Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When Carcajous Attack Lions!

Preview: Michigan vs. No. 13 Penn State, October 24, 2009 – Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan

When You Crave Irrational Exuberance On A Level That Only Brett Musberger Can Deliver:
“And we’re here LIIIIIIIIIIIVE again in the BIG HOUSE in Ann Arbor, Michigan in front of yet another record crowd here this late Saturday afternoon to witness the 15th HISTORICAL (!!!!!) meeting between the Wolverines of Michigan and the Nittany Lions of Penn State! Welcome everybody!

Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions are now 6-1 and 2-1 in the Big Ten after shutting down the mighty Minnesota Gophers at home last weekend 20-0. To find Penn State’s only blemish on their record this season you’d have to go back to that frustrating evening home loss to Big Ten leader Iowa right here on ABC!! That game included three uncharacteristic Penn State interceptions, 1 lost fumble, and a blocked punt for an Iowa touchdown. It might interest fans on both sides of the field today to note that Penn State and Michigan have faced one common opponent this year: The Iowa Hawkeyes. The final results of those contests were the same, yet they were also somewhat different. Penn State lost at home to Iowa by 11 points, while Michigan lost to those same Hawkeyes on the road by only 2 points.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Wolverines of Rich Rodriguez are 5-2 and just 1-2 in Big Ten play. Michigan is a younger team than Penn State. They’re still struggling to find their identity this year ever since that upset win over Notre Dame earlier this year in this very stadium. As a result, everyone is asking the same question week after week: How improved is Michigan really? That question will be answered today against Penn State. While it’s true that the Wolverines absolutely bashed the daylights out of lowly Delaware State 63-6 here last Saturday, no one has forgotten the two straight Big Ten conference defeats against Michigan State and Iowa by relatively small margins only a few weeks ago.

Will this contest of Big Ten Gladiators(!) go down to the wire here again today?!

Let’s find out, shall we?”
This football game is important for Michigan for the following reasons:

1. Joe Paterno has been the head coach at Penn State since 1966. Very few college football teams have achieved a winning record against the Nittany Lions on Paterno’s watch. Of the short list of football teams that do have all-time winning records against Penn State, (which includes Oklahoma 2-0, Alabama 8-4, Ohio State 12-8, UCLA 2-1, Wisconsin 7-6, for example) Michigan has a fantastic record : 10-4 record all-time against PSU. This includes 9 straight Michigan wins between 1997 and 2007. Since the first meeting in 1993 Michigan has won these contests rather decisively with an average margin of victory of 4.7 points. (average score 23.3 to 18.6). Penn State’s lone victories over UM in Michigan Stadium date back to the Clinton administration: 1994 and 1996.

2. Beating Penn State would even out Michigan’s conference record at 2-2. A UM victory would also likely place the Wolverines in a ridiculous 6-team tie for 3rd place in the Big Ten with all 6 teams having 2 conference losses by the end of action Saturday. Indeed, carcajous are known to wreak havoc on their surroundings.

3. Michigan started strong against unbeaten and No. 3 Penn State last year, but ultimately were manhandled and humiliated 17-46 on national television for their 5th loss of the season. Rodriguez and the Wolverine seniors will definitely want to dish out some payback this weekend - in spades, if they can be so mustered.

4. A victory over 13th ranked Penn State would give Michigan a 6-2 overall record, 100% certainty of landing a bowl bid in 2009, and a good chance of returning once again to the national rankings.

Three Great Reasons to Wipe That Ridiculous Smile Off Of Your Face:

1. Nittany Lion Tailbacks Evan Royster
"I'll drag you to the end zone this time. But next time the fare is $2.50"

Evan Royster is sort of Penn State’s version of Brandon Minor. Royster is 6-1 and 209 lbs. The main differences are that Royster is far more resilient to injury, he actually possesses good speed and agility to juke would-be tacklers out of position rather than just bowl them over. He’s also becoming a more dangerous receiver as of late for Penn State. Brandon Minor has caught 1 pass all year long for 1 lousy yard. Royster has 8 catches for 114 yards (14 yards per catch) and 1 TD. Royster is a runner first, however, averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry and 92 yards per game behind a questionable offensive line. He has 4 rushing TDs after 7 games. If opponents want to beat Penn State, then they have to emulate what Iowa did successfully against Evan Royster. They held him to just 69 yards rushing and kept him completely out of the end zone. The result of this effort placed greater urgency and pressure on quarterback Darryl Clark to throw and run the ball himself in order to win, which he would have done more or less successfully, if it hadn’t been for the 3 drive-killing interceptions. With Royster running the ball on par at 5.8 yards per carry, this frees up Clark and the rest of the PSU offense to do 5 or 6 other offensive plays extremely well. Michigan has had difficulty stopping the run in general this season, though they had some success at times against mainly pass-centric offenses like MSU and Iowa recently. The Wolverines have certainly not faced a power back with the size and speed of Royster this year. PSU’s offensive line has performed slightly below expectations this fall. Controlling the line of scrimmage and Evan Royster will be priority No. 1 for Michigan this Saturday.

2. Nittany Lion Quarterback Darryl Clark
"Oh, wide open..."

A year ago in Beaver Stadium, Penn State’s quarterback Darryl Clark punched in an average day at the office against Michigan. He wasn’t amazingly accurate throwing the football. He hit on 18 of 31 passes (58%) for 171 yards and only 1 TD. He didn’t set the world on fire rushing in that game either, as he had 9 carries for 45 yards (5 ypc) and two 1-yard touchdown runs.

In fact, ever since this guy took over for Anthony Morelli at the position, it’s never really been about what Darryl Clark does to opponents on his own. Sure, Clark is a decent runner. He’s even become a better passer (62% accuracy YTD) this year. No, it’s more about how Darryl Clark forces opposing defenses to keep their heads on a swivel all the time, and account for ALL of the other offensive weapons that Clark “activates” by just being present under center. Galen Hall uses Darryl Clark like a chemical enzyme to create hesitation in Penn State’s enemies. Even with a significant decline in wide receiver speed and talent in 2009 compared to the year prior, we can still see how just a little hesitation is all Penn State really needs to score a lot of points and gash opponents easily for hundreds of yards.

In terms of quarterback footwork, timing, throwing mechanics, and fakes, one would be hard pressed to find a better quarterback in the Big Ten right now than Darryl Clark. At midpoint of the season, he already has over 1,600 yards passing. His receiving targets may not be spectacular, but 6 different Nittany Lions have 11 catches or more, and 5 different ones have found pay dirt this season at least once. With the exception of perhaps the Iowa game, it is fair to say that Clark has not been pressured very much this season. This is partly due to reasonably good offensive line play against a schedule of opponents that can be closely compared to bakery goods you’d find in the Hostess aisle of your local grocery store. It’s probably not a coincidence that the toughest opponent Clark has had to deal with this year (Iowa) just happened to be the same team that blanketed him for only 19 yards rushing and nabbed 3 interceptions.

3. Penn State’s Linebackers and Secondary
Penn State's Linebacker Sean Lee
Penn State has the number one scoring defense in the nation going into this football game. They have given up only 8 points per game. This fantastic statistic is almost certainly the product of combining Akron, Temple and Syracuse with just a smidgeon of Eastern Illinois, all in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions will now face the No. 1 scoring and rushing offense in the Big Ten in Michigan (even when we subtract out Michigan’s blood-curdling statistics of the Delaware State game). Michigan will be the most run-centric, yet strangely versatile offensive opponent that the Nittany Lions have faced all year. Even Iowa, which was primarily a drop-back passing team, did find surprising success with their walk-on tailback Adam Robinson who collected 88 yards rushing, 14 of them on a rumbling, stumbling touchdown run in the 4th quarter against PSU’s apparently exhausted defense.

Penn State’s linebackers, Navaro Bowman, Chris Colasanti, Sean Lee and Josh Hull are some of the better defenders in the Big Ten at their positions. They will be as good as or better than what Michigan State and Iowa put forward against the Wolverines in recent weeks. The Penn State secondary of cornerback A.J. Wallace, and safety Nick Sukay is not as good as the Iowa Hawkeyes’ secondary in terms of takeaways, but they’ve given up the fewest passing yards (163 per game) in the league (while playing frosted cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles!) and only 3 passing TDs all year. PSU has collected 8 interceptions so far after 7 games.

When Carcajous Attack! On Offense:
Michigan Senior Wide Receiver Greg Mathews
It’s weird. Michigan is 5-2 (4-2 in my view, because DSU was really just a scrimmage), but they’ve been out gained offensively by every opponent save Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan this fall. That’s not good. It also answers the question whether Michigan has “turned the corner” offensively with Rich Rodriguez read spread option offense. They really haven’t yet. But with the young players and speed Michigan has assembled at the skilled positions, they are approaching that corner very soon. Michigan needs a big game offensively in order to beat Penn State on Saturday. The Wolverines’ offensive strategy must emphasize balance. Michigan’s rushing offense reasserted itself to some degree during the road game to Iowa with 3 rushing TDs and 195 yards on the ground. They had way more success than PSU had against the same defense, and on the road to boot. Unfortunately, the Michigan passing game has been stalled somewhat over the last 4 games, largely due to Tate Forcier’s shoulder problems and the obvious hesitancy of Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee to let backup Denard Robinson chuck the ball downfield. To beat Penn State and come close to equaling the Nittany Lions own offensive output, Michigan must get the ball successfully to the edge with the slot receivers, and more importantly to the outside wide receivers ten yards plus downfield on a regular basis. Only in this way can the PSU middle be adequately softened for the death strikes of Shaw, Brown and Minor up the middle and over the ends. For this reason I say that Tate Forcier and his receivers Greg Mathews, JR Hemingway, Kevin Koger and Martavious Odoms are the key to victory Saturday. The Michigan receivers must have exemplary performances. The PSU DL and LBs are very good. Without good receiver performances, the pressure will be way too high on Tate Forcier and the Michigan running backs to do it all themselves. The potential return of starting center David Molk from injury is a positive development for Michigan’s running and passing attack Saturday.

When Carcajous Attack! On Defense:
Stevie Brown: Linebacker Speed to Counter PSU's Own Spread and Shred

The fact of the matter is, Michigan’s defense isn't very good this year. So every time we enter this chasm of despair together, well, do we really want to go into it with Penn State on deck? I guess we must. Yes, we’ve observed some defensive improvement at times versus Michigan State and Iowa. I love Brandon Graham and the rest of the guys on defense. They’re playing their hearts out right now. But let’s not pretend that Michigan opponents haven’t had their way with the Wolverines Saturday afternoons this year, because they have. Yes, it was nice to see Michigan hold Iowa and their non-rated, walk-on tailback from Des Moines to just 83 yards rushing. Every time I want to do a celebration dance about something good like that, I get smacked in the face with a two by four from the other side of the equation. You know, like the 284 yards passing drummed up by “Bad Ricky” Stanzi. Reasons for optimism are easily shattered just like so. I mean, if Ricky “I’m not Chuck Long” Stanzi can throw for 284 yards and Kirk “Molasses in Wintertime” Cousins can cut upfield for 10 yards per carry on this Michigan defense, then I make no apology for what I’m about to say here: Darryl Clark is the best quarterback Michigan’s defense will have faced this year. Better than Clausen. Better than Cousins. And eleventy billion times better than Stanzi. Based on the evidence of past performance, Darryl Clark will have a very good day running and passing against this Michigan defense. A “field day”? Well, I ask readers, what evidence do we have to suggest otherwise? This will be the first fully-fledged run-centric spread offense Michigan will have played against. Even if the Michigan defensive line plays out of their minds and pressures or sacks Clark with any frequency, the Michigan linebackers have been so frequently out of position to make a play, it just isn’t funny anymore.

So the one ray of hope for Michigan on defense, it seems to me, is if the Wolverines can somehow stuff the running success of star tailback Evan Royster. If that can be achieved some how, some way – and I must draw your attention to the capital “I” on the “If” - then the entire Penn State game plan rests on Darryl Clark’s shoulders. And as good as Darryl Clark can be both running and passing the football, he has not delivered well when it’s all on his shoulders alone for a full 60 minutes, particularly in away games when Penn State is ranked and favored to win.

The Last Time:
On October 18, 2008 third ranked Penn State crushed Michigan 46-17, handing Rich Rodriguez and his first Wolverine team their 5th loss of the season. Nittany Lion tailback Evan Royster tore Michigan’s defense to shreds with 174 yards rushing and 1 TD. Darryl Clark passed for 171 yards and 1 TD before the PSU scrubs played out the rest of the game. Returning from a long bout of injury, Michigan’s Brandon Minor rushed for 117 yards and 2 touchdowns in the game. It was a humbling and embarrassing loss for Michigan football and more than your average triumphant result for Penn State because they had closed the book on Michigan’s 9 game winning streak in the series.

What to Expect
I joke about Penn State’s cupcake schedule this year. Actually both teams coming into this game have had a comparable “easy time of it” up to now: PSU’s opponents thus far are 24-21, while Michigan’s opponents are an equally unimpressive 23-22 to date. However, there is a case to be made that Michigan has been more frequently and thoroughly tested than Penn State to this point of the season. Michigan has played some pretty decent opponents in Iowa, MSU, Notre Dame already. While PSU’s best opponents so far have been definitely Iowa and possibly Minnesota. Conversely, Michigan has played two awful football teams in EMU and Delaware State, while Penn State has played Akron (1-5), Syracuse 2-4, and a clearly psychotic and derailed Illinois squad (1-5). I just think Michigan enters this game with a much better idea of how good and bad they really are.

This is probably going to be Darryl Clark’s and Evan Royster’s last game against Michigan this Saturday. Clark is like 35 years old or something, and graduates this fall, while Royster is so going to get drafted. Nobody knows how good the PSU offensive line really is. In my view, it’ll probably play on a scale somewhere between the Iowa and Minnesota performances, which means unimpressive by PSU standards, but holy sh&t definitely bad news for Michigan’s defense. Then again, semi-competent offensive line play by opponents usually does spell out the words “bad news” for Michigan’s defense. Or maybe it spells out the word “Touchdown!”.
I forget.

Despite minor improvements by Michigan’s defense over the last two games, I don’t believe there’s much to prevent Darryl Clark from throwing for over 300 yards and 2 TDs in this game. Royster should have a decent game as well with over 100 yards on the ground and 1 TD at least.

Offensively, I’m convinced that Michigan is going to have good success against the Nittany Lions on the ground, despite a good PSU DL and LB corps. Michigan should easily surpass Iowa’s 21 points scored. But here’s the problem for Michigan: The defense can’t stop big plays from happening (ever), and the passing game has been floundering. Tate Forcier says he’s 100%. I’m not buying it. I expect to see plenty of miscues, hanging on to the ball way to long, sacks, and possibly an interception or two. The key question for this game boils down to how frequently Tate Forcier manages to connect on passes +10 yards downfield with his main receivers Odoms, Mathews, Koger and Hemingway. I recommend avoiding AJ Wallace.

Past Michigan performance in this category of downfield passing instructs us to ignore the possibility entirely. But if these downfield connections do occur Saturday, then I think Penn State is in trouble on many levels, because such success won’t just open up a can of other things that could destroy PSU. It probably would open up an oil drum full of things that could destroy PSU. If there’s no downfield passing game for Michigan on Saturday, then the Wolverines will be relegated to a more simplistic attack, and have serious problems either keeping up or separating from PSU (if UM has the lead).

This then leads us to questions about new offensive plays or trick plays for Michigan. Now I’m sure Rich Rodriguez, Calvin Magee and Greg Robinson have a number of cool plays they’d just love to throw at Old Man Paterno on Saturday. They might even catch PSU by surprise on one or two of them. But will it create enough confusion and delay for other things to really open up offensively or defensively for Michigan? If there’s a time for Michigan to demonstrate new weaponry, it would be Saturday.

I think we can expect PSU and Michigan offenses to march up and down the field on each other and the game with relative impunity as the clock quickly approaches 00:00. Michigan really doesn’t play Big Ten football games any other way. Just to make us all feel at-home about this concept of winning and losing football games by a butthair, Michigan fans can also fully expect ABC’s Brent Musberger to relentlessly spout off groan-worthy anecdotes of the glorious Big Ten upsets of yesteryear, JoePa, Mario Manningham, yaddayadda.

After about three hours of predictably horrid defense against big Penn State offensive plays, the score will somehow remain very close, like Michigan 27, Penn State 28, with precious few seconds left to play on the clock.

Then, in the end, on to that “Field of Gladiators!!!” described by Mr. Overdidit (Musberger), a 6 foot, 5 inch, 212 lbs senior field goal kicker trots on to the field for Michigan.

Olesnavage 3, Lions 0.

WCA Prediction: Michigan 30, Penn State 28


susieandrew said...

co-sign wholeheartedly. GO BLUE!

don said...

Unfortunately, this one was a big step backwards, and on a major recruiting weekend, this performance could not have been more ill-timed.