Five years ago Michigan traveled to State College looking to continue its decade-long dominance of Penn State. Michigan came in with a 2-4 record and Penn State was undefeated, ranked third nationally. It was Rich Rodriguez’s first season and despite the poor start and the contrast on the opposite side, there was still an optimism that Michigan could pull it out. After all, the Wolverines had won the last nine in the series. Despite the largest line against in Michigan history (23.5 points) a nervousness permeated the white out Beaver Stadium crowd.
Michigan quickly took a 10-0 lead on a Brandon Minor run and a KC Lopata field goal. By halftime Michigan led 17-14 and that nervousness was amplified. Penn State opened the second half with a field goal to tie the game and then sacked Nick Sheridan in the end zone for a safety to give the Nittany Lions their first lead. And then the flood gates opened. Four touchdowns and a field goal in the final 18 minutes and Penn State sent Michigan home with a 46-17 loss.
After the game, Rodriguez said, “Oh, we executed for a while and then we didn’t. That’s what happened. We executed, we moved the ball a little, and then we didn’t, we didn’t.”
Looking back, that statement and that game embodied the next two-plus seasons and Michigan hasn’t beaten Penn State since. The Nittany Lions won in 2009 and ’10 before the teams took a two-year hiatus.
Tomorrow, Michigan will face Penn State for the first time under Brady Hoke looking to return to the dominance of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and across the field will be a new face as well. Bill O’Brien left the New England Patriots to take the PSU job amidst the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He held the team together through the worst times and is now in the process of guiding the program out of it.
He led Penn State to a respectable 8-4 record last season after an 0-2 start. Now, he has started 3-2 through the first five games this season, dropping a home contest to UCF 34-31 and the Big Ten opener at Indiana last Saturday, 44-24. The three wins have come over opponents with a combined record of 5-11: Syracuse (23-17), Eastern Michigan (45-7), and Kent State (34-0).
Can Michigan go into Happy Valley and do just what UCF and Indiana did, or will the Wolverines’ struggles on the road continue? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
Michigan defense vs Penn State offense: When Penn State has the ball
Much of the reason for optimism in State College lies in true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. A five-star prospect rated as one of the top two quarterbacks in last year’s class, Hackenberg has taken the reigns of the Penn State offense from the start. He’s had his ups and downs but there’s no question the talent is there. He has completed 109-of-182 passes (59.9 percent) for 1,367 yards, eight touchdowns and four touchdowns. By comparison, Devin Gardner has thrown the ball 64 fewer times with almost the exact same completion percentage for 331 fewer yards, eight touchdowns and eight picks.
Hackenberg has thrown for fewer than 200 yards just once – against Kent State – and has topped 300 yards twice, including a 340-yard performance in last Saturday’s loss. But it took him 55 passes to get there. His stat sheet from the last three games certainly reads like a true freshman: 21-of-28 (75 percent) for 262 yards and one touchdown against UCF; 13-of-35 (37.1 percent) for 176 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Kent State; and then 30-of-55 (54.5 percent) for 340 yards and three touchdowns against IU. At that rate, he’s due for a downswing, although the two good performances came in losses.
He has benefited from the Big Ten’s best receiver, junior Allen Robinson. He set the Penn State record for receptions in a season with 77 a year ago for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to to being named the Big Ten Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year. This season he has caught at least seven passes for at least 129 yards in four of the five games. He had just three catches for 43 yards against Kent State, but exploded for 173 yards and two touchdowns on 12 receptions last week. His 38 receptions and 621 yards lead the Big Ten and the team by far, and at 6’3″, 210 pounds he’ll be a tough matchup for Blake Countess.
Only two other Nittany Lions have double digit receptions, junior tight end Kyle Carter and senior Brandon Felder. Carter ranks second on the team with 147 yards on 11 catches. Felder ranks second in receptions with 16 for 135 yards. Neither has a touchdown catch. Sophomore Geno Lewis is the only other receiver that has a touchdown reception and that came in the season opener, although running back Bill Belton has two.
Speaking of running backs, the main guy is senior Zach Zwinak, who has gained 369 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 carries so far this season. He’s coming off a 1,000-yard season (exactly) a year ago despite starting just four games and playing considerable time in nine. His best game this season was a 128-yard, three touchdown performance against UCF in which he averaged 6.1 yards per carry. The 6’1″, 240-pound back runs more like a fullback with a straight-ahead, bruising style.
The aforementioned Belton has carried the ball 43 times for 284 yards and two scores, while sophomore Akeel Lynch has rushed for 270 yards on 35 carries. The latter has a pair of 100-yard games this season, both of which he averaged over eight yards per carry. At 6’0″, 211, he’s got good size, but he also ran the team’s third-fastest 40 time in the spring.
The offensive line has three returning starters from last season, led by first-team All-Big Ten guard John Urschel. Redshirt sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith started nine games last season, earning ESPN.com Big Ten All-Freshman honors. Redshirt junior Miles Dieffenbach is the left guard after starting 11 games a year ago. The new starters this season, replacing All-Big Ten performers Mike Farrell and Matt Stankiewitch are senior center Ty Howle and senior right tackle Adam Gress. While there is certainly talent along the line, the jury is still out on its performance. The rushing offense ranks 11th in the Big Ten and only two teams – Northwestern and Illinois – have allowed more quarterback sacks so far.
It’s no question that O’Brien likes to utilize the arm of Hackenberg and target Robinson. Through five games, Hackenberg has completed seven passes of 40 yards or more and six of them have gone to his favorite target. Greg Mattison may choose to play this one similarly to how he defended Notre Dame’s pass-happy offense, but the main difference is the experience at quarterback. Tommy Rees was experienced and Hackenberg is just five games removed from high school, so look for some of Mattison’s patented blitz packages to try to confuse him.
Michigan offense vs Penn State defense: When Michigan has the ball
Only five starters return from last year’s defense that ranked as one of the Big Ten’s best. The scoring defense ranked second and total defense ranked fourth, but three of those who were lost are currently on NFL rosters – defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
The returning star is the reigning Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year, defensive end Deion Barnes. However, he has struggled to perform up to expectations so far this season with just 12 total tackles, one for loss, and half a sack. The most disruptive lineman has been senior tackle DaQuan Jones, who leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Redshirt junior CJ Olaniyan is the other end and has 19 tackles, four for loss, and one sack. The other tackle is a combination of redshirt freshman Austin Johnson and redshirt junior Kyle Baublitz.
The linebacking unit is where most of the makeover has taken place. The lone returner is senior middle linebacker Glenn Carson who leads the team with 39 tackles and also has 3.5 tackles for loss and half a sack. He has started 12 games in each of the last two seasons. The two outside backers are redshirt junior Mike Hull and redshirt freshman Nyeen Wartman, although senior strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong started in place of Wartman last week. Obeng-Agyapong has 23 tackles, one for loss, a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
The secondary has two returning starters, junior safety Adrian Amos, who moved from cornerback, and senior Malcolm Willis. Willis ranks third on the team with 24 tackles and both have an interception. The corners are sophomores Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams. Williams played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season, although it was on the offensive side of the ball at receiver. Lucas also played as a true freshman, but more sparingly. As a unit, they have struggled with good passing teams, giving up 288 yards against UCF and 336 to Indiana.
The other third: Special Teams
Junior kicker Sam Ficken made 14-of-21 field goal attempts last season and has hit 8-of-10 so far this year with a long of 54. He also handles kickoff duties. Senior punter Alex Butterworth also returns from last season in which he averaged 37.4 yards per punt, which was 11th in the conference. So far this season he ranks eight in the Big Ten with a 40.2 average. The kick and punt return units rank in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Geno Lewis averages 23.8 yards per kick return, which ranks eighth, and safety Jesse Della Valle averages 11.5 yards per punt return, good for fifth. The kick coverage unit ranks ninth, just ahead of Michigan, so there is the possibility of one of the two teams breaking one.
It’s no secret that Brady Hoke’s teams have struggled on the road and the performance against UConn three weeks ago did nothing to dispel that notion. Beaver Stadium is a tough place to play, especially for a quasi-night game with a white out crowd. To prepare, Michigan spent time in practice this week whispering. Yes, Devin Gardner called plays in a whisper to simulate the noise Michigan will have to play through.
On paper, the two teams are pretty similar, but Michigan has the better defense and more weapons offensively. Indiana and UCF beat Penn State through the air, and the move of Devin Funchess from tight end to wide receiver has opened up the passing game by giving Gardner a huge target and taking some of the pressure off of Jeremy Gallon, Jehu Chesson, and Drew Dileo. As the season goes on, that will allow Al Borges to open up the playbook and be less conservative.
Last week we saw a conservative game plan because that’s all that was needed and Hoke wanted to get the running game going. It didn’t yield a big rushing average, but led to most of the touchdowns and controlled the clock. Expect much of the same tomorrow, but with a more involved passing game to force Penn State to sit back.
Defensively, Michigan will focus on stopping Robinson and putting pressure on Hackenberg. Look for a similar defense to what was run against Notre Dame with more pressure. He has a great arm but is not very accurate, especially when facing pressure, and Indiana did a good job last week of keeping him off balance. Robinson will probably get his one big play, but Michigan will force other receivers to step up.
It will be close most of the game with Michigan pulling away in the fourth as long as the turnovers are kept under control the way they were last week. The Wolverines simply have too many weapons for Penn State to handle and Michigan will whisper its way to a big road win.
Michigan 31 – Penn State 20