This week we are pleased to have the tag team duo of Jared Slanina and Bill DiFlippo of the Penn State SB Nation site Black Shoe Diaries to answer some questions about the matchup, how Penn State fans view Michigan, their expectations during the sanctions, and more. They also provide a game prediction. You can follow them on Twitter @bflip33 and @JaredSlanina and the main feed @BSDtweet. Representing the good guys, like usual, is Josh on what Michigan needs to do to beat Penn State.
1. Michigan and Penn State haven’t played the past two years. Prior to the Rich Rodriguez era Michigan had your number with eight straight wins, but Penn State took advantage of the Rich Rod years. Now six years removed from the last time Michigan beat Penn State, how do Penn State fans view the Michigan program?
I think Penn State fans view Michigan as a rival. The weird thing about Penn State is we don’t really have a “rival” in the way that Michigan has OSU, Oklahoma has Texas, or anything like that. We have Michigan State, although nobody in Happy Valley views Sparty as anything more than a good team in the Big Ten. We also have Pitt, but we haven’t played them in 13 years.
With all that in mind, people at Penn State view two teams as “rivals”: Ohio State and Michigan. Of course, it’s dumb to think their hatred of us is reciprocated, because they have each other. But in our eyes, both schools are evil institutions that freely break NCAA violations and pay off officials to screw us out of games. Sounds like a rival to me.
2. What is the current mindset of Penn State fans about their program, having gone through what you did the past couple of seasons? Do most expect to still compete for the Big Ten title each year, or are they resigned to hoping to make it through the sanctions without getting hopes too high?
It’s a fairly even split between those who have lowered their expectations because of everything that has occurred the past two years, and those who still think Penn State should win every Saturday regardless of any type of circumstances. As far as the latter goes, I was shocked by the amount of Monday-morning QBs after the loss to Central Florida who thought that game could have been won if a couple things went differently. From what I saw, it was clear that Penn State was just defeated by the better team. Penn State is playing with 24 fewer scholarship athletes than their opponents, and have no B10 Championship or bowl game to play for. On the other hand, there are many like myself who support the team, hope for the best and look forward to seeing what happens in a few years once all the sanctions are behind us.
3. What happened last week against Indiana? Most Michigan fans probably didn’t watch that game and most probably haven’t seen Penn State play yet this season. Fill us in on what went wrong against IU.
Things went wrong in every facet of the game so there’s not really one person or unit to place blame. The defense has trouble covering the perimeter and opposing offensive coordinators are starting to take notice. The secondary is inexperienced and has regular lapses in coverage, and will likely continue to struggle against teams with a solid passing game. Penn State whiffed on two field goal attempts thanks to a bad snap and allowing a second one to be blocked. Christian Hackenberg had a good game when you look at the numbers, but never got into a rhythm to keep the offense on the field. Hackenberg also set a Penn State record for most passing attempts in a single game, which has many Nittany Lion fans scratching their heads since Indiana has one of the worst run defenses in the nation.
4. Christian Hackenberg: is he the real deal? Five games into his career, what are his current strengths and weaknesses?
Christian Hackenberg is the real deal. He has regressed a bit in his past two games, but if “throwing for four touchdowns and more than 500 yards in two games” is regressing, then I don’t know if anyone can be too upset. His biggest strength is absolutely his poise. He doesn’t turn 19 until February, although you wouldn’t know that watching him. He looks comfortable and never lets the moment get to him, which at his age, is remarkable. He also has an excellent arm and is incredibly intelligent, you don’t come into college and pick up a system as complex as Bill O’Brien’s system in four-ish weeks without being a smart dude.
As for weaknesses, I am a Penn State fan, so he is perfect in my eyes. However, others have told me that he still has to figure out when to hold onto the ball and take a sack/throw it away, he isn’t the most mobile guy, and his accuracy has looked a bit iffy these last two or three games. Despite this, he should overcome every issue to win the Heisman this year, next year, the year after, and the year after that en route to three national titles and being selected by the Raiders with the #1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
5. In what area(s) do you see advantages against Michigan?
I don’t see many at this point as it seems Michigan has more overall talent and experience. The one advantage Penn State will have over any team is Allen Robinson. in my humble opinion, Robinson is the top receiver in the nation and will leave as the best all-time at his position at Penn State. Teams have struggled to cover him even though they know he will be getting the ball. He’s the complete package and is especially good at escaping the first one or two would-be tacklers. He’s a junior, but I’m pretty much assuming he’ll be playing on Sundays next year.
6. What’s your prediction? How will it happen?
I somehow convince myself that Penn State will win by the time the game kicks off, but that hasn’t happened yet with this game. I’ll say Michigan 31, Penn State 20. I think Penn State can keep it close with a few adjustments and the home field advantage, but Michigan will be good enough to take care of business and stay undefeated. I’m hoping Devin Gardener has one of his turnover-prone games, but Penn State has struggled to force turnovers this season so I just don’t see that happening.
After taking care of the Golden GOOOOphers (that was in my fake-Minnesotan accent) last week in the conference opener Michigan gets to head to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in a night game. Happy Valley is not an easy place to play and they will almost assuredly have one of their famous ‘white outs’ but they don’t play the games on paper for a reason. We’re going to shift gears from what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks and instead of telling you what I’d like to see I’ll tell you what Michigan needs to do to win. Let’s get started.
Keep the play calling simple. Last week Al Borges and Co. broke out their KISS playbook, and I don’t mean the band. It worked. The run game got going early and often and Devin Gardner didn’t attempt a pass until the second quarter. Part of that was due to Minnesota’s consuming drive but it was also clear that Borges and Hoke wanted to take as much pressure off Gardner as possible. One can assume that PSU will look to bring pressure and rattle Gardner, making him leave the pocket and hope that Akron/UConn Gardner shows up and throws some bad picks. Michigan knows this will be coming so I’d expect them to come out and be ultra-conservative. If they can control the clock they shouldn’t have much trouble coming away with the win.
Keep Devin Gardner’s jersey clean. The change on the offensive line appeared to pay dividends but Minnesota is, well, Minnesota so we really don’t know how much of a difference it made. Regardless, if Michigan’s new line can keep Gardner upright (and in the pocket) he will have ample opportunity to pick apart a secondary that gave up 44 points and 336 yards through the air to Indiana. Yes, Indiana. No matter how far they may have come under Kevin Wilson it’s still IU football.
Don’t turn the ball over. I’ll keep harping on this one all year. You win the turnover battle you usually win the game. In Michigan’s case they need to do a little more than just win it, they need to dominate it. PSU is a better team than Akron and UConn and turning the ball over on the road to a team who is probably a bit upset about losing to IU last week would be bad. As I mentioned, one can assume the Nittany Lions will be trying to pressure Gardner into making bad decisions, so it is of utmost importance that Michigan protect the ball.
Pressure the heck out of Hackenberg with the BLITZ. We’d all like to see the front four deliver some great pressure without them but they haven’t and without Pee Wee Pipkins the depth is shallow. So let’s dial up those NFL-style blitzes that Greg Mattison loves. We know Bill O’Brien is going to throw it, a lot. Hackenberg’s attempted at least 28 passes in every game with a high of 55. And, luckily for us, he doesn’t like to take off and isn’t really much of an athlete so sending five or six (or seven) probably won’t hurt us since he isn’t going to beat us with his legs.
Get off the field. As in lots of three and outs and/or short drives/turnovers. Getting the Nittany Lions’ offense off the field opens the door for time killing Michigan drives, giving fewer chances for Hackenberg to get into a rhythm. Bear with me with this analogy, I promise it makes sense. The only ‘defense’ that has been able to stop Peyton Manning this year is the other team’s offense being on the field. Now, Christian Hackenberg is no Peyton Manning (I’ll take him over Eli though) but he can’t hurt us if he’s not on the field.
On Special Teams
We’ve all been waiting for Dennis Norfleet to take one to the house since opening day 2012. Every time he touches the ball he’s always seemingly just one man away from taking it to the house. And every time he just can’t make it past that one guy. Now a return touchdown would definitely take the crowd out of it, at least for a time, but I think all we need is just a handful of good returns that set up great field position and aid in winning the field position game. I know, I know, that’s not very sexy at all; winning the field position game. But it’s an overlooked aspect that can have huge ramifications, especially for a game like this on the road. The coverage teams need to prevent big returns and the return teams just need to get some decent ones. Again, simple really.
It appeared as though Michigan got a bit of their swagger back last week and the shake up on the offensive line could be the beginning of something special but they will really get tested this weekend in Happy Valley. Shutting down a pretty potent Gopher rushing attack and lighting up the scoreboard was the shot in the arm this team’s confidence needed. Now all they need to do is carry it forward and keep it rolling. Michigan wins if they can get most of the above facets taken care of. Not turning it over may be enough on its own, but I’d like to see a couple more for good measure.