Preview: Penn State

Submitted by Brian on October 23rd, 2009 at 2:03 PM

penn-state-logo The Essentials

WHAT Michigan vs #13 Penn State
WHERE Michigan Stadium,
Ann Arbor, MI
October 24th, 2009
THE LINE Penn State –4.5
TELEVISION Nationwide on ABC
WEATHER Mid 40s, cloudy
30% chance of rain

Run Offense vs. Penn State

Despite the scary numbers Penn State has put up so far, I think Michigan can run the ball on them. Michigan will bring a rushing attack far better than any that Penn State's seen so far, and the most Michigan-like offense the Nittany Lions have faced did a good job in the limited attempts they were provided:

# Player No Gain Loss Net TD Avg Long
7 Juice Williams 17 81 0 81 1 4.7 14
9 Arrelious Benn 1 2 0 2 0 2 2
21 Jason Ford 3 16 0 16 0 5.3 8
22 Daniel Dufrene 11 57 3 54 0 4.9 16
  Totals 35 156 3 153 1

(As per usual, I excised sacks. There were three for 23 yards.)

These were not garbage-time stats. Illinois outgained Penn State by a significant margin in the first half and failed to score more than three points because Penn State downed two punts at the one and the drives they created from that field position went 40-60 yards before stalling out. Illinois is the #40 rushing offense in the country and did not exactly light up any of their other opponents; I think it's safe to assert that Michigan's line and backs are considerably better than those of Illinois if Molk is fully healthy. Williams' ability versus Forcier/Robinson's is a wild card.

ODRICK 1115 JRH Jared Odrick

Illinois did a lot of their damage on the edge, as Penn State defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu were very good at blasting into the backfield and causing havoc on conventional stretch runs. Illinois runs a veer package where the line blocks one direction and the run goes the other, with Williams reading an unblocked playside defensive end; this was pretty successful because the DT's natural inclination when they see stretch blocking is to shoot to one side of the field. This leaves Michigan open for cutbacks, and this was the tendency Michigan exploited last year to birth Minor RAGE and give Anthony Scirroto very bad dreams.

Chances are Penn State will attempt to adjust to this with backside games. Against Illinois they remained in their base 4-3 on all but extreme passing downs, showing a two-deep look but always—literally—walking down a safety over the slot receiver and showing one deep middle safety. So this isn't going to be as gentle as the Iowa game for Michigan. Penn State will be more aggressive and less predictable. Denard Robinson will find the sledding tougher than he did on his drive against Iowa; even against Denard the Hawkeyes persisted with their two deep safeties.

Star Penn State linebacker Sean Lee is supposed to play after missing most of the last three games. Lee got in for around 15 plays against Minnesota before "tweaking" his injured knee and getting pulled. How healthy he is, and how effective he'll be after a layoff, is a mystery. Indications are he will play.

Michigan has had two weeks to prepare for Penn State and has a good indication of what the Nittany Lions will try to do on defense. They have always been an aggressive, slanting defense against the stretch, dating back to the Debord days of stretch monotony, and that's not going to change because of a few hiccups in a game they won 35-17. Look for a number of new wrinkles for Michigan's rush offense—more blocking the backside end and trying to slam it up behind the slant-happy DTs, for one—and an extremely effective drive or two to start. I think Michigan pulls out a new package and gets mileage out of it; their conventional sets should also pick up yards. I think this is a solid win for Michigan; they should approach 200 yards with more if someone breaks it long.

Key Matchup: Molk vs Odrick/Ogbu. If Molk can reach one or the other DT consistently, or even most of the time, Michigan is going to rip it up. He probably can't because these guys are serious, but if he does…

Pass Offense vs. Penn State

Tate Forcier's had two weeks to get right after his torrid outing against Iowa, to heal his shoulder and clear the cobwebs from the minor concussion he sustained in that game. He now claims to be 100% healthy. Penn State will put that to the test.

PSU has lost its top three defensive ends from last year, two of whom were high picks in the NFL draft, and the replacements have been decent to good. The numbers are impressive—PSU is 11th nationally with three sacks per game—but there is the whole schedule thing to take into account. Jack Crawford has four sacks, all of which come against the Akrons and Temples on the schedule. In Penn State's three real-ish games, they acquired one sack (Odrick) against Minnesota, three (Crawford, Latimore, Stanley) against Illinois, and two (Hull and Crawford/Lynn) against Iowa. Odrick is actually the biggest threat; he's got four sacks from the defensive tackle spot. He's a frightening dude.

Penn State's pass coverage has been very good but as per usual the schedule is a big asterisk. It's even more of one when the best QB you've faced is… Ricky Stanzi? I think so. Juice Williams and Adam Weber are your other candidates. The numbers from those guys:

Player Att Cmp Yards TD-INT YPA YPC Rating
Adam Weber 22 10 101 0-1 4.6 10.1 74.9
Juice Williams 36 20 263 1-1 7.3 13.2 120.5
Richard Stanzi 26 11 135 0-2 5.2 12.3 70.5

Yeeeaargh. Williams had a good game—some of that was garbage time but his first half was on par with the above numbers—and the other two guys died an ugly death. And all this came with a totally new secondary that's sporting a true freshman nickelback.

Has Forcier established himself as obviously better than those guys yet? I don't know. His numbers are certainly better and he's only had one ugly performance so far, the cold night road game against Iowa's fierce secondary. But that's the last memory we have of him and it lingers, unpleasant.

Black Shoe Diaries has seen Penn State go up against its share of scramblers and indicates that the Nittany Lions will likely reserve a linebacker for spying duties, trusting their defensive line to zip past Michigan's offensive line without help from the blitzes and then using that linebacker to snuff out Forcier's wild scrambling. Penn State's gameplan will be to make Forcier beat them from the pocket, a place he's clearly uncomfortable. Some of the reasons he's uncomfortable are not his fault—the right side of the line has had serious pass-blocking issues—but whether or not it's on his shoulders, the fact is Michigan hasn't gotten a lot of production out of the pocket this year and Penn State has the wherewithal to force Michigan to operate out of it.

Since Michigan's receivers have proven themselves to be unintimidating on the long ball, Penn State will crowd the line with that one-high safety and dare Forcier to read coverages, throw slants, and whatnot. Forcier should do better than he did against Iowa, if only because the game is at home and he's now got some experience with high level defenses, but asking him to put the game on his shoulders is just asking for it. Michigan's success in this game is going to have to come on rollouts and play action.

Key Matchup: Moosman & Huyge/Dorrestein vs Crawford, et al. Michigan's offense has bogged down when these guys can't pass block, and Penn State will test their ability. At least Molk is back.

Run Defense vs Penn Stateevan-royster-2

First: Penn State backup tailback Stephfon Green is out. That's not a huge blow for Penn State but Green's a fast bugger and replacement Brandon Beachum is the kind of guy who gets listed as a fullback/tailback. He is not a fast bugger. The chances that Penn State breaks something long on the 5-8 carries Royster doesn't get are considerably reduced.

This has been a struggle for Penn State all year, the major reason Penn State fans have to fret about the team. Against Iowa—as we've seen, not a great run defense—Penn State scraped out 118 yards on 30 carries, a pedestrian 3.9 per. This was the culmination of four games to open the season in which Penn State struggled to run the ball against damn near anyone: 136 yards against Akron, 78 yards against Syracuse. (They did get 186 against Temple).

Then came the Illinois game. They were bottled up in the first half until a Stephfon Green run broke long with an assist from an uncalled clip; from there it was time to bludgeon. Penn State ended with 338(!!!) rushing yards on 40 carries. Eastern Illinois was next and as meaningless as Delaware State for Michigan, but last week they ground out 177 yards on 43 carries against Minnesota; Royster averaged 6 YPC with a long of just 26.

Clearly there's been some improvement from early in the season, when Penn State couldn't dream of putting up numbers like that against Syracuse. How much the offensive line has "come together" and "cliche cliche cliche" is in the eye of the beholder. For what it's worth, Illinois' rush defense has been consistently horrible all year and Minnesota has been little better. Minnesota yielded 295  yards on 49 carries to Wisconsin; they are currently sitting 87th nationally.

Michigan, for its part, started off slowly and is still digging themselves out from things like "85-yard Indiana touchdown" and "Kirk Cousins's Michael Vick impression." Statistically, they are not good. But, like Penn State, they've put together two good-to-excellent performances against Big Ten teams in their last two tries. Like Penn State, it appears the opponents in question are pretty terrible at the activity in question. Like Penn State, you can argue that a bunch of young guys in a new system are finally getting their heads on straight and will be better henceforth.

It could be that the improvement here is a mirage on one side or the other and someone is going to get pwned. I doubt it, though, and lean towards a fairly even battle in which Penn State gets 4 YPC and maybe breaks a couple long-ish runs but doesn't make a living on the ground. There's always the chance someone from Michigan screws up heinously, but that hasn't happened in the run game of late. Passing game… eh, well, that's next.

Key Matchup: Van Bergen versus Various Guards and Centers. As per the Iowa game: Van Bergen establishing himself a tough, productive defensive tackle makes Michigan's defensive line go from okay to very good. Recent indicators are encouraging; if he puts out a +5 or so day against Penn State they're going to have some ugly rushing numbers.

Pass Defense vs Penn State


Via the Shredder.

Darryl Clark died in Iowa City against Iowa like all quarterbacks do this year, and that concludes the decent pass defenses Penn State has faced. Ah, but describing Michigan's pass defense as "decent" is something of a leap. At least… maybe? Though M is 80th in yardage they're 38th in passer efficiency thanks to a number of interceptions provided by Ricky Stanzi, the pass rush against Michigan State, or Indiana's sheer stupid brazenness. FWIW, Clark against Big Ten competition:

Opponent Att Cmp Yards TD-INT YPA YPC Rating
Iowa 32 12 198 1-3 6.2 16.5 81
Illinois 25 17 175 0-0 7.0 10.3 126.8
Minnesota 32 21 287 1-0 9.0 13.7 151.3

One excellent game, one okay game, one poor one.

Michigan actually has a decent chance of matching up against Penn State's receivers. 6'5" deep threat Derrick Moye is threatening, but he hasn't done much outside of the Akron game to start the year and last week's Minnesota game where he had 6 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Neither Warren or Woolfolk should have much trouble running with him and they've got good size for corners; while I can see a fade here and there I don't think Moye is the kind of guy who Michigan's going to have a huge amount of trouble with. Penn State's got a tiny white possession slot receiver in Graham Zug; I assume he'll reel in a few balls underneath the coverage and maybe a corner or something but Michigan should match up okay with him, too.

The guy who has the potential to kill Michigan is tight end Andrew Quarless. He's a talented guy, and this week's UFR inadvertently coined the term "Moeaki open" after the Iowa tight end was handed two touchdown receptions without so much as another Michigan player in the same area code. Michigan's linebackers are now freaking out and running downhill and the safeties are small guys without a ton of athleticism; it's hard not to see Quarless running wide open on several play action passes. Defending that is something Michigan's worked on for two weeks, I'm betting. Who's got super awesome faith in their ability to fix it over that time span? No one? Correct.

Pass rush will be the key. That's tough against Darryl Clark, who's not Michael Vick but isn't John Navarre, either. If Michigan yields running lanes like they did against Michigan State, Clark is more than capable of exploiting them. The good news is that right tackle is a huge concern for Penn State. The first and second string guys are laid up with ankle injuries, leaving JUCO transfer Ako Poti the starter at the position. Ako Poti vs Brandon Graham == image you see above. Or, at least, it better. I think the recipe in this game is to threaten a lot of blitzes away from Graham's side to force protection slides, bring a number of them, and tell the defensive tackles to crush their guys backwards but under no circumstances get out of their lanes.

This could be a painfully variable matchup for both teams. Michigan should get guys in on Clark, which may result in sacks or interceptions—Clark was very poor when pressured against both Iowa and Illinois—or Clark loping downfield in acres of space. When Michigan does not get to the quarterback they are liable to turn third and twenty-five into first and goal, though it will be interesting to see if Kovacs is the deep safety this week. That would say lots about Kovacs, and Mike Williams. I don't think Clark will kill Michigan but something like 60% completions for 200 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT might be in the cards.

Key Matchup: Brandon Graham versus Poti or whoever. If Graham kills a drive, Michigan probably loses. If he kills four, they win.

Special Teams

Michigan ascended to #2 in net punting on their bye week, with Zoltan averaging almost 42 yards net per punt. Penn State languishes at #86, but that's deceiving. PSU's punter is averaging almost 43 yards a kick and has seen only five returns. They've been big returns, though, averaging 17 yards each. That combined with a punt block shoots Penn State into the basement. Without the block, they'd be in the top 20.

The rest of Penn State's special teams are atrocious, though. They're 95th in punt returns and 119th in kick returns. Kicker Colin Wagner is only 6 of 10 on the season. This should be an advantage for Michigan as long as they…




Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Ako Poti does not cower and beg for mercy at some point.
  • Michigan doesn't have an answer for Slanty McDT and friends.
  • The RT is getting abused.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Penn State gets a blizzard of new looks and can't cope.
  • Forcier can get comfortable in the pocket.
  • Penn State's OL renaissance turns out to be illusory

Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for I Explained It Away Above But Those Defensive Stats Are Still Gross, +1 for And We've Been Outgained By All Big Ten Opponents So Far, –1 for Huge Mismatch With Michigan's Best Player, +1 for Jebus The Safeties Are Going To Kill Us At Least Once, –1 for We Own Penn State, +1 for Do We?).

Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for Owning Penn State, +1 for Huge Swing Game That's The Difference Between Hoping For 7-5 And Staring Down A New Year's Day Bid, +1 for I Think I Should Make That Last One Two Points, –1 for Season Still About Building And Losing This Narrowly Wouldn't Be A Disaster.)

Loss will cause me to... fret about the possibility of losing one of the next two weeks and blowing the goodwill from the Notre Dame game.

Win will cause me to...  dream about going into Madison 8-2.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

So there's one other variable to account for that's a coaching matter: will Penn State pack in and Lloydball their way to a loss? Maize 'n' Brew has a post up about the possibility. Unfortunately, it's totally inconclusive. I do think Penn State has a tendency to go into a shell in big games and that plays against their strength—passing the ball against Jordan Kovacs, last line of defense—and will result in a lot of plays that are stuffed runs.

Another variable to account for, stolen from a message board:

UM's five 1A opponents, in NCAA rank in total offense:
12, 32, 50, 66, 79
PSU's five 1A opponents, in NCAA rank in total offense:
75, 79, 99, 105, 114

Now… we're six games into the season and at least some chunk of the reason PSU's opponents have such crappy offenses is because they played PSU; the same goes for Michigan's opponents. Penn State is giving up 76% of their opponents season averages, though, and has extended that outperformance into the Big Ten schedule. It's a legitimate defense. How legitimate? I don't think anyone really knows. It won't be easy for Michigan, that's for sure, and I'm expecting the lowest point output of the season tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Michigan is probably going to go into a similar shell against Penn State, but for better reasons: that's what makes sense against a defense like this and given your relative strengths in senior tailbacks and whatnot. It'll be a close, grind-it-out sort of Big Ten game that will swing on a few things:

  • How well did Michigan use the virtual bye? Punishing a potentially over-aggressive Penn State defense with new looks opened it up for Michigan to take a shocking halftime lead last year.
  • How vulnerable is that Penn State offensive line?
  • How vulnerable are Michigan's safeties?
  • Will Penn State's terrible special teams affect the game?

Tentative answers: very well, considerably vulnerable but not overrun, also considerably vulnerable, and probably somewhat.

Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Minor gets the bulk of the work and puts up 100 yards on 20-ish carries.
  • Graham gets a lot of doubles, which leads to effective blitzing from Brown and Mouton.
  • Michigan busts out the wheel routes they've avoided so far this year and gets a big one.
  • Michigan, 23-21. Missed field goal the difference.



October 23rd, 2009 at 4:22 PM ^

I agree with the general sentiment that PSU is far less scary now than they were at the beginning of the season. People forget that during the Iowa game, they absolutely fell apart in the 4th quarter. Bad weather or not, Clark looked lost out there, and they don't have the type of weapons that made the offense so scary last year. The run offense should be able to wear down PSU's front line, and the receivers are good enough to make PSU pay if they catch the ball in some space. I think it will all hinge on Forcier's first half - if he looks healthy and can make some nice runs, the offense opens up and PSU is in trouble. If he gets rocked a few times and Robinson comes in, that plays into PSU's hands.

a non emu

October 23rd, 2009 at 4:30 PM ^

This post made me want to go run out under that banner right now and punch nittany fools in the mouth :)

I am incredibly pumped up for this game. I desperately wanted to make it out to AA for this game, but the flight tickets are so goddamn expensive.

Penn State Clips

October 23rd, 2009 at 11:39 PM ^

"We now have a passing game. I think they're overlooking this one. I think Penn State is just Notre Damey enough still from its pre-Big Ten and early Big Ten years to think Michigan is still the 3-9 team they faced last year, and will keep believing it until 2009 is in the books."

Say what? Michigan is still Michigan and the Big House is still the Big House. When kids sign with Penn State these are the kinds of games they dream of. What, you think we're looking ahead to next week's game at Northwestern???

And who in the world doesn't know about Tate Forcier's passing exploits, especially his late-game heroics? NOBODY at Penn State--players, coaches, or fans--thinks UM is 2008 Redux.


October 24th, 2009 at 1:54 PM ^

Is the original poster thinking the Penn State program is looking past Michigan to... Northwestern?! They haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1996. I'd guess most of the Lion's most painful losses in the past decade have come at Michigan Stadium. They will not be overlooking this game. This one's been circled since last year.


October 23rd, 2009 at 9:09 PM ^

PSU will not be able to withstand the power of the Forcier! The defense will be key for sure. Incredibly I'm not nervous, PSU should be.

Michigan 35 PSU 27