The Great Debate: The Penn State Nittany Lions

With Michigan Football just weeks away, the guys at Maize n Brew are getting a little antsy for the season to start. The only way around it? Argue about football. Argue a lot. Each of us have already gone through Michigan's 2009 Football Schedule with a fine tooth comb a single half-assed glance and come out with completely different opinions on games, wins, losses, and season outcomes. Take a look for yourself, here are Beauford's, MnB Dave's, and SCM's predictions.

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With the exception of Delaware State, every game is a bone of contention between us. Especially the Penn State game. So rather than duel it out with pistols at dawn or get our brawl on, fight club style, we engage in The Great Debate. Five to six questions (seven this time, you lucky bastards) on the team in question. Five to six to seven in-depth mediocre answers. You get content, we get to look like complete and total idiots geniuses in a few months. Sounds like a plan to us. We've already covered Notre Dame and Iowa, so it's time for Penn Schtate State.

So, without furhter ado:

The Great Debate: The Penn St. Nittany Lions

1. We've all talked about the obvious problems on Penn State's Offensive Line (inexperience, lost starters, blah, blah, blah). But let's assume Penn State's O-Line will be fine. If you had to pick a weak spot on this team that doesn't involve the O-Line, what is it?

SCM: Do you really get to "blah blah blah" a glaring deficiency like oh...the entire offensive line?  You do?  Oh ok, I'll play along.  A quick glance over last year's statistics reveals that Penn State did not rank below 5th in the conference in any category measured here (http://web1.ncaa.org/football/exec/rankingSummary?year=2008&org=539) which is pretty indicative of the type of team they fielded last season... which is to say they were darn good.  Of course we also have to recall that's not the same team they're fielding in '09.   A total of 10 returning starters (consider for a moment that our offense returns that many... yeegads).  Anyways, onto the Achilles heel: to me it's got to be the secondary.   Not just because they're going to be young and less than deep, but also because the way the rest of the D shapes up. I see a downright nasty linebacking group behind what will be a very green defensive line... I find myself questioning the ability of the front four to be able to pressure the opposing QB consistently, which if you combine with that secondary... well, I don't think it's going to be on par with last season's group that finished in the top 10 nationally in total D.

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Penn State's "tight" coverage in action.

Maize n Brew Dave: If there's a big weakness on Penn State team it's the secondary. If anyone's looking for an example, look at Michigan last year. Penn State loses their entire starting secondary from last year. The contrarian wants to say that with Wallace (CB) and Astorino  (FS) back they'll be fine, but I don't think so. PSU had a great secondary last year and I don't see this group duplicating those results, especially with the loss of their DEs. If the line can't get penetration, those guys are going to be on an island this year and without the threat of some real pressure (like they put up last year) people are going to be able to throw on this team. This may be repeating what SCM said, but it's a major concern. A second problem is going to be at receiver. Losing three of Penn State's ALL TIME top five pass catchers is really going to hurt Clark. Sure there's talent, but receivers take time to mature, learn routes, and learn their quarterback's tendencies. When you lose three 40+ catch receivers and 17 TD receptions, you're basically starting from scratch, even if your Tight End is a quality one like Quarless is. I see catching and defending the pass as a major issue for Penn State this year.

Beauford Bixel: Secondary.  Definitely the secondary.  Check it out:  Penn State's front 7 are the best in the Big Ten defensively, but behind them?  You've got 4 brand new starters.  Far more, in my opinion, than even the deficiencies on offensive line, the defensive secondary is going to have to come together quickly.  Spring practice, from all reports, was a rough one for the unit, prompting JoePa to say things like "I'm very concerned about [the secondary], We have a long, long way to go to be a good secondary.  We're not even close."  Yikes.  I've always admired JoePa for his honesty, but in coach-speak that quote translates to "shiiiiiiiiiiiit!"  That isn't to say that they can't come together and be a serviceable unit - it's just that as I sit here in July, that's by far the biggest "uh-oh" spot on this roster.

(Six more questions and answers after the jump!)

2. Let's talk Daryll Clark. Is he really a quarterback that should have a 59.8 completion percentage or be at a passer rating of 143.4 (Big Ten Conf stats)? Why yes or no?

SCM: You earn 1st team all-big ten, I have no qualms there.  Although I'll admit that I'm more impressed with Royster, Clark has matured from a guy who could move around and make plays here and there into a solid QB who knows how work within the offense.  Of course he's also capable of the 9 for 23, 86 yds, and 1 INT performance he put up against Iowa last year.  He's a solid QB, but he's not someone I think of having to specifically game plan for (like a Dennis Dixon/Vince Young/Troy Smith type of guy).  I do think his performance will take a dip this year in the passing department simply because of the losses around him, a whole new receiving corps and that O-line we're not allowed to talk about will play a big role, particularly early on. Is he really a QB who should have those kind of numbers?  Yeah, when they had the pieces they had last year, I'm actually surprised that he didn't pile up a few more yards/TDs.  That said if they start depending on his arm to move the football more and more, then I think you see those numbers come down a bit.

MnB Dave: I may be minority here, but I'm not sold on Clark. After watching some of (but not all of) his games, I think a lot of his production was based on an outstanding offensive line and three great receivers. Take those away, even experienced QBs struggle. Clark is excellent on his feet and will make plays; I don't deny that. But the consistent production from his receivers and his line went out the window with graduation, so he's going to be forced to be the focal point of that offense. Unless Penn State is planning to go to a Nebraska style offense (a la Tommie Frazier), I see him as a middling quarterback at best.

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The real Daryll Clark we all know and love. The fumbly one.

BB: I'm inclined to agree with SCM here.  I don't think he's somebody you change a game plan over i.e. Troy Smith or Vince Young.  With that said, I also believe he is a very good quarterback who has made the leap that many "scrambling" QB's never make - he's learned to think like a quarterback.  I hold him in a bit higher esteem than either Dave or SCM in this regard, and I hope he proves me right in every game but one.  His numbers last year proved that he is a consistently good quarterback who has moments of being great.  Is he a Heisman candidate?  Absolutely not.  But if I were a Penn State fan, I'd be just fine with having Clark as my quarterback and letting it roll from there.  Also - dude's enormous.  Like, linebacker enormous.  After BSD Mike (on the podcast/livestream/orgasmic collision of voice tonight!) pointed out his hugeness in the comments, I looked into it, and damn, that's a big boy (that's what she said). 

3. Penn State has just four Road Games (Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, MSU), and arguably the easiest schedule of any .500 plus Big Ten team. Where are these guys going to drop a game? Do they drop a game?

SCM: There's a stretch that will be more difficult than I see most predicting: 10/24 @ Michigan, 10/31 @ Northwestern, and 11/7 Ohio State.  Big 10 opener with Iowa won't be the easiest match up either, Iowa's D will be a tough early test.  I naturally have my own biased views about what awaits Penn State on the 24th of October, but I do see that three game stretch along with the Iowa/Michigan State duo as being places where road-blocks will arise. Do they drop a game? Yes, I think 2 to 3.

MnB Dave: I think Penn State drops three conference games this season. I think Iowa and Ohio State are simply better teams this year and, despite the tremendous home field advantage, Penn State drops both games. The matchups just favor those team in my eyes. That leaves Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State as the potentially third loss. All three are on the round. All three are against teams that should be decent. All three come at tough times in the schedule. I think Illinois and Michigan have the better shot at knocking off the Lions based on personnel, but Michigan State will either be road kill or a contender by November 21, and I've got them as battling for a New Years day berth. So pick one of those three and you've got your third loss.

BB: In discussing this with SCM last night, I've got a pretty canned answer that sounds like a cop-out.  I think Penn State loses to Ohio State this year.  Then, I think they drop ONE of the following three games:  Michigan, Iowa, MSU. 

4. Conventional wisdom (i.e., the preseason mags) is that Penn State should take their second straight game from Michigan, but I'm guessing at least one of you guys don't feel that way. Regardless of how you think the game is going to turn out, how does Michigan win this game?

SCM: Snarky response?  By adding a QB capable of consistently throwing the football into last year's game plan? Serious answer: I like how our O-line matches up with their front four, we're deep deep deep at RB, and hopefully Tate steps into the role to make the read option and the passing game something defenses have to at least respect.  We saw last year that the scheme does in fact open up lanes and receivers, but once Threet got hurt and everyone in attendance  including yours truly) knew we couldn't throw the ball or keep the ball on the read we were dead in the water.  Defensively, our weakness match up against their inexperience, we're thin at corner but the starting duo of Warren and Cissoko are talented, Graham and Martin will be key up front.

Still awesome.

MnB Dave: Michigan's best shot at winning this one is on the edges. I don't see the line pushing Penn State's DT's Odrick and Ogbu into anything other than a stalemate. But the corners of the line are vulnerable. It's hard to say that Michigan is going to bust a huge hole and run for 1,000 yards. That's not going to happen with PSU's linebackers (who are arguably among the nation's best) filling those gaps. But I do see the Wolverines constantly changing pace with their backs and quarterbacks, and chewing up 4 to 5 yards running at the DEs. Success there will bring the LBs closer to the line and open up the middle of the field for Michigan's slot receivers and tight ends. The safeties come up, and all of a sudden Michigan's got their receivers in great matchups on the corners. If that's not the recipe for a win, I don't know what else you're going to do. Of course all of this is dependent on the OLine getting that first push and springing the sides of line for Minor/Brown/Shaw/Smith/et al. If Michigan can't do that, they're in trouble. Further, this prophecy is contingent on Tate or Denard actually being able to complete the short throw on the roll out or on the run. I think Tate can do that base don what I saw in the spring game, so I'd say there's a 60% chance Forcier can lead Michigan to a win.

BB: Even snarkier response:  Put more points on the board than they do.

Michigan is going to have to go downfield more than they want to in this game to be successful.  As has been mentioned, the front 7 are pretty awesome, but the secondary isn't.  I just don't see MINOR RAGE working again this year.  Last year, we literally couldn't go downfield due to quarterback restraints.  This year?  Who knows.  But if there is a game in which Matthews can go be Jason Avant and move the chains consistently, it's this one.  Defensively, I think we've got a really good chance at getting a ton of pressure on Clark.  I don't see the offensive line as DEATH the way SCM does, but I do see it as a problem.  I also see our defensive line as the strength of the team.  If Michigan can get pressure with the front 4 (or 3, or 3 + spinner, or deathbacker, or whatever the hell we're going to do to drop 7 and still get pressure), I think we're in business.  Also: must tackle Royster.  Not bounce-off-of.

5. What is Michigan's biggest advantage going into its October 24, 2009 matchup with Penn State?

SCM: The referees (I'm joking you whining bastards).  In all honesty, I think it's our coaching staff, I loved the game-plan last year and that was with, well we all know what it was with.  Anyways, I will be excited to see what Rodriguez and Co come up with for this one.

MnB Dave: This game has all the makings of a classic stalemate. Michigan's O-Line versus PSU's front seven looks like even money to me. Again, great linebackers, but without their DEs getting to the point of attack I think the linebackers get spread a little thin, loosening their effectiveness. The matchup that's going to have Penn State fans throwing things at their TV's is slot receiver and wide receiver versus linebackers and corners. This isn't Threet or Sheridan standing like a statue in the back field, so Penn State won't be able to sit back and wait for pressure to get to Michigan's quarterbacks. Forcier and Robinson can move in the pocket and out of it. That's going to buy time and give the receivers time to get open and make plays. Additionally, the change of pace at running back is a huge difference from last year. It's not just going to be all Minor, all the time. You're going to see a lot of different looks and that type of diversity is going to be a huge Michigan advantage.

BB: Penn State is likely going to be undefeated when we play them.  Michigan is likely going to be improved, but not undefeatedly so.  JoePa, or whoever on his staff is in charge of such things, is going to have to do a really good job of keeping Penn State loose and focused.  Michigan sucked last year, but if Penn State decides they've got this one in the bag before the game has started, they're going to be in trouble.  If Penn State comes out playing powder-puff like they did last year, Michigan's going to take much more than a 3 point lead into half time.

6. What's Michigan's biggest liability going into the game?

SCM: If they get to overlook their offensive line can we overlook our safeties?  The biggest liability would be if we can't contain Royster.  If we have to start bringing everyone up to stop the run then it'll only be a matter of time before we get torched.

MnB Dave: Safety and defensive line. No question. Michigan defensive line play last year was mediocre at best, and we lose three of our starting four. I don't buy that the 3-4 is going to ease that problem. At safety we're starting two freshman (redshirt or otherwise). Even though Penn State has new receivers, if they have time to throw I'm not confident that our secondary can keep them covered. Oh. And Nick Sheridan if he's in the game.

Watch in horror.

BB: This is tough because I haven't seen them play this year and there's a new man in charge of the defense, but going on what happened last year, tackling.  Tackling is our biggest liability.  We cannot let Royster ping-pong his way through the front 7 on his way to the end zone via Stevie Brown (I kid, I kid).  Gotta tackle better.  I hope that's remedied with GERG'S magnificent hair.

7. How does Penn State's season turn out?

SCM: I think 9-3 with a very reasonable shot at 10 wins.  I don't think this is a top 10 football team though, too many guys to replace in key spots (those plow horses right?), I wouldn't be surprised to see Penn State drop the conference opener to Iowa, one to MSU/Michigan/NW, and I think Ohio State takes them down in Happy Valley.

MnB Dave: 9-3. While Penn State isn't a top ten team in my eyes, they're certainly good enough to put up 11 wins again. The Offensive Line and receivers are going to be a huge issue this year and I don't think Clark and Royster can do it on their own. So while they have the talent on paper to be a Big Ten contender there are too many holes on the offense and in the secondary for me to think they can match last year's win total even with a favorable schedule.

BB: As I said in my preview, I think they end up at 10-2.  I also think they end up as Big Ten co-champs, which is weird because they're not going to lose an OOC game.  I think every team in the Big 10 loses 2 games in conference this year.  So put that in your pipe and roll it, or whatever the kids are saying these days.

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