Fraternizing with the Enemy: Zombie Nation and Penn State Examiner

Michigan must contain Evan Royster if they hope to beat Penn State on Saturday.

Michigan must contain Evan Royster if they hope to beat Penn State on Saturday.

This week, I had the privilege of chatting with Charlie of Nittany White Out and Kevin of the Penn State Examiner, who answered some questions about Saturday’s game for the blog. I responded to some questions for each of them as well — here are my answers at NWO and PSE. Enjoy Charlie and Kevin’s commentary on Saturday’s game as they provide insight on the Penn State side of things:

The Wolverine Blog: The offensive line was the big question mark coming into the season for Penn State. How has the line performed so far this year, and what can we expect from them against the relatively small (but quick) defensive front of Michigan?

Nittany White Out: The offensive line has come together quite nicely in our last few games against Minnesota, Eastern Illinois and Illinois. Unfortunately it did not happen in time for Iowa who may arguably have the best defensive front in the conference. Michigan’s small but disruptive defensive front has 10 sacks on the season, which could spell trouble if Penn State is unable to get the ball out of Clark’s hands to his receivers. Fortunately, even when the line was struggling to come together as a unit early in the season, they were struggling in run blocking. Pass blocking was never really a problem from the get-go and they should continue provide ample time for Clark to do most of the damage through the air.

The key to the game will be determined early on when Penn State will stubbornly try to establish the run game. With Green out, Royster and Beachum will try to set the tempo from the opening kick. If the offensive line performs like they did against Minnesota and Eastern Illinois, Michigan will be in big trouble.

Penn State Examiner: Some might say the offensive line is still a question mark. After a rough start to the season, highlighted by an abysmal performance at home against Iowa, the offensive line at Penn State has had a couple of good outings against Illinois, FCS Eastern Illinois, and Minnesota in less than desirable playing conditions. The Minnesota game though saw some concerns early on, but running back Evan Royster ended the day with over 100 yards on the ground, which should be a tribute to the play of the line.

They have struggled against some of the more feisty defensive lines this season so it will be interesting to see how they come out against Michigan. I think that the Wolverines will be able to get by them early on and put some pressure on Daryll Clark, and it could be an issue all game.

TWB: Michigan has had a tough time finding a second cornerback to play across from Donovan Warren. Does Penn State have the receivers to take advantage of a weak secondary? Also, was Daryll Clark’s play against Iowa an aberration, or can Michigan expect a few opportunities to force turnovers on Saturday?

NWO: A definitive yes. Coming into the 2009 season, one of the biggest questions on this Penn State team was whether they could replace the fantastic receiving unit of Williams, Butler and Norwood. That has been answered in the affirmative from the very first game. Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Andrew Quarless have shown they are more than capable of replacing the graduated stars and have helped Clark rack up stats especially when the run game was struggling early on. The best part about graduating star receivers like Derrick Williams is that instead of 1 go to guy, we now have 3 which puts a lot of pressure on opposing secondaries to contain. If Michigan’s secondary struggles, it will be a long day for the Wolverine defense. Minnesota was unable to contain the passing attack and Penn State dominated the time of possession keeping the ball away from Weber and Decker. Michigan’s biggest threat will be their offense so look for the Lions to attempt the same possession game this Saturday.

The key to turnovers will be Michigan’s front four. If the quick, but undersized front four can pressure Clark, that will be Michigan’s shot at forcing an interception out of him. If there were to be a turnover from this Penn State offense, I would put my money on the run game. Royster has struggled with holding onto the ball resulting in a few fumbles. Hopefully that won’t happen this weekend.

PSE: Let me tackle the second part first if I may. Clark’s play against Iowa was not a complete aberration. Watching him as a starter last season showed Clark come up a bit short in the two biggest games of the season (Ohio State, Iowa) so there is a history to suggest that Clark may not be a game changer in big games. Still, his offensive line gave him absolutely nothing that night and three of his four interceptions were tipped passes that found their way into the hands of Iowa defenders. If Michigan can bring the same kind of pressure that Iowa did, then expect Clark to get a little antsy behind the line.

As for the receivers, this group is talented, more so than people like to think. They may not be as popular as the trio that was lining up for the past few seasons yet but there is some speed to watch out for and some good sets of hands at all positions. I think Derek Moye has shown some promise this season and I would watch out for him.

TWB: How do you think Penn State will try to exploit Michigan’s defense, which has been susceptible to both the run and the pass this year?

NWO: The run game. Although Penn State has been racking up numbers through the air, look for Paterno to establish a run game to keep the ball out of Michigan’s offense. That was the key to shutting out Minnesota who was averaging 24 points a game headed into last weekend. Penn State played keep away and limited Decker to just 1 catch all game. Penn State and Michigan are #1 and #2 in the Big Ten in offense, but Penn State is extremely balanced and that will be the key in keeping the Wolverine defense guessing.

Here’s an interesting stat for you. In the 9 games in which Evan Royster has rushed for over 100 yards, Penn State is a perfect 9-0. Teams have tried to stack the box. Unfortunately, we also have Daryll Clark and a trio of receivers capable of making them pay.

PSE: The problem with Penn State under Joe Paterno has been that they tend to be too conservative on the road. Even though Penn State has put up some good numbers passing the ball and have thrown the deep ball on a few occasions, I would not expect them to come out firing down field on Saturday. Look for Penn State to try and establish a running game combined with some short passes. If things start to flow well for the offense then maybe you can think about a deep pass down the middle or down the sideline, but it will take a couple good drives before Penn State pulls anything crazy I think.

TWB: On defense, how do you think Penn State will try to counter Michigan’s zone read?

NWO: With our linebackers. Fortunately for us, we have seen the zone read against the Illini and Michigan doesn’t run a dramatically different version of it. The key to stopping the zone read will require linebackers to mess up the read. The basic premise of the zone read is that if the QB “reads” the defensive end crashing in to the running back, he keeps it for an easy lane on the backside. So to counter it, you mess up the read. Have the DE always crash in to the running back manipulating Forcier into thinking he’ll have an easy backside lane. But the defense will have the linebacker shift over to take the quarterback. This will force the QB straight into a waiting linebacker when he keeps the ball.

With Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman back on the field together, this should help Penn State counter the zone read. Penn State will force Michigan to beat them with Forcier’s arm.

PSE: I do not think Penn State will have to do anything too different than they have done in every game this season. Their defense is among the best in the Big Ten, if not the nation. The secondary has been better than most predicted with D’Anton Lynn and Nick Sukay making some nice plays early on. They also have shut down Minnesota’s Eric Decker and contained Illinois’ Arrelious Benn.

Penn State also has a couple linebackers that have a feel for the ball and always seem to close in on it quickly. Really I think the question should be how Michigan will counter the Penn State defense.

TWB: Penn State is 6th in the country in rush defense and 12th in pass efficiency defense. Is there a weakness on D that Michigan can exploit? Is there an aspect of Michigan’s offense that particularly worries you?

NWO: Michigan will be facing one of the best defenses they’ll encounter all year. If I were to attack this Penn State D, it would be through the air. Trying to establish the run against the stout front four will be futile. Minnesota ended up with 37 rushing yards, and Eastern Illinois with 59.  Illinois, the team closest to the offense Michigan runs was able to rush for 137 yards, but still ended up losing by 18. Michigan will have to establish a short passing game to open up running lanes, otherwise our famed Penn State linebackers will be running wild against Michigan’s read option all day.

PSE: I know I just went on a rant about how good the defense is so now it may seem like I’m playing both sides of the ball. But if there is a questionable area on Penn State’s defense it may still be the secondary. Yes, they performed well against two of the Big Ten’s top wide receivers in recent weeks, but they have padded their stats against inferior competition and have yet to really prove themselves. They kept Benn out of the end zone but he still made some big plays against them. Decker’s inability to catch the ball could be attributed to bad weather and a quarterback who was under pressure and may not have had been able to get a good grip or release on the ball.

TWB: One major weakness for Penn State has been their special teams — Penn State is far below average pretty much across the board. How big a factor do you think this will play in the game?

NWO: Penn State’s special teams have been so bad that Joe Paterno actually dedicated an entire practice last week to just special teams play prior to Minnesota. The result? The best special teams effort in the 2009 season. I don’t really anticipate special teams being the key to this game unless it’s a blocked punt or FG, but our kickoff coverage has been atrocious. If Michigan can take advantage of poor kickoff coverage, things could get interesting.

PSE: The special teams could play a factor early but I think overall it will be an after thought. Despite the display so far from special teams Penn State still has one of the better punters in Jeremy Boone and time will tell if the field goal unit will be a serious detractor for the team. Kick returns continue to be an issue though and I think they are still in search of a top returner. I would like to see them not use Royster and instead give freshman Justin Brown a chance.

TWB: JoePa and Co. have been absolutely killing Michigan on the recruiting trail. Can we borrow a couple of your linebackers? Kidding … how about a final prediction for the game?

NWO: While we’re on the topic of recruiting, with the commitment of lineman Kolb following the Minnesota game, Penn State has rocketed to #2 nationally according to Rivals. Now if only it could translate into national championships.

But I’m going to go with 28-17, Penn State. I’m just hoping it won’t be close enough in the fourth quarter for the referees to screw things up.

PSE: I think Penn State sneaks out of Ann Arbor with a close victory. 20-17

Again, a big thanks to Charlie and Kevin for their contributions this week. You can read more of Charlie at Nittany White Out, and follow his Twitter feed @nittanywhiteout. Kevin’s work is over at the Penn State Examiner, and he can be followed on Twitter @krmcguire.

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