There are two weeks left in the regular season, and Michigan (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) finds itself right in the thick of the Big Ten East race. If the Wolverines want to represent the East division in the Big Ten championship game, they must win their final two games, and that means taking down Penn State (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) in Happy Valley this weekend. We introduced you to the Nittany Lions yesterday, and now it's time to ask the Penn State experts what will happen on Saturday. Nick Polak, who is an editor for Black Shoe Diaries -- SB Nation's Penn State site -- joined us for a Q&A to discuss why the Nittany Lions' offensive line remains so poor, how he'd gameplan for their defense, and whether they will ruin Michigan's Big Ten title hopes.
Before the season, some prognosticators predicted Penn State would be 10-2, losing road games at Ohio State and Michigan State. The schedule set up nicely for PSU, and teams like Temple, Northwestern, and Michigan weren't supposed to be as competent as they have been. Penn State currently sits at 7-3 (4-2 Big Ten) with two big games left on the docket. How would you evaluate Penn State's season thus far relative to preseason expectations? How does PSU need to finish the year for fans to be satisfied?
Relative to optimistic expectations of 10-2, the season has obviously been a disappointment thus far. However, Temple’s emergence has made it a little easier for Penn State fans to stomach. As for the Northwestern game, it could have very easily played out favorable for the Nittany Lions had circumstances been slightly different. Penn State played that game as their tenth in a row, starting at 11AM, on the road against a top-25 team that was coming off of a bye week. I’m not saying Penn State deserved to win, because they absolutely did not. But I also don’t think they’re as bad as they looked in the first half of that one.
Basically, the Lions are a little behind where fans thought they’d be, but considering how their opponents have turned out this season, there’s not a ton to be angry about. As far as what they need to do against Michigan and Michigan State, a win somewhere would obviously be nice, and would do a lot to calm down some of the fanbase. But in reality, for a team still dealing with depth issues as a result of the sanctions, this season has been just fine.
Coming off a tough road loss to Northwestern, Penn State will have had two weeks to prepare for Michigan thanks to a very late bye. How has the bye helped or hurt PSU?
Well, they certainly benefitted from the rest. They have a few players who have picked up nagging injuries here and there (Brandon Bell, Hackenberg and Marcus Allen to name a few), so the extra days off finally gave them a chance to heal up. Aside from that, the biggest help they got during the bye was from Indiana. Pushing the Wolverines to the limit ahead of a noon kick on the road was very kind of our Hoosier friends.
Scouts have lauded Christian Hackenberg for years and pegged him as a future first-round quarterback -- maybe No. 1 overall. But Hackenberg had a rough sophomore campaign last season, and, though his YPA and TD:INT ratio has improved greatly, his completion percentage remains in the mid-50s as a junior. Putting aside Penn State's deficiencies at offensive line, which we'll discuss later, how would you assess Hackenberg's performance this season? And how do you expect him to perform vs. a Michigan pass defense that is second in opponent passer rating and 13th in S&P+?
It’s hard to discuss Hackenberg without discussing the offensive line. When they give him time, he’s been great this year. When they haven’t, he’s struggled. There’s much more to it than that, but that’s the basic story. His receivers are still young and don’t run the greatest routes just yet. The offensive coaching staff continues to call the game in a way that his natural abilities are hidden. It’s just not a good situation for the junior quarterback. He has been much improved from last season, where he clearly was affected by the coaching change.
When he’s on, he’s still capable of taking over against pretty much any defense in the country. That will obviously be proven true or false against Michigan. It’s a prime letdown spot for the Wolverines, considering this past week and The Game coming up, so we’ll see if Hackenberg is allowed to air the ball out a bit at the start of this one.
Saquon Barkley was a four-star prospect in the 2015 class, and it hasn't taken him very long to show why. He's rushed for 836 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games played and averages 6.29 yards per carry. Plus, Penn State's run offense has soared from 115th in S&P+ last season to 56th this season. How much of that improvement would you attribute to Barkley? And what makes him such a good running back?
This improvement is 100% due to Barkley. If you watch closely, there really isn’t a difference in the way the line blocks for him compared to other backs. He’s simply just a better and more decisive player. He hits the hole and doesn’t look back. When he gets to the second level, he has a wide array of moves to get around defenders. The crazy thing about Barkley is that he’s been able to do everything he did in high school, at the college level. I’m the Recruiting Editor for BSD, so I’ve been following Saquon for some time now. The hurdles, the spins, the acceleration- I did not think he’d be able to do all of these things to a college defense, at least not yet. He’s been incredible to watch.
Alright, it's time to talk about Penn State's offensive line. It was one of the worst units last season, and it hasn't been much better this season. The Nittany Lions are 109th in Rushing Success Rate and 121st in adjusted sack rate. Now down two starters in Mario Ojemudia and Ryan Glasgow, Michigan's defensive line, which has been excellent most of the season, was just shredded by Indiana, but the Hoosiers have one of the best offensive lines and faster tempos. Is Penn State's offensive line as bad as the numbers suggest? And should Michigan's defensive line expect to rebound well this weekend?
Yes and yes.
Penn State's offensive line is every bit as bad as the numbers, the eye-witness reports and the horrified tweets suggest it is. They're not "10 sacks including one to a two-man rush against Temple" bad anymore, but they struggle to be even an average unit. Of course, that's what should be expected when your starting left tackle is in his first season out of junior college, a rotating carousel of two converted defensive tackles and an underperforming recruit at the guard spots, and a right tackle who can barely stay on the field due to injuries.
Every defensive line should expect to rebound against Penn State. Therefore Michigan's line should, as well. I would suggest attacking the interior of the line.
One last question about Penn State's offense. Despite its trouble moving the ball on a consistent basis, Penn State has been able to hit on big plays on the ground and through the air. The Lions are eighth in offensive explosiveness per S&P and tied for 13th in 30-plus-yard plays (31). Why and how has PSU been so successful in this area?
Chris Godwin and Saquon Barkley. We’ve talked enough about Barkley already, so I won’t say too much about him. Just know that he’s a threat to break off a big run pretty much every time he touches the ball. Chris Godwin is the other side of the big play coin for Penn State’s offense. The true sophomore receiver has been Hackenberg’s number one target since the bowl game last season, and is starting to really take off. He has consistently been able to get open down the field, allowing Hack to show off his arm on the deep ball. Just to make matters worse for defenders, Godwin has been a beast at positioning himself to go after the ball. I compared him to Anquan Bolden when he was a recruit, and that comparison has held up fairly well. As long as Godwin and Barkley are on the field, the big play capability that has kept the Nittany Lions from being an unmitigated disaster on offense is alive and well.
Changing sides, the matchup by which I'm most intrigued is Penn State's pass rush vs. Michigan's offensive line. Penn State is first in adjusted sack rate thanks to Carl Nassib (15.5 sacks), Austin Johnson (5.5 sacks), Brandon Bell (4.5 sacks), Anthony Zettel (three sacks), and others. Though Michigan has struggled to run the ball, the offensive line has protected Jake Rudock very well and is 23rd in adjusted sack rate. Why is Penn State's pass rush such a destructive force? Who will win that matchup?
The main reason is that the Penn State defensive line is insane. Zettel, Johnson and Nassib will all be playing Sunday football next season, and the three together have been a dynamic pass rushing unit. Redshirt sophomore Garrett Sickels, the other defensive end, is also having a strong season. It also helps that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop loves to bring the blitz. Penn State trusts its secondary to stick to their men (although that becomes more difficult without Jordan Lucas), allowing Shoop to send a linebacker or a safety barreling through the offensive line quite frequently. Plays are there to be made for opposing offenses on these blitzes, but the PSU defensive line combined with the extra rusher have consistently been able to get to the quarterback before he could make them pay.
As with any great matchup, I would expect this to be an even battle. Rudock did a nice job of holding onto the ball until the last second against Indiana, a skill that will be tested again this weekend. I would expect to see a few sacks for Penn State, especially at home, but they won’t live in the backfield like they have against other teams.
Sticking with Penn State's pass defense, the Nittany Lions just discovered that starting safety Jordan Lucas will miss the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury. How does this affect PSU's secondary, especially since Jake Rudock looks as good as ever after facing admittedly poor pass defenses in Rutgers and Indiana?
This is a big loss for Penn State, as Lucas is not only a team captain, but an outstanding player. The former cornerback had been a beast at the safety spot this year, and being able to drop down and cover a man in the slot was a real weapon for Shoop’s defense, and allowed him a good bit of freedom with his play calls.
Without Lucas, everything becomes just a little easier for opposing offenses. The Nittany Lions have backups for the safety position who have flashed nice potential, but no one has stepped up and shown they can do what Lucas did. I still don’t believe in Jake Rudock (though he has done a nice job against bad defenses), but if he can go out and beat Penn State’s defense, my thoughts will likely change.
If you were Michigan's offensive coordinator, how would you gameplan for Penn State's defense? Where on the defensive side of things is Penn State vulnerable?
To beat Penn State’s defense at home, you have to be willing to play the long game. The goal of every drive at the beginning of the game needs to be to run a lot of plays. Scoring would obviously be nice, but tiring out the starters is the key. Penn State does a good job of mixing in the backups with the starters to give their top guys a rest, but it’s still easy to tell when the first stringers are on the sidelines. That’s when I would start dialing up some bigger plays, maybe some deeper passes that take longer to develop but will lead to big yardage. I would also move into the no-huddle offense whenever I see two or more of Penn State’s starting defensive line off the field. Keep those guys on the sidelines, and attack the backups with everything you’ve got.
There's been a clear disparity between Penn State's performances at home and on the road. At home, the Nittany Lions are 6-0 and outscored their opponents, 180-59. On the road, they are 1-3 with the one win being a 31-30 victory over Maryland at a neutral site. Is there a particular reason why PSU plays so much better at home? And how does this bode for Michigan, who's had trouble putting teams away on the road?
It should be noted that the quality of opponent on the road versus at home is very, very different (the losses to Temple, Ohio State and Northwestern all came on the road). Therefore, it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of effect being on the road has on this team. It would have been a great year to play a team like Indiana or Illinois on the road, but oh well. Historically though (and predictably), Penn State is a better team at home. This team feeds off the crowd, and loves to make big plays when the fans are pumped up.
The Nittany Lions under Christian Hackenberg also have an uncanny ability to pull comebacks out of nowhere (PROBABLY BECAUSE THEY’RE GREAT IN THE NO-HUDDLE, HINT HINT JOHN DONOVAN). Michigan needs to either build a big enough lead before the final few minutes, or make sure the ball is in their hands, because Penn State, offensive deficiencies and all, know how to pull off a comeback at home.
Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What's the final score?
I’m going to sound like a homer, but stick with me. This game is setting up as poorly as possible for Michigan. A noon kickoff on the road, a Whiteout (albeit a noon Whiteout before Thanksgiving), coming off of a double OT win, with Ohio State to look forward to next week. As Ty and Dan of the Solid Verbal would say, this is a classic letdown, look ahead sandwich for Michigan. Michigan's defense has looked slightly worse from my vantage point over the past few weeks, which may be due to fatigue. All of these things are swirling together into one hearty disappointment soup for the Wolverines.
There are only two realistic possibilities I see for this game. A narrow Penn State win (something in the area of 24-23, or 23-20) or a Michigan blowout (something like 27-7, or 31-13). Either way, this game should be entertaining for most of the afternoon, especially if you are a fan of defense. There will be a whole lot of it.
A big thanks to Nick for answering our questions! Make sure to follow him on Twitter.