Five Things: Penn State vs Michigan

By: Thomas Frank Carr
Beat Writer

  1. White Out

Normally ‘atmosphere’ is incredibly overrated. Not this week.

“It’s a very extreme atmosphere. You can feel it in the air,” Christian Campbell

“Coming into (that game) we feel like we can compete against anyone,” Trace McSorley

“The only thing I like more than Christmas, is the Whiteout,” James Franklin

Not only will the opponent and the stage be perfect for the Nittany Lion’s crowning game, but the weather will also be spectacular. Forecasts (as of now) are high 60’s for the game with temperatures falling into the 50’s during the game. It’s a perfect fall day with no need of serious winter coats or other garments that might not be exactly white.

At this point fans know the affect they can have on the players and on the game. Energy from a crowd generally can help the home team through the first five minutes or so before things settle in. That bodes well for the Penn State defense, who have yet to give up a point in the first quarter this season. After that, it will be on the team to give the crowd something to cheer about.

  1. Bye Week Bump

Penn State comes into their game vs Michigan off a bye. It was a good time for extra scouting, but not necessarily on Michigan. Head Coach James Franklin had his coaching staff take a look inward at their own strengths and weaknesses.

“We spent a whole day on self-scout, not only the offense looking at themselves and the defense, but across the ball. We had our defense break down our offense and our offense break down our defense. That was really valuable.”

Franklin mentioned this self-scouting both last week, and at his Tuesday press conference. The Nittany Lions head coach has also seemed more jocular than in past weeks. Whether it was a bye week rest (which doesn’t really exist for coaches) or a better feeling about his offensive and defensive units, Franklin seems incredibly confident heading into the Whiteout vs Michigan.

He mentioned that the team has been saving some offensive plays for the second half of the season, which would be huge. The offense in particular has struggled in spots over the past month, failing to generate a consistent ground attack. Michigan’s potent defense may still stymie their ground game, but it won’t be for a lack of attention.

  1. Patience is a Virtue

James Franklin made an interesting comment about having patience with the running game this week. “Patience with the running game” is typically nomenclature reserved for old-school offenses that run the ball to set up their passing attack. What does that look like in a spread offense?

“Well, I guess what I’m saying is even though we’re an RPO team, it’s easy to just start calling more passes. You got to keep calling the RPO’s that give us an option to run the ball and be us in the best situation,” Franklin said this week.

Patience does not mean that you will always see the results though.

“Again, we may call 12 RPO’s in a row, and they all end up passes. Again, that’s fine. The area I would say that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about is eliminating the negative yardage plays. If we just eliminate those, the plays that we get tackled behind of line of scrimmage and things like that,” Franklin said.

Consider that Saquon Barkley is averaging 2.5 yards per carry in the last two games, outside of a 53 yard run vs Northwestern. He also has lost 31 yard rushing in those two contests on tackles behind the line of scrimmage. If the Nittany Lions can get those yards back, that’s three first downs a game in yardage. That’s not even considering what Barkley could do if he wasn’t tackled as soon as he touches the ball.

  1. Three-and-Out

Third down statistics are much like an offensive lineman; you don’t notice them unless they’re not doing their job. The Nittany Lions have steadily gotten better on third down over the course of the season, culminating in a 50% conversion percentage vs Northwestern. It will be critical for Penn State to stay on the field versus Michigan, who are giving up only 20% on third down.

What they absolutely have to avoid are a string of three-and-outs. On 79 drives this year, BarkSorley and Co. have gone three-and-out 17 times, which is good for 22% of their drives. They will have to continue that streak to protect their defense from the Michigan offense.

The Michigan offense is not explosive, but they can be effective. The Penn State defense has thrived on using their speed and explosiveness to stop power running games before they get started (Pitt, Iowa). Yet they haven’t had to play a defense that was their equal in this aspect yet.

Michigan may not be explosive, but they can be methodical and effective at chipping away at a defense. The Indiana front seven kept the game close last week until the fourth quarter and overtime, where they gave away to the tune of over 200 yards to Karan Higdon.

It will be as much on the Nittany Lions offense as it will the defense to stop that from happening.

  1. Man

A lot of attention has been paid to the Michigan defense and rightfully so. They’re one of the best units in the country because they have a marriage of great scheme and tremendous talent. It will be the Blue and White’s greatest test under Joe Moorhead as an offense.

The reality is that the offensive line for Penn State will not be able to hold up under the amount of pressure that Michigan will throw at them. Quarterback Trace McSorley knows how good they are just from film study,

“The first thing that jumps out to you is how much speed they play with up front. Maurice Hurst is coming off the ball with aggression and flying off the ball, burning by offensive lineman. You look at Rashan Gary and Devin Bush, They’re kind of hair-on fire type of guys. They create a lot of confusion with line movement and jumping gaps.”

The offensive line is improving as a unit but is still giving up a tremendous amount of sacks this year. Redshirt Freshman Will Fries will also be starting at right tackle Saturday night. This means that it is on the Penn State wide receivers and skill players to win their one-on-one match ups early and often in order to protect McSorley. The longer he holds on to the ball, the worse it will get for Nittany Nation.

It doesn’t get any easier in the secondary.

“They take away the reaction stuff, not letting your receivers get a clean release at the line and trying to hold them up so that they’re routes take longer so that their front seven can work and get a pass rush. They’re physical at the line at try to lock you up and get their hands on you. They do a really good job of sticking on guys,” McSorley said.

For his part, wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins likes playing versus man coverage,

“Personally I prefer playing man. Basically he’s saying that he’s better than you on every play. You have to go out and prove him wrong.”

Penn State’s receivers have shown this year that they can burn defenders in man coverage in games vs Pitt and Indiana. They proved that if teams play soft coverage, they can pick apart a defense. ESPN color analyst Kirk Herbstreit put it best,

“Its strength vs strength and something has to give.”