Michigan vs. Penn State: Senior Day
Beaver Stadium will be “whited out” for Saturday’s Senior Day clash between the #14 Michigan Wolverines (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) and our mighty Penn State Nittany Lions (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten). A sellout is expected to provide the monochromatic coloration within the stadium, although some spectral maize and blue may be evident in the north end zone seating area, as it were.
Penn State is coming off a bye week following a disheartening loss to the Northwestern Pussycats, while Michigan battled with Indiana to a two-overtime, 48-41 victory at Memorial Stadium last weekend.
The Nittany Lions have yet to lose at home this year; they’re 6-0. While the home wins have all been against pussies, the boys seemed to put together a cohesive performance in shutting out Illinois 39-0 in their most recent game at Beaver Stadium.
Michigan leads the all-time series (whose inception was actually 1993 — I have the t-shirt), 11-7. Michigan won last year, but prior to that, Penn State had won four games in a row.
This game is important to both teams. Michigan’s season pretty much hinges on winning this game, which in turn will set up next week’s big rivalry game with Ohio State, a game that might determine who represents the East in the Big Ten Championship game. Penn State would love to be a spoiler, especially on Senior Day.
Speaking of Senior Day, we’ll be saying goodbye to starters Anthony Zettel, Carl Nassib, Trevor Williams, Kyle Carter, Angelo Mangiro, and Jordan Lucas, among others. Additional players who are eligible to declare for the NFL Draft might also be playing their last game before a home crowd, and that list, as you well know, includes Christian Hackenberg and Austin Johnson. All these departures and potential departures will leave big holes to fill.
The Penn State administration has announced that half of the proceeds from sales of the final 3,000 tickets will be earmarked to benefit THON, the uniquely Penn State yearlong drive to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer.
Injuries That Won’t Heal
For Penn State, the loss of Jordan Lucas for the rest of the year leaves a hole in the secondary that will be filled by junior safety Malik Golden, while for Big Blue, the injury bug has hit the defensive line hard, with premier nose tackle Ryan Glasgow out for the year and DT Bryan Mone having been out since training camp. Still, the five-man Michigan defensive front, about whom head coach Jim Harbaugh said “they have a bounce in their step,” can be a formidable force against the Five Traffic Cones, especially if the Cones are lacking RT Andrew Nelson, who is still listed as a backup on the depth chart. Penn State defensive tackle Carl Nassib left the Northwestern game banged up, but he is shown as a starter on the depth chart. No one seems to know what his injury was, whether it has healed, and whether he’ll actually play on Saturday.
Interestingly, on the non-injury front, Brent Wilkerson is starting for the Nittany Lions at tight end, with Mike “Hands” Gesicki listed as the second-stringer. The demotion has been a long time in coming for Gesicki, who cannot seem to conquer his propensity for dropping passes, a contributory factor to Penn State’s crappy third down performance.
Possessing a suspect offense, Michigan has made its mark this year with its defense. Injuries have taken their toll late in the season, but even without Glasgow and Mone, Penn State will square off against the best defense it has faced thus far this year. Senior defensive linemen Willie Henry and Chris Wormley have combined to produce ten sacks this season. They’ll load up in the box to stop Saquon Barkley and force Christian Hackenberg to throw into a secondary that is good enough that single coverage won’t be an issue. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis has broken up 18 passes and intercepted two this year. All-around superstar, sophomore strong safety Jabril Peppers, who was heavily recruited by Penn State, is also used on offense and punt and kickoff return teams. On defense, he has 32 tackles (including 5.5 TFLs) and seven pass breakups. The combination of excellent coverage plus an experienced (if depleted) defensive line will ensure that Hack logs some turf time. Michigan has the #2 pass efficiency defense in the FBS. The Wolverines’ rushing defense, even after being torched in the Indiana game, ranks eighth nationally.
Here’s the deal. Penn State has the second-worst third down conversion rate in all of top division college football, while Michigan has the third-best defense against third down conversions. The Nittany Lions in-conference conversion rate is a crappy crappy crappy 27.5%, whereas Michigan has held their in-conference opponents to 22.9%. In their best effort of the year, against Illinois, Penn State converted 38.5%, which if they hit consistently would still be seventh best in the conference. Not good, my dear readers. Not good.
Back to the suspect Michigan offense, senior quarterback Jake Rudock, a transfer from Iowa, has improved throughout the year as a passer, especially since the Rutgers game, in which he threw for 337 yards. Jim Harbaugh knows how to coach quarterbacks, and it shows on Rudock, who also has (cue cello) decent running ability. Yes, another “mobile” quarterback to be chased by the Penn State defense. Rudock this year has completed 64.2% of his passes, with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In the Indiana game, he threw for 440 yards and six touchdowns with one interception and one sack. Rudock also was the leading rusher in that game, ringing up 64 yards on seven carries, with a long of 23. Of course, bear in mind that the Indiana defense suuuuuuuuuuuuucks! With 6-5, 287 lb sophomore Mason Cole at left tackle, one big key for Penn State will be getting around him and putting pressure on Rudock.
Rudock’s receivers, senior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darbo haven’t had spectacular seasons, but then again, Rudock wasn’t very effective early in the season. The passing game has shown steady improvement. The two experienced seniors have combined for 1023 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. Junior tight end Jake Butt (an appropriate name for an end) is a 6-6, 248 lb bruiser with excellent hands and speed after the catch who has caught 38 passes this year for 500 yards, an average of 13.2 yards per catch, and two touchdowns. Impressive!
The Michigan running game, aside from Rudock, features junior running back De’Veon Smith. For the season, his numbers are not great, and even in the Indiana game he had only 58 yards. Still, he has averaged 4.4 yards per carry this year, and has five touchdowns.
Earlier, I mentioned that safety Jabril Peppers is used on offense and special teams as well as his normal role in the defensive secondary. Offensively, he is typically used in potential scoring situations. For the year, he has six carries for 24 yards running, with two touchdowns rushing, plus six receptions for 54 yards. On special teams, he has returned eight kicks for 223 yards, with a long of 49 yards, and 15 punts for 185 yards, with a long of 41. Un hombre muy peligroso, señores.
Michigan leads the Big Ten in kickoff returns and is fourth in punt returns. Penn State will have to up its coverage effectiveness on special teams to avert disaster.
So, what are Penn State’s five keys to victory?
- Offensive line must play well. This seems understated, because I’m tired of mentioning it. After all, it is a slam dunk to hit it hard every week. The Five Traffic Cones have been playing better, but if they are without Andrew Nelson, which is likely, this is going to be a particularly rough game. They’ll need to be excellent in both pass protection and run support if Penn State is going to have a chance here. Michigan plays a five-man defensive front, which will undoubtedly confuse their asses and keep them busy. Michigan is allowing only 103.2 yards rushing; nevertheless, establishing the running game is Penn State’s best hope. Indiana torched Big Blue for 307 yards, but the Hoosiers actually have an experienced and capable offensive line. There is still hope for Penn State, for with Ryan Glasgow gone, Michigan’s yards against number is increasing.
- 3->1, not 3->4. I’m tired of writing about third down conversions. So, my shorthand bullet title means make third downs into first downs, not fourth downs. Is that too much to ask? I think Christian Hackenberg is going to have to be seriously on his game with the short throws to get ‘er done. It will be impossible to win if the current 27.5% third down conversion rate is maintained. Perhaps Brent Wilkerson will make a difference here, if he can hang onto passes unlike Gesicki.
- Execution on both sides of the ball. When asked about his team’s execution, Tampa Bay Buccaneers inaugural head coach John McKay once replied, “The way they play, I’m wholly in favor of it!” At times, we’ve felt the same about the Nittany Lions. Watching missed tackles and poorly executed short passes would have given the late Coach McKay flashbacks to the 1977 Bucs. Fortunately, Penn State actually makes a lot of plays. In this game, there is little margin for error. Again, already, they face a quarterback who is a running threat. Again, already, they better make the play. Another McKay quote comes to mind: “We didn’t tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking.”
- Kick ass kicking game. Michigan ranks second nationally in kickoff returns and 24th in punt returns. They average 32.63 yards per kickoff return, and one has gone for a touchdown, while the Nittany Lions allow an average of 25.76 yards per return including two touchdowns. Penn State ranks 118th in kickoff return defense and 32nd in punt return defense. This is one of those “something’s gotta give” categories which, like third downs, pits opposites against each other. Tighten up that coverage, Nittany Kitties!
- Get separation. Michigan’s secondary is damn good, #1 in the conference in pass efficiency defense, while the Penn State receivers haven’t been very good about getting separation from defenders. It is likely that they’ll be seeing a lot of man coverage as the Wolverinos try to shut down the run, and because I have no faith in the short game ever producing third-down conversions, we’ll have to rely on the long ball, which is never a good game plan, let alone against a defense like Michigan’s. That means DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Geno Lewis have to get open — no ifs, ands, or Butts (double-edged pun intended). For Hack to throw less than accurate passes in the general vicinity of receivers who are well covered could spell disaster.
The forecast for Saturday calls for considerable cloudiness with a high of 46° and a low of 29° — typical November Central Pennsylvania weather. It probably won’t be freezing by kickoff time, but balls will be hard and hands will be chilly (read that any way you want). Winds will be picking up during the day as a frontal boundary moves in. Coaches might favor the running game in such circumstances.
Official Turkey Poop Prediction and Whining
On the one hand, Penn State is undefeated at home this year, but on the other hand, the Nittany Lions have never beaten a ranked team under James Franklin, who has declared this to be just another game, stating in his Tuesday press conference that there was no such thing as a signature win. Again, already with the “aim to be 1-0 this week.” He’s getting on my nerves.
The opening line favored Michigan by 5, and it has since dropped to 4. The over/under is 42. Thus, the break-even bet is a 23-19 Michigan win.
At the beginning of the year, I wrote the following about the Michigan game:
Back to the Big Beave after a bye week, the well rested Nittany Lions will face Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines (5-7). The losing record ended all hope for Michigan Man Brady Hoke, who was summarily fired, which cleared the way for Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh to hop off the 49ers train before he got fired in San Francisco. Again, already, we have a team in quarterback flux; however, I think the team will respond to Harbaugh’s cranky leadership. By the time the Wolverines hit Beaver Stadium, they’re liable not to suck quite as badly as many think. If Harbaugh gets the running game on track and can score a few more points than last year, the jig will be up for the Lions. Of course, this is a tough call, given the vaunted Penn State defense, but I believe that after the Northwestern loss and the bye week, the boys will be disheartened, distracted, and defocused so they’ll lose this quintessential trap game that is not a trap game.
It’s all about the Fighting Harbaughs.* Yeah, Jim is bitchy at press conferences, but one thing you have to concede is that he can coach quarterbacks. Beyond the QB, he’s done a helluva job turning this team around from the Rodriguez and Hoke days. So, will the Lions get Wolvereamed?
There are lots of question marks on the Lions side, and this could certainly be a so-called trap game (shut your trap!) for Michigan with Ohio State (and the season) on the horizon. And yeah, they screwed up big time against Moo U. and were beaten early by Utah. And yeah, Indiana put a lot of points on the scoreboard against them. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
However, the Nittany Lions’ offense bites the big one. Only Northwestern and Maryland are worse in total offense in the Big Ten. In passing offense, only Rutgers, Northwestern, and Maryland are worse. Penn State is scoring only 25.2 points per game, but the Wolverines are allowing only 14.8. Michigan has just enough offense to get the job done and still has enough defense to handle PSU’s inconsistent and anemic offense. I’m going with the ‘Rines. Michigan 27, Penn State 13. Take the under.
*ESPN game announcer Beth Mowins uttered “the Fighting Harbaughs” a few weeks back, and I still crack up over it.
I’ll be back after the game with my inimitable Turkey Wrap on ATMH (All Turkeys Must Hide) week.