This is a big one for Penn State. Forget the conference record – that’s obviously a moot point, at least for this season. The Nittany Lions need to show the recruits who’ll be in attendance and the millions of people who will be watching this nationally-televised game (the broadcast will not be split nor regional) that they can win a big game against a ranked (and brand name) opponent.
Notwithstanding the regime change and the off-the-field mess over the last 24 months, college football fans across the country who have watched Penn State play on a national stage over the last four years have a strong argument against its prowess. Dating back to the 2009 home game against Iowa, this team has played very poorly when the spotlight has been solely on it. It’s of course impossible to regain national respect in one fell swoop, but it has to start somewhere.
“Carpe Diem” would fit the bill if you’re the motivational whiteboard message-writer in Penn State’s locker room.
A new chapter starts tomorrow in the form of Bill O’Brien vs. Brady Hoke. The most intriguing aspect of this matchup from a pure Xs-and-Os standpoint will be the Penn State ground attack against Michigan’s defensive line. Stopping the run is not only the staple of Hoke’s defensive philosophy, but, on a grander scale, is also the epitomic focus of his entire program.
If O’Brien is going to win this one, the mistakes he made against Indiana cannot recur. He was too impatient with respect to the running game because it wasn’t working as effectively as he wanted it to as early as he wanted it to. But he must stick with it. Penn State needs to attack Michigan’s strength (currently ranked ninth in the nation against the run) and lather up that front seven to set the table for play-action over the top.
And when that time comes to work through the air, Christian Hackenberg needs to spray the field. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is one of the best minds in the game – at any level – and will undoubtedly put two defenders on Allen Robinson for most of the game. The good news for State is that there are plenty of other capable receivers, including tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter. James has been fairly quiet so far this season but his 6’7” frame is desperately needed by O’Brien to sustain drives. Michigan’s weakside linebacker, James Ross, is 6’1” and starting nickelback Blake Countess is two inches shy of six feet.
For those not familiar with the subject, the two primary defensive positions responsible for covering a tight end downfield are weakside linebacker and nickelback. Get the message? This is a mismatch that O’Brien absolutely must take advantage of.
John Butler? Well, he’d better figure out something pretty quick. Anything. At least for the time being, that skinny post with which Lloyd Carr destroyed hearts in Centre County for a decade is not as apparent in this version of the Maize and Blue. Devin Gardner is an excellent athlete but a terrible quarterback. Watching Gardner play the position is akin to Groundhog Day; he takes the snap, drops back, looks at one receiver, and then starts to run. Repeat. For four quarters. His accuracy is less than stellar, his arm strength is average and his ability to read defenses doesn’t even register on the scale because he’s never in the pocket long enough to attempt it.
Simply but, Gardner is a running back who is forced to throw the ball sometimes simply because quarterbacks need to throw the ball sometimes. The drastic change under center in Ann Arbor throughout the recent past is striking. For decades, this program’s offense was built around a classic drop-back pocket passer who ran a very effective pro-style offense: Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, Scott Dreisbach, Brian Griese, Tom Brady, Drew Henson, John Navarre and Chad Henne.
The landmark event which changed all that is quite obvious. Once the Bo Schembechler coaching tree finally called it quits when Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season, that long-standing quarterback philosophy exited stage left. The failure of the Rich Rodriguez Experiment has yet to wear off, but when Gardner’s eligibility runs out following the 2014 season, it’ll be back to Bo’s style; Hoke has Brian Cleary and Shane Morris waiting in the wings.
But the present is Gardner, and his team played terribly against MAC crop duster Akron and even worse against Connecticut. And please, don’t start with the “Connecticut is not as bad as you might think” nonsense. That team is absolutely awful. There’s a rule of thumb in sports that A plus B plus C doesn’t mean anything about anything for anything in lieu of anything when A is compared to C. But if the shoe fits…
As for Butler’s tactics to fix his own house, sources close to the program little-birdied to this space that State fans might see a few changes to the starting 11. Supposedly Deion Barnes was relegated to the second team during practice this week and Anthony Zettel may start over Barnes. In the secondary, it appears that Malcolm Willis’ days as the outright free safety starter could be numbered if Ryan Keiser is 100 percent healthy. Keiser has been battling numerous injuries since late August, but it appears he’s ready to go full blast and may replace Willis in the starting rotation. Both Barnes and Willis will still play, of course, but being demoted is never a good sign.