Who: 4-1 (1-1) Penn State Nittany Lions
Time: 7 ET (ESPN2)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 11
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, Mich.
Here Michigan sits, at 2-4, needing to flip the script and go 4-2 the rest of the way just to crawl into a bowl game in some strange, distant land. The question is: Does that even matter?
The answer, of course, is no -- a berth in the Golden Corral Chocolate Fountain Bowl sponsored by Unyielding Malaise Inc. isn't saving anyone's job. Barring a miraculous comeback, one that sees the Wolverines run the table and beat a respectable opponent in a slightly less mediocre bowl game than the one I just made up, we've already seen the end.
Whether the end fell on Michigan in the Piscataway night or the Big House the two prior weeks, the end isn't near, it's here. The rest is just a slow, perfunctory epilogue.
When Michigan has the ball
Well, the Wolverines showed signs of life against Rutgers, with relatively decent success on outside zone plays. The Wolverines ran for 158 yards at 4.5 yards a pop, with Derrick Green popping off a solid 74 on 12 carries (albeit with 26 of those on on play).
Meanwhile, Devin Gardner's performance likely would have been deemed passable, at minimum, if not for The Big Mistake, one that has unfortunately been a running trend for the senior. If it isn't already clear, these are just things that will happen; it's too late in the game to hope for some sort of reformation. On the bright side, he tossed five completions of 20+ yards to four different receivers, so that's...something?
The bad news, as you probably know, is that Green is out for the year with a broken clavicle. That is literally and figuratively painful for the young man; for all the criticism about his curious choices on cuts and his seeming inability to drag guys forward in a manner commensurate with his size, he's shown some marked improvement. Now, Michigan hands the keys to De'Veon Smith and, hopefully, more Gardner designed runs.
As for Penn State, the Nittany Lions come in ranked 9th in total defense, but tied for 65th in turnovers gained (2 fumbles, 6 interceptions). They also come in at 37th in sacks and 31st in tackles for loss, which, while maybe not quite as impressive as either Utah or Rutgers, is still enough to inspire worry (Gardner was sacked three times against Rutgers, for what it's worth).
The PSU defensive line has some familiar faces in DT Anthony Zettel and DE C.J. Olaniyan, both Michigan recruiting targets (with Zettel being a one-time commit). At 6-foot-5, 276 pounds, Zettel is another guy in the undersized but quick mold, a prototype which has given Michigan trouble in losses against Utah and Rutgers. Zettel leads the way with three sacks, while Olaniyan and DE Deion Barnes have two apiece.
Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell man the outside linebacker spots, while 5th-year senior Mike Hull occupies the MIKE spot. Hull is a tackle machine; with 53 to date, he has 30 more than PSU's second-leading tackler.
Juniors Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams will line up at corner, and both are of the bigger variety (6'0'' and 6'1'', respectively). Height is certainly not the only consideration in attempting to check a guy like Devin Funchess, but it definitely doesn't hurt.
PSU's defense ranks 4th in first down rate (or percentage of opponents' drives that end in at least one first down, or a touchdown) but 41st in the "methodical drive" category (the percentage of opponents' drives that go for 10 plays or more). In a very reductive sense, it seems that while they will force you three-and-out quite a bit, when they don't there's a decent opportunity for a nice drive.
Now, for an offense like Michigan's, for which disaster can strike at any time, maybe extended drives aren't really the ticket anyway. At some point, Michigan just has to start connecting on some big plays -- a start would be, you know, taking some chances downfield. Then again, given the state of the offensive line and Gardner decision making and understandable uneasiness at standing behind said line, it's no wonder OC Doug Nussmeier isn't calling for the long ball too often.
When the U-M defense is on the field
Defensive expectations have taken a giant step back in recent weeks, and rightfully so. The front seven continues to perform valiantly against the run (minus the Minnesota game), but pass coverage continues to be an issue, for both defensive backs and linebackers alike.
On the bright side for Michigan, offensive line is also an issue for the Nittany Lions, which is probably partially the basis for what has been an underwhelming start to the 2014 season for sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who is having a 2005 Henne-esque sophomore slump after a big freshman year throwing long balls to Allen Robinson.
Hackenberg has thrown four touchdowns to six interceptions thus far, completing 58 percent of his passes in the process at 7.57 yards per attempt, just about at his 2013 average (7.54). Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton has been the primary recipient of the target vacuum left by Robinson (and the injury to tight end Adam Breneman). The big 6'1'', 203-pounder has 502 yards on 36 receptions, although he has yet to reach the end zone. Against UCF, Rutgers and Northwestern, he tallied 165, 103 and 100 yards, respectively. The guy can really play, that's for sure.
Redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis checks in at No. 2; at about the same size as Hamilton, he's racked up 495 yards on 29 receptions, including 173 against UCF in Dublin and 109 at Rutgers in that 13-10 comeback win. The Northwestern Wildcats, however, bottled him up (4 receptions, 33 yards).
Of course, you can't forget about tight end Jesse James, who reeled in six balls for 67 yards and a touchdown in that overtime affair against Michigan last season in Happy Valley. With capable threats in Hamilton and Lewis on the outside, the thought of James running up the seams against Michigan's discombobulated pass coverages has got to be keeping DC Greg Mattison up at night.
The offensive line, which starts redshirt freshmen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson at left guard and right tackle, respectively, has struggled to get the ground game going and keep Hackenberg's jersey clean. PSU ranks 113th in rushing offense, and 104th in sacks allowed per game (worse than Michigan). With that said, Hackenberg has 195 attempts on the season compared with Gardner and Shane Morris's combined 159, so the raw sack numbers don't always tell the story.
Regardless, Bill Belton (49 carries, 189 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Zach Zwinak are solid backs, they just haven't had much real estate with which to work. Then again, this story sounds familiar -- just look to the Minnesota game for an example of a "solid" tailback who then looks like Eric Dickerson against Michigan's defense. Was that Minnesota game just a strange outlier? Maybe, probably, but who knows.
In any case, if the PSU rushing offense gets going in the first half, before Hackenberg has even gotten the passing game going, it could be a long afternoon of chasing Hamilton, Lewis and James after back seven folks bite hard on play action.
At this point, it's all about pride, as cheesy as that is. Playing at home, under the lights, against a Big Ten foe that knocked them off in painful fashion last season and thus kickstarting the long, slow slide to 7-6, you'd hope that the team will come out with some energy. They couldn't quite pull out the win in New Jersey, but, at the very least they did show a little more than they did before.
This is simply the state of things. There is no more big picture, no more consideration of division title contention, let alone a New Year's Day bowl game. Now, I root for for four yards on first down. I root for a third down conversion requiring four yards or fewer. I root for 11 guys on the field in punt coverage.
When you cobble together these mundane things, it's possible to piece together an enjoyable (tolerable, at least) experience in the face of a catastrophic season that is only likely to get worse (oh boy, that Michigan State game).
Michigan could win this game, sure. The Nittany Lions have some serious flaws, particularly on the offensive line, and getting thumped by a Northwestern team that has losses to Cal and Northern Illinois was an eye-opening game for this PSU team. In that 29-6 defeat, Hackenberg threw for a paltry 4.8 yards per attempt with zero touchdowns and one pick, while the running game averaged just 2.0 yards per carry. The purple and black completely bottled up the PSU offense; despite having a number of talented skill players, the offensive line is clearly holding this offense back in a major way.
Unfortunately, the trend has been that an opponent's flaws don't ever seem to show as much when they face off against the maize and blue these days.
As of Wednesday, Vegas has the Wolverines as a slight favorite, if you care about that sort of thing. Hey, the Wolverines have pulled off exciting home wins against better PSU teams than this one (2002 and 2005 come to mind, of course). But, as they say, that's in the past.
Michigan 20, Penn State 28.