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Michigan State Q&A with Chris Vannini of SpartanTailgate.com

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014


MSU Q-A_banner

Each Thursday throughout the season we collaborate with that week’s opponent blog to get some questions answered by the guys who know more about their team than we do. This week, we partnered with Chris Vannini, writer for SpartanTailgate.com, part of the 247 Sports Network. He was kind enough to answer questions about the way Michigan State fans view Michigan at the moment, how the MSU offense got so good, what — if anything — Michigan’s offense can exploit on Saturday, and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVannini.

1. Michigan State has five wins in the past six years, and is big favorites again this week. It’s got to be getting old, right?

It’s certainly something no one saw coming, having only happened once before, when MSU went 6-0-2 from 1956-63. Yet even in the build-up to this week, it’s clear more intensity is coming from one side, and that’s the MSU side. Now, part of that is certainly because of U-M’s struggles and a developing apathy amongst U-M fans, but this won’t last forever, so MSU fans are making sure they enjoy as much as they can.

2. But seriously, how do Michigan State fans view the current state of the Michigan program and Coach Hoke? With glee, with pity, or what?

More than anything, I think it’s a feeling of, “I told you so.” When Hoke came in and started cleaning up in recruiting, many stories were written about the second coming of a 10-Year War between U-M and OSU, especially after MSU’s 2012 struggles. But it turned out that was an anomaly, and a program that had developed players for five years continued to do so. No one is wondering if MSU can sustain under Mark Dantonio anymore. Years of top recruiting classes and fast starts followed by players not developing and seasons falling apart have taken away any benefit of the doubt U-M receives, while MSU is getting that benefit for the first time, as shown by their high ranking despite the Oregon loss.

3. Since Mark Dantonio took over, the Spartans have had great defenses and average offenses. What’s different about this season? How did the offense get so good, especially after how bad it was the first half of last season?

I’ve never seen a unit improve as much as MSU’s offense did throughout last season, and I don’t think I ever will again. Even MSU’s offensice coaches were surprised, because the offseason is typically when that development happens. With where things ended last year, and with all the skill players coming back (other than Bennie Fowler), we figured the offense could have to carry the team early in the season. But we didn’t see this coming, an offense that is on pace to be the most prolific in school history.

The passing game and Connor Cook continued where they left off, and Cook has played himself into NFL first-round pick consideration. Replacing holes on the offensive line was the question mark. They’ve dealt with some injuries, and aren’t as deep as a year ago, but the results have been promising. MSU is still a solid, not great, running team, and MSU has allowed the fewest sacks per game in the country. Cook has time, and he can find his bevy of receivers, especially Tony Lippett, who has gone from being benched early last season to being one of the best receivers in the country this year, catching everything.

4. By now, we’re used to a vaunted MSU defense, but it seems that MSU has taken a minor step back defensively so far this season. Michigan is actually allowing 0.2 fewer points per game and fewer rushing yards per game. Is there anything that Michigan’s offense has any hope of exploiting this week?

The biggest issue for this defense has been big plays, and it’s because the safeties have struggled. Kurtis Drummond has been inconsistent, and RJ Williamson and true freshman Montae Nicholson have been sharing time at the other safety spot. MSU has allowed 19 plays of at least 30 yards, which is No. 103 nationally. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they’ve been really bad at getting explosive plays on offense. But it’s something most teams have been able to do to MSU this season. The defense as a unit has gone from “elite” to “good,” and the big plays are the biggest problem.

5. Where do you see Michigan State having the biggest advantage this week, and why?

I think it has to come down to MSU’s defensive line against U-M’s offensive line, as it did a year ago. Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are both playing great on the outside, and Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath and Malik McDowell have the tackles more disruptive than a year ago. I don’t expect minus-48 rushing yards, but I think Michigan will have trouble getting anything going on the ground, especially with Derrick Green out.

6. Finally, what’s your prediction and how will it happen?

I’m going to go with a 38-24 MSU victory. With the weather looking nice, I think both teams will be able to move the ball (yes, including U-M). MSU will be able to move up and down with the pass, and I think U-M will be able to hit some big plays. Everyone has done it to MSU this year. I don’t see why U-M won’t. But I think it’ll be MSU’s offense that’s the difference in this one, unlike years past.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 8

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014


Power Rankings_header

East Division
1. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Indiana 56-17 This Week: Sat vs Michigan (3-4, 1-2), 3:30pm, ABC

Indiana stuck around for most of the first half against MSU, but the Spartans’ high-powered offense eventually took over and gave them another conference win. Michigan State will welcome Michigan to town before another bye week.

2. Ohio State (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Rutgers 56-17 This Week: Sat at Penn State (4-2, 1-2), 8pm, ABC

Rutgers was the best surprise of the Big Ten through six games, but Ohio State gave them a rude awakening on Saturday with a 56-17 blowout win.

3. Maryland (5-2, 2-1) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Iowa 38-31 This Week: Sat at Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Maryland got back on track Saturday, bouncing back from a big loss to Ohio State to beat Iowa 38-31. Fourteen fourth quarter points helped the Terrapins pick up their biggest conference win so far.

4. Rutgers (5-2, 1-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #13 Ohio State 17-56 This Week: Sat at #16 Nebraska (6-1, 2-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Rutgers’ winning streak came to a screeching halt in Columbus on Saturday as the Scarlett Knights lost by 39 points. A grueling schedule looms in the second half, and could erase the strong start of the season.

5. Michigan (3-4, 1-2) – Down 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at #8 Michigan State (6-1, 3-0), 3:30pm, ABC

Michigan’s first bye week came in Week 8 after a big home win over Penn State. The Wolverines got two weeks to prepare for the heavily favored Spartans in East Lansing this Saturday.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs #13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0), 8pm, ABC

Penn State didn’t play in Week 8, getting some much needed rest after losses to Michigan and Northwestern. It won’t get any easier for the Nittany Lions as Ohio State comes to town this weekend.

7. Indiana (3-4, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #8 Michigan State 17-56 This Week: Bye (11/1 at Michigan)

Without starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld, upsetting Michigan State was merely a pipe dream for Indiana on Saturday. The Hoosiers took a late first half lead in the game, but collapsed in the following minutes.

BIG East Week 8

West Division
1. Minnesota (6-1, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 39-38 This Week: Sat at Illinois (3-4, 0-3), 12pm, ESPNU

Minnesota just kept rolling on Saturday against Purdue, grinding out a close game to stay unbeaten in Big Ten play. With matchups against Illinois and Iowa coming up, the Gophers could be atop the division for a few more weeks.

2. Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 38-17 This Week: Sat vs Rutgers (5-2, 1-2), 12pm, ESPN2

Though Minnesota is in first place, Nebraska is clearly the class of the Big Ten West. A close loss to MSU is the only blemish on the Cornhuskers’ resume, and a Nov. 22 meeting in Lincoln could decide if Minnesota is really good enough to play in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Maryland (5-2, 2-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

It was a good week to be idle in the West Division, as Wisconsin sat at home and watched both Iowa and Northwestern fall in the standings. The Badgers will be back in action against Maryland this weekend.

4. Iowa (5-2, 2-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Maryland 31-38 This Week: Bye (11/1 vs Northwestern))

Iowa suffered a disappointing loss to Maryland on Saturday as it continued to play with fire and finally got burned in conference. Maryland dropped 38 points on the Hawkeye defense and knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten.

5. Northwestern (3-4, 2-2) – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to #19 Nebraska 17-38 This Week: Bye (11/1 at Iowa)

Northwestern couldn’t pull of a second straight Evanston upset on Saturday, falling to Nebraska 38-17. The Wildcats have overachieved with their 2-2 Big Ten record, but they’re far from contenders.

6. Purdue (3-5, 1-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 38-39 This Week: Bye (11/1 at #16 Nebraska)

Purdue had a real chance to pull even in conference play against Minnesota, but fell a point short on Saturday in a 39-38 loss. The loss dropped the Boilermakers to 1-3 with Nebraska and Wisconsin on the horizon.

7. Illinois (3-4, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Minnesota (6-1, 3-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Illinois took a bye week in the midst of a losing streak during Week 8. The Fighting Illini are the only winless team left in the West.

BIG West Week 8

First Look: Michigan State

Monday, October 20th, 2014


FirstLook-MichiganState

Two weeks ago Michigan stopped the bleeding with a 18-13 win over Penn State, allowing the Wolverines to head into a bye week with momentum. But now the toughest game of the season so far awaits, a trip up I-96 to face rival Michigan State, which enters 6-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten. It’s no secret that the rivalry has turned in the last six years. Does Michigan have a chance to win back Paul Bunyan? Or will Michigan State continue its recent domination? Let’s take a look at how the teams compare through the first seven games of the season.

Michigan State Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Michigan StateMichigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 47.0 | 21.7 3 | 105
21.6 | 21.4 T34T30
Rushing Yards 1,820 | 1,149 702 | 655
Rush Avg. Per Game 260.0 | 164.1 15 | 64 100.3 | 93.6 8 | 4
Avg. Per Rush 5.4 | 4.7
3.4 | 2.7
Passing Yards 1,856 | 1,231 1,347 | 1,452
Pass Avg. Per Game 265.1 | 175.9 42 | 108 192.4 | 207.4 19 | 36
Total Offense 3,676 | 2,380 2,049 | 2,107
Total Off Avg. Per Game 525.1 | 340.0 12 | 110 292.7 | 301.0 9 | 10
Kick Return Average 21.1 | 19.1 60 | 97 20.9 | 19.5 70 | 44
Punt Return Average 6.9 | 7.8 89 | 68 13.7 | 14.4 115 | 117
Avg. Time of Possession 36:22 | 30:38 1 | 45
23:38 | 29:22
3rd Down Conversion Pct 47.0% | 41.0% 17 | 62
25.0% | 36.0% 3 | 44
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 4-15 | 15-96
T1 | T82
26-186 | 18-150
T4 | T41
Touchdowns Scored 44 | 18
20 | 16
Field Goals-Attempts 7-11 | 8-12
4-5 | 13-14
Red Zone Scores (33-38) 87% | (16-17) 94% 41 | 8
(15-17) 88%(20-22) 91% T94 | T105
Red Zone Touchdowns (28-38) 74% | (13-17) 76% (11-17) 65% | (11-22) 50%
Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) .246 | -.015
36 | 67 -.269 | -.163 39 | 50

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a power in recent years through a punishing and aggressive defense, but this year’s team is getting it done with its offense which ranks third nationally in scoring (47 points per game), behind only Baylor (49) and Marshall (47.4). The Spartans have scored 56 or more points in three of seven games and 45 in two of the other four. The other two were both 27-point outputs in a loss to Oregon in Week 2 and a win over Nebraska in Week 5. UCLA, Arizona, and Washington State each scored more than 27 against Oregon, while the 27 MSU scored on Nebraska are the second-most the Cornhuskers have allowed this season.

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 29 Jacksonville State W 45-7
Sept. 6 at #3 Oregon L 27-46
Sept. 20 Eastern Michigan W 73-14
Sept. 27 Wyoming W 56-14
Oct. 4 #19 Nebraska W 27-22
Oct. 11 at Purdue W 45-31
Oct. 18 at Indiana W 56-17
Oct. 25 Michigan
Nov. 8 #13 Ohio State
Nov. 15 at Maryland
Nov. 22 Rutgers
Nov. 29 at Penn State

What’s more is that the Spartans are equally effective on the ground and through the air as opposed to recent years when the running game carried the offense. The running game ranks 15th nationally, averaging 260 yards per game, while the passing game ranks 42nd, averaging 265.1 yards per game. Michigan State has been held below 200 yards rushing just twice — 123 yards against Oregon and 188 against Nebraska. But while the running game didn’t work against Oregon, the Spartans racked up 343 yards through the air, their second-best passing performance of the season. Likewise, the two biggest rushing games — 336 yards against Eastern Michigan and 338 against Wyoming — were the two lowest passing performances — 160 and 195.

While the offense is balanced, it has the ability to control the ball, as evidenced by the fact that Michigan State ranks first nationally in time of possession, averaging 36:22 per game. In addition, the Spartans have allowed only four sacks all season, tied with Duke and Wisconsin for the fewest in the nation. So the Michigan State offense is dangerous on the ground and through the air, doesn’t let opposing defenses get to the quarterback, and possess the ball better than anyone in the country. Doesn’t sound like Michigan State does it?

It’s a good thing for Dantonio that the offense took such a big leap forward this season because his defense isn’t nearly as stout as it has been the past couple years. It’s allowing virtually the exact number of points per game as Michigan (21.6 versus 21.4), has a slightly better pass defense and a slightly worse rush defense. Aside from giving up 46 points to Oregon, State’s defense allowed 31 to Purdue two weeks ago and let Indiana to run all over them last week. Granted, the latter two both resulted in wins, but not thanks to the defense.

Michigan State held four of the first five opponents under 100 yards rushing — Oregon’s 173 yards was the exception — but Purdue and Indiana have both had success the past two weeks. Purdue averaged 5.2 yards per carry and Indiana averaged 6.4. Perhaps they have found something they can exploit. Of course, neither Purdue nor Indiana possessed a defense capable of holding Michigan State’s offense in check, so they both lost. Last season, only four of 14 opponents eclipsed 100 yards and they were four of the final five games of the season.

Four of seven opponents have passed for over 200 yards against the Spartans, but MSU’s pass defense numbers look much better after holding Indiana to just 11 passing yards last week on 5-of-16 passing. That shouldn’t be a surprise, however, as Indiana was starting a true freshman quarterback for the first time — the first playing time of his career — after losing starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld for the season. Oregon threw for 318 yards, Nebraska for 282, Jacksonville State for 222, and Purdue for 211.

While Michigan State’s offense and defense are both very good, the special teams leave something to be desired. MSU ranks 60th in kick return average, 89th in punt return average, 70th in kick return defense, and 115th in punt return defense.

Unlike Indiana and Purdue, Michigan has a defense that can allow it to remain in the game if its offense can find a way to put up points. But it will take a flawless performance in order to do so.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Average/Game
Connor Cook 108-176 1,641 16 5 234.4
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
Jeremy Langford 125 664 7 36 5.3
Nick Hill 76 465 6 76 6.1
Delton Williams 33 239 5 80 7.2
R.J. Shelton 15 127 1 30 8.5
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
Tony Lippett 39 786 8 71 112.3
Josiah Price 15 244 4 67 34.9
Aaron Burbridge 13 158 1 22 22.6
Macgarrett Kings Jr. 14 142 1 29 20.3
Keith Mumphery 9 123 1 43 17.6
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Kurtis Drummond (S) 29 4 33 2.0-6 0-0 (2 INT, 6PD)
Taiwan Jones (LB) 15 15 30 7.5-20 3.0-11
Ed Davis (LB) 14 14 28 8.0-31 6.0-25
Marcus Rush (DE) 17 8 25 6.5-40 3.5-34
Shilique Calhoun (DE) 16 6 22 7.5-81 5.0-70
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Michael Geiger 7 11 42 43 43
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Mike Sadler 31 1,259 40.6 11 2
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Michigan State in the coming days.

Michigan fifth in preseason Big Ten basketball media poll

Thursday, October 16th, 2014


Beilein(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Michigan has become one of the most consistent basketball schools in the Big Ten conference under head coach John Beilein. Over the past four seasons the Wolverines have racked up a 104-41 record en route to four NCAA Tournament appearances, two Elite Eights and a national championship game.

Michigan has been equally dominant within the Big Ten during that span, winning the conference by three games last season for its second title in three years. Beilein’s group is averaging over 12 wins in the Big Ten per season since 2010-11, never finishing below fourth place.

But an exodus of talent to the NBA and graduation has raised questions about the upcoming Michigan season. Sixty percent of the starting lineup is gone, including the team’s leading scorer and passer (Nik Stauskas) and top three rebounders (Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III).

The uncertainty is reflected in the Big Ten preseason media poll, released on Wednesday as the conference descends upon Chicago for Big Ten Media Day, which pinned Michigan at No. 5 in the league. Above Michigan are Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska.

You can see the full rankings, along with the point totals, below:

Preseason media poll
Rank Team Points
1 Wisconsin 378
2 Ohio State 322
3 Michigan State 305
4 Nebraska 299
5 Michigan 286
6 Minnesota 226
7 Iowa 214
8 Illinois 196
9 Indiana 163
10 Maryland 162
11 Purdue 95
12 Penn State 84
13 Northwestern 78
14 Rutgers 27

Wisconsin, the unanimous No. 1 team, returns nearly every major contributor from last season’s Final Four team. Ohio State struggled in 2014 and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to 11th-seeded Dayton, but brought in one of the top freshmen classes in the country. Michigan State, like Michigan, lost in the Elite Eight in March and waved goodbye to three of its starters: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Nebraska was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Baylor, but returns most of the team that finished the regular season 8-1.

Michigan fans can reasonably argue that the team should rank just behind Wisconsin, as Beilein has proven this team to be a mainstay among the top teams in the Big Ten. But it looks like the country wants emerging stars like Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. to prove themselves this season before investing in this team.

Perhaps the skepticism stems from the lack of size on Michigan’s roster. Freshmen Rocky Doyle and Mark Donnal check in at 6-foot-9, the tallest listings on the team. If they can hold their own next to a slew of talented guards, Michigan should finish much higher than fifth in the Big Ten standings.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 7

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

East Division
1. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 45-31 This Week: Sat at Indiana (3-3, 0-2), 3:30pm, ESPN

Purdue stayed much closer to the top-10 Spartans than most fans expected, scoring 31 points on the vaunted MSU defense. But Michigan State escaped by scoring 45 points and stayed perfect in the Big Ten

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Rutgers (5-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Ohio State had a week off to prepare for Rutgers this weekend after dropping 52 points on Maryland Oct. 4. The Buckeyes are likely the only team with a chance to battle Michigan State for the East Division.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at #13 Ohio State (4-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

After storming the field to celebrate the school’s first Big Ten win, Rutgers students took a week of rest before a difficult end to October. Rutgers will go on the road to face Ohio State and Nebraska before welcoming Wisconsin to town on Nov. 1.

4. Michigan (3-4, 1-2) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Penn State 18-13 This Week: Bye (10/25 at Michigan State)

Michigan sorely needed a victory to end a three-game losing streak, and it did so in dramatic fashion, holding on to beat Penn State 18-13 on Saturday night. The four teams that have beaten Michigan so far this season have a combined record of 20-3 and an average AP ranking of 22.5.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Iowa (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, ESPN2

A sellout crowd couldn’t have been more ready for Maryland’s first Big Ten home game last weekend, but the Terrapins were smashed by 28 points at the hands of the Buckeyes. Maryland will now battle Iowa at home following its bye week.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Michigan 13-18 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Ohio State)

Penn State has fallen mightily from its 4-0 start, dropping two straight conference games by a combined score of 47-19. Penn State will have the week off before a tough matchup against OSU.

7. Indiana (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 29-45 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), 3:30pm, ESPN

Indiana is 3-0 outside the Big Ten, but got blown out by both Maryland and Iowa. The Hoosiers are proof that it’s tough to win in this conference without a capable defense.

BIG East Week 7

West Division
1. Minnesota (5-1, 2-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 24-17 This Week: Sat vs Purdue (3-4, 1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Minnesota is on top of the West division after another victory, this time over a Northwestern team that just upset Wisconsin a week earlier. With Purdue and Illinois up next, Minnesota could stay atop the standings for a few more weeks.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Northwestern (3-3, 2-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Nebraska didn’t play in Week 7 after losing to Michigan State in Week 6. The Cornhuskers looked sluggish for much of three quarters against MSU, but should still battle Wisconsin for the West crown.

3. Iowa (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Indiana 45-29 This Week: Sat at Maryland (4-2, 1-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Iowa finally blew out an opponent this weekend, crushing Indiana 45-29. The Hawkeyes could realistically win every game left on their schedule and contend for the first West Division championship, but they have to put together some complete games.

4. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-28 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Maryland)

Illinois played Wisconsin tough on Saturday despite four touchdowns from running back Melvin Gordon. The Badgers just haven’t been impressive during the Big Ten season with a loss to Northwestern and a 10-point win over last-place Illinois.

5. Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 17-24 This Week: Sat vs #19 Nebraska (5-1, 1-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Coming off of two straight upsets to shake up the Big Ten standings, Northwestern couldn’t stay unbeaten in the conference this weekend, falling to Minnesota by a touchdown.

6. Purdue (3-4, 1-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #8 Michigan State 31-45 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Michigan State may have walked into West Lafayette looking past the lowly Boilermakers, but  Purdue still put up an impressive fight, racking up 31 points against the conference’s top defense.

7. Illinois (3-4, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Wisconsin 28-38 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Minnesota)

Illinois stuck with Wisconsin for much of the game Saturday, but just didn’t have the firepower to match Gordon’s outburst. The Fighting Illini are the only West team winless in the Big Ten.

BIG West Week 7

Michigan basketball Italy trip review and translation

Monday, October 13th, 2014


Michigan bball Italy(UMHoops)

Michigan fans, I have some good news for you: college basketball season is just around the corner. Practice has started, John Beilein is back at work with the team, and football will soon be a distant memory.

As everyone knows, the Wolverines took one of their every-four-years off-season trips this summer to play some lower-tier teams in Italy, and the results were encouraging, with four 20-plus point wins, a healthy dose of balanced scoring (eight players averaged more than eight points per game), and strong freshmen play.

About that last point, as Michigan fans have become accustomed to, the Maize and Blue will largely be looking to replace the lost production of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford with five freshmen and a sixth redshirt freshman. You’d be right to blame Beilein with continuous gripes of too much youth if not for his absurd record of turning these young (and often overlooked) Wolverines into high NBA Draft selections. Of those five departures, two were first-rounders, one was a second-rounder, another is off to play first division ball in Europe with Virtus Roma, and the last transferred to Florida. With this turnover comes new names and faces to follow, new games to drool over, and a bevy of prospects that are question marks waiting to become stars under Beilein’s tutelage.

Today, let’s take a trip back in time to analyze some tape of each projected rotation player in Italy and see how their style of play will translate this fall and what still needs to improve. Special thanks to UMHoops for the video.

#23 Caris LeVert – 6’7″, 200
Italy stats: 14.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.3 apg, 3 spg, 1.8 TOs, 50% FG, 40% 3pt., 64.3% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: After suffering a stress fracture in his foot over the summer, LeVert was thought to be iffy to even suit up in Italy. Instead, he looked completely healthy and ready to lead the team moving forward. The junior just turned 20 in August, but he certainly looked capable of being The Guy this season, even though his scoring numbers weren’t gaudy.

LeVert came to Ann Arbor two years ago as a late addition after John Groce left Ohio University for Illinois and was by most counts a frustrating, wiry, inconsistent human in jelly-in-basketball-player-mold. A year later, LeVert had easily become the second offensive option on a very talented squad. Now, he is fully expected to lead the team, and his play in Italy leaves few questions. His shot looks as smooth as ever, his passing is crisp, his off-the-ball and pick-and-roll play looks improved, and he can rebound and run with anyone. But what stood out most was his confidence.

In the past, LeVert would sometimes appear to be thinking two steps ahead of his feet and would carelessly turn it over or take an ill-advised shot, but now he is showing that he can take the ball, survey the defense, and take the smartest course of action with his long strides and terrific finishing ability. He is comfortable passing or shooting, he isn’t hesitating at all, and he can even be seen directing his comrades a couple times. By all means, expect an outstanding season from Caris.

Where he can improve: No basketball player is perfect, especially in college, but LeVert’s well-rounded game is hard to nitpick at. One area that I think he has the potential to be even better is his man-to-man defense. LeVert’s size (he grew an inch and gained plenty more weight this off-season) and length give him the prototypical shutdown defender mold, but he lacked aggressiveness at times on that end of the floor last year. His steal numbers are quite encouraging, and his free throw shooting shouldn’t be an issue.

#21 Zak Irvin 6’6″, 215
Italy stats: 20.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1 spg, 2.3 TOs, 68.8% FG, 66.7% 3pt., 83.3% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. Zak Irvin proved how big of a deep threat he is while shooting 42.5 percent from downtown as a freshman who did one thing. It’s pretty clear that his stroke didn’t take a summer break, and his outside shot should continue to make it easier for him to develop a dribble-drive game. In this video, we see some strong finishes, but Irvin really only takes it to the rack by himself a couple of times off two or three dribbles to his left. The majority of his two-pointers here are breakaway dunks and smooth backdoor cuts that won’t be as readily available against better competition. His rebounding numbers are also phenomenal.

Where he can improve: Coaches and players alike have been raving about Irvin’s game since the end of last season, and he has great potential, but his game still lacks LeVert-level diversification. Irvin’s shot is so good right now that I think he relies on it perhaps a bit too much. Look for him to continue to work on his handling and driving skills while using his outside shot to his advantage in creating inside for himself and others. Irvin, like everyone else on the team, needs to also be a little lighter on his feet defensively and use his athleticism and length to create havoc.

#10 Derrick Walton 6’0″, 185
Italy stats: 8.8 ppg, 3.3 apg, 4.5 rpg, 2.5 spg, 1.5 TOs, 44.8% FG, 27.3% 3pt., 50% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: If Caris LeVert is The Guy on this team and Zak Irvin is the dynamic sidekick, Derrick Walton needs to be the glue to hold everything together, and he looks the part to me. I love Walton’s creativity in the paint, his jump shot is worlds better from his high school days, and his acceleration and Trey Burkeian moves all point to No. 10 becoming the next great point guard out of Beilein’s factory. Walton’s high basketball IQ allowed him to learn the ins and outs of the offense rapidly as a freshman, and his grasp should only help the freshmen get up to speed that much sooner.

What he can improve: It’s tough to extrapolate too much from a few overseas blowouts, but Walton’s box scores seem to indicate that he may have spent some time away from the court this summer. His 10-2-9-14 scoring outputs point to a lack of consistency and his poor shooting certainly needs to improve, but I have no doubts that the small sample size and long off-season can take most of the blame here.

#34 Mark Donnal 6’9″, 240
Italy stats: 10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, .3 bpg, .3 TOs, 69.6% FG, 0% 3pt. (0-3), 81.8% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal displays great movement throughout this clip, and his soft touch around the basket will be a welcome addition after Jordan Morgan sometimes struggled throughout his career in finishing the bunnies. Donnal needs to be able to run the floor in this offense, and he looked more than capable of doing that, beating his man down on a couple occasions and then out-smarting a defender for position as well. Donnal’s high field goal and free throw percentages are exactly what this team needs out of him: smart, solid play and finishing. If he does that, his job is done. Lastly, Donnal’s 14 offensive rebounds to 12 defensive is something exciting to keep an eye on.

What he can improve: What intrigued me most about Donnal as a prospect was his outside shooting. Obviously as a big man you want Donnal to be able to play inside, and he appears to be picking that up pretty well, but his outside shot in high school made me drool over the possibilities in Beilein’s offense. The pick-and-pop would be a terrific addition to this offense, but unfortunately it looks like Donnal is still progressing inside before he thinks too much about stepping out for the trey. His 0-for-3 line from downtown is discouraging for me, and I think he has the talent to do a lot better than one block every four games.

#3 Kameron Chatman 6’7″, 210
Italy stats: 9.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2 spg, 1.3 TOs, 42.5% FG, 33.3% 3pt., 0.0% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Chatman comes in this season as the most highly touted true freshman of the bunch, and his versatility should help contribute to Michigan’s excellent depth this season. Watching this video, I’m most impressed with Chatman’s vision and midrange game. For a big freshman, Chatman really zips off a few nice passes, and his confident stroke from just inside the deep line bring about memories of GRIII, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke. Chatman’s role is just that, to be a role player who can score a few points, rebound well, defend, and provide value in different ways. He doesn’t need to fill up the stat sheet every night, but we should see a solid 6-9 points per game from the Oregon native. I feel like my keyboard is on replay, but Chatman also has great length and appears to have good, not great, athleticism.

What he can improve: Two things stick out right away in Chatman’s line after four games: low shooting percentages and zero attempted free throws. Chatman is most likely going to start from the beginning at the four spot for Beilein, meaning he’ll be going against guys his size on a regular basis. He is not going to be able to curtsy his way to easy one-dribble mid-rangers every night. Instead, Chatman needs to embrace aggressiveness, get to the hole a little more often, and either finish a layup or get fouled. His stroke looks very smooth right now, but he will need to up those shooting numbers a bit.

#32 Ricky Doyle 6’9″, 245
Italy stats: 11.5 ppg, 8 rpg, .3 apg, .3 bpg, 0 TOs, 74.1% FG, 60% FT

What he showed: Ricky Doyle was perhaps the biggest revelation of the Italy tour. In high school, Doyle played in a low-level league and was not active on the AAU circuit. Most of his development came from private lessons. Now in college, the book will be out soon that Doyle is a true big man in every sense of the word. Throughout his nearly three-minute long highlight video seen here, Doyle scored a number of strong buckets by finding open spots, running the floor well, and cleaning up misses, but the one thing that stood out to me was the number of times he put the ball on the floor – zero. Watch for yourself. Not once does Doyle put the rock to hardwood, even at the top of the key while waiting for the wings to complete their action. His field goal percentage is very impressive, and should stay pretty high this year considering the types of shots he’ll be taking, and his team-high eight rebounds per game are as encouraging a stat as any on this trip.

What he can improve: Doyle won’t be asked to do too much offensively this year other than finish off what Michigan’s skilled guards create for him, but some offensive versatility would be nice. He should be able to put the ball on the floor when going back-to-the-basket. Doyle’s free throw percentage is also a hair lower than what you’re comfortable with, and eventually he will work on his range. The Florida native will also want to improve his defensive footwork and mindset, as his 12 fouls were by far the most on the trip. With only him and Donnal really competing for minutes at the five, Doyle needs to be smart when it comes to foul trouble.

#12 Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman 6’4″, 175
Italy stats: 10 ppg, 2.5 apg, 3.3 rpg, 2.3 spg, 2.3 TOs, 47.8% FG, 20% 3pt., 64% FT

What he showed: Driving. If not for Doyle’s breakout performance, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s (you can’t expect me to write that out every time) impressive four-game stretch would be making the most headlines from the newbies. Michigan basketball’s Twitter account routinely went nuts over MAAR’s driving and finishing ability, and you spot a few glimpses throughout this clip. Abdur-Rahkman was a late pickup this off-season from the Philadelphia area, and while many questioned the scholarship offer, he already looks well on his way to providing immense value as that threat to get to the hole every time. I love his quickness on the dribble and his ability to keep his head up at all times. What’s more is that Abdur-Rahkman didn’t do all his damage in one game. He reached double figures in scoring three of four games and had multiple steals and assists in all four games.

What he can improve: Shooting. Abdur-Rahkman will earn minutes on the wing this season with his driving ability alone, and he should get to the free throw line often, but he will need to make defenders respect his outside shot if he is to bring his game up to the next level. Abdur-Rahkman made just two of his 10 three-point attempts on the trip, and he isn’t shown taking anything from distance in this video. The knock on his game in high school was always that shot, and it looks like he has a ways to go.

#24 Aubrey Dawkins 6’6″, 190
Italy stats: 9.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .5 apg, .3 spg, .8 TOs, 63.6% FG, 62.5% 3pt., 80% FT

What he showed: Aubrey Dawkins, the son of former Duke great and current Stanford coach Johnny, is probably going to be just a shooter this season if he plays at all, and that’s fine – especially when he is draining nearly two-thirds of his deep attempts. His stroke is smooth and his prep year on the East Coast should serve him well in transitioning to the college game. Dawkins does also showcase a good handle and a few nice finishes in this cut-up, but I expect his game to be pretty similar to Zak Irvin’s of last year. The skinny native Californian is also reputed to be a terrific athlete, which will serve him well down the road and perhaps bring some Glenn Robinson III comparisons eventually.

What he can improve: Again, like Irvin, Dawkins will continue to work on his dribble-drive game so that defenders cannot simply stick to him in the corner and erase him from the picture. Dawkins will need to move around a lot to create open looks for himself while also improving on his ability to get to the rack and the free throw line (just five attempts in four games).

#2 Spike Albrecht 5’11″, 175
Italy stats: 5 ppg, 2.5 apg, 2 rpg, .8 spg, .8 TOs, 46.7% FG, 37.5% 3pt., 75% FT

What he showed: At 22 years old and in his junior season, Spike is pretty safely expected to be the ever-reliable backup point guard. He’s never going to be the biggest, strongest, or most athletic player on the court, but he is calm and collected with the ball in his hands and usually makes the right pass. I’d like to see him shoot a little bit more this season with his terrific numbers, but Albrecht can most definitely be counted on to dribble under the basket and somehow find that open guy on the opposite wing at least once a game. His cool approach to the game and quiet, relaxed demeanor should do well to keep the team playing their style.

What he can improve: There was one really nice behind-the-back, pull-up elbow jumper drained in this video that I’d love to see more from out of Spike, but other than perhaps increased aggressiveness, Albrecht has a very defined game and a somewhat defined ceiling.

# 5 D.J. Wilson 6’9″, 220
Italy stats: N/A

Unfortunately, D.J. Wilson broke his pinky just before the trip to Europe and was unable to take part in gameplay, so I will hold off scouting for now, but if you follow me on Twitter (@SamSedlecky), you’ll see that I have some very high hopes for this lanky Sacramento native.

M&GB Staff predictions: Penn State

Friday, October 10th, 2014


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Michigan has lost three straight games and 10 of its last 14 dating back to last year’s Penn State game. Many fans are planning a protest of kickoff and more than 150 former players are coming to town in solidarity of the current team. Can Team 135 rally around the adversity and pull off the magic that it created in the previous two Under the Lights games? Or will Penn State hand Michigan a fourth straight loss, essentially ensuring a third losing season in seven years? Let’s take a look at our predictions.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Penn State
Justin 24 23
Sam 21 20
Derick 20 24
Josh 17 38
Joe 14 30
M&GB Average 19 27

Justin: Christian Hackenberg will get his yards like he does every week against a Michigan pass defense that made Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova look like Peyton Manning a week ago. But the Penn State offense has had trouble finding the end zone this season, instead settling for field goals. Kicker Sam Ficken has attempted more field goals than any other kicker in the conference.

Michigan’s offense will struggle to move the ball on the ground against a Penn State defense that leads the nation in opponent yard per carry (1.99), especially without Derrick Green. Penn State has allowed two of five opponents to break 100 yards and both of them barely got there. The most an individual rusher has gained against the Nittany Lions is 51 yards by Rutgers running back Paul James. So don’t expect De’Veon Smith to have a big game. It will be up to Devin Gardner to make the right decisions through the air and pull the ball down and run when there is space. Penn State is vulnerable over the middle, so look for Jake Butt to be targeted often.

Overall, I expect a fairly low-scoring affair. Penn State will win the yardage battle, but if Michigan can force them to settle for field goals, that won’t matter. Michigan will play with a spirited effort in a home game under the lights with 150-plus former players behind them for support. Michigan pulls it out by a hair.

Michigan 24 – Penn State 23

Sam:When will this nightmare end? I don’t think anyone could have predicted this football season would get this bad this fast, but here we are at 2-4 and 0-2 in conference play. Sure, Hoke may still believe that there’s a chance to add to those 42 Big Ten championships, but do his players? Does anyone?

Heading into the season, tomorrow’s Under the Lights game was supposed to be the big shebang. Now I think most Michigan fans are just hoping that prospective recruits aren’t watching. Penn State is not good…as in very bad not good. They eked out a three-point win at Rutgers (something Michigan barely failed to do) and got trounced by a Northwestern team that seemed like it was also very not good until last week they proved that they were maybe not that bad not good by beating Wisconsin at home.

Anyway, I am excited about a couple things. We all know who our quarterback is, and it seems like Michigan is starting to deploy Gardner a little bit as a running weapon, and I think De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes should fill in for Derrick Green’s unfortunate season-ending injury nicely. I really thought the defense had top-10 (overall, not Big Ten) potential this season, but that unit has really let the team down over the past few weeks. Penn State is also coming off a bye that makes things a little more interesting.

Lastly, can we please get Devin Funchess the ball? PLEASE?!

I actually like Michigan to pull it off at home this week in a game that will only be fun because it’s close.

Michigan 21 – Penn State 20

Derick: With three straight losses to average opponents, the 2014 season has started to slip away from Brady Hoke and his 115 sons. Michigan has lost in a variety of ways during the stretch, struggling to score against Utah and Minnesota and falling apart in pass coverage against Rutgers.

The most important matchup to watch Saturday night is perhaps the most talented quarterback in the conference against one of the most underperforming cornerbacks in the conference. Christian Hackenberg has taken the reins of this Penn State offense as a sophomore, and he will likely throw toward Blake Countess all game. Countess allowed all three touchdowns against Rutgers, so his play will likely be the most important factor for the defense.

Michigan will battle hard against a night game crowd, but the PSU offense will outlast the Wolverines for a win.

Penn State 24 – Michigan 20

Josh: Well, I really don’t know what to say anymore. This team is bad, very bad. The good news is Penn State doesn’t look all that great either, although their record is much better than Michigan’s. Last week we saw some fight in this team and were it not for a catch that was ruled not a catch (and they even reviewed it!) Michigan may have pulled out a win. Alas, it was not to be. I would love to see this team come out with some fight again and I expect them to come out pumped up. It’s a night game and they’ll be sporting some hideous uniforms that shame the classic Michigan maize and blue, but I digress.

Tesm 135 will come out hyped and ready to play. Sadly, they are quite possibly the worst-coached team in the country, have a starting cornerback who is routinely beat deep (Countess gave up all 3 touchdowns last week) and face Christian Hackenberg and his rocket arm. It’ll be close for a quarter or two then the floodgates will open and then we can officially kiss a bowl game goodbye (I never thought they’d beat Michigan State or Ohio State, and I KNOW they won’t now). This will be the third losing season in the past seven years, after going 33 years without a losing season. Sad days for Michigan football and it will get worse as I expect several of the 2015 commits to jump ship with uncertainty surrounding Hoke and Co., though I’m not sure why there’d be uncertainty, the odds of Hoke keeping his job are slim to none. How many days until basketball?

Penn State 38 – Michigan 17

Joe: I am having a tough time with the predictions lately as it’s starting to get a little depressing. I wanted to focus on the running game with Derrick Green last week and that turned out to be a curse. The defense has sprung a leak and is not able to stop anyone at the key point in games. I fear that this may get even worse when Michigan faces off against a quarterback averaging over 300 yards a game in Christian Hackenberg. Granted, he has not thrown a touchdown pass in three straight games and is tossing in a few interceptions along the way, but he still scares me. He carved us up last year and unfortunately, I expect the same this week. The defense is injured and seems to have lost a lot of confidence that it had in the early going. Without a solid running game, I think the Nittany Lions offense can run and pass at will and will put pressure on Gardner to keep up from the get go. This could spell doom if the offenssive line continues to let guys waltz on through. As much as I would like to predict a big Wolverines victory, I will go with Penn State.

Penn State 30 – Michigan 14

Michigan-Penn State game preview

Friday, October 10th, 2014


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Prior to the season most assumed that if Michigan could get by Notre Dame in South Bend in Week 2, tomorrow’s showdown with Penn State would be a huge game. In a season in which all three rivals are road games, the night game against Penn State — the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history — was supposed to be the marquee game on the home slate.

Instead, Michigan has lost three in a row, four of its last five, and 10 of its last 14 dating back to last year’s matchup with Penn State. When Michigan traveled to State College last Oct. 12, the Wolverines were 5-0, ranked 18th nationally, and Penn State was just 3-2 and coming off a 44-24 loss to Indiana. What a difference a year makes.

UM-PennState-small-final
Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 7 p.m. EST – ESPN2
Rutgers Head Coach: James Franklin (1st season)
Coaching Record: 28-16 (4-1 at Penn State)
Offensive Coordinator: John Donovan (1st season)
Defensive Coordinators: Bob Shoop (1st season)
Brent Pry (1st season)
Returning Starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)
Last Season: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Last Meeting: PSU 43 – UM 40 3OT (2013)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 10-7
Record at Michigan Stadium: Michigan leads 5-3
Current Streak: Penn State 4
Last Michigan Win: 2007 (UM 14 – PSU 9)

At this time last year, there were certainly concerns after Michigan squeaked by Akron and UConn, but the vast majority of the fan base was still on board. Now, exactly a year later, the Michigan family is fractured. After a “Fire Dave Brandon” rally on the Diag two weeks ago, some students and fans have planned a boycott of kickoff tomorrow in order to project an empty stadium on the national televised broadcast. On the other side of the coin, more than 150 former players are descending upon Ann Arbor in a show of support for the current team.

Penn State, meanwhile, started the season 4-0 before getting stomped at home by Northwestern, 29-6 two weeks ago. In that game, Northwestern’s defense held Penn State to just 266 total yards, 50 rushing, and only two field goals. Not exactly the first home Big Ten game that first-year head coach James Franklin envisioned.

Penn State opened the season with a  26-24 win over Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland on a last-second 36-yard field goal. The Nittany Lions returned to the states with a sluggish 21-3 win over Akron that wasn’t really put away until the fourth quarter, and then scored 13 unanswered second half points to hand Rutgers its first Big Ten loss, 13-10. In Week 4, Penn State got its first convincing win of the season, rolling over UMass 48-7, but UMass is 0-6 and just yielded Miami (Ohio) its first win in 22 games. So while Penn State has a better record than Michigan and beat the only common opponent so far, Rutgers, the gap between the two teams is very minimal.

Like Brady Hoke, Franklin has his own share of issues to deal with stemming from a sexual assault case at his previous stop, Vanderbilt. That Franklin had to testify again on Wednesday is surely not the kind of distraction he wanted heading into a road night game against a team fighting for its postseason life.

Michigan has lost its last four to Penn State after winning nine straight from 1997 to 2007. Last season’s meeting took four overtimes and three Brendan Gibbons missed field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime to decide the outcome. So what is in store tomorrow? Let’s take a look at the match ups.

Michigan defense vs Penn State offense: When Penn State has the ball

Offensive coordinator John Donovan has been with Franklin for a while. At Vanderbilt, he put together three of the top four offenses in program history with a school record 4,936 total yards in 2012. That was also the first season in school history in which the Commodores averaged 30 or more points per game. He still has work to do at Penn State with an offense that currently ranks 96th nationally in points per game (22.8), 72nd nationally in total offense (407.8 yards per game), 25th in passing (306.8 yards per game), 113th in rushing (101.0 yards per game), and 104th in sacks allowed (14).

Christian Hackenberg is second in the Big Ten is passing yards per game, but has just four touchdowns and six interceptions and a quarterback rating lower than Devin Gardner (Alex Goodlett, Getty Images)

Christian Hackenberg is second in the Big Ten is passing yards per game, but has just four touchdowns and six interceptions and a quarterback rating lower than Devin Gardner (Alex Goodlett, Getty Images)

He has a great piece to build around in sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg who is going through a bit of a sophomore slump so far this season, but has all the tools to be a star for years to come. After finishing third in the Big Ten with 246.2 passing yards per game last season, Hackenberg has raised that number to 295.4 through the first five games of 2014, second only to Illinois’ West Hunt. But despite the yards, Hackenberg has thrown just four touchdown passes and six interceptions. His touchdown per pass attempt ratio of 48.8 is second-worst among the conference’s top 10 passers, behind only Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian (58.7). For comparison, Devin Gardner’s ratio is 24.0. Hackenberg’s six interceptions are also the second-most among the top 10 passers, better than only Rutgers’ Gary Nova (seven). In terms of efficiency, Hackenberg ranks 10th in the Big Ten, two spots behind Gardner.

Hackenberg has been held below 200 passing yards just once through five games, but that was in the blowout of UMass when he attempted just 23 passes and the Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards. He has eclipsed 300 yards in three of five games with a high of 454 in the opener against UCF. But his completion percentage has gone down in each game, from 68.1 to 61.1 to 56.8 to 52.2 to 48.9. In that most recent game, the loss to Northwestern, Hackenberg completed 22-of-45 passes for 216 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. His quarterback rating for the game was 84.8, lower than any game Devin Gardner has had this season.

Hackenberg has a pair of good receivers in redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton and redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis. Hamilton leads the conference in receptions per game (7.2) and ranks second in yards per game (100.4). He has caught 36 passes for 502 yards, but has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Lewis is tied for third in receptions per game with Devin Funchess (5.8) and ranks third in yards per game (99.0). He has caught 29 passes for 495 yards and one score. Tight end Jesse James is the only other pass catcher with double-digit receptions. The junior has caught 15 passes for 178 yards and leads the team with two touchdowns.

While the passing game is racking up yards, the running game is second worst in the Big Ten, ahead of only Illinois, averaging 101 yards per game, and has the worst yards per carry (3.1) in the conference. Senior running back Bill Belton hasn’t even sniffed 100 yards, his best performance being a seven carry, 76-yard, two touchdown game against UMass. He carried 10 times for 16 yards against UCF and 15 times for 36 yards against Rutgers. He is the team’s fourth-leading receiver, however, with 14 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch and fifth-year senior Zach Zwinak are the other ball-carriers with 133 and 105 yards, respectively. Lynch has been much more efficient, doing so on just 18 carries (7.4 yards per carry), but Zwinak, who is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, is tied with Belton for the team lead with three rushing touchdowns.

The starting offensive line has been the same all season with the exception of right guard against UMass when redshirt sophomore Derek Dowrey got the start instead of redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia, who moved from defensive tackle this season. The leader of the line is redshirt junior left tackle Donovan Smith, who has 25 career starts. He’s by far the most experienced member of the line. Left guard Brendan Mahon and right tackle Andrew Nelson both redshirted last season and center Angelo Mangiro is a first year starter who served as the top reserve the last two years. The group ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 104th nationally in sacks against (14), and as mentioned above, hasn’t paved the way for much of a running game at all.

Michigan offense vs Penn State defense: When Michigan has the ball

Despite a struggling offense, Penn State’s defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten and the nation so far this season. Like Donovan, co-defensive coordinators Bob Shoop and Brent Pry were with Franklin at Vanderbilt, where they guided the Commodores to Top 25 defenses all three seasons. Last season, Shoop’s defense ranked 10th nationally with 30 forced turnovers, and in 2012, it ranked 15th nationally in scoring defense. This year, the two have Penn State’s defense ranked 10th in scoring defense (14.6 points per game), ninth in total defense (288.8 yards per game), second in rush defense (60.2 yards per game), 58th in pass defense (228.6 yards per game), and eighth in red zone defense (11-17, 65 percent).

Mike Hull and the Penn State defense rank second nationally against the run (Jason Piotkin, York Daily Record)

Mike Hull and the Penn State defense rank second nationally against the run (Jason Piotkin, York Daily Record)

Much of the reason the defense is so good this season is because it’s an experienced group with only one full-time starter that has less than three years in the program, outside linebacker Brandon Bell, a true sophomore. While he has started all five games, he’s the least productive linebacker of the group with just 11 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and an interception. Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Mike Hull finished fifth in the Big Ten last season with 9.1 tackles per game in conference play and currently leads the Nittany Lions with 53 total tackles and leads the conference with 10.6 tackles per game. He also has 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The other starting linebacker is redshirt sophomore Nyeem Wartman, who missed the Northwestern game two weeks ago with an arm injury. Still, he’s the third-leading tackler on the team with 20 tackles, and will be back in the lineup tomorrow. True sophomore Von Walker filled in for Wartman against Northwestern and finished with three tackles, while true freshman Jason Cabinda also saw his first extended time and recorded eight tackles. But that’s about it for depth.

The defensive line is a big reason Penn State has been so stout against the run, holding opponents to a Big Ten and national best 1.99 yards per carry. Redshirt junior three-tech Anthony Zettel leads the team with seven tackles for loss and three sacks and ranks fourth with 17 total tackles. The nose tackle is mammoth redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson, who at 6’4″, 313-pounds, has 15 tackles and 2.5 for loss, but more importantly, draws consistent double-teams. The ends are senior C.J. Olaniyan and redshirt junior Deion Barnes, who have a combined 29 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and four sacks.

The secondary is a group that has been around a while, led by junior cornerback Jordan Lucas, who leads the team with four pass breakups to go along with 17 tackles, one for loss, and one sack. He will likely draw the main coverage responsibilities on Devin Funchess. However, Doug Nussmeier would be smart to try to get Funchess matched up on the other corner, junior Trevor Williams, who isn’t nearly as good, although he does have two picks. Senior safety Ryan Keiser, a former walk-on, is the team’s second-leading tackler with 23 and also has an interruption and three passes defended, while fellow senior strong safety Adrian Amos has two picks and three passes defended.

Special teams: The other third

Senior kicker Sam Ficken is one of the best in the conference. He made 29-of-44 (65.9 percent) in 2012 and ’13, including a school record 15 straight, and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention last season. He began this season in dramatic fashion with a 36-yard game-winner as time expired to beat UCF, his fourth field goal of the game. He’s 10-of-12 on the season, leading the Big Ten with an average of two made field goals per game. He also has a big leg, having made a 54-yarder last season.

Redshirt freshman punter Chris Gulla averages 38.3 yards per punt, which ranks outside the top 10 in the conference. Of his 19 punts, six have been downed inside the 20, seven have been fair caught, four have gone for more than 50 yards, one has been blocked, and only one has gone into the end zone for a touchback.

The return game is average nationally, led by fifth-year senior safety Jesse Della Valle, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with an average of 10.5 yards per punt return. True freshman kick returner Grant Haley ranks 10th in the conference with an average of 22.0 yards per return. Punt and kick return coverage is an area where Michigan could hope to take advantage of as Penn State ranks 100th nationally, allowing 12.0 yards per punt return, and 111th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten, allowing 24.7 yards per kick return.

Prediction

The first two night games in Michigan history, against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013, both produced thrilling victories for the Wolverines, and Michigan hopes the bright lights can do the same tomorrow. The team has its back up against the wall, but will get a boost of confidence that it has been lacking from a big group of former players who will form a “welcome line” on the field for t he current team. As Howard put it, “former players told me that the ‘current players need to know we are here for them even if nobody else is.”

Last year’s matchup produced a high-scoring, four-overtime shootout, but neither team is setting the world on fire with its offense this time around. Michigan will have trouble moving the ball against Penn State’s defensive front, especially without running back Derrick Green, who is out for the season with a broken clavicle. It will be up to De’Veon Smith to carry the load, but only two opponents have topped 100 yards against Penn State so far — Rutgers with 102 yards and Northwestern with 103. Rutgers’ Paul James is the only individual running back that has topped 50 yards (51). So it will be up to Gardner to make the right decisions in the passion game. Penn State’s defense is vulnerable over the middle, so look for Gardner to hook up with Jake Butt often.

Defensively, it’s hard to see Michigan slowing down Hackenberg and the Penn State passing game, considering the Wolverines made Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova look like Peyton Manning last week. But while Hackenberg will get his yards like he has all season, Penn State has struggled putting the ball in the end zone, and Michigan will hope to force Ficken, who has attempted more field goals than anyone else in the conference, to kick often. In addition, this game provides a great opportunity for Michigan’s defensive line to have a big game, putting pressure on Hackenberg and forcing him to make mistakes.

Michigan’s offense has been pretty good in the first quarter this season, and Penn State’s inability to score touchdowns make it hard for the Nittany Lions to come back, although they did come back from a 10-point second half deficit against Rutgers. If Michigan can score a touchdown or two on its first two or three possessions, I like the Wolverines’ chances in this one. But if Michigan falls behind by halftime, it will be very hard to come back against such a strong defense. I’ll go with the Big House night game magic in this one and take a narrow Michigan win.

Michigan 24 – Penn State 23

Big Ten power rankings: Week 6

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014


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Big Ten conference play is in full swing and last week saw its first big-time matchup of the season with Michigan State and Nebraska. It also saw Rutgers get its first ever Big Ten victory and Northwestern pull off its second upset in as many weeks. Here are this week’s rankings.

East Division
1. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat #19 Nebraska 27-22 This Week: Sat at Purdue (3-3, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

In maybe the biggest conference matchup of the season on Saturday, Michigan State took down Nebraska, the lone undefeated team in the Big Ten, to cement itself as the runaway favorite to win the conference. Michigan State is one win over Ohio State away from likely playing in the first college football playoff.

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Maryland 52-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Rutgers)

Many thought Maryland’s talented defense would give the Buckeyes a battle last weekend, but the Terps couldn’t hold up against Urban Meyer’s resurgent squad, and OSU blew Maryland out of its own building 52-24.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Michigan 26-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 at #15 Ohio State)

Rutgers picked up its first conference win as a member of the Big Ten with a close victory over a reeling Michigan team on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are 5-1 halfway through this season.

4. Penn State (4-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-4, 0-2), 7pm, ESPN2

Penn State took a week off after an awful loss to Northwestern at home. The Nittany Lions will travel to Ann Arbor for a chance to get back on track this weekend in the first ever Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to #20 Ohio State 24-52 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Iowa)

Just when Maryland was gaining some momentum, Ohio State ended the modest two-game winning streak by putting up 52 points on the “vaunted” Terrapin defense.

6. Indiana (3-2, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat North Texas 49-24 This Week: Sat at Iowa (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Indiana finished up the non-conference season a week later than most, smashing North Texas at home 49-24.  This weekend will bring a challenge as the Hoosiers travel to Iowa City.

7. Michigan (2-4, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Rutgers 24-26 This Week: Sat vs Penn State (4-1, 1-1), 7pm, ESPN2

It’s disappointing for Michigan fans that perhaps the team’s most complete effort of the first half of the season came in a loss to Rutgers. Turnovers, third down defense, consistency in the rushing game, field goal kicking, and any semblance of a kick return weapon are among the qualities lacking for the Wolverines thus far.

BIG East Week 6

West Division
1. Northwestern (3-2, 2-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat #17 Wisconsin 20-14 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, BTN

Northwestern’s resurgence since Week 2 has been one of the most shocking developments in the Big Ten. One week after waxing Penn State on the road by 23, the Wildcats took down the mighty Wisconsin Badgers to take an outright lead in the West.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #10 Michigan State 22-27 This Week: Bye (10/18 at Northwestern)

Michigan State handed Nebraska a tough first loss of the season Saturday night, after the Cornhuskers failed to show up for much of the first three quarters of the game. But MSU is the most talented group in the conference, so Nebraska still owns the inside track to a rematch in Indianapolis.

3. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Purdue 24-10 This Week: Sat vs Indiana (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPNU

Week 6 was a resounding success for Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes had the week off, they sat at home and watched both Wisconsin and Nebraska drop their first conference games of the season.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Northwestern 14-20 This Week: Sat vs Illinois (3-3, 0-2), 12pm, ESPN2

A quiet trip to Evanston turned very ugly for Wisconsin as it dropped its first conference game after scoring just 14 points. The Badgers rushing attack hasn’t been enough to manufacture points in important spots this season, and now the West Division favorite has fallen to 3-2 overall.

5. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (3-2, 2-0), 12pm, BTN

Minnesota took an extra week off to celebrate the return of the Little Brown Jug. The 4-1 Gophers welcome the first-place Wildcats to town this weekend.

6. Purdue (3-3, 1-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-27 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (4-1, 1-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Purdue took perhaps its only chance at a Big Ten victory this season and ran with it Saturday, topping Illinois on the road 38-27.

7. Illinois (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Purdue 27-38 This Week: Sat at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

A tough start to the season got much worse Saturday when Illinois fell to Purdue at home to remain winless in the Big Ten. A quick glance at the remaining schedule raises the distinct possibility that Illinois could finish 3-9.

BIG West week 6

First Look: Penn State

Monday, October 6th, 2014


FirstLook-PennState

The third Under the Lights game is coming up on Saturday, but unlike the previous two, the excitement surrounding Michigan football has turned into apathy and consternation. A team that entered the season with hope and promise has struggled to a 2-4 start and hasn’t beaten a power-five team in regulation in nearly a full calendar year. This week, Penn State comes to town for the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history. The Nittany Lions enter with a 4-1 record, 1-1 in the Big Ten, with wins over UCF, Akron, Rutgers, and UMass, and a loss to Northwestern. Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Penn State compare through the first six weeks of the season.

Penn State Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Penn StateMichigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 22.8 | 22.3 96 | 101
14.6 | 22.8 10T51
Rushing Yards 505 | 1,085 301 | 601
Rush Avg. Per Game 101.0 | 180.8 113 | 55 60.2 | 100.2 2 | 12
Avg. Per Rush 3.1 | 5.0
2.0 | 2.9
Passing Yards 1,534 | 1,039 1,143 | 1,292
Pass Avg. Per Game 306.8 | 173.2 25 | 107 228.6 | 215.3 58 | 38
Total Offense 2,0392,124 1,444 | 1,893
Total Off Avg. Per Game 407.8 | 354.0 72 | 100 288.8 | 315.5 9 | 19
Kick Return Average 22.1 | 18.0 48 | T111 24.7 | 19.6 111 | 48
Punt Return Average 8.0 | 7.8 64 | 68 12.0 | 15.2 T100 | 114
Avg. Time of Possession 33:04 | 30:54 20 | 43
26:56 | 29:06
3rd Down Conversion Pct 44.0% | 42.0% 44 | 67
34.0% | 36.0% 36 | 51
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 14-72 | 12-82
104 | T74
13-88 | 12-110
T37 | T65
Touchdowns Scored 12 | 17
9 | 15
Field Goals-Attempts 10-12 | 5-9
4-7 | 11-12
Red Zone Scores (16-20) 80% | (15-15) 100% 77 | T1
(11-17) 65%(17-19) 89% 8 | 98
Red Zone Touchdowns (8-20) 40% | (13-15) 87% (7-17) 41% | (10-19) 53%

Michigan and Penn State’s offenses are similarly bad at scoring points — Penn State averages a half point more — but that’s about where the similarities end. While Michigan’s offense is balanced — 180.8 rushing yards and 173.2 passing yards per game — Penn State’s is extremely pass heavy. The Nittany Lions have half as many rushing yards as Michigan, but 50 percent more passing yards despite playing one less game. And Penn State is averaging 54 more total yards per game than Michigan. So basically, Penn State is decent at moving the ball, but not very good at putting points on the board.

Hackenberg’s passing totals have gone down every game so far this season. In the opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Hackenberg threw for 454 yards and a touchdown. The next week against Akron, he threw for 319 and three touchdowns. Against Rutgers, it was 309. Against UMass it was 236 and one score, and against Northwestern it was down to just 216. And while he has thrown for a lot of yards, he has just four touchdown passes — one fewer than Devin Gardner — and six interceptions. In fact, his quarterback rating (122.2) is lower than Gardner’s (128.4.).

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 30 UCF W 26-24
Sept. 6 Akron W 21-3
Sept. 13 at Rutgers W 13-10
Sept. 20 UMass W 48-7
Sept. 27 Northwestern L 6-29
Oct. 11 at Michigan
Oct. 25 #15 Ohio State
Nov. 1 Maryland
Nov. 8 at Indiana
Nov. 15 Temple
Nov. 22 at Illinois
Nov. 29 #9 Michigan State

The running game has failed to top 100 yards in three of the five games and barely surpassed 100 in one of the others. The only game in which Penn State had success on the ground was against UMass when the Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. Penn State managed just 57 yards on 28 carries against UCF, 64 yards on 33 carries against Rutgers, and 50 yards on 25 carries against Northwestern. Remember how bad Michigan’s running game was last season? Through five games it had 385 more rushing yards than Penn State has through its first five games this season. Yes, Penn State’s passing game is better than Michigan’s was, but Michigan averaged 4.4 yards per carry through the first five, while Penn State is averaging just 3.1.

Part of the problem is the offensive line which has given up 14 sacks, two more than Michigan has allowed in one less game. That hurts the rushing totals and also affects the passing game by not giving Hackenberg time to throw.

Another big reason the offense is averaging just 22.8 points is that it settles for a lot of field goals. Penn State has scored on 16 of 20 trips in the red zone, but only half of those were touchdowns. The other eight were field goals. Michigan, meanwhile, has had trouble getting to the red zone, but has converted 13 of 15 red zone appearances into touchdowns with just two field goals.

On the other side of the ball, Penn State has the best defense Michigan has faced so far this season. The Nittany Lions rank 10th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 14.6 points per game, 8.2 more than Michigan. Only two of five opponents have scored more than 10 points against Penn State so far this season. Central Florida scored 24 in a losing effort in Week 1 and Northwestern scored 29 two weeks ago.

The rush defense is Penn State’s calling card so far, holding opponents to just 60.2 yards per game, which is second-best nationally behind only Louisville’s 58.3. Only Rutgers (102 yards) and Northwestern (103 yards) have broken 100, while two opponents have averaged negative yards per carry. UCF rushed 29 times for 24 yards and UMass rushed 28 times for just three yards. What a week for Michigan to lose its leading rusher, Derrick Green, for the season.

On the other hand, the pass defense is worse than Michigan’s, allowing 228.6 yards per game through the air. However, Penn State held Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova — who just shredded Michigan’s defense — to just 192 yards, no touchdowns, and five interceptions. And while the Nittany Lions have given up a lot of yards through the air, they have allowed just two passing touchdowns all season.

One area in which Penn State is not very good is kick and punt coverage. PSU is allowing 24.7 yards per kick return — five more than Michigan allows — and 12 yards per punt return. Those numbers rank 111th and 100th nationally.

Penn State will be a stern test for Michigan this week and this game is a must-win for the Wolverines to have any hope of reaching the postseason. Perhaps the Big House lights will spark the same type of magic as the previous two Under the Lights games.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Average/Game
Christian Hackenberg 113-195 1,477 4 6 295.4
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
Bill Belton 49 189 3 24 3.9
Akeel Lynch 18 133 1 46 7.4
Zach Zwinak 37 105 3 18 2.8
Christian Hackenberg (QB) 35 34 0 17 1.0
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
DaeSean Hamilton 36 502 0 51 100.4
Geno Lewis 29 495 1 79 99.0
Jesse James (TE) 15 178 2 44 35.6
Bill Belton (RB) 14 129 1 24 25.8
Chris Godwin 9 79 0 14 15.8
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Mike Hull (LB) 32 21 53 2.5-6 1.0-5 (1 FF)
Ryan Keiser (S) 16 7 23 0-0 0-0 (1 INT, 3PD)
Anthony Zettel (DT) 11 6 17 7.0-26 3.0-18 (1 FR)
C.J. Olaniyan (DE) 6 7 13 4.5-18 2.0-13
Adrian Amos (S) 8 3 11 1.0-1 0-0 (2 INT)
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Sam Ficken 10 12 42 12 12
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Chris Gulla 19 728 38.3 6 4
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Penn State in the coming days.