October 28, 2010

Preview: Michigan at Penn State

The White Out returns... at night... against Michigan. God help us all.

It's baaack!
Penn state finally got back on the winning track last week, with a 33-21 win over Minnesota. The Gophers were able to move the ball well enough, but were doomed by poor field position, failed fourth down attempts, and one very big interception return by D'Anton Lynn. Oh yeah, did I mention the Gophers' defense had a terrible time slowing down Rob Bolden, before he left the game with a head injury, and didn't do too much better when Matt McGloin came into the game.

Having faced a bad defense last week, another bad one, maybe even worse than Minnesota's porous unit, comes to town this week. The problems for Penn State are that Bolden may not be available to start the game, and Michigan's offense is light-years ahead of Minnesota. And the Gophers piled up more than 400 yards on the Lions.

Scary? That's not even the half of it. In a night game atmosphere, the White Out in full force, and two teams that have a penchant for making throw-your-remote-through-the-TV level mistakes, this Saturday in Happy Valley should provide more than its fair share of drama. Oh, and did we mention Evan Royster is only 31 yards away from breaking Penn State's all-time career rushing record? Yeah, that's in there, too this week.

Let's get to it...

The Michigan Defense

Oh my. Where to start? The Michigan scoring defense is about two points better (28.4) per game than Minnesota's, but the total defense is a monstrous 40 yards worse (441) per game, easily making the Wolverines the worst defense overall in the Big Ten. Now that's not to say they don't do specific things well, or at least not horribly. The run defense (54th nat'l) is about where Penn State's is ranked (52nd nat'l) right now, giving up about 145 yards per game. But Michigan's pass defense is dead last in the conference (296.3 ypg), while forcing only 12 turnovers.

Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson used to be a respected assistant, until a failed attempt at head coaching in Syracuse. He was brought in by Rich Rodriguez to shape up a Michigan unit that's, to be honest, not much better now than it was three seasons ago. Actually, it's worse now than ever. Michigan runs a hybrid 3-3-5 (three down, three LB, five DB), which you would think plays better pass defense. Not so much. The Wolverines still run versions of the 3-4 and 4-3, but when players are this bad in coverage, no scheme can really fix your problems.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Michigan

This depends on whether or not Rob Bolden returns healthy from what is assumed to be a minor concussion. If Bolden starts and is 100 percent healthy for the game, Penn State's chances for the offense to succeed go up 100 percent. While Matt McGloin and Kevin Newsome bring their own unique skill sets to the game, Bolden still offers the best chance, obviously. Penn State has been historically very predictable on first down, running the ball for near-guaranteed yardage and a safe second down situation. This year, however, has been the polar opposite, yet still ridiculously predictable on first down. The difference is that, compared to first down runs this season, passing deep on first down works:

1st down stats Other downs combined
Youngstown St 8 13 72 0 0 12 16 162 2 1
Alabama 5 10 42 0 0 8 19 99 0 2
Kent State 5 10 135 1 1 12 17 82 0 1
Temple 7 8 113 0 0 11 20 116 0 0
Iowa 6 15 36 0 1 10 17 167 0 0
Illinois 2 6 88 1 0 6 14 54 0 1
Minnesota 2 4 54 1 0 6 7 67 0 0
TOTALS 35 66 540 3 1 65 110 747 2 5

Matt McGloin (4)
At least this weekend I'll have a chance
to get more shots of McGloin.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
Even with McGloin looking more likely to start this weekend, Penn State needs to throw the ball deep on first down against the worst pass defense it will face all season. Besides giving up just under 300 pass yards per game, the Michigan defense is set up perfectly for Penn State to exploit--with either Bolden or McGloin taking snaps--as the Wolves play a version of cover-2 that can be torn apart by both deep and intermediate passes. Getting the Michigan defense in one-on-one and in space is Penn State's best bet to really gain chunks of yardage. Getting those chunks on first down would be even better for a Penn State offense that doesn't do well on third downs.

Impact Spot: First Down Throws... In case you didn't notice, this is a big deal this week. Penn State can't afford to get conservative on first down and run the ball. Against Minnesota, Penn State came out firing. Even with McGloin in, Jay wasn't hesitant to let the ball fly. I'd be shocked to see the offense get all buttoned up this week.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Michigan

Evan Royster runs for a big 4th quarter gain [2]
Opening up the offense helped Evan Royster
and the ground game last week.
Will it work again this Saturday night
against Michigan? (Photo: Mike/LBU)
Michigan's opponents haven't had to run the ball much, being able to impose their will freely on the Wolverines' pass defense. But that doesn't mean the UM run defense is just as bad as the pass defense. Against a team like Penn State, which has had all sorts of issues with run blocking through the first seven games, Michigan is hoping the Lions come out trying to stubbornly run the ball.

Last week, I called this section pretty accurately:
"Impact Spot: The Passing Game... Illinois loaded up on the run, while challenging Penn State to beat them through the air. Against Minnesota, that could happen again. But this time, the pass game can be a real threat, opening up the run, and getting the 8th and 9th defender out of the box. One hand will have to wash the other for Penn State this week. Bonus Impact Spot: Throw in a little Silas Redd this week."
Michigan's pass defense is worse than Minnesota's, so the formula from last week should work again this week--use the pass to open up the run. (Yes, I now look like Captain Hindsight, calling for Silas Redd to get more touches.) Michigan will try to keep the pressure in the box, hoping it will frazzle whichever young quarterback Penn State starts. But sooner or later, as was the case at Minnesota, they will have to start playing back to defend the pass. That will surely open up cracks for Royster, Redd, and Stephfon Green.

Impact Spot: The Passing Game, again... With a full week of practice knowing they could start, McGloin will be much more ready to face the Michigan defense than they were to face Minnesota last week. I expect the Penn State run game to have more success this week, earlier in the game, if the passing game can burn Michigan deep a few times.

The Michigan Offense

Here is where Michigan can win the game. Robinson will be the sole focus of Penn State's defense, whether he's back to pass or on the ground running. The Wolverines are very much a one-horse offense this year, with Robinson accounting for 65 percent (345 ypg) of the team's 532 yards of total offense per game. Most of us know what Rodriguez likes to run on offense, after his very successful tenure at West Virginia. It's a run-first, spread offense, with the quarterback as the central playmaker.

Rather than me trying to explain this more extensively, we're happy to welcome Coach Rodriguez (via SmartFootball.com) to do it himself:

Michigan Pass Offense vs. Penn State

Malcolm Willis & Chaz Powell
Malcolm Willis (10) and Chaz Powell (2)
have gone from backups to starters this season.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
The idea behind Michigan's offense is to get the opposing defense so incredibly terrified of the running game, it has no choice but to sacrifice a few big pass plays each game. Robinson isn't a very good drop-back quarterback, not that he's been called upon to do that much at all this season. But when the Michigan offense wants to throw, the receivers are usually so wide open, Robinson just has to get the pass into the same zip code for a completion. Ok, maybe that's exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. The Wolverines use the run so effectively, they even have a play where Robinson takes three steps forward like he's going to run, then pulls back and passes. Then there's Tate Forcier, the 2009 starter. Against Iowa, he came in for an injured Robinson, going 17-26, for 239 yards and a touchdown. Forcier also threw two interceptions in that game. Just keep all that in mind this weekend.

Penn State's pass defense hasn't really given fans a reason to be optimistic going into this game. But it's still better than the run defense, in terms of comparison to historical trends among Penn State defenses--usually its the run defense that can bail out Penn State. Against Michigan and Robinson, it will be up to the defensive line to not only keep Robinson in one place, but pray for enough pressure to force a bad throw here or there. Then pray once again for the secondary or linebackers to actually make a play on the ball.

Impact Spot: Containment... No team has stopped Robinson. He's been slowed, but not stopped. Speed rushes on the outside usually end up very bad for opposing defenses, as Robinson just scoots out of danger through the wide open hole between the rushing end and the tackles up front. Penn State's best chance to slow down the Michigan passing game is to force Robinson into mistakes. That means forcing him to stay within a five-yard box inside the pocket. It won't be easy, but could keep things relatively under control for the PSU back seven in coverage. The same goes for Tate Forcier, should Michigan insert him into the game.

Michigan Rush Offense vs. Penn State

Chris Colasanti tackles Mikel Leshoure
Penn State will need lots of this stuff--
you know, tackling--to even hope to
slow down Denard Robinson.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
 Much of Michigan's offense was explained in the video, meaning much of the run game was also explained with it. Robinson has been the leading rusher all season (156.6 rypg), setting all kinds of records along the way. With all the hype around Robinson, the Michigan running backs have been lost in the shuffle among non-UM observers. Remember the days of Mike Hart grinding Penn State into submission with what felt like 100 carries for 400 yards? Not so much anymore. Backs Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both average less than 50 rush yards per game, with neither breaking 100 against BCS teams.

With such a weak defensive line this year, Penn State is allowing a 7-year worst 145 rush yards per game. Ball carriers are frequently past the line of scrimmage before first contact. Even when they're hit behind the line, it's not guaranteed the tackle will be made successfully. Avoiding poor angles, poor wrap-ups, and poor overall tackling (sounds pretty basic, right?) could be the deciding factor for Penn State's run defense this weekend. The Nittany Lions haven't faced a run offense like Michigan's yet this season, so we really can't say for sure how the defense will react.

Impact Spot: Chaz Powell... Powell is looking to start this week in place of Stephon Morris, who had a terrible game tackling last week. It now seems obvious that not only is Penn State serious about "open competition" for every starting spot, but missed tackles this week on the perimeter could be the difference between a 8-9 yard gain by Robinson, or an 80-yard gallop to the end zone.

Special Teams

Mike Zordich recovers an Illini fumble
Mike Zordich (9) recovered one of two
muffed Illinois punt returns. But the offense
couldn't capitalize. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
Finally, one facet of the game Penn State could win. Collin Wagner has been fantastic, as have the coverage teams and punter/kickoff specialist Anthony Fera (Fera was a Michigan de-commit, by the way). Against Minnesota, the field position battle was key to keeping the Gophers in bad situations, having to drive the length of the field, increasing the likelihood of mistakes. While conventional wisdom in the Michigan fan camp this week is that field position matters not when Robinson is in the game, it could still prove problematic if No. 16 is forced to lead sustained drives both passing and running. Unless there is some sort of massive breakdown on Penn State's special teams, this should be nothing worse than a slight advantage for the home team. The question is whether it can do enough to directly contribute to pulling the upset. It will take a long return or two, turnovers, and a near-perfect kicking game. But it's possible. Penn State has done all those things so far this season. It's up to the rest of the team to take advantage of it.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Red Zone Relapse... Penn State converted both red zone trips into touchdowns last week against Minnesota. The second was with McGloin under center and Redd in the backfield. So we know it's now possible that this Penn State offense can show some sort of life inside the opponent's 20 yard line. Against Michigan, the Big Ten's best offense, anything less than touchdowns (barring some spectacular PSU defensive performance) won't get the job done.

Turnovers... Turnovers can change the face of any game. But it won't be enough this week for Penn State to simply protect the ball when it has possession. Taking valuable possessions away from the Wolverines will probably be the only way to keep Michigan points off the board.


Michigan should come in expecting to win, but won't. Very few of the current Wolverines remember upsetting No. 10 Penn State back in 2007; the only memories are of 46-17 and 35-10 drubbings by Penn State the last two meetings. You can hype your team up all you want, but losing doesn't breed winning. Back in the 1990s and most of the 2000s, Michigan won so many games against Penn State (nine in a row), the mental factor weighed heavily on both programs. Michigan fans joyously cheered "We Own... Penn State!" Penn State fans practically shrugged their shoulders, with an odd sense of expectation that another loss was in the books.

That's not so much the case the last two seasons. Penn State know what it's like to beat Michigan. One program has been up, the other very much down. But this weekend, it's a different story. With the win, Michigan can reclaim a spot in the Big Ten elite, while Penn State's frustrating rebuilding season will continue to wallow in mediocrity. Yet, should the Nittany Lions emerge victorious Saturday night under the Beaver Stadium lights, what a soul-crushing defeat it would be for the Maize and Blue. At the same time, a ringing of the Victory Bell would serve notice that the Lion in Winter is far from finished, signaling what could be a very memorable season in 2011.

Joe Paterno

Too dramatic? I think not. This is shaping up to be the signature game for both Penn State and Michigan for the 2010 season. Live it up, folks.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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  1. "Yet, should the Nittany Lions emerge victorious Saturday night under the Beaver Stadium lights, what a soul-crushing defeat it would be for the Maize and Blue."

    Honestly, I wouldn't even be crushed. Denard's throwing motion has taken a step back over the last 3 weeks. He's not stepping into his throws, hence a lot of the skipped passes and interceptions. To start the season, he had good form, and contrary to the preview, he looked VERY good. Whether it's getting lazy, getting tired, or otherwise, his passing isn't dangerous anymore.

    Because of that, I'm not expecting Michigan to win. The defense is still terrible. If Denard makes his mistakes again, especially in the red zone, as has been the case of late, I'd be unsurprised.

    I think we're very much in the same "still rebuilding mode" that you claim Penn State is. Michigan is still hampered by several injuries and a lot of youth. Just some blue hairs don't want to admit it.

    Good luck this weekend and may we get to see Bolden. Always want a challenge.

    Oh, and noted the origin of all you guys. I went back to the "About" page after posting it. Either way, I still think your quality content has well overtaken that other Penn State blog.

  2. Thanks, FA. Denard looked good early, probably because he was facing the likes of UConn, Notre Dame, UMass, and Bowling Green. But as we PSU fans can attest to, shit can really hit the fan when getting into the meat of the schedule.

    I guess I overreacted a bit with the "soul-crushing defeat" comment. But from what I hear, UM fans will fall into a severe depression if they lose to the weakest Penn State team since 2004. I'm really torn about this game.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this preview, especially as it's from a different perspective. I agree with FA that linebacker-U is now my go to blog for PSU content. With that said, I really think this game will come down to the defenses despite the media focus on Robinson and whether Bolden will play. I would venture to say that the game comes down to PSU's defense, more specifically. If PSU can contain and slow Robinson and force him into mistakes, then PSU has a great chance of winning as Michigan's defense is quite porous. If PSU's defense can't slow down Robinson, then I would like Michigan's chances in a shootout. Either way, a night game in Happy Valley is always a treat and hope to see Bolden play.

  4. I see this game pretty simply.

    With McGloin starting...
    Penn State offense = Michigan defense. Both terrible in ways that should get coaches fired

    Michigan offense >> Penn state defense.

    I think that Michigan wins this one handily unless they are at least -2 on turnovers.