Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's matchup against Michigan.
The idea behind The Blitz? Former PSU 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.
MH: Penn State is coming off a bye week. It’s a White Out game and it’s Senior Day. The Nittany Lions are looking to send the senior out in style with a win over the Wolverines.
ND: Coming out of the sanctions, Senior Day takes on a very special meaning, as these are the young men who stayed committed to Penn State in the darkest hours. The team and the fans would love to send these seniors out with a big win over No.14 Michigan. The Wolverines are coming off a tough overtime battle with Indiana. Penn State is a classic trap game for Michigan — after a hard-fought win and right before the biggest game on its schedule (Ohio State).
Who: No. 14 Michigan vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, Noon ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Series: Michigan leads 11-7
Line: Michigan -4 as of Wednesday night.
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their final home game of 2015.
LIMELIGHT: Running back Saquon Barkley leads the nation with the most yards per carry (6.3) among freshmen. His outing against Northwestern was a monster performance of 120 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Watch for him to pick up from there. The concern is that the staff will try to put too much on his shoulders in this one. However, keep an eye on Michigan’s rebuilt defensive front. More on this later.
POCKET PRESSURE: PSU’s defensive line will once again be a major factor in this game. It will be facing a drop-back QB in Jake Rudock. He doesn’t take off too often but has some impressive decision-making skills. Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel will have to get a big push up front to help open up things for the ends and linebackers to break into the pocket.
CATCHING ON: The Nittany Lion receivers, led by Chris Godwin, have come up big for the offense throughout this season. They’ll have to continue this streak to not only help Christian Hackenberg move the ball, but also take some pressure of Barkley and create opportunities with the run game.
PASS IT ON: The question circulating is whether the junior Hackenberg will be playing his last game in Beaver Stadium. That aside, he’s done a solid job this season protecting the football. On the year he has 13 touchdown tosses to three interceptions. Protecting the ball will be instrumental in this game, as will getting it spread around to different targets to keep the Wolverine defense on its toes.
PRIMARY CONCERNS: The loss of Jordan Lucas will be a big gap for the PSU secondary that is already struggling. The unit has to shake off the poor tackling and avoid the costly pass interference calls we’ve seen in recent weeks to avoid handing Michigan big chunks of yardage.
ND: In this section, we preview the Wolverines.
FEELING BLUE: After losing his starting job at Iowa, Rudock decided to transfer to Michigan and that has proved to be a great decision for the senior. Rudock is a traditional drop-back quarterback who is very methodical. He has a strong arm, makes very good decisions and could be categorized as a game manager. He had a breakout game against Indiana last week, where he threw for 440 yards and six TDs in the double-overtime thriller. The positive note for Penn State is Rudock will not leave the pocket. He is not a running threat.
TIGHT END: Jake Butt may have had to deal with lots of teasing as a kid but I can assure that nobody is laughing now. Butt is one of the best tight ends in the country and is a lock to be drafted next spring should he decide to leave early. He is 6-foot-6, has fantastic hands, is an excellent blocker and runs very well. The loss of Lucas and the strength of the Michigan WRs will create some real matchup problems for Penn State in trying to cover Butt.
CHECK MATE: WR Jehu Chesson has one of the most interesting and inspiring stories in the Big Ten. His family fled war-torn Liberia for the Ivory Coast before landing in the U.S. Chesson has burst onto the scene with seven TDs in the last three weeks. As defenses try to take away Butt, that has opened up opportunities for the tall, lanky WR. He has serious jets — clocking a 10.7 in the 100-meter dash — so the Penn State corners will need some over-the-top support from the safeties, which will be challenging with Butt needing attention. Because of his story, Chesson is a kid who you just can’t help but root for.
SPICE IT UP: It’s only a matter of time until we see Jabrill Peppers calling in the plays or even providing training support for injured players. The sophomore is doing just about everything else on the field. He is a starting corner and has been one of the best in the conference. He is a fast and physical DB. He is also 13th in the country in punt returns with a 12.3-yard average. Recently, he has also been participating on offense by catching passes and rushing the ball.
RUNNING WILD: Coming into the Indiana game, Michigan was one of the best in the country at stuffing the run, yielding about 80 yards per game. This was due in large part to the outstanding play of defensive lineman Chris Wormley and Willie Henry — as well as one of the best linebackers in the conference, Joe Bolden. But the loss of Ryan Glasgow has decimated this team and it showed last week when Indiana ran for 307 yards. Glasgow will likely be gone for the season so Michigan is moving people from the offensive side of the ball over to defense to generate some depth. Penn State will definitely test this front seven with big doses of Barkley to see which defense shows up.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: Penn State’s offensive play-calling has to be innovative and versatile. The staff must put the players in positions to succeed — avoid the up-the-middle predictability on third downs and leverage the diverse speed and explosiveness that the unit has. There will no doubt need to be some risks taken to help Penn State get the upper hand in some situations.
ND: This game comes down to Hackenberg. Whether or not this is his last home game, he has to come up with the performance of the season to knock off the Wolverines. I expect Michigan to stuff the box and put Peppers and Jourdan Lewis in single coverage against the PSU receivers. Hackenberg needs to make smart decisions and accurate throws in order to help PSU move the ball.
MH: The bye week, a White Out and Senior Day would traditionally set up Penn State nicely for a victory. But given the offensive ups and downs the unit has seen, this one will likely be a dogfight. I like how the defense matches up with the Wolverines and think the “Wild Dogs” and Barkley give the Nittany Lions a slight edge.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Michigan 21
ND: Despite coming off of a bye week, Penn State will struggle to move the ball on this Michigan defense, which will be playing with a chip on its shoulder. And there is just too much talent at the receiver position for the Penn State defense to keep up. I see a close game at halftime but Michigan pulling away in the third quarter.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Penn State 17
Until next time,
Fight On State!