Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (5-2) at Penn State (4-3)
(W) UCONN 30-10
(W) at Notre Dame 28-24
(W) UMASS 42-37
(W) Bowling Green 65-21
(W) at Indiana 42-35
(L) Michigan State 37-17
(L) Iowa 38-28
(W) Youngstown State 44-14
(L) at Alabama 24-3
(W) Kent State 24-0
(W) Temple 22-13
(L) at Iowa 24-3
(L) Illinois 33-13
(W) at Minnesota 33-21
Penn State Players to Watch:
In a season full of surprises for Penn State, it's ironic that preseason prognosticators thought they had the Nittany Lions all figured out. It would be a rebuilding year in the sense they weren't going to win 11 games, which is what they averaged over the past two seasons. For one thing Penn State would be the first college football team to face three BCS winners, all on the road (Alabama, Iowa, and Penn State). Plus they lost consensus All Big 10 quarterback Darryl Clark and would replace him with someone young and inexperienced. And Penn State would also lose four defenders to the NFL draft, including the entire linebacker corp. That being said, in the past five years Penn State has had to fill similar holes in various position groups, but the prognosticators had learned that the Nittany Lions always filled those voids with results much above expectations. In summary, lose a lot of players to the NFL, start a new QB and play tough teams on the road and you're not going to win the Big 10 Championship, but the 2010 Nittany Lions still win eight or nine games. Case closed. Mail it in. Take it to Vegas. But then the surprises started to happen in late August.
It started with the quarterback race. Going into camp, three figured to vie for the starting job. They included former Michigan verbal Kevin Newsome (So. #12), Matt McGloin (So. #11), and true freshman Paul Jones (#10) who appeared to be the only productive quarterback in their Spring Game. Neither of them won the job. Instead it was true freshman Rob Bolden (#1) from Orchard Lake St. Mary's in Michigan, who didn't join the team until the first practice in August. This would be akin to Denard Robinson (So. #16) winning the starting job last season. Naturally, the offense was expected to struggle in passing situations, but they still had Evan Royster (Sr. #22). Royster, an All-America and Doak Walker Award candidate, stood 481 yards away from breaking the school's all-time rushing yardage record. Surely he could be counted on to carry the load while Bolden got use to playing under center at the collegiate level. This leads us to surprise #2.
Royster has been a shell of his former self. Through seven games Royster has 450 rushing yards (64.3 ypg). He probably should have had that kind of yardage through the four non-conference games that included Youngstown State, Kent State and Temple. Royster has found himself, at times, playing behind his back-up Stephfon Green (Jr. #21) and freshman Silas Redd (#25). Criticism and questions about Royster have been rampant but without answers. Lehigh Valley Live dot com headlined Royster's season as "mysterious" and Head Coach Joe Paterno had to publically declare that Royster "wasn't in the dog house." It's not as if Royster hasn't played behind rebuilt offensive lines before. He did so and still had two 1,000 yard seasons. This season Penn State already lost two starters this season not including the two starting tackles they had to replace from the 2009 season. Speaking of injuries, that leads us to surprise #3.
Penn State has lost three starters to season ending injuries. While Purdue and their fans are hardly shedding a tear over these unfortunate circumstances in Happy Valley, much has been made how the team doctors have been working overtime. Fifteen players who were on the two-deep have been injured prior to and during the course of the season. As many as seven starters could miss the game. Details can be found farther down. Unlike past seasons, inexperienced units are playing like inexperienced units.
Observations from Last Year's Game
Michigan started the game the same way it has done many times in the past two seasons, by scoring a touchdown on its opening drive. However, center David Molk (Jr. #50) injured his knee just a couple of minutes in and didn't play the rest of the year. Center to quarterback exchanges continued to haunt the Wolverines throughout the year and it did again when a snap sailed past Tate Forcier (So. #5) for a safety. After the free kick, Darryl Clark found TE Andrew Quarless for a long touchdown over the middle. It was a long day for the linebackers. In addition to the missed assignment, a different linebacker lost contain by over pursuing and Royster scored on a 41 yard TD run. With the defense giving up big plays and the offense executing poorly, it was a game you wanted to forget, but the good news is that many of the impact players for Penn State are either gone, injured or are no longer seeing much playing time. For example, receiver Graham Zug (Sr. #5) scored three touchdowns, untouched, in the game and finished the year with seven scores and 46 catches. This year he has only four receptions in limited playing time. Go figure.
Match-Ups: Michigan Offense vs. Penn State Defense
Before the Illinois game, the defense wasn't much of a concern. Penn State was yielding only 15 pts per game. They were playing sound, fundamental defense. With a good offense to compliment it, they would be in position to win every game, but as stated before, the offense had been struggling. Injuries struck the defense by the Iowa game in early October. Both defense ends were injured and the newly built linebacker group was also besieged.
Not having DE Eric Latimore (Jr. #56) for the game is big for Michigan. Losing the other DE Jack Crawford (Jr. #81) would be even bigger. He's practicing this week, but Paterno was quoted Tuesday as Jack being "doubtful" with a bad foot. Crawford had a sack against Michigan and had 14.5 tackles for loss in 2009. Good defensive ends have been a key to stopping Head Coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offenses. Without either, Robinson and the rest of the running backs should be able to use their speed effectively outside the tackle box, as long as Robinson is healthy. He says he's 100% better.
"I'm real excited," said Robinson. "I don't know if I can wait. I'm ready to play right now. We'll see Saturday how we come out."
Paterno knows what he's up against.
"We're not going to stop him (Robinson). He's going to make yardage on us, because he's too good." admitted Paterno. "I just hope that we can make some plays on him."
Robinson will have to have a career day to ink himself in the Penn State record book. Minnesota QB Tim Schade had 536 yards of total offense against Penn State in 1993.
The second line of defense, the linebackers for Penn State will get some bodies back. Three linebackers returned for the Minnesota game last week and they are as healthy now as they were at the beginning of the season.
For the season the Nittany Lions give up 4.0 rushing yards per attempt in comparison to Michigan's defense that gives up 4.1 as this group, like Michigan, struggles to make tackles.
Despite giving up 299 yards passing to Minnesota last week, an interception turned the game around for Penn State. Inside five minutes before half and with the Golden Gophers looking to tie the score, Adam Weber's intended touchdown pass was short and thrown into double coverage, giving D'Anton Lynn (Jr. #8) an interception. Looking to make things happen Lynn brought it out of the end zone and returned it 58 yards to the Minnesota 42 yard line. The next play was a touchdown pass from McGloin to Derek Moye (Jr. #6) giving Penn State a 21-7 halftime lead.
Michigan will miss Martavious Odoms on the outside, but based Penn State's pass coverage, Michigan should make things difficult especially if the Wolverines can isolate a receiver and make a defender tackle in space. Safety Nick Sukay's season ending injury (torn pectoral) especially hurt. He was leading the Big 10 in interceptions (and still does) and was making an impact. He had a fumble recovery in last year's game. With, Sukay out, Penn State is less confident in their secondary and their coverage.
Word is that Stephen Hopkins (Fr. #33) will get more looks at carrying the ball. He'll need to hang on to the ball against a group hungry for turnovers.
The Wolverines will need to cut down on their mistakes. The biggest problem has been turnovers. They've given up the ball seven times in the last two losses. Vincent Smith, who fumbled the ball on a scoring drive against Iowa, says the team has been working on it.
"This bye week helped us to look at all the mistakes that we had and just correct them and to be prepared for not letting it happen again."
Let's hope so. The defense has failed to force a turnover of their own.
Match-Ups: Michigan Defense vs. Penn State Offense
Late Thursday, Coach Rodriguez made it public that some defensive changes were going to be made for the game and they had two weeks to prepare for it. All involve Freshman who play. Cam Gordon (Fr. #4) is moving to the hybrid-safety spot formerly manned by Carvin Johnson (Fr. #13) and Thomas Gordon (Fr. #15). Gordon will likely start. Johnson is heading to Gordon's spot as the deep safety, but he will share playing time with Ray Vinopal (Fr. #20). As well, Marvin Robinson (Fr. #3) should see additional playing time in nickel situations, according to Rodriguez. Left up in the air is what may happen on the defensive line.
By now everyone must know that Bolden isn't likely to play Saturday due to post concussion-like issues. McGloin will start instead. Not only was Bolden the first ever true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for Paterno, but McGloin would be the first walk-on (now on scholarship) to start at QB as well. McGloin, who came in during the 2nd quarter last Saturday, was 6-13 for 76 yards, two scores and an interception. There is a report that Newsome will play at least one series. Between the two, McGloin represents the better passing threat. This is the better way to go because of Michigan's pass defense.
While it was a given that Penn State was going to struggle offensively, it was against Illinois where everyone started labeling them as pathetic. The Fighting Illini defense held PSU to seven first downs. In the two games that have followed against MSU and Indiana, the Illini have shown that their defensive effort against PSU wasn't a fluke. In retrospect, there was no such understanding that the Nittany Lions faced a good defense.
Penn State's rushing attack will have to get better. They rank 10th in the conference at 128.7 ypg. Michigan's rush totals are more than doubled that at 281.6. PSU should assume they'll be better since they rushed for 145, but they played a porous Minnesota run defense that gives up 194.1 ypg compared to the Wolverines' 144.7. In all three losses, Penn State failed to get a rushing touchdown.
To make sure Penn State doesn't get a ton of confidence offensively, Rodriguez said the Wolverine defense needed to work on shedding off blocks.
"That was a big point of emphasis for us is using our hands, getting off blocks and doing a better job of that. I know we worked quite a bit on that last week."
Big plays for PSU keeps the crowd in the game and a big boost of assurance for the players anxious to get a win. Royster will get his 31 yards necessary to break the school rushing record held by Curt Warner. However, look for Redd to get some quality time and carries off the bench. Penn State will have some success with some long drives keeping Michigan's offense off the field long enough to prevent Michigan from scoring over 40, as some will predict.
Both teams will be desperate for a win Saturday night. Michigan wants to get bowl eligible and maybe even more importantly fight off the unfair criticism that have some believing that Michigan won't win another game, like last year. Penn State doesn't want to the face the real possibility that they may not become bowl eligible with a loss and ruin what could be Joe Paterno's last season.
That topic has become a real part of the conversation. Before the season, this game was expected to be win #400 under a "white-out" or "white-house" conditions in Happy Valley. Instead, talk surrounds Paterno's health, the team's lack of depth, and the inevitable conclusion that sometime in the near future they'll need to replace one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. It's almost certain that this will be Paterno's last Michigan game, with the two teams not facing one another until at least 2013.
ENJOY THE GAME