#4 Michigan opens the Big Ten season on Saturday when the Nittany Lions of Penn State come to the Big House. Penn State is 2-1 this season with wins over Kent State and Temple and a road loss to in-state rival Pitt. Trevor Woods introduced you to this Penn State outfit yesterday, and now we turn to our friends at Black Shoe Diaries (@BSDtweet) — SB Nation’s Penn State site — for more information about these Lions. Assistant editor Aaron York (@apy5000) took the time to answer our questions regarding how he felt about Penn State’s commemoration of Joe Paterno last weekend, whether James Franklin is on the hot seat, how the Nittany Lions match up against the Wolverines, and whether Michigan or Penn State will win on Saturday.
Maize n Brew: Last weekend, Penn State commemorated the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno's first game as head coach. The decision to do so was met with lots of criticism. What was the Penn State community's response to it? And what were your personal feelings towards it?
Aaron Yorke: I don’t think the Penn State community was as horrified by the Joe Paterno tribute as the rest of America seemed to be. Most people I talked to felt the celebration was tasteful and understated, with a focus on the late coach’s contributions to student-athletes and academics. For me, I don’t think Penn State was right or wrong in what it did because we still don’t know how wrong Paterno was in his reaction to hearing about Jerry Sandusky’s abusive actions. If the rest of the nation doesn’t like that, well, they don’t have to show up to the game, watch it on television, or be bothered by it at all. I completely understand why people have a problem with what Penn State is doing, but Penn State isn’t the first organization to honor someone who has been peripherally involved in a major crime, and it probably won’t be the last.
MnB: Penn State is in the third year of the James Franklin Era. After back-to-back 7-6 seasons and a road loss to Pitt in Week 2, the Lions haven't broken through and still are searching for Franklin's first signature win (0-5 vs. AP Top 25). On a scale of 1 (freezing) to 10 (scorching), how hot is Franklin's seat? And what would a win over Michigan mean?
AY: A win over Michigan would be huge for James Franklin and huge for his football program because, like you said, the Lions under Franklin haven’t broken through against a major opponent yet. They came close in the 2014 game vs. Ohio State and in last year’s game at Northwestern, but that signature win has remained elusive. Beating a powerhouse like Michigan would help to dispel the notion that Franklin’s bark is worse than his bite and help build confidence in his ability to build a conference-winning team. For now, I don’t think Franklin’s seat is as hot as outsiders perceive it to be. I’d rank it as a “3,” and it will probably stay that way if he qualifies for a bowl game this year.
MnB: The Lions wrapped up their non-conference slate with wins over Kent State and Temple and the aforementioned loss to Pitt. What are your three key takeaways from these games?
AY: First, that new quarterback Trace McSorley was the right choice to lead the Penn State offense under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. After struggling to complete 50 percent of his passes in the opener against Kent State, McSorley completed 69 percent of his throws at Pitt and 75 percent against Temple while pushing the ball downfield and making big plays. That mix of accuracy and playmaking ability is just what the Lions need to complement their talented corps of backs and receivers.
Second is that Penn State’s front seven, traditionally the strength of the team, could be a major weakness this year. All three starting linebackers have missed time due to injury this year, and Nyeem Wartman-White was recently ruled out of the season due to a knee injury. Add to that a defensive line that lost three starters to the NFL this spring, and you’re left with a unit that was scorched by Pitt for 341 rushing yards. The young Nittany Lion defenders must improve their gap discipline and tackling skills if they are to succeed in the Big Ten.
My third takeaway is that special teams have undergone a big improvement since last year thanks to freshman punter Blake Gillikin. The youngster out of Georgia has been solid so far, averaging over 44 yards per punt after the combination of Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla managed less than 40 yards per boot in 2015. Add to that the more refined roles for kickers Joey Julius (kickoffs) and Tyler Davis (field goals), and it seems the Lions have finally found some consistency across the board under Franklin.
MnB: Despite it being only Week 4, it appears Penn State already might be the walking wounded. It was announced on Tuesday that starting linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White will miss the majority of his second straight season due to injury. May you please provide a list of Penn State's injuries? At what position have these injuries had the biggest impact?
AY: The injuries have clearly had the biggest impact on the linebackers, as in addition to Wartman-White missing the season, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda also missed the Temple game due to injuries. Franklin didn’t give news on either player’s potential return during his weekly press conference, so it looks like it will be Jake Cooper, Brandon Smith, and Manny Bowen playing linebacker this Saturday in Ann Arbor. Smith is particularly green, having played only three snaps in his career before the Temple game. Other Penn State injuries include defensive end Evan Schwan, cornerback Grant Haley, and wide receiver Saeed Blacknall. Don’t expect to see any of those guys on the field at Michigan.
MnB: It's no secret that Saquon Barkley (51 car., 258 yards, 5.1 YPC, 6 TD) is a star, but it seems Penn State's rushing attack is being limited by the offensive line (103rd in opportunity rate) yet again. How would you describe the performance of Penn State's offensive line so far? And how do you think Penn State's staff will gameplan for Michigan's deep defensive line?
AY: For me, it looks like the Penn State offensive line has improved since last season, but it’s still nowhere near the type of unit that will intimidate opposing defenses. After Barkley got hurt at the start of the Temple game, the running game struggled to get going with the committee of Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, and Mark Allen carrying the ball. The 116 rushing yards that Penn State accumulated during that game would have been cut in half if not for Barkley’s brilliant 55-yard touchdown run that he made upon returning to action. It’s going to be tough to create holes against a stout Michigan front line, so I’m expecting Moorhead to open with some quick-strike passing plays to get McSorley going early on. The young quarterback will have to complete a high percentage of those for Penn State to have consistency on offense this week.
MnB: Christian Hackenberg is in the NFL, and Trace McSorley is Penn State's new quarterback. In three starts, McSorely has completed 58-of-90 passes (64.4%) for 828 yards (9.2 YPA), four touchdowns, and two picks, and has 27 non-sack carries for 82 yards (3.0 YPC) and a rushing score. How would you evaluate McSorley? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
AY: McSorley has been as quality a quarterback as Penn State fans could have hoped for so far. His arm strength isn’t quite what Hackenberg’s was, but the redshirt sophomore has a better sense of when to get rid of the ball and is a more accurate passer as well. Just look at the perfect timing on his touchdown strike to Chris Godwin early in the Temple game. He used a similar throw during Penn State’s ill-fated comeback attempt against Pitt to overcome a 4th-and-16 on the final drive of the game. McSorley can still improve his ball security and decision making, as turnovers have been an issue for him thus far, but overall he looks way more comfortable in the pocket than Hackenberg did last year.
MnB: Michigan's defense has been excellent on a down-to-down basis, but has been susceptible to busting and allowing the home run on the ground or through the air. Which Nittany Lion is most likely to rip off an explosive gain against the Wolverines? Why?
AY: Barkley is Penn State’s most explosive playmaker, so he’s clearly the guy to watch out for here. Once the sophomore tailback finds the secondary, he knows how to make tacklers miss and has the breakaway speed to make them pay for mistakes. I think we both expect the Penn State offensive line to be overmatched by Michigan’s front seven, so look for Moorhead and McSorley to use some screens and draws to try to get Barkley some open space to work with.
MnB: This season, Penn State needed to replace three starting defensive linemen that combined for 45.5 tackles for loss in 2015. Now it's possible that the Nittany Lions will be missing all three of their starting linebackers this weekend, and that's after they allowed Pitt to run for 341 yards on 6.1 YPC. Does PSU have the beef to stop DeVeon Smith and co.?
AY: That’s going to be a tall order, especially considering what the Penn State rush defense looked like against Pitt. And now the unit is even more banged up. The good news is that the Lions were able to hold Temple tailback Jahad Thomas to 52 yards on 14 carries, but that came at the expense of some big plays in the passing game. Against Michigan, I expect Penn State to load the box and force Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight to beat them.
MnB: Michigan has a trio of talented pass catchers in Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. How have the Nittany Lions defended the pass this season? Will they make things difficult for Wilton Speight, who struggled a bit last week after taking an early big hit?
AY: Butt is going to be a handful for a Penn State defense that is starting three reserve linebackers. On the other hand, the Lions may need to send some of those linebackers at the quarterback in order to make him feel some pressure, because I don’t have a lot of faith in the defensive line to put the heat on Speight with just a four-man rush. The Lions weren’t tested much in pass defense by Kent State or Pitt, but Temple’s Phillip Walker had a surprisingly nice game against them with 286 yards on 25-for-34 passing. At least the Penn State secondary is the most healthy and experienced part of the defense, because the unit, led by cornerback John Reid and safety Marcus Allen, is going to need to come up big on Saturday.
Mn:. Prediction time. What do you think will happen? Who wins? What's the final score?
AY: Penn State struggles to contain the Michigan running game, and the Wolverines go on to win, 31-20. Butt is the star of the game with 100 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown receptions.
There you have it! Aaron has Michigan winning by double digits and improving to 4-0. What do you think of Aaron’s answer above? Agree? Disagree? Please comment below!