Chinks in the Penn State Armor

Submitted by DrMantisToboggan on October 17th, 2017 at 10:25 PM

Haven't made a diary before, so, if this should have been a board post, feel free to let me know through negs.


I wanted to take a look at the situational matchups where we have substantial advantages against Penn State this weekend. For the purpose of this post, I will define that as being ranked 10 spots or more ahead of Penn State's ranking in the corresponding category (i.e. Their offense's Rushing IsoPPP vs. our defense's Rushing IsoPPP). All statistics and rankings come from Bill Connelly's S&P+ advanced statistical profiles. 


The areas where we have have substantial advantages:



PSU overall Offense (13th) vs. MICH overall Defense (2nd)

Five Factors:

PSU Off Efficiency (24th) vs. MICH Def Efficiency (2nd)

PSU Off Finishing Drives (50th) vs. MICH Def Finishing Drives (36th)


PSU Off Rushing Success Rate (18th) vs. MICH Def Rushing Success Rate (4th)

PSU Off Adj. Line Yards (87th) vs. MICH Def Adj. Line Yards (4th)

PSU Off Power Success Rate (127th) vs. MICH Def Power Success Rate (1st)

PSU Off Stuff Rate (118th) vs. MICH Def Stuff Rate (6th)

MICH Off Rushing IsoPPP (33rd) vs. PSU Def Rushing IsoPPP (47th)

MICH Off Rushing Power Success Rate (13th) vs. PSU Def Rushing Power Success Rate (104th)


PSU Off overall Passing (26th) vs. MICH Def overall Passing (1st)

PSU Off Passing Success Rate (32nd) vs. MICH Def Passing Success Rate (1st)

PSU Off Passing Adj. Sack Rate (111th) vs. MICH Def Passing Adj. Sack Rate (9th)

Standard Downs:

PSU Off Standard Down Success Rate (20th) vs. MICH Def Standard Down Success Rate (2nd)

PSU Off Standard Down Line Yards Per Carry (59th) vs. MICH Def Standard Down Line Yards Per Carry (3rd)

PSU Off Standard Down Sack Rate (47th) vs. MICH Def Standard Down Sack Rate (3rd)

Passing Downs:

PSU Off Passing Down overall (25th) vs. MICH Def Passing Down overall (6th)

PSU Off Passing Down Success Rate (24th) vs. MICH Def Passing Down Success Rate (3rd)

PSU Off Passing Down Line Yards Per Carry (109th) vs. MICH Def Passing Down Line Yards Per Carry (34th)

PSU Off Passing Down Sack Rate (120th) vs. MICH Def Passing Down Sack Rate (40th)

MICH Off Passing Down IsoPPP (32nd) vs. PSU Def Passing Down IsoPPP (60th)


PSU Off overall S&P 1st Quarter (23rd) vs. MICH Def overall S&P 1st Quarter (8th)

PSU Off overal S&P 3rd Quarter (34th) vs. MICH Def overall S&P 3rd Quarter (4th)

PSU Off 2nd Down S&P (31st) vs. MICH Def 2nd Down S&P (10th)

PSU Off 3rd Down S&P (24th) vs. MICH Def 3rd Down S&P (1st)


So, what does this mean? The obvious conclusion is that our defense is better than their offense! Hooray! But, where can we expect to dominate them the most when they have the ball? In general, our line will dominate their offensive line. Their line yards are atrocious. If they try a run on a long 3rd down they are doomed. In non-fancy stats, their offensive line has given up the most tackles for loss in the conference, so the advanced stats bear out. Another great sign for our defense: we have a significant advantage on 2nd and 3rd downs, and in short yardage situations. To steal from Brian, cackle with knowing glee whenever they gain less than 5 yards on first down. Power Success Rate measures how well an offense can "power through" for a couple yards on 2nd and 3rd and short to go, or short yardage to go to the goal line. Penn State absolutely must stay ahead of the chains against us, or they will die. This shows itself in normal stats again in our respective 3rd down conversion rates. Penn State's offense is 77th in the nation in 3rd down conversion (38%), and our defense is the best in the country at getting off the field on 3rd down (21%). Penn State will have to hit us with broken or trick plays, or large chunks on first down to move the ball with any consistency against us. I don't want to distort expectations, but I would not be surprised to see a similar offensive output from them as their effort against us last year.


Now for the bleaker side of the ball. Clearly, the advanced stat matchups above don't discuss the Michigan offense much. In fact, Michigan's offense has a 10 spot advantage over Penn State's defense in just 3 out of the 34 comparable statistics that Bill C measures. Interestingly, two of these three are IsoPPP stats, Rushing IsoPPP and Passing Down IsoPPP. IsoPPP measures points per successful play. Our advantages in these two categories tells me that, while we may not have many successful plays on offense, we will have chances to make the successful plays we do get deadly. That is, when Higdon does get to the second level, he needs to get big chunks or touchdowns. When DPJ does catch a pass on 3rd down, he needs to house it. We will have a few chances for big plays in this game, and we (obviously) need to make these show up on the scoreboard in either 7s or 3s. Our offense also has an advantage in Rushing power success rate, meaning that we should feel good about moving the chains in short yardage situations, or punching the ball in from inside the three. Bottom line, when we run, we will get push. When we break through to the second level, we need to get into Nordin's range, or into the endzone.


The winning game plan here seems obvious: Run the ball (with gap schemes) and kill clock. Shorten the game. Pitt tried this and had a competitive game until taking a bad safety. We obviously have to win this one on the backs of our defense, so we need to keep them fresh. When we do throw the ball, which should be few and far between, we should go for big plays. Then the X factors become penalties and turnovers. In the game with Iowa (which Iowa should have won), Iowa was +1 in turnovers and +65 yards in penalties (5 fewer penalties than PSU). If we win this game, I would predict that:

- We win the turnover battle

- We have close or lower penalty yardage than Penn State

- We run for 200 yards

- Barkley gets less than 130 yards of rushing and receiving combined

- Penn State converts less than 30% on 3rd Down


If at least three of those things don't happen, then the outcome is probably bad. If we get four or five, we can feel good. 


The conclusion might not be anything mind-blowing, but I hope the defensive advantages and the few offensive opportunities from the advanced stats give some of the more pessimistic around here hope for Saturday's game.



October 17th, 2017 at 10:36 PM ^

Trying not to get my hopes up for this Saturday night so that I might be able to study the next day, in the event of a Michigan loss…this combined with your comment in one of the earlier threads on the importance of the run game has me excited. Thanks for digging the numbers up.


October 17th, 2017 at 10:55 PM ^

I expect PSU to get some home cooking from the refs so it's important that this team doesn't shoot itself in the foot with penalties.

We have to eliminate off sides, personal fouls, holding on special teams, delay of game, and false starts.

Don Brown approved

October 17th, 2017 at 11:23 PM ^

Thanks for putting this together.  Limit mistakes on offense, keep it close late in the game, and make Franklin have to coach his team to a win (so far he has been coaching to get SB to New York late in games).  The exception was Iowa when they had to score on the last drive, but that was against an average defense.  Not Don Brown's dudes.

Icehole Woody

October 18th, 2017 at 7:47 AM ^

I was wondering what is so great about Penn State that they’re ranked #2? They have not played any top shelf teams. Teams ranked above lost a game so they moved up. Iowa, a middle if the pack Big Ten team almost beat them. Kind of smells like a PC feel good ranking.

Hemlock Philosopher

October 18th, 2017 at 9:03 AM ^

Well, they'd be ranked behind USC, OSU, OU, and Clemson had those teams not lost. They should be in the mix until they lose. Bama is a clear #1, but #2 is debatable between a bunch of teams right now, PSU just happens to have a bagel in the L column. Maybe TCU and UGa deserve that spot, but they started behind PSU. 


October 18th, 2017 at 10:33 AM ^

So I do think that it's ridiculous to expect us to beat Penn State by 39 points again this year. However, looking at the stats from last year's game, the keys to winning this weekend will actually be the same as they were last year. Last year we:

- Only threw for 5.4 ypa (a very John O'Korn ypa)

- Ran the ball 49 times for 326 yards (6.7 ypc). I'm not sure that we get back to 326 yards but I do think we should run the ball close to 50 times and will need to get about 5 ypc to pull this out. Anything over that is gravy.

- Penn State ran the ball for 70 yards against us. 2.5 yards per rush. Complete domination on the ground. Before anyone says we can't do this again, Indiana held PSU to 39 yards on the ground in their last game. We can hold them to under 100 yards and under 4 ypc here.

- Penn State threw for 4.5 ypa. Complete domination over their offense. Not sure if we can replicate 4.5, but holding them under 6.5 ypa and 4 ypc and we go a shot.

- We were +2 in turnovers, we obviously need this one in this year's game.

- We actually lost the penalty battle, having 67 more yards in penalties than PSU. You'd expect the road team to fare a little worse in this category, it would be nice if the inverse held true again this year.

- Penn State was 2 for 12 on 3rd down. In my OP I said we need to hold them to under 30% on 3rd down - we did that last year, and then some.

- Finally, we topped them in time of possession by 11:38. I'd like to see at least a 7 minute advantage this year, but the bigger the better. The more rested we can keep our D and the less we allow Barkley to take the field, the more our chances of winning go up.


So, yes, I don't think that the score will resembles last year at all, but I do think that, if we win this game, the skeleton will look a lot like last year's contest.

The Maizer

October 18th, 2017 at 11:47 AM ^

FWIW, JOK has 6.0 ypa in his 4 main games for UM. So saying 5.4 ypa is very John O'Korn is reasonable.

Also, this season we are letting opponents convert on 3rd down 20.5% of the time (not including 4th down attempts). Holding PSU under 30% also seems feasible. This becomes less meaningful if we give up too many big plays.

Blue in PA

October 18th, 2017 at 10:24 AM ^

I think we're going to need a TD from the defense or special teams to have a chance.


But..... stranger shit has happened.

And living in PA.... I hope we can tame the N-Lions.



October 18th, 2017 at 10:50 AM ^

I am hoping O'Korn has an inspired game playing in front of family.  If he is unable to approach even Sheridan level of play, TO differential will not matter and there will be no way to rush for 200 yards even with a dominant offensive line.  Somehow something meaningful in the passing game be it real yards or feigned passes that are QB runs have to there.  Else the PSU defense just keeps throwing more bodies into the box.

It seems like no matter how dominant our defense is if it is under constant pressure will it will cede 10-14 points base line on what the mgoblog narrators have labeled "frippery"  So the question to me is even if our defense plays a perfect game how does our offense get to that 15+ value?

The big outlier as we saw in the MSU game is winning the TO battle.  I see us needing to win the differential by 3.  I am expecting 15 meaningful possesions by each team(assuming defensive struggle).  We have the better kicker and we may be able to leverage our frippery when we do have a short field.  Again without a pulse at QB the TO's will have to be maximized.  PSU turns over in cases where they are likely to score and/or we get a very short field.  

I will be glued to the set come Saturday night and rooting as hard as I can tell.  But the stat brain in me tells us the odds against us our glum as the teams greatest weakness is at the most important spot.  This of course assumes that O'Korn does plays for himself a perfect game be it skill or luck.  My definition of a O'Korn perfect game is no TO's and taking no big sacks that kill field condition.  In the IU game we got lucky in that there should have been two interceptions.




October 18th, 2017 at 10:59 AM ^

If you notice my comment above, you'll see that we whooped Penn State last year throwing for less than 5.5 ypa and running for over 300 yards with a worse OL. The gameplan should be the same. Their Rushing D has regressed from 26th in S&P last season to 44th in S&P this week. 


We do not need an average quarterback to win this game. We need to run the ball, and we can do that.


October 18th, 2017 at 11:22 AM ^

I agree our formula should be to run, run, run, mix in some selective passing that doesn't have to be sensational. However...

  • 5.6 yds per att is a huge improvement over 2.9. And I would agree with Brian that O'Korn's performance is the outlier, i.e. I'm not expecting him to hit 5.6 ypa.
  • Going into last year's game, we were a balanced offense, which Penn State knew, so they had to respect our passing game. Of course I'm not in their lockerroom, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they don't this year.
  • Speight threw 34 passes in last year's game. If we throw 34 passes this year, something is horribly wrong.
  • On those 34 passes, he was 60% complete for 189 yds with a TD and no interceptions. I will go further out on that limb and say if you were to poll the board if they would take a performance like that out of O'Korn Saturday, response would be 98% yes, 2% why did you even bother with this poll.

Penn State is going to triple dog dare O'Korn to beat them throwing the ball. We do need an average quarterback to win this game.


October 18th, 2017 at 11:50 AM ^

Sure it's an improvement over his IU game, but 5.4 ypa is still lower than his ypa on the season (6.8). Obviously you can't expect Purdue numbers, but you should be able to get to a number 1.4 ypa below his season average. 


I agree that we will have to throw, and I said in my OP that when we do, we have to make it impactful. However, I don't think we need to throw it 20 times and I don't think we need to hit high ypa or completion numbers. If JOK can get to like 7 for 16 for 100 yds and 1 TD, 0 INT, that would be plenty to win on, if we also run for over 200 yards and play great D.


October 18th, 2017 at 12:45 PM ^

On your first point, JOK averaged higher than 5.7 YPA against MSU in the rain.  His IU performance was bad.  But, his overall average YPA is above or at least AT 5.6 (depending on whether you look at his whole career, include garbage time, etc.)

On your second point, I think PSU stacked the box last year.  If they didn't on the first drive, they adjusted soon thereafter. PLUS, with the big Michigan lead, they focused on stopping the run the rest of the game.  But, we still rolled up the yardage.

While the teams are a bit different, no doubt, there are strong similarities too.


October 18th, 2017 at 3:38 PM ^

I think you are looking at statistics in a fishbowl.  Last year we had a QB who was a threat to succesfully apply a passing game.  Was that 5.5 due to PSU concentrating on removing what we succesfully do on passing, or maybe it was a bad game?  However, regardless of the reason PSU had to prepare for a balanced attack and had to defend as such.  Even if Speight was having a bad day, PSU had to initally game plan that the passing part of the UM offense was a threat and made running easier.  

The second item is you look just at ypa which is not the entire measurement of a QB's effectiveness. Last year Speight had a QBR of 79.7 against PSU.  Not very good but not horribly awful.  O'Korn just generated ratings of 19.9 and 25.6.  I will say this. If O'Korn generates another 25 like QBR unless lots of crazy things happen we are not winning.  If he gets to 75, we have a fighting chance.

I agree we can win with just running the ball against PSU.  However, the QB has to be able to function at some level as a QB.  If we get a complete blackhole like we have the last two games we cannot win.  I don't care how dominant our Oline is.  They can't all block two people each.  O'Korn could not even execute RPS when Harbaugh set him up with a perfect can't miss plays.

I will make it simple.  10-20 for 58 yards and missing every opportunity to take advantage of PSU selling out to stop the run means we lose.  I hope I am wrong.





October 18th, 2017 at 11:02 AM ^

PSU has played some awful offenses this year. (Doubt that? We are the 2nd best offense, statistically, they will have faced this year!)  And those teams' defenses don't exactly light the world on fire, either (although IU and Iowa are statistically good).

I'm sure many will look to the one team both UM and PSU have played this year: Indiana. And I'm sure many won't look too past the scores: PSU won 45-14 and UM...well, you know. BUT, if you look even slightly below the surface, you see that:

  • IU lost the turnover battle 4-1
  • Yardage was nearly even, total PSU 370 IU 352; per play PSU 5.0 IU 4.6
  • First downs also nearly even, PSU 20 IU 19
  • PSU scoring drives:
  1. 98-yd kickoff ret TD
  2. 6-play, 39-yd TD drive after an IU fumble
  3. 14-yd fumble return TD on an IU punt return
  4. 9-play, 73-yd TD drive
  5. 8-play, 40-yd FG drive
  6. 4-play, 52-yd TD drive
  7. 5-play, 73-yd TD drive (capped by the trick play Barkley 16-yd TD pass)

In other words, the final score is not really indicative of a dominant performance. 


October 18th, 2017 at 11:13 AM ^

Yeah Indiana actually played them tight, mostly, and the game would have been competitive if not for the turnovers. This was probably the closest 45-14 game ever? Which, is a lot like saying Notre Dame was the best 4-8 team ever last year - I'm not sure what it's worth.


But, again, Notre Dame went 4-8 last year.


I think it is very encouraging that IU held PSU to 39 yards rushing on 37 carries (1.1ypc) in Happy Valley. It's not like PSU was not trying to run the ball, they've only had more rushing attempts against Iowa (50) and Northwestern (38). Now, you can't shut them down on the ground and give up a ST touchdown, a Defensive touchdown, and 9 ypa. However, Barkley has been held in check on offense for two weeks in a row now by run defenses that are not as good as ours.


October 18th, 2017 at 11:34 AM ^

The blueprint to beat Penn State is definitely there and it is very similar to last year.  The primary difference for Penn State this year is that they are healthy on defense whereas last year they were missing their entire starting linebacking crew and maybe a few other starters.  Regardless, Michigan needs to ground and pound as much as possible and hope that O'Korn can make the 5-6 throws throughout the game to keep drives alive and help put points on the board.  

Secondly, I think it's a must that we either win the turnover battle or at least halve it.  If we do turn it over, let's hope it doesn't give Penn State a short field.  Our defense has given up a couple of touchdowns the past two weeks when we give an opponent a short field.

Lastly, I think we have to win the special teams battle, particularly in terms of "hidden yardage."  We need kick coverage and punt coverage to be really good and it would really help if Ambry Thomas or DPJ could either score a TD or give the offense a short field once or twice.


October 18th, 2017 at 11:52 AM ^

Great analysis of what is known but the unknowns are still there.

 - How will O'korn respond on the road at night against a team he grew up idolizing?

 - How well can we contain McSorley in the pocket.  Watching the IU and Iowa games if you key on Barkley, McSorley will beat you with his legs. We are succeptible to getting beat for chunks on QB runs due to our press man.

 - Already mentioned....Refs.  Whens' the last time we went to Penn State and had an evenly called game?  

The numbers look very interesting.  Here's to hoping our offense has a pulse and Nordin drills 4-5 field goals to get us some points.


October 18th, 2017 at 12:12 PM ^

Seeing Higdon running away from a defense last week was something we haven't seen since Denard.  Really hope they give him 20-25 carries to give him that chance to house it.  Penn State's secondary was coming down hard on Wadley but if you do manage to get through the safeties their corners aren't going to catch him.  Please be the O line we saw against IU. 


October 18th, 2017 at 1:14 PM ^

The PSU and UM offensive lines are not very good.

Both have given up 16 sacks in 6 games and are ranked 101st in the nation in sacks allowed for this reason.

With Michigan's seething front seven, I give the Wolverines a slight edge here and predict Michigan gets to McSorley for TFLs.

Add to this that PSU is starting RS Fr. RT Will Fries over injured Andrew Nelson. 

Fries is 6'6" and 312 going up against Rashan Gary or Chase Winovich. Yikes.

Remember, McSorley is a lefty, so RT is pretty important.


October 18th, 2017 at 2:48 PM ^

I think you could look a little deeper at sack numbers. WHile UM and PSU have both given up 16. The trend is not in the same direction.


In Big Ten play, PSU has given up 4 sacks, 11 TFLs to Iowa, then 5 sacks, 11 TFLs to IU, and 5 sacks and 12 TFLs to NW.  They are getting worse as the year goes on into P5 play.  (Note that none of those teams have very good defenses).


Michigan did give up 4 sacks to Purdue, then 4 to MSU and then 0 to Indiana.  ALso, that MSU defense is probably the best out of all 6 conference opponents. 




October 18th, 2017 at 11:31 PM ^

The injury is huge, I did not realize that PSU lost a starting tackle. Going against Don Brown's defense as a backup is not ideal, he will have many stunts thrown at him from different directions and be confused. We've seen first hand how poor tackle play can cost a team.


October 18th, 2017 at 1:29 PM ^

All of the takes giving us a chance require that Michigan avoids mistakes. That's possible, of course, but not likely. Backbreaking turnovers have been a regular feature of this team, and we've also given up a crucial special teams return that allowed Indiana back into the game last week.

PSU doesn't need to dominate statistically to win, even win big, on the scoreboard. One mistake on a kickoff against Barkley, or one missed run fit (it's happened against both Indiana and MSU) and he can kill us.

TBH I expect him to get at least one score like that.

The perfect game can beat them. But dial up the mistakes as has become custom and things get harder in a hurry. And then we need to make plays on offense, and that... is not something I'm optimistic about.


October 18th, 2017 at 2:11 PM ^

The only way we win this game is if:

1. We win the turnover battle (not likely)

2. We hold PSU to field goal attempts, keeping them out of the end zone for the most part (I personally have been somewhat disappointed with Michigan's redzone defense thus far this year. So, based on what I've seen, this doesn't seem very likely, though it's possible)

3. We run the ball extremely well (more likely than the first two)

4. We hit a couple big play action passes down the field (possible, but not necessarily likely)


October 18th, 2017 at 2:30 PM ^

"So, what does this mean? The obvious conclusion is that our defense is better than their offense! Hooray! "

I think this is true, but it doesnt seem obvious to me from your analysis. For example, how do you think about the outcome of equally ranked offense vs defense? Is it a coin flip every play? Is it possible that the level of play in one side of the ball is superior in college such tha a rank 15 on one side vs rank 1 on the other is roughly equal?


October 18th, 2017 at 2:56 PM ^

Really? It's not obvious? Even if you think that our #2 D is not separated enough from their #13 O, look deeper at the stats. They have a few stats regarding their OL ranked in the 80s and 100s. Most would agree that games often are decided by line play. I think we have an advantage on both lines, but we certainly have a colossal advantage with our DL against their OL. Then, go to the passing game where we have the #1 passing D in S&P. If they can't block our DL and they can't throw on us...? I think they'll have to rely on broken plays and trick plays to move the ball even more than we will.


October 18th, 2017 at 4:55 PM ^

I am saying that it is not obvious to me that comparing rankings provides useful insight.

Silly example: It is not clear to me how to evaluate the number 10 bank thief in the world against the number one bank secuirty system. There could be 100 thieves that are all nominally the same and/or all of the bank security systems are infact very bad. Furthermore it many not be completely clear on what merits these rankings are being assigned. Even if the methodolgy is clear, it might be controversial.

In short, I am not sure you have provided justification on why comparing rankings between offense and defense actually says anything useful.