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Opponent Q&A: Penn State

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Michigan hosts Penn State for Under the Lights III tomorrow night, so Maize n Brew sat down with Black Shoe Diaries senior writer Devon Edwards and asked him to provide his thoughts on the matchup.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Despite all of the off-the-field speculation about who will replace Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach or whether Dave Brandon will be retained as Michigan's athletic director, there is still football to be played this season, even if Michigan fans just want it to be over. Tomorrow, the Wolverines will host Penn State for what will be just the third night game ever at Michigan Stadium. The Nittany Lions, now under the guidance of James Franklin, opened the season with four straight wins, needing last-minute scoring drives to secure victories against UCF and Rutgers, before surprisingly stumbling at home against Northwestern two weeks ago.

So what should Michigan expect to see from this Penn State squad that just had the luxury of a bye week? We sat down with Black Shoe Diaries senior writer Devon Edwards and asked him to provide his insight on the matchup and all things Penn State. Devon was kind enough to expound on multiple topics, such as how Penn State fans have viewed the start of the James Franklin era, if the Lions' mess of an offensive line has any chance of giving Christian Hackenberg the protection he needs to demonstrate why he is a prototypical NFL quarterback, why Penn State's run defense has been so stout, and whether Michigan will be able to record its first win against Penn State since 2007.

And, if you have not yet had a chance, be sure to read my answers to Devon's questions at Black Shoe Diaries.

On that note, let's begin!


Maize n Brew: Bill O'Brien, who seemed to be beloved by Penn State fans for keeping the Nittany Lions afloat after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent NCAA sanctions, departed for the NFL in the offseason. Penn State responded by hiring one of the hottest coaching commodities in James Franklin. Halfway through his debut season in Happy Valley, how would you evaluate the James Franklin era?

Black Shoe Diaries: So, there's no doubt that James Franklin is better at the "college" part of college football than O'Brien was. He's a monster on the recruiting trail and he seems to genuinely love the community aspect--going on local radio shows, popping up around campus, and even engaging in some subtle trolling every now and then. His is a program that wants to have some fun, unlike BOB's, which carried in the NFL tradition--and what's more, the especially joyless Patriots tradition. O'Brien could have had long, sustained success at Penn State, if he'd really wanted to, but that was never his goal. I know, I know, you should know better than to ever expect a coach to stick around long, but I think James Franklin knows that his limitations make him a better college coach than a pro one, and for a guy from Pennsylvania at a school that'll pay him as much as anyone else, I don't see him leaving State College of his own volition anytime soon. That sense of loyalty has really engendered him to a huge chunk of the fanbase that never saw that from BOB.

On the other hand, O'Brien was miles ahead of Franklin as an on-field football coach. I mean, first things first, there's his almost inconceivable work as a QB coach--turning Matt McGloin from hapless walk-on to legitimate NFL quarterback who's looked so, so much better than his highly drafted counterparts (looking at you, Geno). While James Franklin comes from an offensive background, he seems to be a master delegator--most notably, there's no indication that John Donovan doesn't have complete control over the offense. And while we sometimes griped that O'Brien was spreading himself too thin--as head coach, QB coach, lead recruiter, and offensive coordinator--in that latter role he still managed to assemble gameplans that made sense. Franklin has admitted that he's loyal to a fault, and while the coaching staff has done some good things, the offense needs a dramatic change not just in execution but in scheme and philosophy.

MNB: Michigan's pass defense just allowed Gary Nova to throw for a career-high 404 yards--yes, the same Gary Nova that threw five interceptions against Penn State. Now the Wolverines face Christian Hackenberg, who has been projected by most to be a first-round selection in the NFL Draft in the not-so-distant future. What are Hackenberg's strengths? Does he have any weaknesses? Other than generating a bunch of pressure, which we will get to in a minute, what can Michigan do to shut down Hackenberg?

BSD: Christian Hackenberg's greatest weakness is the offensive line. When he's had time, Hack's generally been able to find open receivers, and get the ball where it needs to be. I'm no scout, but Hackenberg really is a prototypical NFL quarterback: He's got a great arm, the ability to fit the ball through tight spaces, he'll make multiple reads and throw the ball away if nobody's open, and he's athletic enough both to get away from pressure in the pocket and occasionally scramble for positive yards. However, when he's getting hit half a second after receiving the snap, there's no chance but to run for his life and hope the primary target can come open.

Additionally, and I've written at length about this, John Donovan simply hasn't designed an offense that takes advantage of the special talent under center. It seems like every route the receivers run will either be a 4-yard out or a bomb down the middle of the field, and even though Penn State has three very good tight ends, they're not being used to stretch the seam or create matchup problems. For all the struggles of the line, and for a QB still coping with the loss of Allen Robinson, these troubles are being compounded by an offensive coordinator who doesn't seem to know what to do with a quarterback that isn't Austyn Carta-Samuels or Jordan Rodgers. Hack is best in the intermediate passing game, something the Lions haven't at all used in the first quarter of the season.

MNB: As praise was heaped upon Hackenberg in the preseason, one of the lingering questions was who would replace Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's best wide receiver in 2013, as Hackenberg's go-to target. DaeSean Hamilton (36 catches, 502 yards) and Geno Lewis (29 catches, 495 yards) seem to be the answers. Which one has been more impressive in your eyes? Can either take over a game like Robinson did during Penn State's final fourth-quarter drive against Michigan last season?

BSD: I'll start with the easier question: Neither is as good as Allen Robinson, not by a long shot, but the two have mostly split Robinson's duties down the middle. The bubble screens have gone to DaeSean Hamilton, the slants to Eugene Lewis, the deep balls to Hamilton and the fades to Lewis. In fact, Hackenberg's throw to Lewis in the Rutgers game might cause some flashbacks for Michigan fans--a lofted throw down the left sideline that resulted in a 1st down from the 2. Sound familiar? Oddly enough, the two are pretty similar players in size and in style--both have shown an impressive ability to go up and catch balls in traffic, though that's been Hamilton's forte, while Lewis is a little bit shiftier in the open field and better on the catch-and-run. Ideally, the two would be complemented by Jesse James and Kyle Carter, but John Donovan's struggled to integrate a third (or slot) player into the passing game. Or to use the middle of the field much.

MNB: From what I have watched, Hackenberg has been the entire offense for Penn State. This is mostly because Penn State's offensive line has been, well, bad. Hackenberg seems to be under fire every time he drops back to pass, while the running backs have had little room to run. Why has the offensive line performed so poorly? Is there any chance the offensive line will hold up against Michigan's pass rush, which as been just so-so this season?

BSD: The only chance the Penn State line holds up is if Miles Dieffenbach returns two weeks early from a knee injury that's kept him out all season. By all indications, Franklin and co. have been targeting the Ohio State game a fortnight hence for his comeback. But what's killed the Penn State OL is a complete lack of depth, experience, or talent. One area where BOB really struck out was in his offensive line recruiting. Once Dieffenbach went down, Donovan Smith became the lone returning starter--and after Angelo Mangiro, a redshirt junior who'd seen some playing time the past few years, there was a whole lot of nothing. Penn State's four players rotating through the other three positions are two redshirt freshmen and two redshirt sophomores who were playing defensive tackle six months ago. None of them are very good, but the two-deep behind them is littered with walk-ons and true freshmen.

Herb Hand is a good cook, and an even better coach, but there's only so much you can do with this group. It doesn't help that Anthony Alosi, who might have been a starter, got kicked off the team after an off-season fight, or that Gary Gilliam turned down a 6th year of eligibility to go play a key role for the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks, that selfish bastard. Or that John Donovan doesn't seem to understand that maybe late-developing running plays aren't going to work very well with this group. To be fair, this was never going to be a dominant ground attack, but once again, it seems like a terrible fit between talent and scheme, and it's up to Donovan to make necessary adjustments out of the bye to at least establish the threat of a running game. At one point in the Northwestern game--while it was still close, mind you--Donovan called 27 straight passes. I don't care who your QB is. That's unacceptable everywhere this side of Washington State.

MNB: Let's move to the other side of the football. The strength of Penn State's defense appears to be against the run--the 1.99 yards per carry the Nittany Lions have allowed are the fewest in the nation. What makes the run defense so stout? Which members of the front seven does Michigan's shaky offensive line need to worry bout the most? Anthony Zettel? Mike Hull? Deion Barnes? C.J. Olaniyan?

BSD: What makes Penn State's front four so good is the sheer diversity along the defensive line. Austin Johnson is a space-eating nose tackle who demands double teams and swallows up ball carriers, Anthony Zettel is an undersized but crazy fast 3-technique who will beat most guards inside to hit rushers in the backfield and bring pressure on quarterbacks. Deion Barnes is a pure edge rusher; C.J. Olaniyan a well-rounded, if unexciting counterpart at defensive end who will, generally, do a good job setting the edge.

As far as the linebackers go, there is perilously little depth. Mike Hull's fantastic at MLB--he won't make as many big plays as guys like Michael Mauti or Sean Lee who preceded him, but he's a sure tackler with great instincts, sideline-to-sideline speed and flows to the ball very well in support. Now, both outside linebackers--Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell--are banged up and missed all of and big chunks of the Northwestern game, respectively; both should return this week, but again, there's no depth. If either misses time, it leaves Penn State with true freshmen and walk-ons behind them. Between the two, Bell is more athletic and figures to play a bigger role against the Devin Gardner read-option, while Wartman is a surer tackler who excels in run support. Penn State's been beat to the edge this season, but not often. That said, we haven't played a spread-run team yet this season, and Penn State's better when they can stay in the base defense. Keeping Gardner in the pocket will be of paramount importance.

MNB: Michigan's aerial attack has been erratic all season due to inconsistent quarterback play, but the Wolverines still have Devin Funchess, who is one of the toughest covers in all of college football. Does Penn State have anyone in its secondary that can neutralize Funchess?

BSD: Penn State's actually got half of a very good secondary. Jordan Lucas is the best cornerback on the team, and one of the better Nittany Lion DBs in recent memory. He also makes some unbelievable metaphors. He'll probably match up with Funchess more often than not, and while there's still a major size advantage, Lucas is a solidly built player who can make tackles in space and hold up better than most of the Big Ten. On the flip side, it's hard to say just how good Lucas is because he's not getting thrown at very much, and that has as much to do with him as the gaping hole on the other side. Trevor Williams has tried and failed, for a couple years now, to hold down the other corner spot--his continued playing time has depended as much on the futility of everyone else Bob Shoop has tried there; namely, true freshman Grant Haley, who's been burned quite a bit. They've shuffled through guys--DaQuan Davis and Christian Campbell have also seen time, and been uninspiring-to-bad.

Penn State's also had a ton of trouble defending the middle of the field--which is a shame, because Adrian Amos is a very competent safety both attacking the line and in coverage. That's been a gaping hole in the defense thus far, and for that reason I'm as worried about Jake Butt as I am Funchess. Penn State doesn't boast much at safety beyond Amos--starter Ryan Keiser is a very smart, heady walk-on, and he'll make some plays in center field, but he can't run with most receivers. When Penn State gets beat, it'll be down the right sideline and down the seam, because Lucas and Amos can only defend half the field.

MNB: Is there anything else that Michigan fans should know about the Nittany Lions?

BSD: We've probably covered most of the important stuff. The important thing to grasp is that the offensive line is atrocious to the point where every punt and field goal attempt feel like catastrophes waiting to happen. Also, I really, really hate John Donovan.

Seriously, though, O'Brien overachieved the past two years, and that masked the real impact of the sanctions. In this, the third year since they hit, we're really seeing the impact: Instead of competition for starting spots, especially along the line and in the secondary, jobs are almost given by default to the few scholarship upperclassmen. James Franklin is hustling to bring in talent, and those reinforcements can't come fast enough, because right now, it's not just a depth issue but a talent one. Penn State couldn't establish the run against freaking Akron. We knew when they first came down that this would probably be the worst year, in terms of on-field depth, and this year in a tl;dr has been: those problems, writ large.

MNB: OK. Time for a prediction. Who walks away the victor? What is the final score?

BSD: Well, although I try and make it a personal policy not to pick against Penn State, I got a bad feeling on this one. Penn State could easily be entering this game 2-3 if it weren't for some late game Hack heroics, and the fact that they started out 4-0 with a pair of lucky wins covered up a lot of the glaring negatives. Michigan might not be a good team, but if you're going to turn the season around, it'll have to be this week, won't it? I'm wary of a terrible offensive line being the only thing standing between Hackenberg and Frank Clark--one big hit and Penn State becomes a team that can neither run nor throw the ball competently. I have faith in the defense, but you can only ask it to hold for so long, and while Shoop's pushed all the right buttons, he hasn't had to deal with a quarterback as mobile as Devin Gardner--and Gary Nova found success scrambling. I'll say Penn State 20-17, but that's probably overly optimistic, especially w/r/t the offense. Then again, maybe the bye week will have given John Donovan the opportunity to tailor an offense to the personnel he actually has.

MNB: Given that our name is Maize n Brew, it is only appropriate that I ask you about the local beer scene in Happy Valley. What have been you favorite local beers this season?

BSD: While I do enjoy a good beer (I'm currently drinking a Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, as I write this) I am not the person to ask this question to; I'd basically just say Yuengling and Troegs. So I asked my friend Kevin Horne, editor emeritus of Onward State and friend of BSD. He gave a ringing endorsement of State College's own Zeno's Rye Ale (I'll vouch for Zeno's as one of the best beer bars in the country):

Zeno's rye is everything you want in a good local beer: unique, punchy, and multi-layered. The hops come at you right away, but it's not overwhelming for a rye ale. It's easy to drink and you can tell the various spices, which maintain their flavor for the entire pint, are working in deliberate harmony, like any good brewer hopes to achieve.


Once again, I and the rest of Maize n Brew would like to thank Devon for taking the time to answer our questions and provide us with such a thorough look at everything that is Penn State football as tomorrow's kickoff fast approaches. Remember to read Black Shoe Diaries for all of your Penn State needs for the rest of the season--make sure to check out my responses to Devon's questions when you head over there--and to give Devon a follow on Twitter at @Devon2012.