Preview: Penn State 2017

Submitted by Brian on October 20th, 2017 at 2:36 PM


WHAT Michigan (5-1) vs
Penn State(6-0)
WHERE Beaver Stadium,
State College, PA
October 21st, 2017
TICKETS can be had
WEATHER partly cloudy, low 60s, 0% chance of rain
*oddly emasculated growling noise*


James Franklin's career was flatlining after a 49-10 obliteration in Ann Arbor last year; one year later Penn State is somehow the defending Big Ten champions. Sports! Where good things happen to good people, and only good people.

This version of Penn State is much less explosive than last year's chuck-it-and-party crew, but they've still got that UrQuan guy. Barkling. Barkley. Something like that. Luckily for Michigan, Penn State seems to still have that probation-era OL, too. It's not like I have to tell you this any more but prepare for a rock fight. It's rock fights all the way out.

Run Offense vs PSU


Cabinda is a mite better than whoever Michigan played last year

Michigan could make some headway here if the flashes the ground game has shown over the last two weeks aren't a mirage. Penn State runs out a 4-3 that's more of a 4-2-5 with converted DB Koa Farmer frequently manning the star/hero/whatever spot known as "spacebacker" around here, and they've turned over a number of front seven players. The resulting unit is 44th in S&P+ halfway through the season, which is barely above mediocre.

They've got a couple of pluggers inside who aren't easy to move but don't provide a lot of playmaking in the backfield. They're named Cothren and Cothran, they're around 300 pounds, one is vaguely more nose and one is vaguely more three-tech, and they've combined for eight "stuffs"*. For comparison that's just under half of Mo Hurst's total (14) and equal to Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. Ace likes them and MLB Jason Cabinda:

At the MIKE, leading tackler Jason Cabinda is rock-solid. He had one bad moment in this game when he turned Wadley loose on a wheel route that resulted in one of Iowa's late TDs. He was also largely responsible for holding Wadley down in the first place. Cabinda was able to aggressively play the run against Iowa, which let him put his best qualities on display—his ability to read-and-react, then fight through traffic to make tackles:

Penn State also boasts an impressive starting DT duo; moving the ball up the gut against them won't be easy.

Penn State doesn't give up many chunk runs—12th nationally in 5+ yard runs allowed—but they're meh at preventing explosive rushes. They're bad on short yardage (pluggers, not penetrators); expect Michigan to power out a lot of 3-4 yard gains on any down, with relatively few 8 yard chunks that all but guarantee a subsequent first down.

I mean, probably. Penn State hasn't played anything approximating Michigan's defense since Pitt, which had a solid 4.8 YPC day with a rushing offense that's statistically almost identical to Michigan's. Michigan is on the upswing, and they're a jarring departure from all-spread all the time, and if they're going with big formations that gives Michigan extra gaps to play with and extra weird stuff they can do. Unfortunately they had to bring out a couple of those things last week as the offense scuffled badly; surely there are a few more of those in Michigan's back pocket.

Michigan is going to run and PSU knows they are going to run; this should be to PSU's advantage unless and until the PSU front seven gets worn down by guys banging on them constantly. Getting sufficient snaps to wear down the opponent is a tough task.

*[A new thing Connelly is tracking that's tackles at or behind the LOS.]

KEY MATCHUP: KARAN HIGDON vs OKAY THAT'S HOW GOOD YOU ARE NOW. Higdon's Indiana performance could be a one-off or a new baseline, let's hope for #2.

[Hit THE JUMP for... Porkley? Parkley?]

Pass Offense vs PSU


Grant Haley is small but mighty

This looks like a horrendous matchup on paper, and will probably look like that on the field. Penn State brings S&P+'s #5 pass defense into this game; Michigan is coming off a 2.9 YPA performance against a much worse outfit. Penn State's pass D did about the same thing Michigan's did to Indiana, which averaged 5 yards a pop and could only get Simmie Cobbs 44 yards. Clayton Thorson acquired 3.6 YPA.

In almost any other year of Harbaugh quarterbacking one could point at the previous competition and chortle condescendingly about their various and sundry technical, athletic, and moral deficits relative to the man shaped by God Himself, further proclaiming that The Opposition Has No Idea What They Are In For. Not so this foul 2017. Penn State knows what they're in for. They've already played Clayton Thorson.

In recent years Penn State has been a bog-standard cover four outfit, but blessed with veteran safeties they are now thoroughly multiple with their coverages, as Ace noted in FFFF:

PSU ran a lot of Cover 4 last year but they showed a lot of one-high looks (both Cover 1 and Cover 3) against Iowa, ostensibly to get run-stuffing safety Marcus Allen in the box, as well as a fair amount of Cover 2.

In addition to running a number of different coverages effectively, PSU is good at disguising them, especially when they can get exotic on third-and-longs. Here's one example:


PSU's alignment, with safety Marcus Allen all the way up at the line of scrimmage, makes it appear they'll run a three-deep blitz, and both inside linebackers show blitz at the snap. Instead, both linebackers back out into underneath zones, Allen takes the nearside flat, and the slot corner blitzes. The disguised Cover 2 blitz confused Iowa QB Nathan Stanley, who took a quick look downfield, didn't like his first read, and scrambled for a harmless gain of four.

If that sounds like a nightmare for John O'Korn after a game where he frequently failed to read the second guy on a two man route... yup.

One kinda-sorta relief is the PSU pass rush, which is just middling. It is duly noted that Purdue's was horrendous and it didn't stop an all-out assault on Speight and O'Korn; I assume it is still comforting that Michigan isn't going up against a top-ten sack outfit. WDE Shareef Miller still figures to be a handful for Juwann Bushell-Beatty.

Michigan will hope to establish enough of a ground game to feel confident that max-pro play action will offer some one on one deep shots, whereupon O'Korn must 1) throw and 2) hit two or three of them if Michigan expects to win. CB Grant Haley has been very good this year but remains 5'9" and could get overwhelmed by Donovan Peoples-Jones or, if Michigan wants to get a little weird, Zach Gentry. Haley's opposite number, Christian Campbell, is bigger at 6'1" and not grading out as well—Ace described him as a guy in the Stribling/Clark mold on the podcast.

With potential NFL safety Marcus Allen joining those guys, Michigan isn't likely to have the kind of witheringly open guys O'Korn found during his productive Purdue outing; expect a slog with a few opportunities that have the potential to make or break Michigan's chances.


Run Defense vs PSU


hello again sir [Fuller]

You probably know all about Saquon Barkley. Be advised that this year's version is some 230 pounds and now looks like MechaGodzilla. Despite this upgrade in burliness Barkley has seemingly lost none of his explosion or long speed. He is now capable of leaping over defenders and taking midair hits seemingly without noticing:

So that's thoroughly terrifying, as is 211 yards on 28 rushes against an Iowa defense previously thought to be amongst the best in the country against the run. A nation watched Barkley repeatedly give the business to Josey Jewell—replay after replay showed Jewell's athleticism failing him—and momentarily made him a Heisman favorite.

But despite all of... that, Barkley's been scuffling for a couple of weeks. Huge Penn State final scores against Northwestern and Indiana have rather obscured a worrying trend for the PSU offense. Barkley got just 56 yards on 20 carries against an Indiana defense Michigan's wobbly ground game just ripped; a week later against Northwestern, Barkley had one 53-yard run and 15 others for 22 yards. While Barkley is one of the nation's best at creating those back-breaking explosive plays, relying on them is risky business. And surely Penn State wants more than 2 yards a pop when Barkley isn't going off.

QB Trace McSorley is the only other Penn State player getting an appreciable number of carries. Like Peyton Ramsey and Brian Lewerke before him, McSorley brings an adequate-for-a-quarterback level of mobility. He too has struggled over the past two games; his 4.3 yards a carry, sacks excluded, isn't much to write home about. PSU's happy to have him occupy a defender on mesh points, however briefly; I can't imagine they're particularly enthused about 11 and 12 rushes the past two weeks for a total of 43 yards.

When Saquon Barkley is getting wrecked by middling Big Ten teams in consecutive weeks there are only two potential problems: blocking and playcalling. Both are candidates for message-board accusations. Astoundingly, Penn State is 107th(!!!) nationally in standard-down run rate, with barely over 50%. The national average is 60%. The Northwestern game featured a ton of Barkley runs that had a long mesh point between QB and RB; most of the time Barkley would get the ball only to find a Northwestern defender already in his grill. Joe Morehead's pretty good but in year two it seems like he's better scouted.

Blocking has also been an issue. Mike Gesicki is still the worst-blocking TE in the country, and PSU's offensive line hasn't gotten that much better than they were a couple years back. Ace:

Penn State isn't going to be able to consistently move the ball against Michigan like they did against Iowa. For one thing, they struggled on the ground against Indiana and Northwestern. For another, Michigan's defense is hellacious. Don Brown is going to tear this O-line to pieces. Right tackle was an obvious sore spot but at times it was tempting to put a cyan circle around the whole dang line:

This is how Barkley isn't putting up Bryce Love numbers. It's also a major problem for Penn State when the field gets constricted. They were holding the point of attack so poorly that I didn't blame Franklin for kicking two field goals from inside the three—not even the one from inside the one. I don't think it helps that their best interior lineman (RG Brendan Mahon) lines up next to their worst lineman (whoever is at RT).

PSU is coming off a bye week and that will help a little, both with their sore spot at right tackle and the rest of the line getting some of their assignments down. I also imagine that Morehead will take the opportunity to put in a bunch of tendency-breaking plays in the hopes of springing Barkley for a cheap chunk or three. That'll be PSU's best shot at a decent day, that and Barkley breaking a bunch of tackles.


Pass Defense vs PSU


Juwan Johnson is also Simmie Cobbs

Iffy blocking has changed Penn State's approach dramatically. Barkley is the team's leading receiver with 29 catches on just 32 targets, and while it's never a bad idea to give him the ball and see what happens having a running back lead you in receiving is some Iowa-ass offense that bares little resemblance to last year's Rex Grossman show. The loss of Chris Godwin and the odd relegation of Gesicki to a possession role—just eight yards a catch—has moved PSU's passing offense from an explosive boom-or-bust unit to a relatively efficient and boring one.

This has not been great for PSU. Last year McSorley averaged 9.3 yards an attempt as PSU clocked S&P+'s #2 pass offense largely because they were fourth in explosiveness. This year they've slid to 7.3, 23rd, and 50th, respectively. That's part Godwin, part an adjusted sack rate languishing at 111th, and part sheer regression to the mean after PSU came down with everything they hurled skyward last year. PSU isn't bad at passing. They are fairly good. They are not the flamethrowing outfit they were a year ago.

When not tossing dumpoffs to Barkley that average 13 yards a pop—I can feel the envy coming through the screen, Michigan fans—PSU splits attempts nearly evenly between Gesicki and a quartet of receivers. Senior DaeSean Hamilton and sophomore Juwan Johnson are the main downfield threats. Johnson is a burly 6'4", 226 and will no doubt attempt to go Junior Hemingway on Michigan's CBs; last weeks outing against Cobbs offers encouragement there. Hamilton was a big star early before getting passed by Godwin and others; this year he's got a meh catch rate (60%) and a solid YPC (16.6). He's not a guy who will put the fear of God into an opponent and judging from recent performances Michigan should be able to hold him relatively in check. Or they could fall over, because variance is hell on predictions about stuff you don't see on your screen much.

While this matchup looks good for Michigan and its #9 sack rate and #3 havoc rate, a couple notes of caution: Penn State is a heavy RPO team and Michigan was frustratingly vulnerable to such tactics at times last year; with a couple new linebackers and an entirely new set of safeties Michigan could get pulled out of shape as they overreact to Barkley and give up chunks over the middle with some frequency.

The second bit of caution is naturally about Barkley, who had 77 yards on 5 catches in this game last year and is even more heavily deployed as a receiving threat now. Michigan can either remove their best rusher from the equation by having Bush check him, offer up last year's mismatch by letting McCray do it, or hope that a defensive back doesn't get squashed like a bug as he tries to tackle. The guess here is that it'll be Bush insofar as Michigan can scheme that up; all of these approaches have worries and costs.

KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN RUSHERS vs MCSORLEY BALL SECURITY. Michigan is going to get to McSorley, and how often they can get the ball on the ground is going to be crucial. McSorely fumbled ten times last year, with Penn State losing four. He's fumbled twice this year. Popping McSorley and getting a scoop and score is a very plausible path to victory for Michigan.

Special Teams

If this turns into a puntfest—when this turns into a puntfest—Blake Gillikin could be decisive for Penn State. Gillikin is the kind of punter who gets single-game supercuts:

There a fair catch at the five in there that isn't a bad idea. Gillikin is averaging 44 yards a punt despite landing almost half of his attempts inside the 20; he's got just two touchbacks against 12 inside the 20 events; opponents have a total of nine return yards this year. I have a strong impulse to mock this tweet for its content...

...but no, they are correct. If you watched the PSU supercut you probably noticed how almost all of Gillikin's punts come down about three yards from the sideline. He could swing field position by dozens of yards relative to Michigan's just-okay punting, and in a game where yards figure to be hard to come by that might be the difference.

On the other hand, Penn State's kicker is 6 for 13 on the year and ranks 115th in FEI's efficiency metric. What Gillikin provides, Tyler Davis could shank away.

Saquon Barkley returns kicks. I assume that means Michigan won't try the cute thing where they drop it at the two and will instead blast the ball with maximum force; when actually attempting to get a touchback James Foug has been almost perfect in that department this year.

PSU also has a punt return TD from DeAndre Tompkins this year; while punt returns are hard to get these days Michigan is more pliable than most thanks to their approach and could be vulnerable there.




Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Barkley's in space against McCray. Or anyone, really.
  • Michigan gets stuffed on first and ten.
  • Gillikin is putting Michigan inside the ten on the regular.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • O'Korn is roaming free outside the confines of the pocket.
  • Michigan switches the fade target to Gentry.
  • Karan Higdon Is Better Than Saquon Barkley? Can that be a thing?

Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Oh God Barkley, –1 for If Indiana And Northwestern Can Stuff Him We Damn Sure Can, +1 for Road Night Game, +1 for With No Passing Game Whatsoever, +1 for Suspect Run Game Might Go Like Iowa, –1 for Frames Janklin Effect, +1 for That's A Mighty Big Spread.)

Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Scraping This Out Realigns The Season Boy Howdy, +1 for Penn State Twitter Thinks Vaping Is Funny, +1 for It's Fairly Gross Because It's Pretty Blatantly Classist, Oh Look I Am A College Graduate And These Vocational School People Have A Hobby, +1 for Temerity To Win The League After 49-10, +1 for Adding An Excuse To The List Is Always Fun, –1 for I've More Or Less Accepted It's A Rebuilding Year, –1 for And I Don't Really Expect A W).

Loss will cause me to... watch high school videos of Brandon Peters and sigh expansively.

Win will cause me to... talk myself into beating Wisconsin.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

This game likely comes down to who can break a moribund exchange of punts with an explosive play or a turnover. Penn State has a decided edge in this department because they have Saquon Barkley and are third in the country in expected turnover margin; they're second in actual turnover margin. Michigan's sixth and 92nd in those categories, which 1) hooray for that and 2) does not fully account for what's happened at the QB spot.

But! PSU's offensive line is terrible enough that it's not impossible to see Michigan preventing big plays from occurring, or getting some picks and fumbles, and then actually hitting DPJ down the field or having Harbaugh and company have something in the back pocket like that counter from the Indiana game.

And if the game does bog down entirely, the field goal situation is a decisive Michigan advantage. Michigan is probably going to lose here but they just need one big thing in their favor and then it's on.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:  

  • Michigan holds PSU under 300 yards of offense thanks to a resounding trench thumpin'.
  • Michigan is –1 in turnover margin.
  • Penn State, 16-11



October 20th, 2017 at 2:45 PM ^

I feel like we should win this game if we can just move the ball. Maybe I'm being a homer, but I really feel like we should win this. Can't wait for tomorrow, I am going to sit back and enjoy having Harbaugh as our coach. Still unreal.


October 20th, 2017 at 2:56 PM ^

This is literally the problem with the team. The inability to move the ball. I. Not. How. What? I don't even know what to compare it to. Yes. Michigan could win if they had a ghost of the ability to move the ball. The qb situation is like a black hole. It's what it is.


October 20th, 2017 at 3:05 PM ^

My point was I don't think Psu is that good and if we move the ball we win all other phases easy. Being able to move the ball would help us stay in games against some other teams, but right now I don't think we could win against certain teams regardless of being able to move the ball.


October 20th, 2017 at 4:13 PM ^

Of course if we can move the ball with this defense, we'll win.  That goes for every game and every opponent.  The problem with that is, you know, moving the ball.  Something we don't do well.  Against any opponent.


October 20th, 2017 at 3:28 PM ^

I feel like I could produce a child with Gisele Bündchen if she abruptly leaves her husband, the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and randomly crossed my path on the street, upon which seeing her I muster up the courage to notice pointedly that she is no longer wearing a wedding band and, thus through the process of deduction, determine that she is indeed single and available and has an interest in meeting me for afternoon coffee, upon which moment she determines that pursuing a short-to-long-term relationship with me is a reasonable use of her time, and after two to three years of courtship, post-divorce counseling, and a thorough evaluation of my bank account and subsequent menial pre-nuptial agreement, she marries me and we immediately send out "It's A Boy!" e-postcards.

I really feel like this should happen. 

Everyone Murders

October 20th, 2017 at 2:54 PM ^

Those "Intangibles" cats?  Yep.  About that.

Let's hope Bush can slow down Barkley enough to ruin the white-out yet again.  The bulk of their fans deserve nothing less than to have their collective hearts stomped on.


October 20th, 2017 at 2:53 PM ^

Michigan finds a way and wins this game. The head has seen our offense too much this year and sighs at the thought of a loss by a score of like 20-10


October 20th, 2017 at 3:06 PM ^

Yeah, as much as I want Michigan to win, I just can't see it happening unless a lot of fluky things goes our way. Plus you look at that line and as Corso would often say, 'somebody knows something.' I think it's a 26-16 or 24-14 type of loss.


October 20th, 2017 at 2:54 PM ^

This feels like OSU last year. A game in which we were overmatched but a crazy defense and big plays keeps us in it far longer than what anyone expected.

I see this coming down to Michigan having to drive down the field and score to win and hopefully we can pull it off.