By: Thomas Frank Carr
- Peppering Him In
Michigan uses Phenom talent Jabril Peppers at everywhere. He’s a linebacker, a safety, the kick returner, an occasionally a running back and he fills in on the weekends at your dad’s hardware store. Much has been made of the superstar talent and his ascent at Michigan. Last year he played well for the Wolverines but this year he’s elevated his game significantly. There’s not much to say about Peppers other than he’s a threat no matter what side of the ball he’s on or where Michigan puts him on the field. Offense, defense, and special teams will have their hands full on Saturday.
Side note: Won’t it be fun if we get to see Saquon Barkley take on Jabrill Peppers in the open field? That should be a treat for both teams no matter the outcome.
- Capitalize on Possessions
So far this season we haven’t seen the Penn State offense run at a break-neck tempo, something many fans were expecting to see with the new no-huddle offense. The offense lines up quickly, but then checks the sideline for the play before snapping the ball. When asked if that will implemented this week versus Michigan, Penn State’s James Franklin didn’t think tempo was as important as efficiency,
“I think the important thing is possessions. We’ve got to make sure that we are capitalizing on each one of our possessions on offense, and then on special teams we can’t allow them to get points either through blocked kicks or big returns. Which is going to be a challenge.”
It will indeed be a challenge, especially considering that unlike Penn State, Michigan is getting healthy. They will be getting back one of their most veteran and talented defensive linemen Taco Charlton this week along with starting corner Jourdan Lewis. Both are outstanding players which will only add to a defense that is already looking unstoppable this year.
Staying on the field is critical this week for the offense, like it was versus Pitt. Michigan wants to wear the defense down by establishing the run, then running play-action fakes to create big plays. Giving them more time against an injured and smaller defense is a recipe for disaster.
That being said it is on the defense to get off the field on third down when they have the chance. Both sides of the ball will be tested this week.
- Attack the Line
If there is one weak point in this Michigan team it’s their offensive line. On tape they don’t come off as impressive athletes and struggle versus quickness and attacking defenders. That could be an area that Penn State could take advantage of. Franklin says that it doesn’t matter how aggressive they are at getting up field, they’ve still got to maintain their gap discipline.
We want them to be aggressive. And if you’re responsible for the B-gap and you can get penetration, we want that to happen, because now penetration can disrupt pullers, say the offense is running a power play, and the guard on the back side is trying to pull and you’ve got penetration in the opposite B-gap, the guard’s not going to be able to get through. So those things are positives.”
Translation; get up field but do it in your gap. That has been a struggle for hungry young defenders who want to make a name for themselves this year. When they see an opening, they want to take it, even though it goes against their responsibilities in the defense. Last week versus Temple the defense only allowed 38 yards rushing (after sack yardage is subtracted), which was a dramatic improvement. Penn State will have to prove that their improvement last week was in fact on them, and not a soft Temple team.
There’s also the issue of simply beating your man according to Franklin,
“We want to penetrate. We want to be disruptive. We want our defensive line to do that. But we can’t get washed out of our gap is really the most important thing.”
The starting linebackers this week look VERY different than they did week one against Kent State. Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell are presumably out for this week and we know that Nyeem Wartman-White is done for the year with a season-ending injury. That leaves young reserves Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper and star of last week’s game Brandon Smith to man the defense. Smith is a former walk-on who surprised everyone with eight tackles, a pass breakup and half a tackle for a loss.
In a bid for more depth, the team has also moved safety Koa Farmer back to linebacker, presumably for the rest of the season. Farmer has the size and strength, but needs to learn to use it according to Franklin,
“He was predominantly an offensive player in high school… there is a transformation that has to happen from going in and being basically a running back in high school to a defensive player. Some guys pick those things up faster than others.”
Another player who may see more time on defense as the season goes on is freshman Cam Brown. Brown is a true freshman who comes to Penn State at 6’5” 215 pounds. Weight issues aside, Brown has the length and speed to make things happen at linebacker. However, being a freshman, he’s still learning the position and how to use his body to his advantage. Don’t expect to see him on the field just yet for the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
- The Eye Test
It is highly unlikely that Penn State will win vs Michigan this Sunday. For fans, it should be a game to look for positives outside of a final score. If you are a fan that expects victory or bust…you’re going to have a bad weekend.
For the rest of us, I would like to suggest “The Eye Test”.
Does the team look like they’re playing well but just being beaten by a superior opponent? If the answer is yes, then I think that we can take positives from this game. The hope should be that they challenge the Wolverines this year and make them work for the victory.
Here are a few things I will be looking for.
- Challenge them: Don’t give up gobs of yards on rushing plays. If they pop a few sure, that happens, but don’t come out and look lost on defense.
- Be Efficient and Create Drives. Those drives don’t always have to end in points but they have to be sustained for more than three or four plays.
- Start fast: This team has the propensity to come out flat and get behind early. To pass The Eye Test, they need to look sharp, play with intensity and don’t’ be surprised. This team looks surprised
- No more fumbled snaps. This shouldn’t be a particular concern because I think it will be corrected.
Is that too much to ask? Probably. This will be one of the toughest tests that the Penn State Nittany Lions will face all year. It will be exciting to see how they measure up on Saturday.