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.
K. John says
There are only two factors that matter in Saturday’s game, John Donovan, and which officiating crew is working the game. That is it. If Donovan doesn’t frag the offense and State gets something resembling a fair shake by the zebras, the game won’t be competitive in the fourth quarter. If Donovan doesn’t frag the offense but the officiating isn’t even, State might pull away late, they might not. If Donovan and the officials are in rare form, it will come down to the wire, and that usually means a loss.
In a nut shell, this Michigan team cannot beat this Penn State, but Penn State can certainly lose to Michigan just like they lost to Northwestern. Emphasis on lost. Michigan’s defense has been a paper tiger all year. They have been shredded in one way or another each and every game beginning with Michigan State. Michigan’s D is indeed hurting. When healthy, Michigan’s front seven didn’t put much pressure on opposing QBs and been whipped in each of the last two games. Contrary to popular opinion, Michigan’s defense is not as good as Temple or Ohio State’s. It just isn’t.
Jake Butt is a man and needs to be covered (e.g. no zone) but their receivers are not that good. The running backs are worse. Contrary to popular opinion, Penn State is not vulnerable to running QBs. They are vulnerable to running QBs running specific types of plays. Michigan has not run them at all this year, not do they have the personnel to run them effective.
Should good Donovan show his face and we get a fair shot between the lines (not likely but possible) this game could very well turn into a repeat of the Illinois game. Michigan’s offense is just as limited as the Illini, but in different ways, and the defense is no better than Illinois’ in its current form.
Penn State 35
unless….Bad Donovan or bad B1G officiating shows up, then all bets are off. Regardless, Penn State, while younger and less experienced, is the better team, almost to a man with clear advantages everywhere except on special teams, the offense line and tight end. A lose, regardless of circumstances should put Franklin and his under-performing staff squarely on the hot seat regardless of the officiating.
The Nittany Turkey says
Got you for PSU 35, Michigan 12, but we know that the officiating will favor Michigan and that Donovan can’t run an offense. Denial of both leads to fairy tale endings.
Big Al says
It’s hard to be too optimistic about this game since State already lost to Junior Varsity version of Michigan on November 7. Michigan’s defense certainly looked vulnerable to a Indiana’s wide zone read play. But Donovan doesn’t use any zone read plays and Barkley is not a physical, downhill running back. So, I think Hack has to have a good day passing if State is going to win. And I don’t think he’s going to have enough time to take too many shots downfield.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t bet on Michigan’s offense doing a whole lot either so I would definitely take the under. I think Michigan ultimately wins but the margin will depend on how much theycan run against our “Vaunted Defense”. If they can get 200 yards or more, the final score will be something like 31-10. If State stops the run, expect a repeat of last year’s shitfest – let’s say a 16-13 Michigan victory.
IMO The Kitties have a better chance at upsetting Moo U. We match up better against them and they’re probably going to be beat up and down after losing to tOSU.
The Nittany Turkey says
Yeah, the pipe dream of Hackenberg having a field day with the vertical passing game pervades the Sanguinarian circles, but the Traffic Cones won’t give him the time to do a lengthy scan of downfield targets. If he does have a little time, they’ll be covered. Saquon needs room to run, too. I might be totally full of shit — and I typically am — but I see a lousy day for the PSU offense.
I’ve been thinking about possible Moo U. upsets for quite a while. Their defense is anything but legendary this year. I guess that bubble burst when Narduzzi went to Pitt.
Hey two weeks for BD to come up with an effective offensive game plan. I’m very confident he’ll put one together and will have his offense ready to play. What’s that mom? No I haven’t taken my medication this morning.
Sorry meant JD.
And 34 – 10 Michigan
The Nittany Turkey says
Pretty close, Startup. Now, I’m thinking next week will be all Moo U. They will want it bad. PSU will be feeling the letdown and playing on the road. Plus, who the hell wants the Land Grant Trophy, anyhow?
I hear you on the Land Grant Trophy, who wants that ugly thing anyway?
Believe me I didn’t want to be close on my prediction. I came away from the Michigan loss with three impressions. First one is that the Wolverines are not very good. I think Michigan did everything they could to lose that game. Secondly, as clueless as Franklin and Donovan seem to be when it comes to their offensive game strategy before and during the game and as frustrating as some of Hackenberg’s decision making can be at times, you really have to give them all a pass. Thanks to Emmert and the rest of his NCAA cronies we have arguably the worse offensive line in college football. Not sure any coach or quarterback would be successful with the 5 traffic cones (I love your analogy – it’s perfect) we have up front. Lastly, what I don’t understand is why our special teams are so bad. You would think that a top tier football program could at least find someone that can punt more than 30 yards or kick to at least the 5 yard line on kick-offs.
The Nittany Turkey says
I think you’re right about the Wolverines not being very good — but I’ll restrict my agreement to the offensive side of the ball. I think they did the defensive job pretty well, especially in view of the big injuries on the interior D-line.
For a change, officiating went PSU’s way. That call on Peppers for pass interference should have gone against Blacknall. But then the great Jabril did in fact get torched by Hack’s blooper fade that was not a fade.
We knew that the PSU O-line would be crap at the beginning of the year. Hell, Smith and Dieffenbach left, so what was left? We knew we were in deep doodoo when Franklin picked up the Colossus of Rhodes as left tackle.
Having watched my beloved Steelers go through four place kickers this year (three due to injury; one due to incompetence), I’ve had my share of special teams issues. When I watch Joey “Big Toe” Julius, I get heartburn. I think he must have a secret hamstring injury or something because he had been booming his ugly kickoffs through the end zone earlier in the year, but ever since the two missed extra points, he’s been suuuuuuuuuuucking on kickoffs, too.
Well, the way Moo U. manhandled tOSU, we should be in for a fun Saturday next weekend. Then, we’ll get to concentrate on our preparation for the Toilet.com Bowl — most probably (in my prediction), the Ptomaine Chicken Bowl.
Hey it could be a lot worse, you could also be an Eagle fan like me.
I think next weeks game has the potential to be a little more competitive. I’m hoping it will be a trap game for MSU and I think we might actually match up a little bit better than we did against Michigan. I don’t think MSU’s defense is as strong as Michigan’s and if Cook doesn’t play (although I think he will) we might have a fighting chance of keeping the score close. Who knows we may even surpass the high bar we set against Michigan on our 3rd conversion success rate.
The Nittany Turkey says
I live in Bucs country here. The Eagles blowout surprised the hell out of me.
As you know, I disagree about next week. Moo U. has everything on the line next week. It’s their title shot, and as such I don’t think it fits the definition of a trap game. I believe they’ll be fired up. I also believe that our guys have “that dullard look” and they’ll go into this away game not wanting to be there. If they had any leadership, they’d use the spoiler role as a lever to impel the guys to action, but I think many of them are on the verge of giving up. So, I’m thinking they’ll finish with a whimper, not with a bang.
As far as the Eagles go I can’t tell if Kelly has already lost the team or if the team just doesn’t have any faith in Sanchez. My guess is that it is probably some of both. Personally just based on Sanchez’s haircut alone I wouldn’t like him.
I think you may be right about the MSU game and the team’s mind set, and I may be being a little delusional as well.
The Nittany Turkey says
I wondered how long it would take Kelly to lose them there. He’s a college coach wanting to coach in the NFL, kind of the opposite of O’Brien when he was at PSU. But I’m a fairly disinterested observer of the Iggles, as I grew up on da udder side of the state where da Stillers are.