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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

This week Run Up The Score fences. Second half here, in which he fires questions at me... or possibly Ohio State defensive backs. We can never be sure.

It's week four, Penn State's rolling into town, and the only thing anything I sure of is that everyone is terrified of Michigan. Penn State fans: terrified of Michigan. Michigan fans: terrified of Michigan. What's the general tenor of the fanbase? Is this The Year?

Absolutely scared beyond belief. Over the last eight meetings, Michigan has usually been the better team. Four of the games have been blowouts, and the other four have been closer in varying degrees. Penn State fans seem confident that we're the better team, but there's a prevailing, creeping sense of dread. Everybody knows that something bad is about to happen. Even if Penn State gets a big lead, nobody will believe the game is in hand until it's absolutely over. Perhaps not even until an hour after it's over.

I guess we should attempt to assess the chances of that. Given Notre Dame's performance this year, is it fair to say virtually no conclusions can be drawn from Penn State's first three games? Is there anything you feel you know about the team now that was a question going into the season?

Am I allowed to suggest that perhaps Florida International and Buffalo aren't *that* bad? No?

You are fully encouraged to suggest FIU and Buffalo have been your stiffest tests to date.

Honestly, isn't Buffalo the team giving points if they're matched up with Notre Dame on a neutral field?

I can't imagine that. Buffalo has been favored once in its history, and that against Temple, another Nittany Lion foe. (Information courtesy SMQB ongoing Buffalo Line Watch.) But you never know...

Actually, I think Buffalo will win a handful of games once they hit the MAC. FIU will win a few, as well.

Anyway: PSU.

I think it's relatively safe to suggest that the Penn State defense is still very good, despite the competition they faced in the first three games. Of course, they haven't faced the pure athleticism of guys like Manningham, Arrington, and Hart yet, either. A few successful deep passes are by no means out of the question for Michigan on Saturday, especially given the way the Wolverine offensive line tends to pick up our blitz packages....

As far as what we've learned about Penn State so far, it seems that Austin Scott isn't going to have the lightning in a bottle season we saw from Larry Johnson in 2002. He broke practically every single-season rushing record during his senior year of high school but sat behind Tony Hunt at Penn State for a variety of reasons -- lazy attitude, not being particularly dedicated to training, and Tony Hunt being one of the more underrated PSU players in recent memory.

I'm still very suspicious of our offensive line, which struggled to open up large holes in the first halves of each game before wearing down opponents in the second halves.

That dovetails nicely with my immense suspicion about Michigan defensive line, which was gashed time and again against Appalachian State and Oregon by simple shotgun zone read plays. The big difference against Notre Dame was the Irish' complete failure to get out on Michigan linebackers. Can PSU's line do better at this?

Well, we could end up having a full-fledged pillow fight in the trenches, then. Penn State has two new tackles and injuries at RG with John Shaw (knee) and Lou Eliades (concussion). Our running game features a lot of slow developing plays, and I don't think our offensive linemen are good enough to hold their blocks for three seconds instead of two. All of this comes with the questionable caveat that the coaches allegedly employed a very scaled-down offense in order to save some tricks for the conference schedule. Presumably, these are equally slow variations of our slow developing running plays. It's not like Anthony Morelli is going to be running the read option on Saturday.

I have absolutely no way of proving this, but it seems like 95% dive and counter plays so far. Apparently, RB pitches are too 1970's for Joe Paterno.

Are Shaw and Eliades out?

Paterno says that Shaw is unlikely to play very much. Eliades is available. While they were out, PSU used career backup Mike Lucian and true freshman Stephan Wisniewski, who both played well enough given their experience.

This is fairly encouraging; Michigan got Brandon Graham back from an ankle injury last week and he put up 3.5 of Michigan's eight sacks. Shawn Crable also got to slide back to linebacker against a non-spread attack. I am leaning towards declaring this an area of Michigan advantage.

In case this is something you care about.

Of course I care! I'd also agree, but it'll be close. I think the fact that Penn State runs a traditional style offense helps more than anything.

True. Other than some end arounds and a reverse or two, not much in the way of misdirection, right? They're like Michigan: eff you, try to stop this, oops you did let's punt.

Pretty much. Plus, I think there's a legitimate question of how diverse the offense actually should get. Considering our defense, why get too risky with plays that we're not that familiar with? Paterno has been accused of constantly trying to win games 10-7, but sometimes it's not the worst strategy in the world. He pretty much invented TresselBall.

Back when the Tyrannosaur dominated the game but fumbled lots. It's the tiny hands.

Throw, you stupid fucking dinosaur! Throw!

[side note: you just know that if Michigan football had been around in the Cretaceous that this guy would have been the quarterback and the would have lost to teams full of velociraptors running the goddamned spread. And they would punt from inside the opponent's 40. I should just not have started comparing the Michigan program to dinosaurs. This could go on for hours.

I think I will call him Navarrasaurus Rex.]

Terrible 40 time, the T-Rex. Narrow shoulders.

Right, about the defense: everyone knows about Connor, Lee, King, et al. How is the front four doing? They're pretty young, but highly rated, IIRC. Michigan's run game has been a constant masher against overmatched opponents so far. Projection?

Surprisingly good. They're extremely fast, and make up for their lack of experience with a ton of depth. That's not to say that Mike Hart won't get his yards. He will. It's the average per carry that ultimately concerns me. In addition, I can't recall a Penn State team blitzing so much. Our linebackers already have six sacks, which is a lot considering our usual scheme.

The Michigan offensive line has been the one unit that has really lived up to its billing (well, that and Hart)... you aren't concerned about the young guys getting pushed around?

I can only assume that Jake Long will eliminate just about everything on his side of the line. Honestly, I am just hoping for the defensive line to hold their own and not give up huge running plays because the linebackers are tied up with offensive guards and other blockers. I think the depth will help in that regard.

I fully recognize this borders on wishful thinking.

I think aggression will be key. Will Penn State hang back even if Ryan Mallett's in the game? It would be stupid but Penn State's coaching... uh...

The defensive coaches trust their secondary, as they should. I think that's why Penn State has blitzed so much this season -- the secondary is excellent and the defensive line could use a little help at times. Still, it comes back to the competition we've faced so far. Who really knows how good the defensive line is? It's FIU, Buffalo, and St. Charlie's School For The Helpless. I'm worried that Penn State will be initially shocked by the difference in athleticism, and I am scared to death of a situation where Anthony Morelli is forced to lead a comeback. I don't know that he can't do it, but it scares me. This week, everything scares me.

Right, about Morelli: I noticed some seriously crappy numbers against Notre Dame. And then it was 3-3 at half versus Buffalo. What's the deal? Is he improved? Can he be an asset?

Ahh, the eternal question -- can Morelli be trusted to be anything more than a game manager.

His receivers have dropped a number of passes, but they also bailed him out of some bad throws last week when he went 20 for 28 and threw 4 TD's. He's never going to be Dan Marino, but the reality is that he hasn't thrown as many interceptions as his reputation suggests (eight last year, one this year -- 9 in 15 games). The key word has always been "potential" with Morelli, but the fact is, he's started 15 games at Penn State's quarterback and has only shown occasional flickers of *getting it*. He doesn't feel backside pressure particularly well. He doesn't scan the field the way a fourth-year quarterback should. Still, he's firmly in between his potential coming out of high school and his reputation as a drooling rocket-armed freak.

Is he improved? Probably. Can he be an asset? Yes, most of the time.

Also, that interception returned for a touchdown against Notre Dame was a pure physical mistake. It was a good enough read -- Derrick Williams had single coverage, albeit against ND's best defender (who was not a boxer, though I'm sure you've heard about that guy once or twice). Morelli threw that ball off his back foot for absolutely no reason and it ended up being 15 yards short of where it should have been.

Jay Paterno strikes again!

Yeah, but Jay can't make Anthony throw the pass. Jay Paterno and Anthony Morelli present such chicken/egg dilemmas.

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