|WHAT||Michigan vs Penn State|
Ann Arbor, MI
|THE LINE||Michigan –12|
|WEATHER||cloudy, high 40s
0% chance of rain
Life after Saquon Barkley and Joe Moorhead has been odd for Penn State. The Nittany Lions spent the first third of the year almost losing to Appalachian State and screwing around for 30 minutes against overmatched foes before hitting ludicrous speed. There's no better summary of this period than the Illinois game, in which Illinois had a third quarter lead(!) and lost 63-24.
The last four games have been a series of one-score games that got weirder by the week. Penn State blew the Ohio State game, again, by giving up a 90-yard TD drive that was almost exclusively screens. Against Michigan State, Penn State gave up a game-losing 76 yard TD drive on which Felton Davis was single covered with 19 seconds left. Indiana surged into a late lead the next week and lost narrowly—which isn't actually weird at all, now that I think about it—despite outgaining Penn State 554-417.
Last week, Iowa and Penn State played El Gaffeco in a driving rainstorm; at one point Iowa had 14 points. This is a completely normal number of points. Iowa acquired them via a field goal, two safeties, and a touchdown pass from a punter to a defensive lineman. At one point Franklin had to be physically restrained from calling a timeout after a change of possession.
CAPTION THAT pic.twitter.com/8gAS315GcN
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) October 27, 2018
This ended up not being a change of possession. So, yeah. That kind of season.
Anyway, they're a bland B+ kind of team when you zoom out. When you zoom in they're a horror film that can't decide who the bad guy is.
[Hit THE JUMP for MERCIFUL RELIEF FROM THE RAIN OF DEATH]
Run Offense vs Penn State
Farmer (#7) is a viper playing WLB. [Eric Upchurch]
Michigan will have to make hay here on standard downs to minimize the impact of Penn State's defensive line on Patterson—about which more later. PSU's run defense has been distinctly mediocre so far this year, checking in 54th in S&P+. The Nittany Lions are aggressive (19th in stuff rate) because they have to be (103rd in 5+ yard rush rate at exactly 50%); it's notable that LB Cam Brown is PSU's leading tackler and those tackles occur almost 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
This is because they have a very Don Brown rush package DL and not much else. Seth:
On the inside are a couple of light DTs with good rip moves. This makes 3T Kevin Givens a true dangerman in a future Dwumfour way—he is not a nose. NT Robert Windsor is another Dwumfourish character but that's less forgivable where he plays. Windsor is either moving guys backwards or getting blown down five yards—I came close to both cyan'ing and starring him in the course of this scout.
That'll be a major issue in the next section. In this section it looks like a major opportunity. Penn State is a front that has basically no chance of resetting the LOS in the backfield without resorting to games, so they slant and twist a ton, with the goal of getting you on the ground in the backfield so they can let their pass rush rip on third down. This has been a pretty good plan: PSU is 10th in forcing third and long and 14th at preventing third and short.
Now they meet their statistical mirror. Michigan's ground game has been consistent enough to see Michigan end up third in the country at avoiding third and long and first at getting to third and short. Cesar Ruiz and Ed Warinner have spearheaded a renaissance, particularly when it comes to identifying and neutralizing opposition DL games. Michigan State's twist blitz was comprehensively whooped upon by this unit, and Ruiz in particular has anticipated guys slanting across his face and dumped them several yards downfield.
If Michigan can manage this the linebacker level is exploitable:
SAM Cam Brown is still a most unusual dude who can match a Gentry for height and speed and struggles in tackling. Former safety/WLB Koa Farmer bulked up to play inside but that just removed his speed and subjected him to blocks he was never meant to handle. MLB Jan Johnson is a former walk-on they borrowed from the wrestling team way back during Linebackergeddon'15.
They've been rotating Micah Parsons, a five-star freshman, in some. The catch: Parsons is a five-star DE.
All this adds up to what should be a whomping performance by Michigan. Michigan State sports a similar offensive approach and one of the worst rushing offenses in the P5; their trundlers combined for 104 yards on 23 carries. Indiana's Stevie Scott had 138 yards on 26 carries. Iowa had an incredibly broken QB in a rainstorm; their RBs combined for 123 yards on 32 carries. Rushing S&P+ for those three teams: 110th, 50th, 116th. Michigan: 11th. This should be a ground and pound. Penn State will try to bend and not break by getting Michigan into long yardage. That battle will be won and lost from the PSU 40 to the 10.
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN TIGHT ENDS AND FULLBACKS vs THE MOST DANGEROUS GUY ON ANY PARTICULAR PLAY. A gruesome performance from the tight ends against Michigan State, if replicated, would go a long way towards patching PSU's many and varied holes. Ben Mason for 50 snaps please.
Pass Offense vs Penn State
Givens (#30) is the only DL who doesn't have a bunch of sacks, and uh yeah [Patrick Barron]
This is the section in which Penn State's defensive line looks like a problem. Four different guys have at least 3.5 sacks, and Yetur Gross-Matos is on fire over the past few weeks. He leads the team with six sacks and is headed towards All Big Ten honors. He's generally a speed rusher but uncorked a power rush last week that knocked Alaric Jackson—one of the Big Ten's best pass protectors, per PFF—completely over and led to a sack. Shaka Toney and Shareef Miller have 5 and 4 sacks, respectively. All of these folks are defensive ends. DT Robert Windsor has also chipped in 3.5 sacks.
Despite all this havoc from the DL, PSU's sack rate sits just 43rd nationally. They're good, not great, and this is because nobody else is doing much. PSU's LB havoc rate is 99th; no back seven player has more than one sack. PSU has sprinkled blitzes here and there but this defense is more Iowa than Michigan State.
This is a bad matchup for Michigan, which has tackles who are vulnerable in pass protection and a passing game that's struggled to cope against zone defenses with a bunch of guys in them. The gap between Michigan's offense on standard downs (3rd to S&P+) and passing downs (86th) is enormous; Penn State's gap is much smaller—40th vs 23rd—but they get better, not worse, on passing downs. The prescription seems obvious: pound the ball, take advantage of some jumpy linebackers on play action, and try to stay out of passing downs at all costs.
Penn State's secondary doesn't have a lot of names you might know, but you should probably know at least one: Amani Oruwariye is performing at the same level that Michigan's cornerbacks are, per PFF…
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 1, 2018
…and with 11 PBUs and two INTs he's somewhat dangerous to throw at. The "somewhat": Oruwariye is tied for the most tackles on Penn State with 34. Lavert Hill has 5 PBUs against 8.5 tackles; David Long has 7 PBUs against 9 tackles. Oruwariye has not been avoided by opposing quarterbacks this year—just the opposite in fact.
The rest of the unit is good. PSU is 15th in pass D S&P+ and grades out very well at PFF, minus the inexplicable screen explosion that cost them the Ohio State game. Michigan might want to look into those. Michigan was an excellent screen team for Harbaugh's first couple years; this year they've been few and far between. Also mostly directed at tight ends.
Michigan will have the advantage if they can establish the run and exploit PSU's attempt to mitigate those problems; this should be a game for banging it over the top on play action, or hitting tight ends for 20-30 yard chunks. Passing downs will be a difficult ask.
KEY MATCHUP: PATTERSON vs BYE WEEK REFINEMENTS. Patterson's failed to pull the trigger on many open receivers and hasn't tried to throw folks open. His comfort in the passing offense has been iffy. Not bad, but iffy. If he can just settle in Rudock style Michigan's going places.
Run Defense vs Penn State
This matchup has an X-factor: Trace McSorley's knee. He was knocked out briefly against Iowa and looked a bit gimpy when he returned. Not gimpy enough to prevent him from running for a 51-yard TD, but gimpy enough to induce a lot of backstage whispers in the week leading up to the game. The issue is still an issue:
“We’re just kind of going one day at a time and we’re figuring out what the best fit is going to be for me to be able to play on Saturday,” McSorley said. “And what’s going to be the most comfortable, really.”
James Franklin wasn't entirely wrong when he went off on the media for asking questions about McSorley's health that had a 0% chance of being answered. His reaction was also more than a bit nervous.
McSorley's mobility is critical because this year it's gone from a deadly side gig to half the run offense. McSorley has already exceeded last year's rushing totals and has barely fewer carries(95) than top-and-basically-only RB Miles Sanders (135). Despite the increased usage he's actually taken a huge leap forward in YPC, going from 5.4 last year to 7.3 this year. And as Michigan fans are re-discovering, a quarterback who can run a little opens up a lot of things for other players. McSorley can run, a lot.
McSorley's going to play, and he's going to run some. How healthy he is and how much Penn State is willing to risk him are unknowns.
When not running McSorley it'll be Sanders, who's not Saquon Barkley but at first glance is somewhat close to living up to his own five-star hype at 6.1 YPC and over 800 yards so far. His twisting, tackle-breaking touchdown against Michigan State might be the run of the year in the Big Ten thus far:
The news for Sanders has been considerably less good outside of that, however. His other long run against MSU was a freebie when MSU didn't fit a gap. If we can set aside a 200 yard day against Illinois, the team that just gave up 700+ yards to Maryland, the rest of Sanders's Big Ten season looks like this:
- OSU: 16 carries, 43 yards, 2.7 YPC.
- MSU: 17 carries, 162 yards, 9.5 YPC
- Indiana: 15 carries, 72 yards, 4.8 YPC
- Iowa: 17 carries, 62 yards, 3.7 YPC
Virtually all of Sanders's yards vs MSU came on the two long runs. PSU patched some of that up with 25 and 19 carry days for McSorley against OSU and Indiana, but that remedy seems unlikely given the state of McSorley's knee, and the Michigan defense is several notches above most of the folks on that list.
Sanders is likely to get a whole lot of nothing as the PSU OL struggles to win the line of scrimmage; PSU will hope he can replicate the spectacular run above. That is possible, but unlikely.
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN DTs vs INTERIOR PSU OL. Last year's debacle had a lot of reasons but the issue most likely to repeat was Michigan straight up losing one on one battles on the interior in a way they had not in a long time. Despite the return of most of that OL the numbers above indicate that's not happening on a consistent basis.
Pass Defense vs Penn State
Juwan Johnson has had troubles catching the ball this year [Upchurch]
This is not the jolly pirate attack of the past few years. Trace McSorley's seemingly infinite crew of giant men on pogo sticks downfield has petered out, and with it has gone the efficiency he was known for early in his career. McSorley's down to 7.0 yards an attempt this year, which is just 9th in the Big Ten. His completion rate just under 53 percent is 11th, barely ahead of Kasim Hill and Zach Annexstad. The times are lean.
The primary reason for this is a lack of suitable targets. As of a month ago Penn State led the country in dropped passes and things haven't changed much since. 6'4" Juwan Johnson was supposed to be the next recipient of McSorley's infuriatingly consistent deep ball; instead he has a catch rate of 55% and just 21 catches on the year. He's not exactly horrible but he's failed to move into the DeSean Hamilton role. As the only PSU WR who's more downfield terror than slot, he makes a good possession receiver.
There is a guy who's kind of both slot and terror: KJ "Speedy Eaglet" Hamler. Hamler suffers the same difficulties that everyone else does when it comes to securing the ball but once he gets it he leads Penn State in yards per catch at a whopping 18.4 and yards per target at a slightly less whopping but still impressive 9.9. A 93-yard slant touchdown against Ohio State has more than a little to do with those numbers, and while that's a heavily distorting play he also, you know, did this:
Hamler is the one WR who hasn't had a bunch of drops but he's generously listed at 5'9" so more balls end up out of his reach.
The rest of the WR corps has been outright bad. DeAndre Tompkins, Brandon Polk, and Mac Hippenhammer each have catch rates of 46% or worse. They do tend to pick up big chunks when they catch the ball, but those events have been unsustainably few and far between.
On top of all that above, Penn State lost Mike Gesicki (75% catch rate, 7.4 YPT) and Saquon Barkley (79% catch rate, 9(!!!) YPT for a running back) and has not adequately replaced either in this phase. Sanders is catching balls at the same rate Barkley did but his 5.3 YPT is a far cry from what Barkley achieved last year. Pat Freiermuth, the tight end, is another guy who catches just over half his targets.
Penn State's sack rate allowed is meh, 64th, and things get much worse on passing downs when defenses can approach the QB without fearing he's going to take off. PSU drops to 98th.
Michigan should be able to cripple this unit unless one of two things happens. Potential flaw #1 is Michigan versus RPOs. They were a major issue last year, especially in this game, and for whatever reason Michigan hasn't seen many so far this year. If PSU's able to defeat Michigan's anti-slant games with RPOs things could get hairy because of potential flaw #2: KJ Hamler getting loose. If Hamler's able to get some serious YAC, like Rondale-Moore-versus-OSU YAC, well, that would be bad. Michigan's test run against James Proche didn't go that well. While they've improved a great deal since, PSU provides a true 11 v 11 setup and will do more to stretch Michigan than anyone they've played this year.
Third and long will be a bloodbath, though, and there figure to be a bunch of those with McSorley's completion percentage and the boom-or-bust nature of the ground game.
KEY MATCHUP: IT TAKES A VILLAGE vs TO DEFEND SLANTS.
Kicker Jake Pinegar is 9 of 13 on the year and grades out as an almost perfectly average #collegekicker. Kickoff guy Raphael Checa only puts about half of his kicks in the endzone and has put 3 out of bounds. To be fair, Penn State has kicked off 60 times this year.
Punter Blake Gillikin has had a tough month. He averaged 39 yards a kick against OSU, 46 against MSU, 40 against Indiana, and 35 against Iowa. The Iowa dip was in part because he dropped a punt and had it blocked for a safety but he followed it up with 32 and 41 yarders before hitting some long ones. He's erratic, and Michigan could be in line for a short field or two if he doesn't catch the ball right. One thing probably not in the cards: a big return. Opponents are averaging 3 yards a pop. Also worth noting: the long snapper flung one over Gillikin's head for a second safety in the Iowa game. Those were miserable conditions and this projects to be a dry game. Buuuuut…
Penn State's return units are the most dangerous Michigan's seen to date. Hamler is the kickoff guy and helped save PSU's ass against Indiana with an 95-yard return immediately after the Hoosiers had taken the lead. Thompkins and Hamler return punts; Thompkins has a touchdown this year and the two guys collectively average almost ten yards an opportunity despite a distinct allergy to fair catches.
Most Penn State win scenarios involve a large edge in special teams.
KEY MATCHUP: AHHHH YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS
- The combination of McSorley's legs and Hamler asks questions Michigan is not prepared to answer.
- Michigan's tackles get overwhelmed by three excellent pass-rush DEs.
- There's a lot of third and long.
Cackle with knowing glee if…
- James Franklin's Gameday Coaching School opens for business.
- Michigan has a 13 play drive with 9 passing yards.
- Don Brown's personal revenge is particularly frothy.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 (Baseline: 5; +1 for What If Joe Moorhead's On The Sideline Posing As Someone Else, Scooby Doo Style, +1 for Stiff Tackle Test, +1 for Spooky Last Year Business, –1 for Saquon's Gone Baby, –1 for Frames Janklin, –1 for Dang That's A Double Digit Spread, –1 for Bye Week For An Angry Don Brown)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline: 5; +1 for Last Year's Let's Try To Score With One Second Left, +1 for Bitching About Officiating Before The Game Is Peak PSU, +1 for League Game, Smoke, +1 for One Last Real Hurdle Before A Winner Take All Game, +1 for Take Antidote).
Loss will cause me to… pull off the head of everyone on Penn State's sideline until I find Joe Moorhead amongst a charnel house of blood and terror that is my own doing oh God what have I done I was just trying to Scooby Doo it
Win will cause me to… spend a solid hour watching that video of Franklin trying to call timeout after a change of possession. I love a good chortle.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This should be a slow motion sanding. Penn State's offense lacks the Deep State insta-strike capability it had for the last few years; what vestiges remain are dependent on McSorley's legs, which may be limited, and the explosive potential of Sanders and Hamler. One or both could blow through the safety level for a long TD.
It's hard to see PSU sustaining many drives with its wonky, drop-prone passing game and poor passing down offense against Michigan's #1 unit and #1 sack rate unless they're unable to cope with a running QB. Survey says: maybe. Dealing with running QBs is hard. But Brown will have a plan to force PSU into the air and that should be accomplished. Once there, PSU will struggle. They're good enough to get down the field a couple times. Other scoring will be limited to big plays.
Michigan will be exactly the opposite: they're going to try to grind PSU's DL into dust and have a good chance of doing so. The bye week and the rest of the schedule will allow Michigan to dump a bunch of new stuff tailored to exploit PSU's weaknesses; Higdon's going to have another 30-carry day with good success. Pass protection will stall a few drives, but PSU will have to leave themselves vulnerable over the top by the second half and Patterson is the guy to take advantage of that.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- DPJ has another long touchdown.
- Michigan has 250 rushing yards.
- Michigan, 29-13