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Game Six Preview: Michigan at Penn State

The Wolverines travel to Happy Valley for the second away game of the season and the first Big Ten game on the road.

Patrick Smith

Michigan at Penn State

State College, PA | 5:00pm, ESPN

Enemy Blog: Black Shoe Diaries

This one lost a bit of luster last week. Penn State had a decent resume built up over the first few weeks of the season. The lone loss to UCF was somewhat explainable because the Knights have looked solid this year (thanks in part to giving Clemson a run), and Penn State had dispatched its lesser opponents with relative ease (gee, wouldn't that be nice). Sure, you could look at Penn State's statistical profile and roll your eyes when you realize who the teams were that Penn State rolled most of those rushing yards up on, but I guess the same can be said of Michigan's struggles with the inept.

Of course, then Penn State goes out and gets shellacked by Indiana and now we don't know what in the hell to think. Is Penn State really as bad as it looked over the second half of last week's game? Can Penn State run the ball against a defense with some semblance of a pulse? Is Penn State's defense as big a liability as it looked? Will Michigan handle its own business well enough to take advantage of any of this?

Not only do we know very little about which Michigan team will show up on any given day, now Penn State looks to be at a crossroads as well. Raise your hand if you want to see Michigan play a team with its back against the wall after a reality-shaking loss.

/no one raises hand

Thought so.

When Michigan has the ball

A week after Indiana invited Penn State over and stole its lunch money, we have to take a closer look inside the numbers to figure out just what this Penn State defense is capable of. Right now the Nittany Lions rank 18th in total defense and 31st in scoring defense. A lot of this has been built off a good looking run defense, at least on paper. Penn State is holding opponents to 111 yards/game. The issue is if you cut out the two bad MAC programs (EMU and Kent State) that number jumps to 146 yards/game with only the season opener against Syracuse looking like the plausibly good run defense performance. The Cuse has averaged 192 yards on the ground this year, and has games against Clemson and Northwestern in there, so those numbers can't be totally discounted for level of play.

Penn State's worst run defense performance came in week three's loss to UCF, when the Knights went off for 219 yards and broke a couple 50-yard plays. Then last week vs. Indiana, Penn State gave up 150 yards on 41 carries. All of this adds up to a run defense that isn't bad, but is vulnerable to a rush offense that can get consistent production. Indiana put together 3.6 yards/carry. UCF averaged nearly 6 yards/carry until you adjust for the long plays.

Meanwhile, Michigan has just shaken up the interior of its offensive line and unveiled a shift in philosophy that is meant to focus the best blocks in one particular area, content to use that to pick up a couple yards a carry and hug short but consistent gains close like a binky. Will Michigan's new unbalanced look work against a Penn State team that knows what is coming? Yes, but only if Michigan can showcase enough of a counter threat to keep Penn State from sending half the student body at the gap between Schofield and Lewan.

This means that Devin Gardner is going to have to be on his game. Penn State has a more capable defense than Minnesota, but Penn State's defense has also been more successful against the run. Penn State gave up roughly each of UCF and Indiana's season averages in those two games with UCF going over 10 yards/attempt. Indiana put up less per attempt (8.7 ypa) but did so by spreading the field and picking Penn State's underneath defense apart.

Again, Michigan's fortunes come down to what Devin Gardner can do and how well he can avoid a bevy of crippling turnovers that cost Michigan points. Last game was a good indication that Gardner is out on the other side of his turnover nadir, but that is by no means assured. Penn State has been averaging a little over two sacks per game, so Gardner could see some pressure.


Michigan's offense should be able to move the ball against Penn State, but this is the first test for the revamped offensive line and its heavy use of unbalanced formations. The UConn and Akron game showed what the worst case scenario is when Michigan gets behind the chains early, and if Penn State can shut down runs on early downs it puts Michigan in a situation where it needs to convert a lot of third-and-long attempts on the road in a night game atmosphere.

Michigan will string together some long drives and will suffer at least one facepalm-inducing turnover. If it keeps the mistakes down while running the ball with any consistency at all, Michigan could be in for a good offensive day.

When Penn State has the ball

Judging by the raw averages — 171 rush yards/game — you might say Penn State has a solid rush offense. You'd be wrong. Penn State put up 538 of its 858 rushing yards against EMU and Kent State. Of course, another 193 yards came against UCF. Against Syracuse and Indiana, Penn State had just 127 yards on 76 carries.

What does this mean? Penn State's rushing offense is probably somewhere in the middle of its UCF performance and the lows against Syracuse and Indiana. That means that Penn State's rushing offense isn't really any good. Michigan's rushing defense might not be a dominant unit — and losing Ondre Pipkins for the season isn't going to help matters — but it is still holding opponents to 90 yards per game on 28 attempts. On top of that, Michigan has yet to allow a run play of over 20 yards this season.

With the potential for Penn State to be shut down in the ground game, the fortunes of Penn State in this one will rest almost entirely on the shoulders of two players: Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson.

Hackenberg is the freshman quarterback that stepped into the starting job this season. He has been just about as good as anyone has any right to ask a true freshman to be. Thus far he has connected on 60% of his passes for 1367 yards and 7.5 yards/attempt while throwing for twice as many touchdowns (8) and interceptions. He is sixth in the Big Ten behind Devin Gardner in passer efficiency rating.

Of course, it helps that he is trowing to the best receiver in the Big Ten. Allen Robinson spent last year leading the Big Ten in yards per game (84.8), touchdowns (11), with a yards/catch average in the top ten. Robinson returned this year and is already on pace to surpass his production last year. He is Christian Hackenberg's primary target and has 38 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns. Only one other wide receiver has a touchdown catch (the other two TD receptions are from RB Bill Belton. Robinson averages over 16 yards per reception and 124 yards per game. No one else on Penn State averages over 30 yards per game.

If you're picking up what I'm laying down, then you are probably looking really hard at Michigan's secondary and wondering if the Wolverines have anyone that can hold up against Robinson. On their own, probably not. This would be the game in which Greg Mattison would want to grab Blake Countess by the shoulder pads, point at Allen Robinson, and say "Follow him everywhere. I don't care if he goes to take a dump, you stand in the stall with him." Michigan has been folding Countess inside to be the nickel corner a lot this year, but putting Courtney Avery or Raymon Taylor on Robinson just seems like it is asking for trouble. On top of this, we should get a better idea how capable Jarrod Wilson and Thomas Gordon are providing coverage support over the top. Michigan hasn't been challenged deep much, and both the safeties have done a good job cutting plays down quick.

(There is the chance that Jake Ryan plays in this game as he has been medically cleared.  It could obviously have a big effect or he could be limited both in his normal athleticism and role in the game.  This preview assumes he will not play/be a factor until later in the season.)


There is one way Penn State can reliably move the ball in this one: with Allen Robinson beating Michigan's corners. That is way more of a possibility than anyone is comfortable with. Thankfully, Penn State hasn't shown much of an ability to pick up yards in any other way, so Michigan won't have to worry about stacking the box to contain the run.

This one is going to come down to how many resources Michigan has to devote to contain Robinson in the secondary, and how much this lets Penn State move the ball on the ground and through the air to other receivers. A pass rush to fluster Hackenberg would go a long way toward helping Michigan's defense rein in the big plays. That might be a bit much to ask.

Other Stuff

Keys to the game:

- Make Robinson work. Michigan would be wise to use Blake Countess and safety help on Allen Robinson all game long, and if PSU sees Avery or Taylor on Robinson I would imagine a quick audible to take a shot down field. Robinson will get his yards. Michigan has to make sure it isn't in the form of big plays and long touchdowns.

- Sackenberg. He Christian, it isn't easy to throw to Allen Robinson when you're on your back, is it?

- Balance the unbalanced looks. If Michigan runs the same play out of its unbalanced look, Penn State will eat it up all day. Michigan has to deploy an effective counter to keep Penn State on its heels.


Alternate Programming: A wedding, which is what I'll be at in the early afternoon. Then a reception.

For those of you watching football you can kick the day off with Mizzou-UGA, MSU-IU, or the Red River Rivalry at noon. The afternoon slot has a Florida-LSU game that you just know is going to be batshit insane and come down to the last minute when Les Miles does something that is either incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid. Wisconsin also faces a beat down Northwestern team on ABC at 3:30. The night games are slow this week as TAMU-Ole Miss at 8:30 is the only real game of consequence.

Inanimate Object Threat Level - 8: An evening/night game in Happy Valley against a team with a big play wide receiver? Thank god the wedding has an open bar.

Final Thoughts: I want to be less confident about this game. That would fit with the way things have played out thus far this season where Michigan has struggled against teams it should beat because of an offense that can't shoot straight. Penn State has the tools required to break off big plays and a defense that can fluster Michigan and make any gains on the ground hard to come by.

I just can't do it. Call it hubris or foolishness if you will, but Penn State just doesn't have enough offensive balance to consistently move the ball against a Michigan defense that has spent all season making teams go 10 plays to score. Allen Robinson is scary, and he will most likely break one, but with the inept nature of the rest of Penn State's offense, Robinson will need a big game even by his standards to get Penn State close to Michigan on the scoreboard.

That is unless Devin Gardner reverts to a turnover-spewing panic machine again. Then all bets are off. I don't think that happens as Michigan's offense grinds out another 100 yard day on the ground at around three yards/carry and that opens up the passing game to take what Penn State gives up (which, judging by the Indiana game is quite a bit).

Michigan 31 - Penn State 20