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.
|Michigan Stadium – 7 p.m. EST – ESPN2
|Rutgers Head Coach:
||James Franklin (1st season)
||28-16 (4-1 at Penn State)
||John Donovan (1st season)
||Bob Shoop (1st season)
Brent Pry (1st season)
||14 (6 offense, 8 defense)
||7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
||PSU 43 – UM 40 3OT (2013)
||Michigan leads 10-7
|Record at Michigan Stadium:
||Michigan leads 5-3
||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)
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)
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.
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