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.
Penn State (6-1) at Michigan (5-2)
(W) Eastern Kentucky 19-13
(W) Western Michigan 23-19
(W) at Akron 38-2
(L) Iowa 21-10
(W) at Illinois 35-17
(W) Eastern Illinois 52-3
(W) Minnesota 20-0
(W) Western Michigan 31-7
(W) Notre Dame 38-34
(W) Eastern Michigan 45-17
(W) Indiana 36-33
(L) at Michigan State 26-20 OT
(L) at Iowa 30-28
(W) Delaware State 63-6
PSU Players to Watch:
The legend and ceremonies around Ground Hog Day began in Puxatony, Pennsylvania. So it shouldn't be a surprise that this year's Nittany Lion football team resembles all their other teams over the past five years. Penn State starts each September by overpowering teams that Delaware State can compete with, and by doing so, mount individual and team statistics that make them appear to be one of the best teams in the country. However, they have lost three of their last four Conference Openers, showing that no matter how bad they beat Coastal Carolina or FIU, it doesn't necessarily translate to victories when starting the Big 10 Season.
In the Conference Opener this season, Penn State scored the first 10 pts but lost to Iowa 21-10. Defenses dominated in that game, but the difference was turnovers. Penn State gave the ball away four times in six 2nd half possessions. A fifth possession, a punt, was blocked and returned for a touchdown. Once again, the Nittany Lions, a Top Ten team, was looking up from the bottom of the standings.
Just in time for the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions played one of its best defensive games in years, shutting out Minnesota 20-0 last Saturday. Since Minnesota isn't going to win the Big 10, it may be easy to shrug off the accomplishment and denounce the win as anything but meaningful. The Golden Gophers only offensive threat, WR Eric Decker, was held to just one catch. Penn State's defense held Minnesota to just 138 yards of total offense and consequently led the offense to possessing the ball for nearly 42 minutes in their first conference shutout since goose-egging Purdue in 2006.
To steal a line from the movie "Hoosiers", A.J. Wallace (Sr. #1) figuratively knew what kind of gum Decker was chewing. Wallace, a back-up CB, was inserted into the starting line-up because the coaching staff figured he was the only player tall enough to compete with Decker in ‘jump-ball' situations. Knowledge Timmons (Sr. #4) lost his job to height discrimination.
"We basically challenged A.J. Wallace to handle him, but he had help, said Head Coach Joe Paterno. "We changed up on him and tried to keep the quarterback where we had enough pressure that we didn't allow those deep passes enough time to develop. The people up front did a really good job; we played a really good defensive football game."
Wallace, who had four tackles, also prevented Minnesota from scoring after assisting on a tackle on 4th and goal from the one yard line. Paterno hasn't decided whether Wallace earned the starting job against Michigan.
Sean Lee (Sr. #45) saw his first action after missing the last three games with a knee injury. A knee injury cost Lee the entire 2008 season. Lee, the Big 10's Defensive Player of the Week the last game he played, was brought back slowly playing mostly in nickel situations. After the game Lee was asked when he'd be a full-time player again.
"The way I felt today and through practice, I felt great so hopefully each week I'll get more reps."
Having Lee and Navarro Bowman (Jr. #11) together at LB is something Penn State fans have been looking forward to since last January.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions could have scored more points since they had 464 yards of offense. Penalties continue to plague the team in recent weeks. The offense had the usual sorts from false starts, holds, and illegal blocks.
Evan Royster (Jr. #22) led the team with 137 yards with a 6.0 ypg, just one yard short of Minnesota's total offense. Stephfon Green (So. #21) left the game with an injured ankle and is considered questionable.
(For the sake of clarity, we will not include superlative individual statistics achieved mostly by playing Delaware State or Eastern Illinois)
First and foremost this game pits the conference's best scoring team (Michigan) versus the best scoring defense (Penn State). Regardless of the competition noted above, Penn State's defense has only allowed five touchdowns this season and is the only team in the nation to have not allowed a 1st half touchdown.
The considerable depth the Nittany Lions have had at Defensive Line has taken a hit over the last year, but they are arguably still the best in the conference. Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez is very aware of the challenge this group presents.
"They got an awful lot of pressure with their four-man front. They got a first rounder for sure in Odrick. He may be as good of an inside guy as I've seen in years. We said that last year, too. He dominated us last year. He's even better this year."
DT Jared Odrick (Sr. #91) was the one who tackled Nick Sheridan for a safety. This year he leads the team in sacks despite facing double-teams constantly, a drawback to being named 1st Team All Big Ten last season.
" He's got ability. He's a big man, he plays close to 300, he can run, he's tough, he wants to be good, practices hard," Paterno continues to lavish the praise. "He does all the things a good football player does; he loves to play. I mean, you can see that out there. He's a football player. We have football players who are football players but don't have the kind of physical ability he has. He's got a lot of ability. He's a very, very good football player."
David Molk (So. # 50) returns for the Wolverines at Center after missing the last four games to a broken foot, he'll be thrown into the fire immediately.
It's possible that Michigan may be the healthiest offensively since the beginning of the year. Tate Forcier (Fr. #5) has declared he's 100% for Saturday saying the effects of his mild concussion are gone and that he no longer has limitations on his throwing shoulder. Running Back's Brandon Minor (Sr. #4) (ankle) and Carlos Brown (Sr. #23) (concussion) are also expected to be back and playing near 100%. Throw in the return of Molk and Michigan should be the first team to score that 1st half touchdown that Penn State has not yielded this season.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions should have the horses to keep up with Michigan. Darryl Clark (Sr. #17) is likely the best QB in the Big 10 right now. It's debatable since he's doesn't really lead the Big 10 in any statistical category. His numbers aren't overwhelming with 13 Touchdowns and seven picks, but he's thrown for over 1,600 yards and is #2 in passing efficiency.
With the top three Wide Receivers in '08 not returning, Clark has had to get use to new targets. His favorite right now appears to be Derek Moye (So. #6). Against Minnesota, Moye had six catches for 120 yards including touchdown grab that made the highlight reels this past week. He leads the team in touchdowns (4) and yards (472). At 6'5 he's a big target and provides another reason why Troy Woolfolk will be staying at Cornerback.
Clark's best weapons may be at Tight End. Andrew Quarless (Sr. #10) and Mickey Shuler (Sr. #82) are double barrel threats. Surely, both teams reviewed the Tony Moeaki game film from the Iowa game. The Michigan defense will pursue Royster hard but must be aware of the TE release on the strong side to the opposite field. The defensive challenge especially at safety is to be aware that one or both TE's can release. Quarless has 21 catches for 224 yards. If the Michigan defense needs more game film of the ‘waggle' or the ‘naked bootleg', just find the film for Michigan's offense in 1997. They'll find it once every five plays or so.
To prevent those TE's from going out to pass; it may be determined by the pass rush Michigan can generate. Brandon Graham (Sr. #55) will need to have his best game not only to keep those tight ends in pass protection but also to put pressure on Clark, who hasn't always responded well when he doesn't have time and space.
"Our tackles are going to have one tough job, not only with him but with the linebackers plugging and the corners come and you got the strong safety coming," Paterno said. "We've got our hands full and he's one of the people that will be a problem for us."
In last year's game Royster rushed for nearly 10 yards per carry including a 44 yd touchdown run on en route to a 174 yard day. Don't expect him to do as well this year especially if Michigan employs another defender in the box like they did at Iowa. Royster has been running the ball well in the last few weeks, averaging 112 ypg over the last three weeks.
Two weaknesses on each team will go against one another, Michigan's kick coverage versus Penn State's return coverage. The Nittany Lions are dead last in kick return coverage in the Big 10 and average only 5 yards per punt return. The Wolverines need to get better with their coverage on both sides. Zoltan Mesko averaged 53 yds per punt against Iowa, but many were returned long enough to make the net yards appear average.
The other thing going against Penn State is their record at Michigan, not winning since 1996. While the Michigan fan sees dominance, the Penn State fan feels cheated. They'll remind you how Lloyd Carr railroaded (their opinion) the officials to put two additional seconds back up on the clock in the final drive that was won with only one second left before the snap.
Even this week Joe Paterno has mentioned twice how he felt his team had a victory stolen from them in 2002 when Tony Johnson was ruled out of bounds on a catch that replays showed he was in bounds. A successful catch would have put them in Field Goal range near the end of regulation. Michigan won in O.T. 27-24.
After viewing the tape in the ‘Primer Archives', Paterno and Penn State fans conveniently forget that two plays previously, Bryant Johnson was given credit for a 33 yard catch on 3rd down and 12 from the PSU 13 that he clearly had no control of. All similar plays have been always ruled incomplete. Ask any Penn State fan if they remember that gift. Instant replay was not instituted in college football at the time, so neither play was reviewed. The loser always has selective memory.
Even with a 6-1 record, it's still uncertain how to evaluate this Penn State football team. While a New Year's Day Bowl game is a likely destination with a win, even Paterno doesn't know where they stand.
"We've been fortunate, the only tough game we've been in we've lost."
After Saturday night, we'll probably be a lot more certain.
ENJOY THE GAME!