Sam Webb: What does the Nittany Lion D bring to the table?
Steve Clarke: “A lot of surprise actually. Penn State’s defense is ranked #2 in the nation in stopping the run at just over 60 yards a game. They’re #9 in total defense and #10 in scoring defense. A lot of those numbers are better than Michigan State numbers right now. Granted Michigan State had to play Oregon and certainly eschewed some of those statistics, but Penn State is certainly a defensive team. The Lion’s defense has only given up six rushing touchdowns in five games, all of them have been to quarterbacks, which I think might be a good thing if they allow Devin Gardner to run outside the pocket, which he did a little bit more for the first time this season against Rutgers. If they continue to expand that play book just a little bit to allow Devin make some of his own plays outside of his feet, where he also happens to make the most mistakes, but by allowing him to do so, he had a long touchdown run against Rutgers, had a couple of rushing touchdowns on the day last Saturday. This probably bodes well for Michigan in the Penn State game plan.”
Sam Webb: Who should we look out for on the Penn State D?
Steve Clarke: “You mentioned it right away, Anthony Zettel, defensive tackle is on track to be the Big Ten’s best. Zettel ranks in the top ten in the country with seven tackles for loss. Dion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan stand out players from last year at the end and the guy that you haven’t heard of it, but he’s a big key in this, is tackle Austin Johnson. He is often taking on double teams and that has allowed Zettel and linebackers to take credit for all the statistics that they have. In a way if you haven’t heard of anybody that’s fine, Austin Johnson is the key guy, but Anthony Zettel, a Michigander is the one that is cleaning up in the statistics and has a possibility of being first team All Big Ten.”
Sam Webb: You have two Michigander’s in there in CJ Olaniyan too, who was a big time guy from the downriver area. Those guys are making a name for themselves over at Penn State. Are they vulnerable at all through the air?
Steve Clarke: “A little bit. Let me go with the rest of the situation, which again is kind of amusing in a way. Linebackers Mike Hall, Butkus award list nominee, All Conference player and he moved from outside to inside and he has held up there just fine. Just before the season started, they lost Ben Kline to an ACL injury and kind of had them start thinking about different defensive packages. They had depth in the secondary and depth on the line, but nothing really at linebacker. So there was talk about 4-2-5 packing for their defense. Their playing a lot of nickel and dime throughout the game and usually when you’re playing against nickel and dime packages, you’re usually playing against passing offenses. If that is the case, then you would think teams would have an advantage against the run, and that is where I would remind people again that they are second in the nation at just over 60 yards of rushing per game. So going into a 4-2-5 or playing nickel or dime hasn’t hurt their run defense whatsoever. On the secondary part of it, you’re looking at Jordan Lucas who is probably their bell cow on the defense. Really, the secondary had five picks versus Rutgers, but they only have six overall on the entire season. They’ve been known for some missed tackles. They’ve been known to give us some big plays, but against Rutgers, they looked like superheroes back there.”
Sam Webb: Let’s go over to the offensive side of the ball, everyone when they talk about the Penn State team, they start talking about quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Steve Clarke: “Yep, he ranks second in the conference with 295 passing yards per game. He has spells of being on and off. Hackenberg ranks last in the Big Ten in passing efficiency if you can believe that. Much like his play against Michigan in 2013, he saves his best for the fourth quarter and for better of for worse, he is definitely the offense. They are not getting much help in the running game and that is kind of a surprise because the running game is where they’re supposed to be deep at. They had Zack Zwinak and Bill Belton; they were both named to the Doak Walker award watch list in the summer and because of the offensive line I think mostly, they just have not been good at all. You have to throw Akeel Lynch as the third member of that running back crew that was supposed to do well. They rushed for a season low 50 yards against Northwestern and they just basically went to Hackenberg in the second half. They dropped him back 17 straight times to start the second half, had a running play for nine yards I think and then went straight back to the passing game again. So right now, I think what happens is that even though you are rumored to not be very good in a particular situation, a lot of team defenses play honest. Well after about four or five games in, they see nope what’s been written about them is true and now we’re going to attack and that’s what’s happening in conference play. Northwestern just went after the running game, went after that offensive line. Which by the way has one returning starter and he is really good, and that’s Donovan Smith, but they’ve had to convert two defensive lineman back to the offensive line. They’re playing redshirt freshman in there. They’re just not very good and there is a recognition and resignation that why there can be improvement on the offensive line, it will not be remarkable one this entire season. It is a wait for next year type of thing. It has really hurt Hackenberg’s passing game in some ways because he’s feeling pressure in the backfield and of course the running backs are just not able to find any creases or any holes in them.”
Sam Webb: The thing about Hackenberg is that he will throw it up for grabs, throw it to the other team. Curious stat wise, does he still have more interceptions than touchdowns or has he flipped that stat around?
Steve Clarke: “Nope, he still has more interceptions than touchdowns right now. He has six interceptions and four touchdown passes. That’s when we come to the wide receivers, which is sort of the opposite of what you expected with the running backs. The running backs are under performing and the opposite can be said for the receivers. Receiving was supposed to be a very big concern for them. Without Allen Robinson who was the Big Ten’s leading receiver for two straight years running going into the NFL, they don’t have a whole lot. They had Geno Lewis who had four career starts and that was it. That was it coming into the summer. Now what has happened in the first five weeks of the season, redshirt freshman wide receiver, DaeSean Hamilton is only one of two freshman receivers in the NCAA to average 100 yards of receiving per game and Lewis are the only duos among the top 25 in the NCAA in receiving yards per game. Hamilton and Lewis are ranked third and fourth respectively in the Big Ten with 100 yards and 99 yards receiving per game. That certainly is a product of Christian Hackenberg just throwing it out there and making it happen. As good as those guys are, they only move the chains. The two of them just combined for a single touchdown catch all season. Who is the go-to guy? Well there isn’t too many when you only throw four touchdown passes. Tight end Jesse James is 6’7”, 272 pounds, can block and can go out for the pass. He has two touchdowns this season from Hackenberg.”