The Michigan Wolverines are heading into Pennsylvania as an underdog, with their hopes of a Big Ten Championship Game berth somewhat on the line. The Penn State Nittany Lions are undefeated and have one of the top offenses and defenses in the country.
We chatted with Dylan Callaghan-Croley from SB Nation’s Black Shoe Diaries about the matchup in this edition of Behind Enemy Lines Q&A.
Q: Penn State is 6-0 on the season. In four of the games they absolutely dominated their opponent, but they only beat Pitt 17-10 and got past Iowa 17-12. How good has Penn State been this season?
A: I would say that for the most part, Penn State this season has been a great but not elite team. The offense at points has been clicking on all cylinders and at other points, it’s been a struggle. I think the offense probably isn’t 45+ points per game good week in and week out (obviously at this point) but I think this offense when clicking can go toe-to-toe with ALMOST anyone in the country. Now, defensively is where Penn State is elite this season. The defense has allowed 12 points or less in each game this season and for the first time in a long time, Penn State’s defense is looking like the defense of a contender. No matter where you look, the Nittany Lions have speed and size, especially in space. Led by top tier defensive players in Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons, and John Reid, this defense will make it hard on anybody they face this season.
Q: Quarterback Sean Clifford has impressive stats thus far, throwing for 1,560 yards with 13 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions while rushing for 252 yards and 2 scores. Could you give us a scouting report on Clifford?
A: Sean Clifford is prototypical quarterback. He’s got decent size at 6-foot-2 and 216-pounds, he has a rocket of an arm, and he’s got the ability to make almost any throw. Clifford has excelled in making smart decisions this season. For the most part, he doesn’t force any bad passes and he has a solid sense of when to leave the pocket. He’s excellent on short and intermediate and will be a highly accurate quarterback for the most part.
Where we have seen Clifford struggle has been in the deep ball. Now, Clifford has plenty of arm to get the ball to his receivers 40+ yards down the field but he at times has struggled at hitting those receivers. Often it won’t be by anymore than a handful of yards but those missed deep balls so far for Penn State has costed them quite a few touchdowns on the season.
This biggest key in making Clifford struggle is to make him uncomfortable. In two of the Nittany lions games this season, Clifford has looked shaky. Against Pittsburgh, Clifford played in his first major rivalry game and he looked jittery for the most part and it cost Penn State a touchdown or two on missed passes. Against Iowa, Clifford was not ready for the crowd noise it appeared and had some questionable decision making early in the game.
Overall, Clifford is a very intelligent and sneaky athletic quarterback. He’s a more athletic quarterback than Trace McSorley according to the program and has shown the ability to leave the pocket and run for big gains. He’ll have his jitters early in big games but once he settles down and finds a groove, he’s hard for opposing defenses to stop.
Q: Penn State has three running backs over 200 yards rushing. Is it hard to predict who will get the most carries on a given week between Noah Cain, Journey Brown, and Devyn Ford? Who’s the most talented of that trio?
A: I’d say this is quite a tricky question regarding the running backs for Penn State. In terms of the most talented of the running backs it’s probably Devyn Ford, a former five-star out of Virginia. Ford has the potential to be a Miles Sanders like running back for Penn State, that being said, Noah Cain by far is the man with the most hype around him in State College. Cain isn’t flashy at all but he’s a back who can pick up the tough yardage and can just run right through defenses. A classic downhill runner, he’s fun to watch and has been tremendous so far in his true freshman season.
Journey Brown, on the other hand, is uber talented and athletic but is still putting it all together on the field. He’s got a chance to be a tremendous running back and he’ll get NFL looks after his time at Penn State. There is one name that Michigan fans will see but not see much of, that’s a fellow five-star in Ricky Slade. There was high expectations entering this season for Slade but the Virginia native has struggled picking up any yardage really and with the other three backs showing quite the amount of promise, Slade is slowly seeing his playing time continue to decrease.
Overall, we expect to see mostly Noah Cain in important rushing situations and in a key situations while Brown and Ford split the remainder of the carries in the game. There will probably be a bit of Slade sprinkled in there but not too much.
Q: Who are Penn State’s most dangerous receiving threats?
Penn State’s most dangerous receiving threats entering Michigan will have to be the trio of redshirt sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler, true sophomore tight end Pat Friermuth, and true sophomore wideout Jahan Dotson. Hamler is slowly becoming a name known around college football and for good reason. Hamler, is one of the most explosive players in the country and can turn any what would be a short gain into a touchdown in a heart beat. Freirmuth, is one of the best receiving tight ends in all of college football and does a great job in his ability to make catches in traffic and pick up huge chunks of yards. Dotson, on the other hand, is much like former Nittany Lion DaeSean Hamilton. Hamler isn’t the flashiest player but he’s a reliable player who rarely drops passes and has great athleticism of his own. He’s not as fast as KJ Hamler but he’s among the fastest Nittany Lions on the team.
Q: Penn State has one of the best defenses in the country. What kind of scheme should we expect and who are the best players on that side of the ball?
Penn State on defense will run a 4-3 base defense and there will be other formations but the majority of the time, they’ll be running a 4-3. Overall, they’re a pretty aggressive defense that can be at times over aggressive and get hurt by it, that being said, thanks to their talent in the front seven, they don’t always have to be running straight up blitzes to get into the opposing backfield. In terms of key players, there are quite a few. they’ll mix up in the secondary with their looks but overall will really stick with zone based coverages and rarely will go to man-to-man.
On the defensive line, Shaka Toney, Robert Windsor, and Yetur Gross-Matos are all defensive lineman who will be drafted next April. Toney and Matos will be Penn State’s starting defensive ends and between the two, they have 14 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks. Windsor, one of Penn State’s starting defensive tackles is coming off possibly his best performance as a Nittany Lion and has 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, and 2.5 sacks this season. Additionally, defensive tackle P.J Mustipher is a name to know on the defensive line.
At linebacker, you’ll want to watch Micah Parsons, Parsons is a freak of nature and is potentially already Penn State’s best defensive player overall. A defensive end coming out of high school, Parsons made the move to linebacker and has thrived over the past season and a half. Last year, he led the Nittany Lions with tackles as a true freshman (also wasn’t starting), this season, he has 31 tackles through six games but is also becoming a bigger presence in opposing backfields with six tackles for a loss and one sack. In comparison, last year, he only had 4.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
In the secondary, Penn State is led by cornerbacks John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields. Reid after a down year is having a great season for the Nittany Lions and leads the team in interceptions with two. I believe he’s only given up one touchdown which took a fantastic catch by Iowa’s Brandon Smith. Additionally, safety Garrett Taylor is having a strong season and is another name to know heading into Saturday, he hasn’t had a big play in a few weeks, he could be do for one against the Wolverines.
Q: If you were Michigan what would your gameplan be to beat Penn State?
A: My first step would be to make sure Sean Clifford is as uncomfortable in the pocket as possible. If I’m Don Brown, I’m bringing pressure quite a bit and I’m running stunts on the defensive line, here and there. Penn State’s offensive line has struggled with stunts in the past. Secondly, with Penn State’s offense, I’d look to minimize the amount of open space in the middle of the field. Penn State will target the middle of the field quite a bit with KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson and both can be deadly on crossing routes. Shutting down the middle of the field will be a big part of slowing down the Penn State offensive. Additionally, when Noah Cain is on the field for Penn State, I’m stacking the box. Cain, last week against Iowa almost single-handedly clinched the victory for the Nittany Lions with his first 100+ yard performance at Penn State. Cain is a fantastic running back and can pick up the tough yards, he’s not terribly elusive so if I’m Michigan, I’m trying to get as many bodies as possible around Cain to stop him. He’s been a bit of a receiving threat but an overwhelming majority of his touches will come on the gro
Now, on defense, Michigan will want to take advantage of Penn State’s defense. The Nittany Lions love bringing pressure and at times it can hurt them. I’m going to look for a lot of quick plays to the outside, a few screens here and there to counter that pressure and also they’re usually safe plays.
Q: If you were Penn State, how would you go about attacking Michigan?
A: This is a great question because by no means am I an expert on Michigan but with that being said, I would look to do the following;
On offense: On offense, if I’m Penn State, the first thing I’m looking to do is establish the run early. Michigan struggled against Wisconsin and Jonathan Taylor earlier this year and while Penn State isn’t that strong in the run, I’m expecting the Nittany Lions to have quite the bit of success against the Wolverines, with that I’m feeding Noah Cain early and often. When it comes to the passing attack, I’ll be looking at the Nittany Lions to attack the middle of the field, trying to get favorable matchups for both Hamler and Dotson. Both wide receivers have breakneck speed and can take one all the way at any moment.
On Defense: On defense, I’m going to look to take advantage of a struggling Michigan offensive line with the front seven and get pressure on early. Force Patterson to make bad throws early in attempt to force turnovers. With Penn State’s front seven, I’d be dialing up some blitzes early in hopes of setting an early tone with the defense. If the pressure gets there early and often, continue to do so and often.
Q: What are your predictions for the game?
A: I think Penn State continues their winning streak in a game that’s close for the majority of the first 75% of the game but Penn State adds a touchdown late in the game to make it a two score game. I think we’re looking at somewhere around a 34-17 win or a 37-14 win for Penn State. Michigan’s offense just hasn’t shown me enough that makes me think they’ll score more than 20 points at the most against Penn State while I think the offense takes advantage of some Michigan mistakes offensively but doesn’t have their best game either.