Friday, October 23, 2009

CFI Preview: Penn St. @ Michigan

Penn State enters the contest riding along a cream puff schedule (Akron, Temple, Eastern Illinois) and against teams with Swiss cheese defenses (Illinois, Syracuse). The signature victory of the year? A nice 20-0 shutout of Minnesota at home (nice – used in the way that people never want to hear themselves described by the opposite sex). When the chips were actually down for the Blue and White, the river card flipped was the “Ace of Hawkeyes”, as Iowa downed Penn State 21-10 at White Castle the Whitehouse.

In conference games (three), the Spread HD boasts a ninth-best scoring offense of 21.7 while boasting a perfect score (8-for-8) in red zone scoring. Problems moving the ball? You wouldn’t think so as Team JoePa leads the Big Ten in rushing in conference games (208 yards/game) with Evan Royster second in the conference (311 yards, 103.7 average).

But Linebacker U has less to prove on the other side of the ball. They boast the number one scoring defense (12.7) and total defense (276.3 yards/game) as well as the number two pass defense (166 yards/game). Sean Lee made his return last week against Minnesota and helped make life miserable offensively for the Golden Gophers (zero points, 37 yards rushing, 19:59 time-of-possession).

Michigan started the season 4-0, with their signature victory coming under the last-second heroics of the rookie quarterback Tate Forcier against rival Notre Dame (38-34). The love affair peaked at week four (a 36-33 shootout against Indiana), and has tapered significantly with back-to-back losses to in-state rival Michigan State and then Iowa. Both were tough losses as Big Blue had chances in both games, but Forcier proved that kryptonite exists (and that he needs to gain about 20 pounds so he doesn’t 1) blow away in the wind and 2) sustain through a full collegiate schedule) having his worst showing (8-for-19, 94 yards, one interception, one fumble) in the Blackout at Kinnick Stadium.

In conference games, the Wolverines are tied for tops in scoring offense (28.0, Ohio State), but bottoms in scoring defense (29.7). What looked like a dominant year on the ground has now leaned toward mediocrity (6th, 124 yards/game), which certainly can be attributed to the loss of center David Molk for a month and a subsequent O-line shuffle. Forcier was even shuffled out for back-up Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter against Iowa, which now leaves those in Ann Arbor with that question – quarterback controversy? Pump the breaks everyone, even magic men like Forcier need learning lessons and potential starts like Robinson need growth opportunities. This is still a transition year, remember?

Final Analysis: Molk will likely make his return back as a starter of the buffet line (so long as Mike Barwis isn’t watching). So Michigan may return to their 270 yards/game rushing average they celebrated through week three. Forcier is apparently as healthy as ever, so the offense may have its best shot at eclipsing its season low scoring stretch (excluding Delaware St. – that never happened; the previous two weeks’ average of 24). Good luck against Penn State’s front seven, which will finally start the potentially devastating trio of Josh Hull, Navorro Bowman and Lee at the linebacker position behind havoc-wreaker lineman Jared Odrick. When Michigan runs the ball (behind well-rested Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown) against Penn State’s White wall, the showdown will certainly bill up to being the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object.

When Penn State takes control of the offense, look for them to try and attempt to run early with Royster, with a few long shots attempted by Daryll Clark. Michigan has shown the susceptibility of the big play, particularly down the deep middle. The Michigan secondary is clinging by a thread without a natural second cornerback on the field (Troy Woolfolk switching back from safety to corner). Clark’s receivers like to attack the deep outside, which may favor the Nittany Lions against this pass defense. Michigan’s chances will only improve if their down lineman (Brandom Graham, Mike Martin, Ryan VanBergen and Craig Roh) succeed at pressuring Clark without the blitz (as they did against Iowa). So far, Graham is the only one making it rain in opposing backfields. A concern for Penn State, is that their slower run game with Royster could stall against the Wolverines’ aggressive/attacking style, especially with the speedy Stephfon Green doubful with an ankle injury. Penn State’s offensive line must show it can play as a solid unit, and this will be a very good proving ground.

Prediction: I like Michigan’s chances being healthy with their offensive line, running game and quarterback. Penn State’s fluff schedule hasn’t really prepared them for the diesel offense Michigan runs, and it will be a fun one watching Michigan’s run game [ultimately succeed] versus Penn State’s front seven.

Michigan 32, Penn State 27

Photos Courtesy of Mark Selders/Penn State Athletic Communications