Tale of The Tape: Week 8 Michigan @ Penn State

Last week Michigan started their two-game road-trip by venturing to Bloomington, where they faced Indiana in a crazy game.  Crazy games seem to be the theme when those two teams meet, at least as of late. Nonetheless, Michigan was able to pull off an OT victory thanks to solid defense along with RB Karan Higdon having a career day.  Higdon toted the rock 25 times for 200 yards and scored 3 TDs!  That is easily the best performance that I’ve seen by a Michigan RB since Mike Hart was the one gashing defenses.

The Hoosiers and beat writers are claiming to have held opponents to less than 100 yards passing in back to back games, for the first time since 1989 – let’s be honest, Michigan sort of held themselves to less than 100 yards passing.  There was a clear and strong commitment to the running game, you’re facing a 4-2-5, I told you this would happen.  Along with this, the Wolverines just missed on several big plays, sort of as they have throughout this season.  There were WRs open on many of the passing plays but QB John O’Korn just didn’t see them.

The good news is that the Offensive Line looked much improved and held their own (sometimes literally) and held up pretty well in protection as well as opening up some great running lanes for RBs to hit or cut back to.

I’m interested to see how MSU matches up with Indiana on Saturday.  That might be a good game to watch while waiting for the main event and actual subject of this article.

This week Coach Harbaugh leads his Wolverines into Happy Valley to face Penn State who is currently ranked #2 in the nation.  After Michigan’s narrow escape from their battle with the Hoosiers, Michigan has slipped to #19.  Nearly nobody is giving Michigan a chance in this one – especially in a night game with a “white out” crowd.  But the game is not settled on paper or within the minds of media types, instead the game will be settled on the football field.

That said, let’s jump into some analysis.

In this corner we have the Michigan Defense vs the Penn State Offense

First we will look at some key statistical rankings.

Penn State Offense According to Football Outsiders (FEI) – Click here to view Football Outsiders’ webpage and to get info on what all this alphabet soup means.

OFEI
Rk
Team FBS
Rec
OFEI OE OE
Rk
ODS ODS
Rk
OAY OAY
Rk
OFD OFD
Rk
OTD OTD
Rk
OTF OTF
Rk
OTO OTO
Rk
22 Penn State 6-0 2.90 2.93 22 .431 22 .561 18 .785 21 .354 25 .451 35 .077 22

Michigan Defense According to Football outsiders (FEI)

DFEI
Rk
Team FBS
Rec
DFEI DE DE
Rk
DDS DDS
Rk
DAY DAY
Rk
DFD DFD
Rk
DTD DTD
Rk
DTF DTF
Rk
DTO DTO
Rk
6 Michigan 5-1 .96 1.02 6 .127 3 .230 1 .456 1 .101 7 .222 12 .089 88

Michigan is also still the #1 Defense in Total Defense, when simply looking at total yards allowed, etc.

Penn State is the #34 Total Offense.

If I’m looking at this and trying to pull out the important stuff, here is a good summary, Penn State has a good offense and Michigan has a GREAT defense.  To go more in depth, Penn State is scoring touchdowns on a little over 1 out of every 3 drives this season.  In comparison, Michigan is allowing 1 TD in 10 drives.  Penn State is gaining at least one first down (or touchdown) on over three quarters of their drives.  Michigan is allowing teams to do this on less than half of their drives. The Nittany Lions are the 22nd best team in terms of Offensive Efficiency with a 2.90 rating, which also factors in strength of defense faced. The Wolverines are ranked 6th in Defensive Efficiency.

Penn State has an interesting story in regards to their offense. Last year Penn State hired former Fordham Head Coach, Joe Morehead as their Offensive Coordinator.  Morehead has been a fairly successful coach over his career.  At each of Akron, Connecticut and Fordham, the teams or units he’s coached have increased their throughput only to plummet back to reality once Morehead moved on.

It was at Fordham, that the current offense that PSU utilizes was born.  In Morehead’s Offense, he teaches his unit and primarily the QB, that they will “tag” defenders and read their alignment in order to decide what they will do in terms of run pass options (RPOs) and what routes the WRs will run.  This is all done at the line of scrimmage.  For instance, Michigan likes to use a lot of press man coverage.  Penn State and Morehead, would likely read the field side outside linebacker and determine what to do – it could be a bubble screen to that side of the field if there is a blitz being shown, or they may hand the ball off if the LB stays outside of the box.   Many of these concepts are not unique, but Penn State is good at running them.

With Michigan’s alignment, which constantly changes and morphs, with guys moving in and out, showing blitz but dropping back in coverage, and blitzes coming from somewhere more often than not, reading the defense is a bit more difficult.  Michigan could, however, become vulnerable to out routes by the slot receiver, if they continue to cover the slot with a deeper safety.  We have seen in the last few weeks, Michigan attempt to get a LB out on the outside man, playing man coverage, so I wonder if what appeared to be confusion and misalignment, was merely another Don Brown wrinkle to prepare for Penn State.

Morehead also has one of, if not the best running backs in the nation in Saquon Barkley. The Wolverines have held him to well less than 100 yards in each of the last two contests against PSU, however, and Michigan has been effective stopping the run without loading the box necessarily.  This will have to continue against Morehead, who will clearly be looking to take advantage of a loaded box, by reading the defense and checking to pass plays to try to attack vulnerabilities.

The Nittany Lions have not turned the ball over much this year, and the Wolverines have not caused as many recently, after a pretty hot start.  Something tells me that the young Michigan secondary will be tested, but as we’ve seen in games up to this point, will be up to the test.  This is important, because in order for Michigan to win, they need to create plays on defense to get the ball back to the offense.  The more chances the better.  A defensive score or two, or at least shifting field position would help as well.

The last thing I’d like to note (also noted in this article by Land of Ten) is that Rashan Gary will be facing a redshirt Freshman on Saturday and one he is pretty familiar with, in Will Fries, also from NJ.  This will be a battle to watch.  In a Morehead offense, they are ok with not being able to block someone, so don’t be surprised if Fries lets Gary go at times, in order to go pickup a linebacker instead, or to double down on a different lineman.  Leaving Gary unblocked is ballsy, but it also could work in a read option, where he has to choose between Barkley and McSorley – who is a pretty good runner himself.

If this is the strategy at play, we just might see a lot of this:


(courtesy of the article mentioned above)

Players to watch on Michigan Defense: Rashan Gary (how will PSU deal with him), Devin Bush Jr. (this is the guy PSU really should worry about), LaVert Hill (will he get another interception?)

Players to watch on Penn State Offense: RB Saquon Barkley (some are calling him the best RB on the planet), QB Trace McSorley, Will Fries vs Rashan Gary,

Edge: Michigan #1 overall D vs errybody

And in this corner we have the Michigan Offense vs the Penn State Defense

The bad news is, at this point in the season, the offense kind of is what it is. The good news is, there’s nowhere to go but up.  But before we get into the struggles and whether or not they will continue, let’s take a look at the stats/rankings like we did above.

Michigan Offense According to Football Outsiders (FEI)

OFEI
Rk
Team FBS
Rec
OFEI OE OE
Rk
ODS ODS
Rk
OAY OAY
Rk
OFD OFD
Rk
OTD OTD
Rk
OTF OTF
Rk
OTO OTO
Rk
98 Michigan 5-1 1.82 1.69 103 .269 97 .397 95 .692 77 .167 115 .241 120 .141 96

Penn State Defense According to Football Outsiders (FEI)

DFEI
Rk
Team FBS
Rec
DFEI DE DE
Rk
DDS DDS
Rk
DAY DAY
Rk
DFD DFD
Rk
DTD DTD
Rk
DTF DTF
Rk
DTO DTO
Rk
4 Penn State 6-0 .91 .96 4 .121 2 .256 4 .606 17 .091 4 .150 2 .212 5

 

As you can see above, Football Outsiders currently ranks PSU’s defense above Michigan’s.  This is semi-alarming.  The Wolverines have struggled all year offensively, specifically in scoring points. Penn State is also only allowing 9 points per game. There is good and bad with this. The bad is that you need to score points to win football games.  The good is that you don’t have to score much to win, when you have a defense like Michigan does.

But how will they score points?  Let’s look at how you’d attack Penn State and Defensive Coordinator, Brent Pry’s scheme.  Pry runs a 4-3 defense as a base, but has some 4-4 elements in it which he gained from his time in West Virginia.  When Penn State feels like the run is coming, they will almost certainly attack with 8 players somewhere near the line of scrimmage.  They may do this with a CB stacked behind a LB if there are no outside eligible receivers to that side of the field. They may do this with a Nickle Back playing press man on a slot with the CB on that side playing off the line to take away anything deep, or they may bring up a Safety.

The Defensive Line will typically have at least one large gap, and by large I mean larger than the rest of the gaps.  They will line up at times pretty evenly spaced, but other times, there will be an end spread pretty wide, almost daring a running play to that area.  This works great when they have the ILB and OLB both guarding gaps B and C, but it does leave holes that can be exploited.

As with a 4-4 defense, your best bet running the ball is going to be traps off Center, counters after establishing a prominence in going strong side a lot (Michigan has done this in their Power running game), and attacking the B and C gaps if the D-Linemen are pretty spread out.  Michigan will have to find a way to run the ball, this has been their forte throughout the season, and Penn State is stiffer against the Pass (9th in Passing yards allowed) than the Run (24th in Rushing yards allowed).

The Nittany Lion Defense is also good at creating turnovers while Michigan has been good at coughing the ball up in 2017.  If Michigan is to win this game, they need to develop a safe and effective way to pass the ball in very limited amounts, only to loosen up the defense but should attack on the ground just as they did with Indiana.  Penn State likely knows that Michigan will be running the ball a lot, so they will stack the box with those 8 players and beg the Wolverines to beat them through the air.  Unless something miraculously changed in practice this week,  Harbaugh, Pep and Drevno must resist this temptation as much as possible.

Just control the clock, lull the defense to sleep with the run while wearing them down, and look for your chances to be more aggressive through the air later in the game.  Early game passes should simply be crossing routes with a vertical threat (you know, the same ones that O’Korn kept trying to hit deep when he had the underneath guy wide open last week? Yeah, those) and play action passes where O’Korn is rolling out to his right.  JOK is best this year when he is on the move either by design or not.

Here is a perfect example of what I mean and this time not by design 🙂

(courtesy of Gfycat and MgoBlog)

Players to watch for Michigan Offense – QB John O’Korn (has to protect the ball), Kareem Walker/Karan Higdon(this is the same duo that I said would be effective against Indiana and it holds true here), RT JBB (had a decent game last week, can he string a couple together?)

Players to watch for Penn State Defense – LB Jason Cabinda (leads the team w/ 40 tackles on the year), S Marcus Allen (34 tackles is second on the team and has a pick, a sack, 4 TFLs and 2 Passes Defended ), CB Christian Campbell (19 tackles, 2 INTs, 7 Passes Defended)

Edge: Penn State Defense 

This looks to be a defensive battle on paper.  Both teams have stout defenses and Penn State has the better overall offense in terms of performance this year but Michigan probably still has more talent.  The problem is that the talent is mostly young.  The lazy analysis is to simply give Coach Franklin the win based on having an Offense in the presence, or lack thereof, of Michigan’s.  Not so fast my friends (Lee Corso voice).  The Wolverines have heard the fans complaining, have heard the media giving them no chance, and are determined to make this a game – better yet, to win this game and quiet the haters.  I see this coming down to the 4th quarter with both teams tied at 21 a piece and punching each other with tough defense until finally a hero emerges.  Quinn Nordin kicks a 45 yard+ field goal for the win.

Final Score: Michigan 24 Penn State 21

Make them feel you Michigan!

 


Video from a Tweet posted by Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga)

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Derrick Ryan
What's up guys. I'm Derrick Ryan, the Webmaster for this site. I'm also an editor and blogger for The BluePrint Blog. Aside from these responsibilities, I also work full-time at a Fortune 500 company in IT, in my not-so-spare time. In addition to the above, I also love spending time with my family. I have a beautiful wife and was blessed with twin children, a boy and a girl. Our children keep us busy with sports, school and music, but I also enjoy video games (hit me on on XBox Live: DertyDoc), movies, music, camping, and cooking (I'm a goon with the spoon). Lastly, I'm extremely passionate about the University of Michigan and Michigan Athletics. GO BLUE! P.S. -Thank you RaSean aka Michigan Man Ray for giving people like me a platform to express my interests and opinions.

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