa is an impressive athlete who covers a lot of ground against the run—it's hard to get the edge on this defense, especially since their linemen are relatively athletic as well. Penn State also had trouble completing anything over the middle; RU's linebackers played disciplined zone defense and got impressive depth on their drops.
The secondary had an up-and-down day, as much of Hackenberg's struggles were due to pressure more than anything else. PSU tried to attack RU's man coverage early with a lot of slants, and the corners were up to the challenge, staying tight and making good plays on the ball; PSU simply couldn't do anything to attack RU's Cover 2 because Hackenberg didn't have time to let any downfield routes develop.
Both of those things changed late in the game. On a critical third-and-7 at the tail end of the third quarter, Hackenberg finally had time to find the opening between the corner and the safety against RU's Cover 2:
The tackling in the secondary on that play was obviously poor, and that issue cropped up again in a big way on PSU's game-winning TD drive, when they finally connected on a slant:
Even if Stephenson manages to play in this one, I don't think Rutgers is solid at safety. The final big pass play that led to PSU's winning TD run put that on display.
The setup—third-and-13 from the Rutgers 30-yard line, and you can see that the safeties are making sure nothing can get over the top of them:
Early on, it looks like this might be Cover 2 Man, as the slot corner sticks with the slot receiver and the corner to the bottom of the screen appears to be playing man as well, but look at the receiver to the top of the screen:
This looks like it's potentially a Cover 3, as that top corner is just dropping deep instead of hanging with the receiver's route, and he's got help underneath from a linebacker. The corner to the bottom clearly expects help over the top, as he stays almost flat-footed with his eyes in the backfield as Geno Lewis does a little move...
...and blows past him, with the corner late to turn and run with Lewis:
If it's Cover 3, you'd expect the near-side safety to be hanging over the top of this route and closing quickly, but...
...instead he's hanging out somewhere in the vicinity of the end zone, giving Hackenberg ample room to fit this pass in to Lewis:
PSU hurried to the line, so I didn't get the benefit of replay, and when I asked Brian what type of coverage this was he wasn't sure. I think it's safe to say the safety was way late getting to this ball; the question is whether he simply strayed from his zone or if this was a pure coverage bust—it's obvious the corner wasn't happy about the lack of help over the top.
I don't expect Michigan to be able to run on these guys, and Gardner should come under his fair share of pressure; this one could come down to whether or not M can hit one or two big plays either over the top or via poor tackling in the secondary, as that's all it took for a PSU offense that had shown almost no ability to move the ball to somehow pull out a win.
There's one other factor that must be covered here:
Rutgers is tied for first in the country with four blocked kicks in 2014, and their 39 blocks since 2009 are 12 more than any other program in the country. They managed to get their hands on both a field goal and a punt in this one. Turay used extremely impressive ups to get a mitt on this Sam Ficken FG attempt:
A short time later, receiver Leontae Carroo got in so quickly on a punt that he nearly blew past the punter before the kick:
I'm not sure who or what to credit for RU's remarkable kick-blocking ability, but with Michigan's special teams in the state they're in, it's certainly worth keeping in mind when trying to predict this game. If this is going to be the type of contest in which one or two big plays swing the result, Rutgers is very much hoping one or two of those big plays come on special teams.