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Roundtable: Wolverines to face "white out" conditions in Happy Valley

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Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

Ed: Hey, guys. The showdown with Penn State is finally upon us. How are we feeling heading into this one? Anything you saw against Indiana last week that gives you reason to be optimistic?

Dan: If the last, I dunno, 6-8 minutes of the game didn’t happen, I’d be feeling about as good as I could have expected heading in. The offensive line finally showed a pulse, the offensive coaching staff made a concentrated effort to get DPJ the ball, and the defense did Don Brown things. The collapse left a bad taste in my mouth because it was the same meltdown recipe we’ve seen way too many times (relative) in the Jim Harbaugh era. John O’Korn stinks, but otherwise, I’m not sure many other units on this team could have had a better test run.

Von: Well, the run game was pretty damn good, wasn’t it? Karan Higdon looked like Mike Hart last weekend and rushed for 200 yards. In fact, Higdon is the first U-M running back to run for 200 yards since Hart back in the day.

A big part of why he had a big day is because of the offensive line. They were creating holes for the backs to run through all day long. This is the first game all season that I can say Michigan’s O-Line was better than the opponent’s defensive line. Crazy to think about given Michigan’s track record for offensive linemen.

The playbook seemed a bit more simplified than other weeks, which may have helped both the running game and offensive line a bit. John O’Korn and the receivers didn’t have a big day, but they didn’t have to because of how well the run game was working. O’Korn could have hit DPJ for a walk-in touchdown early in the game, and we could have hit a wide open Zach Gentry later on in the game, but it wasn’t needed last Saturday.

This Saturday, however, it will be needed if Michigan’s run game and O-Line struggle. Consistency is a huge part of football, so it will be needed heading into Beaver Stadium.

Colman: I’m feeling quite disappointed, Ed. Michigan has a championship level defense, enough of a running game, and good enough special teams to win any game but the passing game has been so bad it overshadows the rest.

Between the bad throws, the lack of being able read progressions and find open players, iffy pass protection at times, and receivers that struggle getting open, this passing offense has been plain ol’ bad all year. Speight was significantly better at reading the defenses and changing plays if need be, but his accuracy was often bad too, as we all remember, and the route running and pass pro were about the same and he had Tarik Black. It’s surprising that Harbaugh-schooled QBs are struggling this much in Year 2, but I guess you can lead a horse to water...

I’m not saying start him this week, but I’m firmly in the “put Peters in if O’Korn struggles” crowd. What does Michigan have to lose at this point by seeing what he’s got? It literally can’t get much worse and I’d rather see a young guy get some game reps.

The run game was clearly a plus against a good IU defense and something to be optimistic about against Penn State. If O’Korn (or Peters) can connect on a couple long passes and make the defense loosen a bit on the run, this could be a close game.

The defense continues to be elite, so that’s good, I still think they’ll keep Michigan in every game.

Kevin: Hey, Kareem Walker was handed the ball! And then we didn’t see him on the field again!

I’m optimistic that Michigan has a plan of attack for Penn State’s defense that involves all four running backs. They’re going to have to get the ball out of the backfield quickly to avoid costly sacks through the still-gelling offensive line. That means screens, check-down throws and stretch plays. I wouldn’t be mad if Michigan attempted fewer than 20 passes in this game if they’re able to keep Penn State guessing on who is going to touch the ball.

Jared: It would be difficult to be overly optimistic after what we have seen this season, but for some inexplicable reason I have faith. It is refreshing to be the underdog for a change, and I am hoping that translates to a team that comes out loose. We really don’t have anything to lose here as nobody is really giving us much of a shot outside of our own fan base, so why not go out and have some fun?

As far as what I saw on the field against Indiana, there really wasn’t anything new to dissect. The defense is nasty, the offense is substandard, water is wet, Jim Harbaugh seems to prefer khakis. The fellas touched on the offensive line, which was vastly improved, especially with the run blocking. The pass protection still leaves a lot to be desired, but it is good enough to get it done. Karan Higdon has game breaking-big play ability, which is crucial because Chris Evans has all but disappeared.

David: I know that a program record 16 penalties impacted the game against IU, but feel it is sort of starting to come together. The defense was tested and built confidence with some huge stops late in the game and the running game is coming on strong.

If Michigan can protect O’Korn and he gets more comfortable this may be his turning point game. Since Penn State has not been challenged much and are coming off a bye, I think that puts more pressure on them to come ready and avoid big plays to change the momentum quickly putting them in a corner and uncharted territory.

Drew: It feels like this is a pivotal point in Michigan’s season. If the Wolverines upset No. 2 Penn State, they will make up for the loss to Michigan State, be firmly in the hunt for the Big Ten East, and generate steam in the second-half stretch.

However, if they lose, they would have to win out to make a bid at the Big Ten East and a New Year’s Six bowl, and S&P+ gives them less than five-percent chance to do so. At that point, I suspect Michigan fans will begin to tune out emotionally for the rest of 2017 and clamor for Brandon Peters to get live reps in preparation for 2018. And I suspect that the only thing that would leave Michigan fans with some sense of satisfaction with this season would be an upset of Ohio State in the finale.

So this is a pretty big game, and never under Jim Harbaugh has U-M been this big of a dog.

There are reasons to be optimistic, though. Michigan has a national championship-level defense and has contained Saquon Barkley in each of their previous two match-ups, and Michigan has found some rhythm with its rushing attack when it needed it the most. The pieces to deliver an upset are there. We just need to see if Michigan can put them together.

Ed: No question this is the best team Michigan will have faced to this point in the season. What’s the key for the Wolverines to find some momentum on offense?

Dan: I really want to believe that this passing attack can at least look competent, but we’re now three starts into the John O’Korn era and he hasn’t even flashed THAT. In light of that fact, it’s going to need to be the running game again. I liked how Drevno and co. used screens and motion with DPJ/etc to create some running lanes and clearly the results mostly spoke for themselves. We’re going to need a similar gameplan against the Nittany Lions but hopefully a couple extra broken tackles by the receivers to create a big play or two.

Von: Don’t turn the ball over and get the ground game going.

O’Korn didn’t turn the ball over for the first time this season in a game that he has started, so it was good to see him making good decisions and using his feet to his advantage when he needed to. I talked about this on Victors Valiant earlier this week, but scoring chances become a lot easier if O’Korn can just manage the game and deliver on the seldom deep ball. He is not going to be a star quarterback, but if he can be a leader, confident and consistent, I think the offense will find its groove.

Getting the run game going is important for several reasons. 1) Harbaugh likes to own the time of possession, so having the run game click early is a huge part of finding momentum and keeping it. 2) Doing number 1 ensures the Penn State defense gets worn out, which then in turn leads to those seldom deep ball opportunities for O’Korn to catch the secondary napping. This is all easier said than done, but it is not out of reach for O’Korn and the offense to do that.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

Colman: Complete a couple long passes. The whole world knows Michigan can’t pass the ball, so that’s exactly what they have to do, at least a few times to keep them honest. Michigan will obviously need to lean on the running game extensively but the only way the rushing attack will continue to work against a talented and well coached defense is by beating them with 2-3 deep ones. Do so, and they have to respect that ability and the running game will open up a bit. If not, this will be a long and sad game.

Something else I think could spark the offense would be a successful McDoom or DPJ jet sweep. When those jets worked last year it just seemed like the offense got energized. With a passing game like Michigan’s, a successful trick play or two would be great to break out as well.

Kevin: I think we’re all in agreement that O’Korn has to complete a deep ball for Michigan to have a chance. And for deep balls to have a chance, the offensive line can’t commit 900 holding/false start penalties in the most hostile road environment they’ll see all season.

Jared: For the sake of variety, I will go with some numbers on offense that should equate to a victory for the good guys.

150 yards passing, with no turnovers from O’Korn. As all of the fellas mentioned, he does not need to be Mason Rudolph or Lamar Jackson for us to win, but there needs to be a vague threat of passing.

1 or 0 turnovers. You can’t give the Penn State offense extra opportunities to hurt you, they will do enough of that on their own.

1 non-offensive touchdown. I think 24 points will be enough to win this thing, but we are going to need the D or special teams to make a big play. Michigan’s offense is just not great, and Penn State has a much improved defense, including the number 9 pass defense in the country. Yikes.

David: Establish the run and if it works, keep it going and keep their defense on the field. If Higdon can generate 150 plus rushing yards, Michigan has a great chance. They also can't shoot themselves in the foot with several turnovers. If this game comes to field goals and special teams, I like Michigan’s chances of keeping it close to the end.

Michigan v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Drew: John O’Korn has to be successful on play action. I detailed in my “Inside the Numbers” column this week that the formula to Michigan winning is to run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball some more. Penn State’s defense is top-10 caliber and will present a stiff challenge for Michigan’s offense, but the Nittany Lions are much better defending the pass (5th via S&P+) than the run (44th via S&P+). Therefore, Michigan’s best chance to win is to keep the ball on the ground with Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac and deploy some creative wrinkles to be effective.

However, Penn State will inevitably crowd the line of scrimmage, so O’Korn must keep the Lions honest. O’Korn won’t be asked to do this often as he should not be asked to throw more than 15-20 times as long as Michigan keeps it close. But if O’Korn struggles with his reads and throws like he did against Indiana, Michigan will have a tough time scoring.

Ed: Okay, now on the flip side, the Nittany Lions have some serious playmakers on offense. What’s the key for Michigan to stop the Penn State attack? Who are you going to keep your eye on?

Dan: Bush vs Barkley is an incredible matchup, but looking a little bit bigger, this game is going to come down to how the front 7 can contain the backfield of Penn State. I think Lewerke and Ramsey were good test runs for Trace McSorely, and the guys up front did much better this week in containment.

That said, this is by far the biggest challenge of the year. It’s funny to look at this game and think the front 7 is a bigger potential matchup than the secondary. Long and Hill have been tremendous, specifically of late, and might be coming off of their best game yet. I’m not as worried about a backend breakdown as I am McSorely or Barkley getting loose.

Von: Dan is right — Bush vs. Barkley may very well determine how the game goes. Luckily, Bush has a tag-in teammate in Khaleke Hudson to assist when necessary. But when Barkley isn’t involved in the play, the defensive line has to put pressure on McSorely at all times to make him throw erratically, which then either could potentially cause a turnover or make him throw incomplete; either one works for Michigan. If McSorley has time in the pocket or is able to flush out to successfully get the ball off, the defense may be in trouble and could give up some big plays on Saturday.

Colman: I am in agreement with Dan and Von here 100%. The linebackers are the key matchup. You have to contain Saquon Barkley and make Trace wake up McSorley in the morning. Sorry. It was there.

Bush vs. Barkley is going to be fun to watch but when a guy is as good as Barkley everyone on the defense has to step up. Hudson and McCray will need to track him down in space (let’s just hope Big Mike doesn’t get split out on him) too. Furbush will have a huge job keeping Bush clean to roam around and do his thing. This may end up being the biggest test all year for this Michigan defense.

The defensive backs have been great all year. Last week was their best performance as a group and they will be challenged even more in this game. McSorley might be the best pure passer Michigan will see this year and he has some athleticism as well. (JT is the better QB overall, much more dangerous dual threat). Their coverage abilities will be tested again, but maybe as importantly, their open field tackling ability will be tested by Barkley as well.

Kevin: Special teams, special teams, special teams. Penn State’s kicker has made less than half of his attempts on the year. He also hasn’t had a field goal over 50 yards. Know who has? Quinn Nordin. Twice. Barkley is their kickoff return man and has had a 98 yard touchdown run this year. DPJ has had a punt return this year. This feels like a game where a special teams play will shift one side’s chances at winning significantly.

Jared: I don’t care how many times it is mentioned above, Barkley vs. Bush is Pay-Per-View worthy. Khaleke Hudson should be able to help in that department as well.

I am in no way worried about the defensive line, they are going to do work. They will have to get pressure on McSorely, which I fully expect them to do. If they can hurry him into making some mistakes that our rapidly improving secondary can capitalize on, we will be in great shape.

I will echo Colman in saying this will be the first real test the secondary has seen, so I am hoping their performance up to this point has not been a bi-product of facing weak passing offenses and a front seven destroying people. We are going to know a lot about just how good this Michigan defense is after Saturday night.

David: I agree with a lot of what the guys said above. While they’re predictable giving the ball to Barkley, Michigan has to stop the long ball threat and other teams like Indiana have kept Barkley to under 100 yards. Their secondary is developing and know this will be a huge test. If they can avoid penalties that can keep drives moving I think this defense will step up to the challenge.

Drew: Michigan’s defensive line will overwhelm Penn State’s offensive line, and Michigan’s corners have proven themselves to be a very talented group. Trace McSorley will take his shots down the field, but Lavert Hill, David Long, and Brandon Watson should defend those well if Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich don’t eat McSorley first.

Therefore, the key for Michigan’s defense will be its linebackers and whether they have the speed and skill to contain Saquon Barkley and the awareness to lock down tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley should be good for one or two dazzling runs, but it’s the other 20 touches he’ll have that will determine if Michigan has a chance in this one.

The speed of Devin Bush, Jr. and Khaleke Hudson should make life difficult for Barkley as Michigan’s defense did in 2015 (15 runs, 68 yards) and 2016 (15 runs, 59 yards), but don’t be surprised if Penn State counters Don Brown’s aggressiveness with some well-timed screens and swings to Barkley.

Also, Penn State will test the discipline of Michigan’s linebackers with numerous run-pass options (RPO). If the linebackers bite on the fakes, McSorley will feed Gesicki behind them all day long.

Ed: Since September 24, 2016, when Penn State lost to Michigan by 39, the Nittany Lions have been on fire — going 15-1 with the lone defeat coming in the Rose Bowl against USC as time expired. They’re certainly not invincible, but they have a ton of experience and playmakers on both sides of the ball. That coupled with a night game in Happy Valley, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Michigan. Do the Wolverines have a chance to pull off the upset?

Dan: My thoughts at the start of the week: Harbaugh has yet to win as an underdog which is concerning, but I think there’s a shot. This defense is good enough to keep any game close, and the running game can work clock and wear teams down. The lack of anything resembling a passing game though leaves the margin for error very very very very thin. A quick turnover on the wrong side of the field or an early defensive breakdown could lead to a really bad night (think OSU 2015), but if DPJ or someone else can get a quick score the other way, Michigan has a shot. Prediction: 23-17 Michigan…. Or so I thought until mid-week.

After the obnoxious amount of trash talk that this criminally ignorant school has thrown up all over these interwebs, and the classless creative filth it took to make the Flint water bed sheet joke, I think the youth in blue strikes back and surprises the world. Devin Bush forces a scoop and score, John O’Korn actually throws for a touchdown in a start, and Michigan takes the victory again. 34-17. Let’s RIDE!

Von: I wish I were the optimist that Dan is. I am preparing for a loss. I don’t have an exact score prediction, but I think the Wolverines lose by 10 points or so. I don’t think there will be a whole lot of scoring but Penn State has the advantage because its offense is great while its defense is good; Michigan’s defense is great while its offense is a concern. Michigan’s defense will keep the team in every game this season, but I don’t expect a win this weekend. The #StartPeters crowd will be feisty on Twitter after this game.

Colman: There are two things that give Michigan a shot: its defense and the fact that Harbaugh has owned Franklin so far. The beating Michigan gave them last year was in large part to the defense as well, holding them to 10 points. If that somehow happens again, Michigan will have a chance.

This feels very optimistic, but I think Harbaugh will pull out all the tricky sets and plays and Michigan pieces together some offense. (Insert Capable QB) completes a couple long throws and Michigan runs the ball well enough to give Quinn Nordin (AKA: Offensive MVP) the chance to be a hero. 20-17 Blue.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Kevin: OK. I’m the resident Michigan Lore guy here, so follow me. Twenty years ago, Michigan went into Happy Valley, for a night game, against an undefeated Penn State. Michigan took them to the woodshed, and PSU had arguably their best team outside their ‘94 championship team. Michigan ran the ball down their throat, took the ball away, and blitzed Mike McQueary’s lights out. Seems eerily familiar for what they’ll need to do on Saturday.

The backbreaker in that ‘97 matchup was when Michigan took the ball downfield in about three minutes to go up 31-0. Score fast, and often, and hit them in the mouth. Penn State doesn’t have a lot to plan for since Michigan’s offense has been so catatonic. There’s not much tape on Karan Higdon, either. Looks like an advantage to me, Jim.

Jared: I absolutely love the enthusiasm, the unabashed optimism! Kevin’s comments make me want to run through a wall, and I am absolutely going to rewatch that game in preparation for Saturday. I have been torn on this prediction for a long time. At the beginning of the season I penciled this in as Michigan’s first loss, but now I can’t shake this funny feeling I have.

It has been a wild college football season with some major upsets already, and Penn State is in no way immune to that. Michigan really has nothing to lose here, and I think they come out and play with a chip on their shoulder, and the offense somehow, miraculously finds a pulse. Anything is possible, right?

Michigan 26, Penn State 23

David: I think we can all agree Michigan has the better defense, special teams, and coaching staff. It comes down to how they can execute their gameplan and feel the offense does just fine.

We have not seen Penn State get challenged yet except against Iowa and won on the lucky last play in the end zone. I said this earlier this week and will stick to this bold prediction. Michigan wins, 20-17, after a blocked field goal with under two minutes remaining. The “white out” crowd is stunned and all you hear are Michigan fans going crazy.

Drew: When everyone makes a bold prediction Michigan will win, it’s suddenly not so bold.

Since the summer, I have declared over and over that Michigan would lose to Penn State. The circumstances of this game sound all the alarms. The Wolverines are an inexperienced team, and many of them will be seeing their first significant action in a hostile atmosphere. And not just any hostile atmosphere. A White Out under the darkness of Happy Valley.

Remember all of the unforced miscues Michigan made last week in Bloomington, whether it be the school-record 16 penalties or crumbling in the final minutes of regulation to blow a 10-point lead? Those mistakes tend to happen at the outset in Beaver Stadium, and Penn State tends to capitalize on them with impunity. This is the sort of game where I can see the Lions bursting out to a double-digit lead and everything fall apart on the road for Michigan.

However, earlier this week, my gut had a different feeling. As I wrote above, the pieces are there for Michigan to pull off this upset. Michigan’s defense is stingy enough to keep Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley under wraps. Michigan’s rushing attack has been better the past two weeks, and Penn State’s run defense is susceptible to being beaten. If Michigan is not forced to launch the ball through the air because it is behind schedule on series or behind on the scoreboard, Michigan could control the clock, reduce its odds of turnovers, and maybe, just maybe, rely on its special-teams advantage (hello, Quinn Nordin) to escape with a win.

But that’s asking for a lot of things to fall into place with very little margin for error. So I won’t.

Penn State 21, Michigan 13