Friday, October 11, 2013

Breaking Points: Penn State Edition

No. 18 Michigan heads to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium, where the Wolverines have lost the last two times they've visited; of course, those two visits came during the Rich Rodriguez era.

On the surface, you would think a game against a team that just lost to Indiana by 20 would be a slam dunk, but, once again, I get the feeling that it won't be. I wasn't quite right on my 31-13 prediction for the Minnesota game, but at least I got Minnesota's point total right. Take away that Blake Countess pick six and my prediction was pretty close to spot on, which of course means absolutely nothing.

The oddsmakers have the Wolverines as just a 3-point favorite, a week after Michigan was a 19-point favorite against then 4-1 Minnesota. Will the game be that close? It will if Michigan fails to do a few things with consistency:

Devin Gardner vs. mistakes/road environment. One week of mistake-free football won't erase what happened during the Akron and UConn games. If Michigan is going to coast through this one into the second half with a lead of any size, Gardner cannot gift the Nittany Lions points and/or great field position. Penn State's defense has not been tremendous of late, giving up 34 to a speedy Central Florida team and, of course, 44 to Indiana's up-tempo spread bonanza.

However, Penn State is still 18th in total defense, given that their other three opponents were Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Kent State. This is not a vintage Penn State defense, but playing at home against Michigan always has a way of motivating Big Ten foes. Gardner has played in the Horseshoe, at Nebraska (as a wide receiver) and saw time at quarterback against Michigan State in 2011, so the environment shouldn't be a complete shock to him.

That said, his ability to get the team on the same page when the crowd turns up the volume will go a long way toward limiting the sorts of basic errors he's made to date. Playing Minnesota at home during homecoming and then playing in Beaver Stadium are like going to the opera and then catching a Metallica concert.

Pass protection vs. PSU pass rush. The Nittany Lions don't have an elite pass rush on paper, but they are tied for 47th in the country in that department with 11 sacks on the season.

On the bright side for the Wolverines, PSU doesn't seem to have a single pass rushing specialist. The Nittany Lion defense has 11 players credited with at least half of a sack; No. 91 Da'Quan Jones and No. 84 Kyle Baublitz are tied for the team lead with two sacks apiece. Both are seniors and both play tackle. Chris Bryant, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis will have a tough task ahead of them, even if PSU's numbers don't show it. If Gardner is getting pressure up the middle, you'll probably see a few big losses on sacks as Gardner scrambles to the edges, or, worse, an interception or two.

On that note, Jones leads Penn State in tackles for loss with 6.5 to date. For a squad historically known for its linebackers, Jones is the defensive player to watch on this PSU defense. Once Michigan recruiting target C.J. Olaniyan is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss from the defensive end spot.

Offensively, it's difficult to get much going if your interior OL is getting bull rushed and swim moved with even semi-regularity. Combine that with the road game environment and an early sack or a turnover could send Gardner spiraling back into the dark place he was in against UConn for most of that game.

UCF and Indiana exposed the PSU defense, so it's not as if it will be impossible for the Wolverines to successfully attack this group. However, the defensive line (especially Jones), is active and capable of making plays in the backfield, which Michigan hasn't exactly done a good job of preventing thus far. Also, as sad as it is to say, I don't know if Michigan has the same offensive firepower, speed-wise or pace-wise, as UCF and IU, respectively.

Blake Countess (and safety help) vs. Allen Robinson. Simply put, if Allen Robinson has a game like he had against Indiana last week, Michigan will be in big trouble. As much as Michigan fans might not want to hear it, the gameplan might just have to feature a lot of that soft, Cover 2 shell we've seen much of this season.

Michigan should be able to get into the upper 20s in points. In order for that to be enough, Michigan will have to limit the big plays when the Penn State offense is on the field. Conservative defense is not fun to watch, but it has been effective for Michigan. Hackenberg has thrown just four interceptions in five games, but he is still a freshman. The odds are good he'll give Michigan a pick at some point.

In the meantime, especially in the first half, don't be surprised if Michigan is giving up lots of yardage. You won't have a fun time watching it happen, but as long as those seriously threatening long drives end with field goals or punts once PSU crosses midfield, Michigan will be okay.

Tight end Kyle Carter is a distant second in the receiving department, with 11 receptions for 147 yards. Wide receiver Brandon Felder has 16 receptions for 135 yards of his own. QB Christian Hackenberg has thrown eight touchdown passes to date, five of them going Robinson's way. Sophomore receiver Geno Lewis is the only other receiver with a touchdown score; tailback Bill Belton has the other two.

Like the Joel Stave-Jared Abbrederis connection in Madison, you pretty much know where Hackenberg is going to go with the football. As always, stopping it is easier said than done. But, if Robinson has a merely "good" day as opposed to transcendent, I don't know if Penn State has enough receiving talent to test Michigan's at times leaky non-Countess corners.

The tight ends, Carter included, haven't showed up much on the stat sheet, but Hackenberg will look to them. Big time recruit Adam Breneman has just five receptions for 49 yards to date, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a target or two. Coverage up the seams will have to better than it was on scoring plays against Akron and UConn. In general, Michigan did have a little bit of trouble checking Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, which might not mean anything going forward but is something to think about.

Rushing offense vs. PSU run D. Much of the focus is on the quarterbacks, what with Hackenberg showing promise as a freshman and Gardner having his struggles. However, the ground game will be key; this is still the Big Ten, after all.

As far as run-stopping linebackers go, middle linebacker No. 40 Glenn Carson leads PSU with 39 tackles, 3.5 for loss. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman have 15 and 14 tackles, respectively. Joe Kerridge vs. Carson will be a battle to watch.

Both teams boast top 20 rushing defenses, with Michigan at No. 9 and Penn State at No. 20. I wouldn't expect either team to have a 100-yard back on Saturday, but that doesn't necessarily matter. If Fitzgerald Toussaint can put together a Minnesota-esque (or, better yet, a UConn-esque) performance, that should be enough to take the playmaking burden off of Gardner's shoulders.

Of course, Michigan will need to block to make that happen. Brian has talked about this at MGoBlog this week, but it remains to be seen whether Michigan's strategy of putting Michael Schofield next to Taylor Lewan--essentially tipping run in the process--can work against teams with a little more defensive oomph than Minnesota has.

I'm not sure if there any counters available with this look, or if Michigan will just try to mash their way to a few yards per play with this look and hope for the best. Either way, Michigan needs probably 70-80 yards from Toussaint for it to be a relatively successful evening on the ground, plus whatever magic Gardner can produce on scrambles and miscellaneous designed runs.

Rushing D vs. PSU rushing O. On the other side, Penn State has had offensive line struggles of its own but the numbers show the Nittany Lions having a trio of capable backs. Zach Zwinak is the feature back, having carried the mail 84 times for 369 yards (4.4 YPC) and eight touchdowns. He has a long of 38 yards; he's not a big play threat, but if Michigan's playing the generally conservative gameplan I expect they will, I wouldn't be surprised if he chips away at the Michigan defense to the tune of 70-80 yards of his own on 15-20 carries.

Bill Belton has a bit more speed to his game (he returns kicks and punts, as well); he's got 284 yards on 43 carries, good for 6.6 yards a pop. His long of 51 came against Eastern Michigan, however, and he was held to just 31 yards on 10 carries against Indiana. Belton is a pass catching threat, though, so the Wolverines will have to be cognizant of him in the flats and on wheel routes.

Sophomore Akeel Lynch has nice numbers too (35 carries, 270 yards, 7.7 YPC), but he didn't play against Syracuse and managed a combined 39 yards on eight carries against UCF and Indiana. That's not bad, but it doesn't seem like he'll be a major part of the gameplan.

In short, with Ondre Pipkins out for the year, Quinton Washington will need to have a big game up front if Michigan is going to prevent Zwinak from eclipsing his season average YPC of 4.4. One thing is for sure: Penn State will run the ball. The Nittany Lions have a run-pass split of 64:36, which accounts for Hackenberg's 55 attempts against Indiana. The PSU offense will likely have to approach equilibrium against Michigan, but with a freshman quarterback and a pair of serviceable backs, Penn State will look to run first before taking its shot downfield to Robinson, especially if Gardner struggles early on.

Once again, I find myself feeling not incredibly confident about beating a team that just took a pretty brutal loss. Michigan has blown out much better PSU teams in Happy Valley than this one, but this doesn't have the feel of a blowout, let alone a moderately comfortable win.

I expect Michigan to have some first quarter struggles. The Wolverine defense always seems to bend and ultimately break on the first drive of the game; if the Wolverines can keep PSU out of the end zone if that happens again, they'll be in good shape.

Michigan won't have consistent success on the ground, but, this game will be won or lost by the quarterbacks, with the ground games serving as ancillary components.

Michigan probably can't match Indiana's passing output or UCF's balanced offensive attack, but I don't think they have to in order to come away with a win. This game will be close, but I'm going to roll with the idea that Gardner's turnover-free performance against the Gophers was the turning over of a new leaf. Score: Michigan 28, Penn State 23. 

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