The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: Penn State loss has left fans scratching their heads wondering how could that have happened. The answer to that question is far more complicated than one simple thing. The Lions must address some of the errors quickly in order to face a Michigan team that is playing well and is starting to get momentum.
MH: The loss to Indiana was a tough one, particularly given the blowout fashion to what was a 2-2 squad. The Hoosiers are not a good team against the run and yet Penn State was pass happy against them, placing the pressure on Christian Hackenberg.
Who: No. 18 Michigan at Penn State
When: Saturday, October 12 at 5:00 pm ET, 2:00 pm PT
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA
Series: Michigan leads 10-6
Line: Michigan favored by -2.5
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: Even with Texas struggling, I always find the Red River Shootout to be something special. Oklahoma is on a roll and has seemingly found their QB in Blake Bell – aka the Belldozer. Mack Brown, the coach for Texas, is pretty much a lock to get fired but if his Longhorns lay an egg in the Cotton Bowl, his career at Texas most certainly over.
MH: There are a couple of other major matchups on both coasts. In the Pac-12 No. 2 Oregon heads to No. 16 Washington as the Huskies look to bounce back from a tough 3-point loss to Stanford. In the SEC, No. 17 Florida heads to No. 10 LSU as the Gators open up a tough three game stretch against ranked opponents.
ND: The big game on the West Coast is the Oregon and Washington game. Both teams have storied rivalries with their in-state foes but fans of both schools will tell you that this is game is equally as important. The Ducks have been killing their opponents in the first half and benching the starters by the third quarter. Meanwhile, Washington has been in some tough games and almost had a great win against Stanford. But, I like Washington in this game to knock off the No. 2 Ducks. Oregon's opponents have won a grand total of 4 games this year. Washington, on the other hand, has the third toughest schedule so far facing teams with a combined record of 10-2. With Keith Price throwing the ball and Bishop Sankey running the ball, the balance of the Dawgs will be the difference in this game.
MH: As much as I like this No. 19 Northwestern team, I think the Wisconsin Badgers are finding their rhythm and learned a lot from their loss last week to Ohio State. The Badgers will have to play tough against Northwestern's No. 22 rushing offense, but they seem to have the horses to plug up lanes and make the Wildcats take some chances. Given the game in in Madison and the Badgers are coming off a bye could be major pluses for the Wisconsin squad.
ND: Offensively, the Lions have not established an identity outside of going to Allen Robinson. Christian Hackenberg continues to put up big numbers but a detailed view shows that he's holding the ball a little too long and he's not looking to the tight ends as much as he should. Penn State has, arguably, the best TE group in the nation yet they have only accounted for 27 catches for 319 yards. Those are the numbers for Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Adam Breneman and, before his season-ending injury, Matt Lehman. As a comparison, Allen Robinson alone has 11 more catches, almost double the receiving yards and five TDs more than all five TEs. The offensive line has struggled in run blocking, as was detailed in FOS exclusive Frame-Game analysis this week. Compounding the problem has been Coach O'Brien settling on a way to engage all three talented running backs in a meaningful, effective way. After Zach Zwinak gets a rhythm going, he sits on the pine while Bill Belton gets a series or two. Then Zwinak returns and then, eventually, Akeel Lynch gets a turn. Additionally, how and when the Lions run the ball has become very predictable. The Lions need to mix it up and they need to stick with the hot hand series after series.
Defensively, coach John Butler has to figure out the problems and quickly. From a lack of pass rush to linebackers over-running plays to the secondary being out of position to a lack of tackling in space, the Lions are struggling all over the field. The Lions will need to get pressure on QB Devin Gardner and they need to be able to do so with the front four without having to rely on blitzes. It's time for DaQuan Jones to step up and dominate this game. Meanwhile, the secondary has to play closer at the snap and they have to make better open field tackles. Adrian Amos has been very quiet this season and the Lions need him to force turnovers and make plays at the line of scrimmage in run support. Bottom-line is that the entire defense needs to step up and they have to play faster and with more discipline.
MH: Numbers aside, which looked good on paper, Hackenberg largely played like a freshman last week. He is, so that is part of the deal, but his timing was off as he consistently waited too long for things to develop and surprisingly seemed to ignore his progression through various points of the game. As you alluded to, Nirav, Penn State is basically one-dimensional right now in the passing game. Teams will double up on Robinson as they have seen he is the one target who can consistently make plays. As I said last week, the tight ends and other receivers have to step up and get into the game. When it comes to the running game, you nailed it – PSU has three talented backs but seems to lack a strategy on how to use them consistently and effectively. Although the offensive line had issues with their run blocking, I am still baffled as to why O'Brien seemed to abandon the run game against a Hoosier team that has struggled all season against the ground game. Defensively, the Lions are out of sorts in terms of even the basics of tackling. It's not clear or simple what the answer is, but the defense has to start playing more consistently. Jones has to lead the charge, but he cannot do it alone. He needs the entire line to start getting consistent pressure on the pocket to flush and contain Gardner. That's a tall order, but getting to him is a major factor in the defense finding success.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: The Wolverines are not really missing a beat with the graduation of Denard Robinson. QB Devin Gardner is able to run the ball effectively, but, more importantly, is that he has a good arm and is able to get the ball downfield. The running attack of the Wolverines is quite impressive. Gardner will run the option and is fast and long. Fitzgerald Toussaint is the experienced running back but keep your eye on Derrick Green. Green is a big, big boy that is able to move the pile and bust tackles. These three backs are key in Michigan's offensive attack as their ability to move the ball improve, that opens up the play action game. Jeremy Gallon is a very talented undersized kid. He may only be 5'8", but he is a very strong route runner and has great hands. I expect Michigan to pound at the interior of the Penn State line and then attack the perimeters with short, high percentage passes to see if the Lions can tackle in space.
On defense, the guy to watch is Blake Countess. He is second in the nation with four interceptions. He lines up at the right corner spot and will probably be tasked with slowing up Allen Robinson. Overall, Michigan lines up in a 4-3 formation with all three linebackers being very active. Desmond Morgan from the Mike LB spot is leading the team in tackles with 34 total tackles. However, the defensive line for Michigan has not been able to create pressure on their own. It is the linebackers and the secondary that has been able to get to the QB. This will require Hackenberg and the receivers to make the right reads and exploit the blitzes.
MH: In my opinion, Gardner's arm makes him more dangerous than Robinson ever was. He is a multidimensional threat and can beat you with his legs or arm. Michigan will likely want to run a lot to control the clock and that means they have several options. Green can wear down lines and that is bad news for Penn State unless they can wrap up early and often.
The opportunity here is for the offensive line to create opportunities against the Michigan front. Hackenberg has to be in-tune with the U-M blitzing packages which means the TE safety valves have to be open. Michigan's linebackers are quick and disruptive and have to be accounted for on every snap. O'Brian cannot ignore the running game though and have to play to the strengths of his backs. Lynch could have an impressive showing in this game if given the opportunity. PSU needs some big runs here in order to keep the pressure off the pocket by keeping the Michigan front seven guessing.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: The Wolverines will look to establish the run against the Lions and then will fire passes all over the field once the LBs are on their heels. Therefore, the matchup to watch is the Wolverine runners – Toussaint, Gardner and Green – against the front seven for the Lions. Can Penn State make more plays at the line of scrimmage? That's one of the many things to tune in to watch.
MH: I think an interesting matchup will be Penn State's running game, assuming the PSU staff uses it, against the front seven of the Wolverines. The Lions have three solid run weapons and have to start strategically using each of them move the ball effectively.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: The Lions have to get back to playing disruptive defense. That means getting pressure on the QB, stripping the football, making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage and confusing the entire offense. The Lions have to play energetic and they have to play smart.
MH: I shouldn't be saying this at nearly the midpoint of the season, but the Lions have improve on fundamentals – tackling, reads, routes, etc. They have to get each of these down pat to be able to focus on elevating their overall play on both sides of the ball.
ND: The Lions have not played a tough schedule and have still managed a 3-2 record. The balance and explosiveness of Gardner will help the Wolverines make the Whiteout crowd feel awfully blue.
Michigan 31, Penn State 23
MH: Whiteout or not, this game will be a tough one for Penn State to manage if they continue on the trajectory they've been on. The Lions have to show tremendous improvement in a very short time, but I fear there isn't enough time for the Lions to get to where they need to be. I hope they surprise me though.
Michigan 28, Penn State 20
Until next time,
Fight On State!