Penn State recently got the good news that the NCAA would be backing off the scholarship reductions set in place after Mark Emmert's unilateral decision to punish the Nittany Lions in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal. Have the scholarship reductions had a negative effect on the team's on field performance thus far this season, or are they a bigger worry down the road?
There's no doubt that the scholarship reductions have hurt, although not necessarily in the most obvious of ways. Bill O'Brien said the issue was never getting the right caliber of player, it was quantity, so I can't say how many starters would be replaced if we'd had another 20 scholarships to hand out. That said, we are remarkably thin at linebacker--so thin that a starting outside linebacker is actually a safety. But one issue is that because the margin for injury is so low, Penn State didn't real have full contact practices, and plenty of former players have credited that as one of the reasons we've struggled to tackle. Like you said, though, the sanction reductions won't ever hurt as much as they do now.
A big question coming into the season was how Christian Hackenberg would handle the job after basically winning it by default. After five games there aren't many more questions as to whether he can handle the job and be a competent Big Ten starter. Penn State is 8th in the conference in pass efficiency and 3rd in pass yards per game. How would you grade his play thus far and what weaknesses are still a big issue for the freshman?
Well, a lot of the counting stats are due to a play-calling regime that a lot of Penn State fans have griped about all season. He's been solid, for a freshman, but having even the most solid of freshmen throw the ball 55 times is a bad idea. The run game hasn't been as dominant as it been last year, which has made this team more one-dimensional than it wants to be. As for Hack's actual play, he's shown flashes of greatness--the kid has a cannon, and touch, and the ability to put the ball exactly where it needs to be, and has been trusted to call audibles at the line--but even for a guy who's limited turnovers, there have been a bunch of bad decisions, a lack of pocket presence, and some miscommunication with his receivers. Basic freshman stuff, and he'll only get better the next few years.
Are you worried about the run game? It's season averages were inflated vs. EMU and Kent State while the only impressive performance against a solid opponent was against UCF. Against Syracuse and Indiana(!) the Nittany Lions combined for 127 yards and 1.7 yards/carry. Can Penn State run the ball reliably against Michigan's solid run defense?
Yes, I'm very worried about the run game, although the playcalling is mostly to blame. Last year, Zach Zwinak ran through people, this year, he's been so often hit in the backfield that it's a fight to get back to the line, not for extra yardage. Bill Belton should be a perfect change of pace, get-him-in-space speedster, and Akeel Lynch a promising youngster. But Penn State lacks a fullback, and has been trying to run far too much out of the shotgun rather than straight ahead; when the run game isn't going they abandon it rather than try and establish it. By all accounts we should be able to run--we have mostly the same line as last year, and better backs--but it's just been far too inconsistent.
Michigan has struggled to pass the ball consistently at times this season and turnovers have been a major issues for Devin Gardner. Still, when he is comfortable throwing the ball he is capable of making some very big plays, and his ability to run adds an extra dimension to the offense. How do you think Penn State does defending Gardner. Can the front seven get enough pressure to force him out of his comfort zone and is the secondary good enough to make him pay when he makes mistakes?
Honestly? No and no, and worst of all, Penn State's defense is going to be the the thing that lets Gardner get comfortable. For whatever reason, John Butler has refused to play any press coverage, and UCF and Indiana both torched this team with short and screen passes, then slipping tackles in space. After a season in which he looked like the conference's best young pass rusher, Deion Barnes has been a massive disappointment at defensive end, and now that the secret's out about DaQuan Jones, offensive lines have known who to double team. Penn State should have the talent to keep Gardner in check, but guys who were counted on to step up in 2013, like safety Adrian Amos and linebacker Mike Hull, have been largely invisible. This team can still stop the power run game, but spread them out and force them to make tackles in space, and you have a recipe for success.
Before last weekend I was ready to announce Penn State as the favorites in this game, but Michigan put together its most consistent offensive game of the season and Penn State fell apart against Indiana. What happened in Bloomington and are there any issues which Michigan should try to exploit?
Honestly? Spread Penn State's defense out and it's hard to fail. This is not a playmaking defense, it's one designed to prevent the big play, but the cost of that has been astronomical. John Butler's looking like a longtime special teams coach in his first year as a defensive coordinator. There are no exotic blitzes or coverage schemes, just a soft zone that an accurate quarterback can pick apart. Don't run it into the middle of the line and you'll have success. Offensively, there's a little less reason to panic, but I'd double team Allen Robinson on every single play, press everyone else, and dare them to gain some separation. So far, they haven't.
What do you think the three biggest keys are to a Penn State win on Saturday and what do you think happens?
For Penn State to win, it'll take a huge step up from this defense. It starts up front--if Deion Barnes can return to form and spearhead an effective pass rush, then Devin Gardner won't be able to sit in the pocket and pick apart Trevor Williams, Jordan Lucas, and Malcolm Willis. If Mike Hull can create havoc against the read option, it'll make Miare chigan's run game less dynamic. The last key would be establishing the run game early--keeping Michigan's offense off the field and opening up passing lanes for Hackenberg might be the most important thing a strong game from Zwinak would accomplish.