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Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Devil Speaks: Penn St, Part Deux

Below is the second half of Baggy Pants Devil's look at Penn State.

In some respects, Penn State has one of the better defenses Michigan has faced so far. They're 14th in the country and 1st in the Big Ten against the run. Michigan is 17th in the nation and 1st in the Big Ten—having taken the spot from Michigan State last Saturday—in rushing. That pits strength against strength—yet again—and so far Michigan has prevailed in every similar match-up this season. Also, consider that Penn State wasn't able to stop a gimpy Mike Hart running behind an injury riddled offensive line last year. Michigan will, yet again, be able to run the ball until Penn State puts eight guys in the box leaving some poor cornerback out on an island with Adrian Arrington.

Against the pass, Penn State is definitely better than Minnesota and Michigan State but not as good as Wisconsin (47th in the country and 5th in the Big Ten). Add in the Mario Manningham injury and Michigan may have a tougher time moving the ball. The twist with the Penn State defense is that although they're decent enough in yards allowed—25th in the country and 3rd in the Big Ten—they're not so hot in points allowed—50th in the country and 5th in the Big Ten. I don't think I have to remind anyone what wins games, yards or points? I expect something similar to the Michigan State game—the Spartan defense had a similar statistically irregularity—with Michigan's not-all-that-spectacular numbers resulting in a better-than-you'd-think number of points scored. Against the Spartans, Chad Henne attempted just 17 passes, completed 11 of them (65%) with three of them (27%) going for touchdowns. Not the greatest numbers—except for the touchdowns—but he just didn't need to throw the ball that much.

Penn State's defense has looked positively Herrmann-esque when I've seen them, almost no pressure on the quarterback and a deep, soft zone. Considering Henne should have plenty of time to throw, he should also have time to find someone open. I'm not overly worried about Mannigham being out since I think his production is the result of three things: 1) his speed and ability to get separation from the cornerback trying to cover him, 2) safeties playing in close to stop the run, and 3) Henne being able to drop the ball right into his waiting hands. Since two out of the three are still present—and Adrian Arrington has looked pretty good at getting open himself—I think Michigan's ability to throw the ball deep is still there for this game. Besides, no one has found a way to stop BOTH the run and the pass and I don't see Penn State finding an answer (Florida, maybe, but not Penn State).

On offense, Penn State is kind of like Wisconsin's rushing attack plus Michigan State's passing attack. Since they're no better in any area than any of Michigan's previous opponents, they might score twice with one of them being late in the game when it's already over.

Penn State's rushing attack is the straightforward type of attack that Michigan handled even back in the marshmallow soft, late Jim Herrmann Era. I don't see it going anywhere this Saturday. That leaves the game in Anthony Morelli's hands. Michigan's last three opponents had experienced quarterbacks who knew enough to get rid of the ball quickly. Since Morelli will be facing the fiercest pass rush of his young career, I expect him to bounce balls off the backs of his receivers, send the ball 15 yards over everyone's heads, get crushed by Woodley, Branch, Biggs, or Crable (and possibly all four at once), lose a fumble, or lob up a couple of interceptions.

Morelli has completed 56% of his passes which is the lowest percentage of all of the quarterbacks Michigan has faced so far (Chris Nickson, Dan LeFevour, Brady Quinn [Wahhhhhh!], John Stocco, Brian Cupito, and Drew Stanton, not counting their percentages in the Michigan games). Every quarterback has experienced a significant drop off in completions when facing Michigan. For games against everyone except Michigan, these six quarterbacks averaged completing 64% of their passes. Against Michigan, these six quarterbacks averaged completing 50% of their passes. That puts Morelli on track to complete a dismal 42% of his throws. Good luck with that, guys.

So, once again, Michigan matches up well against an opponent. I guess it goes without saying when the defense gives up nothing to the run while forcing quarterbacks to hurl the ball away simply to save their wretched lives and the offense offers you the choice of having Hart run all over you or Henne throwing deep touchdown strikes. All while Michigan hangs on to the ball for most of the game forcing the opponent's offense to pace the sidelines in frustration and then fail to do anything with the precious little time they're permitted to take the field.

Sure, it's an away game against a team that wants some revenge—I'm telling you guys, Michigan did you and Joe Paterno a favor last year—but Penn State just doesn't have the weapons that could hurt Michigan—a mobile, veteran quarterback or a defense that combines a brutal pass rush, punishing linebackers, AND lock down cornerbacks—to be able to channel all that anger and frustration into a win. Besides, Nebraska is the real enemy.

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