"Because we're Michigan, they're just Penn State."
Those were the words of Michigan safety Marcus Ray when asked how and why Michigan beat Penn State a few years ago.
"Of course, we're Michigan and you're not."
Those were the words of a Michigan fan after our 1997 game with Michigan, a game in which the Wolverines thoroughly outplayed Penn State, and they came immediately after I had just complimented that Michigan squad in every conceivable way.
I think, no, I know that Michigan has had the upper hand on Penn State since that 1997 game both physically and psychologically.
There is a good chance we will see that come to an abrupt end this weekend.
Maybe Penn State won't beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. Maybe the Wolverines will come out firing on all cylinders and clean our clocks again. Then again, maybe Penn State will win, maybe even win big.
I know one Michigan player who thinks it could happen. Michigan defensive tackle Dan Rumishek is preparing for any outcome. "They're capable of blowing us out with all the weapons they have," said Rumishek this week.
What a nice change in attitude.
A few years ago we saw back to back Michigan losses punctuated with comments like "Penn State is the easiest team we prepare for every year" and "we know exactly what's coming almost every play." That was another gem from Marcus Ray.
I think ol' Marcus was right back then, and I think it allowed Michigan to play with a reckless abandon that intimidated Penn State. Michigan always seemed to play bigger against Penn State than they really were, and we helped them out by folding our tents like scared rabbits.
It's a different ball game now. "We know they want this game really bad," said Rumishek.
Penn State is no longer the nail at the end of the Michigan hammer. In fact, Penn State isn't even the hammer on offense anymore, it's a nailgun that can fire off a lot of different weapons in rapid fire succession. It's enough to make other teams dizzy.
"This is the first time all year we'll see an offense like this. They're in a lot of shotgun, one-back sets, they spread you out and try and run the ball down your throat, and they have a running QB who throws the ball extremely well. Mills is a tough kid".
"I won't say it's a shock, but it's definitely different", Rumishek said this week when asked about the Penn State offense.
Victor Hobson, the All-American MLB from St. Joe's Prep in Philadelphia echoed those sentiments. "You have to prepare for just about anything. If you center on one particular thing, that can get you in trouble".
As a fan and writer, and as someone who's crystal ball is no better than anyone else's, I have no idea who will win this game. I do have some ideas about what we might see on the field during the game though. For a closer look at this Michigan squad and for my thoughts on what to expect, here is the Michigan Preview.
The Michigan Offense
The Michigan offensive line is well manned by Courtney Morgan, David Baas, Dave Pearson, Dave Petruziello, and Tony Pape. These guys are all right around 300lbs. and have worked well as a unit this year. But they are not the world beaters of yesteryear like Jensen, Hutchinson, and Backus. Those guys never came out of games against Penn State, but the starters above will get spelled from time to time by young guns Adam Stenavich and Matt Lentz.
Bennie Joppru mans the TE spot for Michigan and has been a pleasant surprise for Lloyd Carr this year. Joppru has been a capable blocker in run situations and has been Michigan's second leading pass target with 19 receptions for 187 yards.
Michigan's leading WR is Braylon Edwards (left). Edwards is a tall, fast, rangy kid at 6'4" 200lbs. Edwards has 26 catches for 478 yards and 5 touchdowns this year. Michigan also throws the ball to Tyrece Butler, Calvin Bell, and Ronald Bellamy. Butler is another tall WR at 6'3" and he leads that group with 17 catches while the two others have reeled in 9 receptions apiece.
Chris Perry (right, Getty Images) and B.J. Askew are both what I would call big backs. Perry goes 235lbs. and Askew is just about that big as well. They run out of multiple formations with Perry getting the lions share of the workload. Perry leads Michigan with 104 carries for 497 yards. Askew has 24 carries for 127 yards. Between them, they are averaging nearly 5 yards per carry.
Michigan QB John Navarre (left) is a 6' 6" 235lbs. junior signal caller who has effectively run Michigan's ball control offense this year. Navarre has completed 96 or 176 pass attempts for 1122 yards, 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Navarre is a pocket passer who is an unlikely candidate to run the ball, but he has been able to limit the number of sacks taken with some good decision making.
One thing to look for when Navarre drops back is that he throws with a three quarter side armed motion. Teams have successfully batted down a lot of passes against him and I'd like to see if our linemen try to duplicate what others have done in this regard. Navarre also throws what is described as a "hard" ball. What this means is that on shorter and intermediate routes he throws the ball with a lot of velocity.
Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr (right, Getty Images) likes to run a balanced offense, and he's doing that this year. The play calling has been almost exactly split between the run and pass in 2002. This offense likes to grind out first downs with the run and a quality short passing game before hitting you up top with the big play downfield.
I expect to see Michigan try to establish that 5 yards per carry running game early, and then try to hit Penn State with big plays after that. I also expect a trick play in there somewhere. Michigan has brought a new wrinkle out in every game they have played us that had the look of a hard fought game. I'd be mildly surprised if they don't do something new this week that they haven't done before this year.
In the past several years, Michigan has successfully exploited Penn State by getting their best WR in the slot and working him on a safety, and I expect them to attempt that on Saturday. I'm not sure Penn State has the kind of safeties that can handle Braylon Edwards man for man deep, so I expect to see a lot of zone coverage when Michigan goes to three wide sets.
Michigan will have a lot of success throwing the ball against Penn State. We won't stop them, but we can slow them down a bit. Michigan throws those short passes to set up the longer throws, and in part they do this to slow down the opposing pass rush. A key in this game is how well Penn State gets to Navarre with their front four on the longer developing routes. If they can rush him, things bode well for Penn State in the long run.
You'd think Navarre with his average-at-best mobility would be susceptible to blitz pressure, but that hasn't been the case this year. Illinois stacked the box against him and tried to pressure him with 8 and even 9 in the box. He had his biggest day of the year against the Illini going 22 of 37 for 264 yards and 4 TD's.
Michigan does not normally get the same kind of big yards out of their passing game that Penn State does. In fact, the Wolverines average a whole 2.5 yards less per attempt than we do. Some of this is attributed to a substantial number of dropped passes due to that hard ball I described above.
Michigan has scored 29 points per game this year.
Key items - The Wolverines have been forced to punt almost twice as much as Penn State this year. If this trend continues, Penn State should win the game. Dropped passes and fumbles have plagued this Michigan squad. How much pressure will the PSU front four get on Navarre?
Michigan Special Teams
Julius Curry is doing a very good job returning punts this year. Jeremy LeSueur handles the kick returns.
Sophomore Adam Finley leads all Big10 punters with 43.5 net yards per punt.
Michigan's place kickers have been disastrous this year. Phil Brabbs and Troy Nienberg have traded opportunities to look completely inept this year. Right now it appears that Nienberg has beaten Brabbs out and will handle the placekicking duties against Penn State.
The Michigan Defense
The Michigan D-Line is anchored by Dan Rumishek (left, Getty Images) and Norman Heuer at DT and Shantee Orr at rush end. Both Heuer and Orr missed the Illinois game two weeks ago and Coach Carr has been silent as to whether or not they'll be able to play Saturday against Penn State, but my expectation is that they both will play.
Rumishek and Heuer have been a force in keeping opposing linemen off All-American MLB Victor Hobson. Michigan has a capable crew of linebackers, but it is Hobson who is the playmaker here.
The Michigan front seven is playing so well that they are 17th in the nation in rush defense right now.
The talk all season long in Ann Arbor has been of the Michigan secondary. This group has a phenomenal array of talented athletes led by All-American candidate Marlin Jackson (below, #3, AP/Carlos Osorio) at cornerback. Jackson has textbook corner footwork and can stay with anyone in the country.
Fellow sophomore Zia Combs is the other starting corner. Seniors Julius Curry and Cato June (right, #2) are the starting strong safety and free safety respectively.
The Michigan secondary is so deep with talented athletes that former high school stars like Ernest Shazor, Charles Drake, Jeremy LeSueur, Markus Curry and Brandon Williams can't crack the starting line up.
With all of this talent, the Michigan pass defense is rated 102nd nationally in pass efficiency, just ahead of Penn State.
This secondary has had a lot of trouble covering teams that don't throw the ball nearly as well as Penn State. Part of the reason for that may be that their D Line, as good as they may be against the run, is less effective generating a real good pass rush. Their pass rush has been mediocre at best. Michigan has been forced to blitz a lot this year because of that, and they have gotten burned to some degree.
Another element in Michigan's pass defense woes has been a propensity to jump patterns with aggressive play. This too has caught Michigan and they have been burned by guys getting open behind them or in seems in zone coverage. This aggressive ball-hawking style has also produced a fair number of interceptions and Zack Mills will have to be careful with his timing and zip on the deep out patterns. Michigan will definitely try to jump those passes and beat the WR to the ball.
Many of Michigan's blitzes come from the safeties. I'd expect this trend to continue as it's pretty apparent by now to everyone that most LB's have been unable to get to Mills. I think Michigan will try to turn up the heat by bringing safeties on both center and side blitzes. Mills will probably audible into short passes in these situations and it will become a battle of execution.
For all of Michigan's pass efficiency problems, the Wolverines are still doing well in scoring defense with a ranking of 33rd in the nation.
In years past against Penn State, Michigan has substantially overplayed Penn State's tendencies. I expect nothing different this week, although they will likely be a lot less successful than in recent years. I think they'll try to jam Casey Williams and take him out of the game. I don't think Williams will be allowed to sit in a seam 7 yards downfield. I believe he'll have to keep moving to get open.
Michigan will probably spy the backs coming out of the backfield. If we are in a one back set, I expect them to absolutely overplay any movement at all from Larry Johnson out of the backfield. They will try to just take that away from Penn State. This is an area where Penn State did a very poor job against Iowa. In this game against Michigan we need to see Mills, Larry Johnson, Sean McHugh, and perhaps Michael Robinson used as safety valve pass targets and we need to see the passes completed to them with a little better spacing than what we saw against Iowa. The key here will be timing, spacing, and whether or not we can get our targets out in the flat against a lone Michigan linebacker. Then we need to see our safety valve make that one Michigan linebacker miss enough to get positive yards, and even completely miss on occasion to break a big play.
I think you'll see them play Marlin Jackson man to man against Bryant Johnson and use a variety of coverage on our other WR's.
Will this all work?
To a large degree this is the whole ball game here. Penn State has an uncanny QB in Zack Mills. If Michigan over commits to those blitzes, Mills has the ability to just kill them with slants and other short route hot reads. He has successfully been able to check off into these plays all year long, so he can burn Michigan even when they know what is coming.
Michigan won't stop Penn State, but to what degree do they slow us down, that's the big question.
Key item - Don't be shocked to see Michael Robinson be a big part of this game. I believe that, just as Michigan will do, Penn State will show some new wrinkles of their own in this game. That means a healthy dose of Michael Robinson doing more than running option keepers.
Intangibles - I think the intangibles favor Penn State big in this game.
Michigan has had severe kicking game woes. Michigan has not been precise all year while Penn State has been extremely precise. Michigan doesn't have the turnover ratio Penn State has had this year.
Mostly though, Penn State is no longer predictable on offense. That will be the biggest key in this game. Look to see if Zack Mills and Fran Ganter can get some confusion going on that Michigan sideline.
Emotions may enter into this as well, again in our favor. Penn State has a huge score to settle with this team. For the first time in several years I get the feeling we may see one of those patented Lloyd Carr outbursts of frustration. He's been prone to losing it in the past when he gets frustrated and I can see this type of game getting to him. That would do nothing but fire this Penn State squad up even more.
Like the Nebraska game, this game is a test of Penn State's character. Michigan will look to intimidate Penn State from play one in this game. Penn State will need to hit back - both physically and with precisioned and skilled play making.
How well Penn State hits Michigan back determines the outcome of the game. Will Penn State face the Wolverines and fold, or will this Penn State team fight back and take it to Michigan? Call me crazy, but I'm thinking that Penn State will not only fight back, but perform with both a skill and precision that may drive Michigan fans crazy.
I'm going to make an early call here for this Zack Mills led Penn State team to go into Ann Arbor and defeat Michigan in a high scoring shoot out.
That's the call.
Michael Haynes meets John Navarre (AP, Paul Vathis)