The Michigan Wolverines and Penn State Nittany Lions square off on Saturday in what should be one of the most watched games of the week.
It’s a big game for both programs.
With that in mind, we spoke to Aaron Yorke from the PSU site BlackShoeDiaries.com who answered some questions you may want answers to.
Q&A with Black Shoe Diaries
Q: Penn State lost offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead after becoming head coach at Mississippi, and standouts, WR DaSean Hamilton and RB Saquon Barkley went to the NFL. Have those losses had a big impact, or has PSU been getting by just fine without them?
A: The losses of Hamilton, Barkley, and tight end Mike Gesicki have had a big impact on the passing game. With those three threats gone, the only major weapon that Trace McSorley has this year is KJ Hamler, the speedy wide receiver who sat out last year due to injury. Miles Sanders isn’t the pass-catcher that Barkley was, and none of the other wide receivers have stepped up in a big way. I’m not sure that Moorhead would be a big help if he was still at Penn State. The offense looked fine without him in the Fiesta Bowl when it still had all of the 2016 play-makers, and it’s not as though the coach’s new team is lighting up the scoreboard in Starkville. Without match-up nightmares like Barkley and Gesicki in tow, it looks like McSorley is going to continue being a low-percentage passer who occasionally comes up with big plays.
Q: What makes Trace McSorely such a dangerous quarterback to go up against? And on the flip side, what are his biggest weaknesses that Michigan should try and exploit?
A: McSorley’s arm strength and accuracy aren’t exactly at an NFL level. The best way to take advantage of that is to keep him in the pocket and make sure that Hamler doesn’t get loose. What makes McSorley so dangerous is his mobility, pocket awareness, creativity, and determination. We saw last week why James Franklin loves his quarterback so much when McSorley hurt his knee in the second quarter only to return in the third and run for a 51-yard touchdown. The intangibles with McSorley are off the charts, and his scrambling ability is as good as any quarterback in the country. Keep him contained, though, and Michigan can force some mistakes.
Q: No two teams like each other when they face off, but do you feel there’s any bad blood between PSU and Michigan in this Franklin-Harbaugh era?
A: Franklin and Harbaugh might be the two most hated head coaches in the conference, but I don’t sense that they hate each other. The same goes for the players. Michigan took Penn State to the woodshed two years ago, but the Lions gave it right back to them in 2017. Maybe this season we’ll get a classic like the 2005 game or the 2013 game that will really ignite this rivalry, but for whatever reason, Penn State vs. Michigan doesn’t have the same juice as Penn State vs. Ohio State these days.
Q: Harbaugh said that Penn State has the best defensive line Michigan will face thus far. Are they really that good? Certainly high praise.
A: I think that the line has gotten better over the season with Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller emerging as fearsome pass rushers. The unit hasn’t been the most consistent in stopping the run, but it makes up for chunks gained against it by cutting into the backfield and forcing big losses more than most defenses. I think the defense as a whole did a good job keeping Penn State in the Michigan State and Iowa games while the offense kind of stumbled around. The line will need to play well again in Ann Arbor, because it’s difficult to imagine Penn State’s offense moving the ball with great success.
Q: Who are some players Michigan fans may not know but should be aware of heading into this game? McSorely is the name everyone knows, but there are plenty of good players surrounding him.
A: Hamler is the number one guy to look out for when Penn State has the ball, as well as tailback Miles Sanders. I would expect Sanders to get the ball on the read option a little more often this week after McSorley was banged up last week. Penn State also likes to mix in Tommy Stevens in special packages. The backup quarterback is very tough to bring down in the running game, and he’s got a stronger arm that McSorley to boot.
On defense, besides Gross-Matos and Miller, watch for Amani Oruwariye and John Reid. The cornerback tandem gave Nate Stanley and Iowa’s receivers fits last week and will play a big role in preventing Michigan from getting big gains in play action this weekend.
Q: How do you feel Michigan stacks up against Penn State this season? Who has the better team as a whole when you break down each position unit?
A: Michigan is the superior team right now. On defense, the Wolverines have consistently held teams below 20 points this year. Meanwhile, on offense, they seem to always get a 100-yard performance from Karan Higdon while Shea Patterson completes a very high percentage of his passes. Michigan also has a very productive tight end in Zach Gentry, and he should come in handy against a Penn State defense that is stronger in the secondary than it is at linebacker.
Q: What is the biggest key for Penn State to accomplish if they want to beat Michigan?
A: It’s cliche and simple, but the biggest thing for Penn State to do in this game is stop the run. Patterson doesn’t scare me if he has to drop back and throw on passing downs, but when there’s a short-yardage situation and he can work off of play action, he becomes quite dangerous. If Higdon is allowed to rip off big chunks in this game, we could see a repeat of the 2016 blowout. However, if Penn State succeeds in stopping the run, it might force enough punts to put the offense in position to make big plays.
Q: Any predictions for the game? How do you think things will play out?
A: Penn State has not been playing well lately, but it was sort of encouraging to see the Lions come away with a win last week despite make so many mistakes against a solid Iowa team. The team has to be in top shape in order to win on the road against such a tough defense like Michigan’s. Based on how the Wolverines have performed at home this year, I think the Lions will come up short.
Michigan 23, Penn State 16