Saturday, November 21, 2015
12:00PM (Eastern Time), ABC
Beaver Stadium, "White Out"
Jordan Lucas (S): Out for the season
Andrew Nelson (OT): Questionable
Adam Breneman (TE): Questionable
Drake Harris (WR): Questionable
Ryan Glasgow (NT): Out for the season
This week will be the first time James Franklin coaches against the current Michigan regime, and neither staff was present for the 4-OT thriller of 2013 which was won on a 2-yard carry by PSU running back, Bill Belton. In his press interview this week, James Franklin was bullish on his philosophy of analyzing his opponent's past four games. In reviewing Michigan, he said it was their offense which has stood out lately. He likened PSU's attack to Minnesota's and Indiana's, as teams who run similar packages and personnel, as a blueprint for how the Lions could attack the stout Wolverine defensive unit.
Indiana may be the best template for Penn State, in light of the Hoosiers' relative success against the Wolverines. Both teams (PSU & IU) feature a prototypical pocket-passer, a talented receiving corps, and a premier running back. Last week, Jordan Howard ran for 238 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan's vaunted run defense, and added a third TD through the air. Saquon Barkley (5'11", 222 pounds) is two inches and 8 pounds smaller than Howard, but both running backs have a punishing style, power at the line of scrimmage, and enough speed to break away from defenders in the secondary. Though he plays behind a younger and less experienced offensive line, Barkley could find some success against the Michigan defense if Indiana's game film provides any kind of example.
MIchigan, on the other hand, has made its bones by preventing opposing offenses from finding any room to breathe whatsoever. Michigan's defense has formed the backbone of their team, affording the offense to slowly develop into a threat of with Jack Rudock under center while holding opponents to just 269 total yards per game. Michigan is currently second in the FBS in total defense, but Penn State is no slouch at thirteenth (1st and 4th in the Big Ten). Safe to say, fans of both teams may be in for a low-scoring game this weekend.
Penn State Offensive Line vs. Michigan Defense
If Penn State hopes to replicate Indiana's success against the Wolverines, the offensive line will have to play its most complete game of the season. Whereas the Hoosiers' line is experienced and perhaps their best position group, Penn State currently sits in the opposite position. Despite having some top recruits, the Penn State offensive line is only slightly improved from last year and has had to deal with multiple injuries and position changes, which further hampered development of the unit.
Tackles for loss allowed seems like as good a metric as any to measure how well or poorly an offensive line is playing, since it incorporates both sacks and stuffed runs. In 2015, Penn State currently ranks dead last in the Big Ten in TFL allowed (7.4 TFL/game). The Michigan defense, on the other hand, ranks 6th in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 6.9 per game. The numbers don't look any better when we examine the last four games for each team, as James Franklin recommends. In the past four games, Penn State has allowed an average of 10 TFL/game. Michigan's defense has recorded 5.2 TFL/game over that same span.
Saquon Barkley vs. Michigan D-Line/Linebackers
Barkley may be the best running back Michigan has faced so far in 2015, but he won't be finding easy yards against Michigan's defensive front and linebacker unit. The Wolverines boast the number two rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 103 yards per game on 3.1 yards/carry. I have to believe that Michigan will be looking to make up for last week's rough showing against Jordan Howard. However, I also think that Michigan's run defense (though good) is a bit overrated. Of Michigan's opponents thus far only UNLV (30), Indiana (37) Northwestern (39) rank in the top 50 in rushing offense.
Another relevant statistic: In the three games since their loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines have given up 579 rushing yards (193 per game) on 4.75 yards per carry. This should work nicely for Saquon Barkley, who is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and has rushed for 115+ yards in four games this season.
Hackenberg and Godwin vs. Lewis and Clark
Chris Godwin has been Hackenberg's favorite target in 2015, and with good reason. The 6'1", 208lb sophomore ranks third in the Big Ten with 80.8 receiving yards per game. Perhaps as important is the fact that he currently sits at #1 in receiving plays over 30 yards, with 10 in 2015. In my opinion, Chris Godwin not only has the best hands on the team, but also shows the most consistent ability to create separation against defenders and win 50/50 ball situations.
There will be no smooth sailing against Michigan's secondary, however. Jourdan Lewis and Jeremy Clark have combined for 5 interceptions on the year. Lewis has been particularly spectacular, racking up 18 pass breakups to go with his pair of INTs. Saturday could prove to be Godwin's toughest test of the season.
James Franklin vs. The Michigan Coach
James Franklin never mentioned his Michigan counterpart by name during his press conference that week, though it is difficult to tell if that was by circumstance or design. These coaching staffs have a lot to compete over though, and comparisons between the two are easy to make:
- Both are hot-shot coaches brought in to save ailing programs with great traditions of winning.
- Both played quarterback in college, and have reputations for developing QBs (though that hasn't been the case for Franklin and Hackenberg so far).
- Both have assembled top-flight recruiting classes, and some top recruits who currently hold offers from both will be watching Saturday's game with interest.
- Both coaches have a track record in college football of building strong teams at schools which were not traditional football powers in Power 5 conferences; Vanderbilt and Stanford.
Stats aside, I have to give the edge to Michigan in the coaching department based on an eye test of the (limited) sample size we've seen from both head coaches at their current schools. Play calling and offensive coaching have plagued Penn State, and at this point it seems unlikely that things will improve in those categories until the offseason when personnel, coaches, and systems can be more thoroughly tinkered with and evaluated. Michigan has been sloppy at times, but is a rapidly improving program that is finally starting to develop the elite prospects it hoarded during the Hoke years.
1. Total Game Score is "Under" the current Vegas line of 41.5
Penn State and Michigan boast two of the best scoring defenses not only in the conference, but in college football. Although both squads have been able to win with offensive outbursts on some occasions, their usual methodology is much less pretty. Jake Rudock and Christian Hackenberg have been up and down throughout the season, which is actually an improvement for Rudock after an unspectacular career at Iowa. I give the offensive advantage to Penn State on the virtue of Saquon Barkley, but I believe we are still looking at a lot of punting and field goals this week.
2. Saquon Barkley continues to push for FOY award, runs for 100 yards & 1TD
In a game where he faces off against his top competition for the Thompson-Randle El Award, I expect Barkley to show why he, not Jabrill Peppers, is deserving of the Big Ten's top freshman honor. Not only did the Redshirt Freshman Peppers see game time last year, I just don't think that he has had the type of breakout season that Barkley has. Stats don't tell the whole story, and Peppers has certainly been a beast to watch play this year; I just think that Barkley has been better. Certainly he has been more important to his team's success, as Barkley has time after time been proven to be the driving force behind the PSU offensive machinery.
The true strength of the Michigan defense is its secondary, which will limit Hackenberg and force Barkley to shoulder the load. The PSU offensive line isn't consistent at anything, but they have been marginally better at run blocking than pass protection. If Barkley gets 25 touches, I think he will be able to easily break the century mark. One touchdown seems like a safe bet, and if Donovan is smart enough to run the ball in the red zone we could see even more.
This is a total homer pick, but I really think that Penn State is unlikely to go 0-3 against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State to close out the season. After losing to Northwestern before the by week, Michigan is the next most vulnerable target remaining. Penn State always plays its best football against conference rivals, and having an extra week to rest and prepare will be critical for Franklin's squad after going 10 weeks straight to start the season.
I think the defenses will rule the field this Saturday, and Michigan will find it to be tough sledding against a hungry PSU defensive line and young but talented secondary. Jordan Lucas is a tremendously underrated safety and he will be missed (out for the remainder of the season), but Malik Golden has been good in relief so far this season. I see a single Rudock touchdown in the first half, and two field goals in the third quarter to put the Wolverines ahead 13-10 before a late Hackenberg touchdown to DaeSean Hamilton seals the deal for the Nittany Lions.