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.
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.
MH: The bye week did come at an ideal time for Penn State, although we’ll see if it was enough to get the Lions back on track. Although the Wolverines are wounded and currently stand at 2-4, the Lions have their own problems to address heading to Ann Arbor. This game is an interesting one and could be a toss up depending on which team can find their way early on in the contest.
ND: After a much needed week off, the Lions travel to Ann Arbor to battle a reeling Michigan team. The Lions have some issues with the offensive line and finding a consistent offensive game plan. But, the Wolverines are struggling on both sides of the ball and now the injuries are starting to pile up. The last coach to beat Penn State is Lloyd Carr. Does that change this weekend?
Who: Penn State vs. Michigan
When: Saturday, October 11th at 7:00 pm ET, 4:00 pm PT
Where: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Series: Michigan leads 10-7
Line: PSU favored by 2
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their road clash with Michigan.
TOSS IT: Christian Hackenberg has certainly had his issues in the past few games, which many will point to as being rooted in the offensive line (more on them in a bit). However, against Northwestern, there were many times the young quarterback had time…maybe too much time and ended up making poor choices and sloppy throws. While it’s often overlooked he’s still just a 19 year old sophomore, he has see more of the field, run through his progression and get his mental clock set in this game.
BROKEN RECEPTION: The good news is that eight different receivers caught balls in the homecoming loss to Northwestern. The bad news is only DaeSean Hamilton had over 35 yards receiving in the game. PSU has a lot of receiving targets, the key is getting the open. I am still curious why the staff is not running more slants and crossing routes to free up guys and gets some quick strikes. These guys have to step up to support Hackenberg.
LINE UP: After some excitement in the ground game against Massachusetts, the Lions’ offensive line reverted back to their old form blocking for a mere 50 yards on 25 carries. The line used the bye week to focus on their run blocking, but the cobbled unit will remain a work in progress. Their challenge will be keeping Michigan’s defensive front at bay and I expect and array of pressure packages to disrupt the pocket.
PRESSURE PLAY: The strength of the PSU defense in the front seven will interesting to watch against QB Devin Garner. His passing has been off given some offensive line issues of his own, but he can make things happen with his feet, so the defensive ends in particular will have to watch to contain him when he takes off, which could be regularly. This will put a lot on the shoulders of Mike Hull and the linebackers as well.
TIGHTEN UP: The Penn State secondary continues to leave wide-open gaps in their coverage, particularly in the middle of the field. This will certainly spell danger with WR Devin Funchess who can slip assignments and get into open space. The PSU DBs have to get tight Funchess and make sure they cut off the gaps and open routes much better in this game.
OFFICIALLY BLOWN: Ironically, a big factor in Michigan’s loss to Rutgers last week was a blown call with a late catch ruled incomplete despite the receiver having control and two feet down. Nittany Lions should appreciate the irony in that. However, I don’t expect those types of calls to go against Michigan in this game, so the Lions have to come out ready to play and leave no doubts on plays.
ND: In this section, I will review this week’s opponent, the Michigan Wolverines.
CONSTANT GARDNER: Senior QB Devin Gardner gets the start this week. He played a bit better against Rutgers but his offensive line didn’t provide him with much help. Gardner has the ability to run and has a lively arm but his accuracy is not very good this year. The Lions need to get pressure on him because Gardner does not throw well on the move and has been a common theme in his INTs this season.
FEELING GREEN: RB Derrick Green has been ruled out this week after sustaining a season-ending broken clavicle. De’Veon Smith is also banged up and it’s uncertain if he will play. If he does, he is a very strong, fast RB and will fill in nicely. Though the offensive line is struggling, the Wolverines are having success running over the left tackle, which is true freshman Mason Cole. He is going to be a special lineman in this league.
YARDS IN BUNCHES: Devin Funchess moved from TE to WR in the off-season and also took the celebrated No. 1 jersey in the process. He is, by far, the best receiver on this squad and one of the best in the conference. His speed and size is going to prove to be a real issue for the Lions. He, too, is a bit banged up but he has pushed through it and has provided the one reliable option to Devin Gardner.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Jake Ryan moves to the middle linebacker slot for the Wolverines and has made the transition well. He is second on the team in tackles and second on the team in TFLs. He has good instincts and attacks the line of scrimmage very well. Where Ryan, and really all of the Michigan linebackers have struggled, is dropping into pass coverage. They have also had a tough time running laterally – sideline-to-sideline. Ryan and crew fixed the issues that were exposed by Minnesota’s running game but they exposed new issues that were exposed by the Rutgers’ passing game. The Penn State tight ends have a vital role this week in their matchup against the Michigan linebackers.
SACK IT: Senior Frank Clark leads a pretty good front-four for the Wolverines. Clark is athletic and strong. He is one of the best defensive linemen in the conference and will create massive issues for the Penn State offensive lineman. Penn State will likely always keep a running back with Christian Hackenberg to assist in pass blocking and will ask the tight ends to chip Clark on their pass routes.
BIT OUTSIDE: Coming into the Penn State game last year, kicker Matt Wile was doing an outstanding job. After missing some key opportunities in Happy Valley, Wile has been a shell of his former self. This season, he is perfect from under 40 yards but is only 2 of 6 from 40 yards and beyond. In a game where defenses will likely dominate, Penn State clearly has the edge in the kicking game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: With the losses mounting, the injuries piling up and the entire fan base calling for every head in the athletic department to roll, Michigan is a fragile team. The Lions need to jump on them early. Doing so will not only take the fans out of the game but will also cause this team to crumble knowing that a bowl game is out of the question and that they are destined to be one of the worst Michigan teams ever. Hackenberg and this offense must do something they haven’t done all season – start fast.
MH: I agree Nirav, pouncing in this game is key for PSU. The Lions have to toss aside the cute gimmicks (I’m looking at Wildcat formation) and just play heads-down, fundamental football. Hopefully they have tossed in some new looks on routes and can put them in place for the screens and swing passes. Michigan is wounded, but often that mean they are especially dangerous, so the Lions have to play tough, focused, fundamental football in Ann Arbor.
MH: If Penn State goes back to basics and boots the gimmicks they should be able to extend their winning streak over Michigan. Spreading the ball around and protecting it will be key in their success.
Penn State 23, Michigan 13
ND: During Penn State’s current 4-game winning streak over Michigan, they have averaged just over 41 points per game. I don’t see the combined score exceeding that total this week. Both offenses are dysfunctional but I like Penn State’s defense to cause a few key turnovers that lead to Sam Ficken FGs to get the win.
Penn State 20, Michigan 14
Until next time,
Fight On State!