Preview: Penn State 2014 Comment Count

Brian October 10th, 2014 at 3:07 PM


WHAT Michigan vs Penn State
WHERE Michigan Stadium,
Ann Arbor MI
WHEN 7 Eastern
October 11th, 2014
THE LINE Michigan -1
TICKETS Starting at 32 bucks
WEATHER clear, 0% chance of rain
50 dropping to 40 by 10
negligible wind


Penn State is probably not real good. They've got offensive line issues up the wazoo, they beat a middling-at-best Rutgers 13-10, they escaped UCF with a last-second field goal. I guess I'm sayin' there's a chance. Vegas is saying there's a downright fair chance. When it's all tied it up it's anyone's game as long as they're there to make plays, right?

Injury Guesses

PROBABLY IN: Taylor, Funchess, Wilson, as all played last week.

MAYBE: Shane Morris, who Michigan dressed last week in a classic "nuh-uh" move.

Erik Magnuson is reaching the timeframe where he may be available after his rumored high ankle sprain, but it's more likely he waits until after the bye week.

PROBABLY OUT: Delano Hill, Derrick Green, Jabrill Peppers, Desmond Morgan.

Run Offense vs Penn State

Michigan showed signs of life against Rutgers, going for 5.5 yards a carry without anything particularly long. Tiny flags were waved across the ramparts of Ann Arbor

Now Penn State wheels the big guns in. Michigan is staring down the barrel of this:

Opponent Att Yards Avg. TD
UCF 27 41 1.5 2
Akron 21 83 4.0 0
Rutgers 34 121 3.6 1
Massachusetts 25 28 1.1 0
Northwestern 37 116 3.1 3

sack adjusted

None of these teams are good at running the ball—Akron is in fact highest in YPC at 58th. And Michigan is shockingly proficient in statland, 32nd in YPC thanks to steamrolling Appalachian State and Miami (Not That Miami). But at this early juncture a big chunk of PSU opponents' ranking comes from facing PSU, and the Nittany Lions lead the country in YPC allowed at 1.99. They can say YOU DON'T WANT THIS and the right answer is probably "yessir."

A quick sanity check of their personnel reveals that they should be pretty good. Ace:

The defensive ends also played quite well. RU's right tackle couldn't handle the size/speed combo of SDE Deion Barnes, who looks very capable of producing a similar mismatch against Ben Braden. WDE CJ Olaniyan is also quick around the edge, though he did get blown off the ball a few times against the run; that didn't burn PSU much in this game because of Zettel.

Hull is the standout in the middle of the defense, and while neither of the outside linebackers are at his level, they cover a lot of ground sideline-to-sideline against both the run and the pass. Wartman missed last weekend's Northwestern game with an arm injury but is expected to be back on Saturday—he practiced in full pads on Wednesday.

These guys are all experienced upperclassmen even after the offensive line was forced to raid the DL for both starting guards this offseason. There's not a whole lot of depth, as this is the year Penn State's sanctions bite most deeply, but they've been plenty good enough to boot opposing offenses off the field quickly enough to stay fresh.

These guys are legit, and that should be alarming to a Michigan unit that overpowered a small Rutgers front last week but threatens to be overpowered themselves this weekend.

Key Matchup: Tackles versus ends. Michigan's weak point meets Deion Barnes and CJ Olaniyan, and since it only takes one messed up block to blow up a play…


Pass Offense vs Penn State

Penn State Syracuse Football

Alex, I'll take "Symptoms of Michigan Dysfunction, 2007-2014" for $600.

Devin Gardner returned to the starting lineup last week and had an excellent game aside from his usual crippling interception; this was obscured by some drops and a general lack of opportunity caused by Michigan penalties and other errors restricting him to 22 attempts. He is what he is: we have a "Devin Gardner explodes in all directions" tag. But he can move the ball.

Penn State has been good in this department as well; opponents are completing just 53% of their passes and they've only given up 2 TDs to 6 INT, 5 of which of course came from the guy who just shredded Michigan's secondary. The YPA allowed, on the other hand, is only meh at 6.8 given the opponents they've faced. PSU does have a healthy number of sacks with 13.

Worse for Michigan is that PSU gets a lot of its production by just rushing four guys. Zettel, Barnes, and Olaniyan have combined for seven sacks in five games, and 10 of those sacks come from DL. They have a right to rush four and guys who can win one on one battles with Michigan's tackles. Zettel also promises to be a handful for the interior:

The defensive line works very well as a unit. Austin Johnson holds his ground at the nose, allowing Anthony Zettel to do what he does best: slash into the backfield with regularity.

The defensive line works very well as a unit. Austin Johnson holds his ground at the nose, allowing Anthony Zettel to do what he does best: slash into the backfield with regularity.

Zettel would later record a sack with the same quick spin move; he also drew a couple holding calls and generally lived in the Rutgers backfield. He's got great burst off the snap, uses his hands well, and possesses an array of moves to free himself from blockers. Yes, it would've been nice to get this guy three years ago.

In the secondary, Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas are the headliners. Amos, a CB/S hybrid, is capable at either spot; Lucas is a physical tackler and capable cover guy. Again, the secondary is thin but the top guys are mostly capable. PSU does have a slight tendency to give up chunk play; if Michigan can find time to test the intermediate sections of the field Funchess could rack up a number of those 15-25 yard catches.

Key matchup: Gardner versus the Turnover Gremlin. Bad gremlin! Stop.

Run Defense vs Penn State


up close and personal

Take the Penn State rush defense and Michigan rush offense and invert them. Now ratchet your confidence meter up further. This is what Penn State has done on the ground so far this year:

Opponent Att Yards Avg. TD
UCF 28 57 2.04 1
Akron 31 106 3.42 0
Rutgers 33 64 1.94 1
Massachusetts 45 228 5.07 5
Northwestern 25 50 2 0

Due to limitations in available data these are not sack adjusted, but you can subtract 14 carries and add 72 yards to that and it is still approaching Michigan-2013-level abominable. In two Big Ten games, Penn State is averaging fewer yards than their national-best defense cedes.

This is due in large part to their massive offensive line issues. They could be spotted a mile away as Penn State is deploying a position-switch starter at guard after flipping DTs Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to OL; those guys now rotate. With Miles Diffenbach out with injury and touted left tackle Donovan Smith showing some cracks against the Wildcats, it is open season on TFLs.

It doesn't help that the Penn State tailbacks are pedestrian. Zach Zwinak has always been a back who gets tackled by the first guy after falling forward for a couple extra yards; Bill Belton is considerably more explosive but won't be mistaken for Melvin Gordon any time soon.

Meanwhile, Michigan's run defense returned to its previous rather good state against Rutgers one week after Minnesota gashed them alarmingly. If their performance against rushing offenses approximately on Penn State's level is not another mirage of competence that evaporates as soon as anyone puts their faith in it, they should put up numbers approximately as dominating as UCF/Rutgers/Northwestern did.

There is that whole mirage thing, yes; I still have to assume that the data we have has some bearing on the future, otherwise these previews devolve into small children giving you the bird and screaming CAUSATION DOES NOT EXIST YOUR MOLECULES COULD FLEE FROM EACH OTHER AT ANY MOMENT.

If Penn State does rush for big chunks against Michigan you can find me in a heap under the bed trying to hold my molecules together, is what I'm saying.

Key Matchup: Michigan DTs versus penetration, and over-penetration. We want them to get into the backfield, and they probably will. We do not want them going so hard and so far that Penn State can design those cutback runs and get big chunks. 

Pass Defense vs Penn State

Christian Hackenberg Penn State v Central Z5hH_btkyi_l[1]


This blog's extensive offseason posting of a mocking highlight video featuring Gary Nova set to Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" set up a sizeable karmic debt that came due last Saturday. Nova went nova in our delicate parts to the tune of 400 passing yards. When the mushroom cloud cleared gone was all hope that Michigan's defense could hold the fort long enough for its offense to do much of anything. We formally apologize for this, but would like you to know that we are not accountable for it and it is all the medical staff's fault.

Fortunately, opposing this rag-tag band of survivors is another equally desperate unit. Anyone who's seen a Penn State game this year knows what it is to be the guy at a horror movie who screams "RUN!" at the characters, because every door is a turnstile and behind it are orcs for Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg has coped admirably with this fact; he's still been sacked 14 times. If we assume every Hacknberg carry is an accident of protection—off by one or two carries if it's off at all—that number shoots up to 35. That is an absolute butt-ton of disrupted plays halfway into a season and that doesn't account for the myriad throwaways, passes harassed into inaccuracy, and the like. A reasonably protected Hackenberg isn't completing 58% of his passes with a 4-6 TD-INT ratio. But he's not reasonably protected.

Penn State is also a mite deficient at wide receiver. DaeSean Hamilton leads with 36 catches for 502 yards so far, numbers that are indubitably respectable; Geno Lewis is just behind him, and then Chris Godwin has nine catches. That's two freshmen and a sophomore; the next guy in is also a freshman. There have been several incidents this season where they haven't been on the same page. Unfortunately, they seem to run a lot of the stuff that Michigan has been bad at defending:

Geno Lewis is Penn State's big play threat, capable of finding gaps between zones deep downfield...

...or grabbing a slant and getting a big chunk after the catch. PSU threw a lot of slants in this one with middling success aside from the play linked in the previous sentence, but with how often Michigan has allowed free inside releases this season, Hackenberg could find more success with them this weekend.

And if they can get that they can neutralize a lot of the OL problems with three step drops.

Penn State make up for the experience deficit at WR with a pile of tight ends; man-mountain Jesse James is the most prominent. He's what Michigan hopes Ian Bunting becomes in a couple years: a 6'7" mid-range target who is tough to defend without ladders.

Meanwhile, Michigan… sigh. A combination of no pressure from the DL and lots of open wide receivers caused that Nova in our parts. Blake Countess was repeatedly victimized and is beginning to feel like a cornerback version of Devin Gardner: broken, hazily looking out over a burning city wondering where it all went wrong. The safeties didn't show up in the right place often enough. Jake Ryan seemed out of position a lot. These things don't seem likely to get fixed; neither does it seem likely that they will all be a bad against Penn State.

Michigan should have enough third and long opportunities to boot PSU off the field, but they'll biff a frustrating number.

Key Matchup: Michigan coverages versus Hackenberg's reads. We've seen quarterbacks confidently fire in rhythm most of this year, preventing Michigan from getting to the QB or intercepting anything. If Michigan can just force Hackenberg to go to a second guy, a lot of the time that is going to end poorly for Penn State.

Special Teams

Penn State kicker Sam Ficken has developed into a reliable option after a rocky start to his career; he hit the game-winner against UCF and is 10/12 on the year. Both misses came from within 40, and he's got a long of just 42, so he's not a killer like Utah's dude; don't get your hopes up he misses much.

Freshman punter Chris Gulla has been bad, and worse recently: he's averaging 38 yards a kick and only managed to scratch out 35 on six punts against Northwestern. Penn State seems to be on the verge of a change, as Aussie Daniel Pasquariello has gotten three opportunities the last couple weeks.

Despite the short punting, PSU's given up five returns for 60 yards, so there could be some opportunity. This is a weakness.

Penn State hasn't done much with returns this year and doesn't appear to have a standout option. The punt return guy is Jesse Della Valle, who's very much in the "catch it and run it back a few yards to be safe" mold.

Michigan's special teams are an ongoing wreck, neither capable of covering or returning anything and in possession of a shaky-ish kicker.




results for "Paterno Cat" are disappointing
has no one put cokebottle glasses on their cat
I mean this is just obvious, people

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • You find yourself consumed with uncertainty about whether you want Michigan to win for the short term health of the program or not win for the long term health of the program.
  • Zettel and Olaniyan rampaging through Michigan's offensive line threatens to make you so sad you lose consciousness.
  • Basketball season is delayed.

Cackle with knowing glee if..

  • Beyonce shows up at halftime again on a video board
  • They play Pour Some Sugar On Me
  • The game ball is delivered by the world's largest rat

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; -1 for LOL Their OL, +1 for OLE Their DL, –1 for Ha They Almost Lost To Rutgers, +1 for We Did Lose To Rutgers, +1 for And Gary Nova Went Boom, –1 for We're Favorites!, +1 for I Assume Sharps Are Making Massive Bank Betting Against Michigan Every Week (Yes Except Last Week When Michigan Covered By A Blocked XP, Mr Gambling Pedant))

Desperate need to win level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for Good Feelings Are Good, –1 for Season Goals Are What Now, +1 for Night Game Win Streak To Preserve, –1 for Losing Does Bring Us Additional Clarity On The Off Chance That The Message Board Weirdos Are Not Brandon-Hired Astroturfers But People With Legitimate Information To The Effect That This Is Not Definitely Over, –1 for Meh, +1 for I Like The We Own Penn State Cheer And Wish For It To Be Even A Little Accurate Again)

Loss will cause me to... ride the world's largest rat into the distance, fading away as I exit camera range. 

Win will cause me to... feel happy for the players until the next time it's made clear the program regards fans as nothing more than wallets who should shut up.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

You know those games from the 50s when punting on second down seemed kind of reasonable but nobody was brave enough to do so? That.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Sludgefart espectaculo, with total rushing yards under 150 between both teams.
  • PSU's DL outperforms Michigan's and this is the difference in the game.
  • Penn State, 17-14



October 10th, 2014 at 3:27 PM ^

I feel a bit like Charlie Brown expecting Lucy to hold the football down this time, but I think we'll win.  This is pretty much the ultimate "wounded animal" situation, and good things happen when Michigan plays under the lights (as long as there hasn't been a 2.5 hour lightning delay) - PSU '02, MSU '04, PSU '05, and of course the two ND games.  


Austin Blue

October 10th, 2014 at 3:34 PM ^

For some reason I actually envy Charlie Brown right now.  Maybe it is because he seemingly has a better chance at kicking the football than does Michigan and its fans at having enjoyment out of this football season . . .

Yes, I am officially in the "unofffial" 6th stage of grieving - I call it the "WTF" stage :)


October 10th, 2014 at 3:33 PM ^

Surprisingly, I'm actually kind of excited for the game. The other two UTL games have been a blast, and I have no expectations for the team. Planning on getting decently drunk before the game and enjoying the environment at least.

the Bray

October 10th, 2014 at 3:34 PM ^

Was Morris the holder last week? I wasn'tN didn't give a good angle. paying enogh attention during the game on Saturday and the replay on BTN didn't give a good angle. If he didn't - who did?

Wolverine Incognito

October 10th, 2014 at 6:24 PM ^

When you put it wil the L and E lowercase with the exclamation point, it makes a lot more sense.  To type the e with an accent, you can either find the symbol in Microsoft Word or turn on the international keyboard, type the apostrophe, then hit the vowel in question and :  é.  Presto!

Please don't ask what presto means.


October 10th, 2014 at 4:06 PM ^

Haven't been to home game since 2005 OSU (I was down there for 1v2 in '06 also, for last game attended). Lot has changed (like, we used to win most of time), but my questions are: how long should we leave to walk to stadium & get to seats before kickoff? And: where should friend & I go for a burger before (Red Hawk?) and how long should we leave for that? (Old(ish) dudes: mid-40s, so looking decent burger & good beer more than hip place to hang before)Thanks!

snarling wolverine

October 10th, 2014 at 8:00 PM ^

Red Hawk's a good idea - I like their burgers.  You can eat there in under an hour.  

From there to the stadium entrance is like a 20 minute walk.  You can't enter from the main entrance if you're not a student - you have to go over by Crisler which is a few extra minutes.  Overall I'd leave for the stadium about 45 minutes before kickoff to make sure to get in and to see some of the pregame festivities.


October 10th, 2014 at 4:16 PM ^

Do we really need more losses to terrible teams in order to convince people that this staff needs to go?  I mean, if the games against ND, Utah, Minnesota, and Rutgers weren't enough...I just don't know man. I don't think anything could bridge that segment of the fanbase's disconnect from reality. If you can't see what is right in front of your face you are never going to see it.


Given the inevitability of getting punched in the face by our biggest rivals and having 6 losses on the season, Hoke's fate is sealed. Let's cheer for some wins to get the player's confidence back up and salvage some dignity (however infitesimal it might be).


October 10th, 2014 at 4:16 PM ^

The fact that this game is predicted to be close is telling.  Michigan should not be in a close game with a team on their 3rd coach in 4 years and having endured the sanctions PSU endured.



oriental andrew

October 10th, 2014 at 4:24 PM ^

The first result for "Paterno Kitten" is a pair of designer Manolo Blahnik high heel shoes called the "White Patent Paterno Kitten." It's definitely a sign of... well, something. 



October 10th, 2014 at 4:26 PM ^

Isn't Jeremy Clark hurt?  I know the missed tackle on the TE last game was bad, but I thought we was injured on that play or the play just before.  I could have screwed up my timing or maybe he was just benched, but I thought he was holding his arm/shoulder when he left the field after that play.


October 10th, 2014 at 4:37 PM ^

three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday,

Brady, in his last effort to save the job, unleashes 100% spread offense and DG runs for 150 yards, 2 TDs and throws for 150 yards, 2 TDs

Brady, in his last effort to save the job, unleashes shield punt and they recover the ball on a fumble and return for a TD

9 - 43 M (Penn State misses an extra point, M converts 5 2points and a field goal from 60 yds and changes the block M to block O)

Go Blue!