Staff Predictions: Penn State vs. Michigan

After a much-needed bye week, the Nittany Lions are set to take on Michigan this weekend in the Big House. Here’s how our staff thinks the game will go down on Saturday night:

Noel Purcell (season record: 3-1): Penn State 49, Michigan 6

If you combined Michigan’s two QBs, you’d have one QB who is still terrible. What that means is up to interpretation, but I can definitively say it isn’t good. Jabrill Peppers and Devin Funchess are the only players on Michigan that scare anyone, but Peppers is hurt and it’s hard for Funchess to be effective when Devin Gardner is better suited to play wide receiver (he’d fit in well in a John Donovan offense) than QB.

Despite Michigan’s shortcomings (and they’re numerous), this is still the same Penn State team that got absolutely trounced by Northwestern at home and has been genuinely unimpressive for most of the season. If you take out the UMass game, the Lions have had an even point differential. While this isn’t a team destined for a 6-6 record, it’s not about to run the table either. The offensive line is as tough as a box of wet paper towels, which is a shame, because we’d all love to see what Herb Hand could do with a legitimate talent base. That has subsequently killed Penn State’s ability to run the ball, as Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch have seen as much daylight as OJ Simpson this season. That line and lack of a run game, combined with an offensive gameplan that could generously be described as curious, have forced Christian Hackenberg to play man on the run. Hack is on pace to throw the ball 468 times this year, but anyone who has watched the team knows that far, far too many of those attempts are coming outside the pocket or on the run. For arguably the best traditional, pocket-passing QB in the country, that is indefensible. Donovan has to figure out what to do with his talented sophomore in some capacity, because while screens and direct snaps to try and negate the offensive line’s terribleness are good ideas, they’re also overused, and just about the only idea he’s had.

Thankfully, the defensive line is nearly as good as the offensive one is bad. The secondary has improved greatly, with Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas looking the part of defensive team leaders, and the much-maligned former wideout Trevor Williams turning himself into a competent second corner. That’s bad news for a Michigan team that has looked more inept on the offensive side of the ball than even Dear Old State.

But let’s not talk about Michigan’s haphazard roster, let’s talk about their resident moron in charge, Brady Hoke. Despite having top-10 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013, Hoke has squandered talent all over. Now, however, he has gone from being simply a bumbling idiot to a legitimate danger to his own players, bringing visibly concussed QB Shane Morris back into a game that Michigan was getting throttled in. Despite chants for resignations, Hoke and abject failure/athletic director Dave Brandon still have jobs. That bodes well for the Nittany Lions, as this Michigan team seems to have given up on their “coach” and have been beaten by Utah, Rutgers, and Minnesota. Their two wins come against Sunbelt newcomer Appalachian State (1-4) and Miami of Ohio, who until last week had the longest losing streak in the country (they beat UMass, who then took that record).

This game will probably be relatively close, but I’m gonna predict 49-6 anyway and hope that, for the sake of my younger brother (a sophomore at Michigan), it’s the last game Brady Hoke ever coaches in Ann Arbor.

Doug Leeson (season record: 2-0): Penn State 20, Michigan 9

Michigan is one ugly game away from having its coach and athletic director sacked, and no other team understands ugly games and sacks better than Penn State. Despite being only two weeks removed from having their offensive line block itself, the Nittany Lions should be able to take advantage of an unusually neutral crowd at the Big House. I say that because, a) the full Blue Band is traveling to Michigan, and b) Brady Hoke’s presence will absorb a lot of Michigan’s hatred.

While Michigan, previously a good looking team on paper, is now a well-documented disaster, Penn State remains an enigma. Will the offense full of weapons and the balanced defense be the story of the game, or will it be the offensive line that can almost singlehandedly lose? It’s mostly wishful thinking, but I think it’ll be the former.

Lots of numbers reinforce the fact that this Michigan team is not good at playing college football. My favorite stat involves our old friend Gary Nova. Remember the guy who threw five picks when he played Penn State? He had an elite game against the Wolverines last week, throwing for 404 yards, three touchdowns, and zero picks. While stats against common opponents are inconsequential, there shouldn’t be any reason that Hackenberg can’t surpass those numbers, barring the support of his offensive line.

The Nittany Lions are more than able to leave Ann Arbor with a win under their belts. Let’s hope this rivalry game can be the nail in the coffin for Michigan’s season.

Mike Reisman (season record: 3-2): Penn State 21, Michigan 17

Maybe? This score really represents nothing because this is probably the most confusing game ever. It’s one team that sucks and loses because of it, and a team that sucks yet still finds a way to win. From the beginning of the year, I’ve had a bad feeling about Michigan, and as much as it’s been atrocious as of late, Penn State hasn’t been very good either and I feel like this just might be the week that Michigan comes to play.

Or maybe not? I also thought that last week, so my opinion is really pretty bad. I have Penn State winning only because I can’t pick a team that lost to Rutgers to beat Penn State without the fear of Satan himself coming and doing some weird devil torture thing to me, so I have Penn State.

The only thing I’m confident about is that this game will be sloppy as hell, and that win or lose it’s going to be entirely too stressful for a team that’s 2-4 with multiple bad losses. Anyway, here’s to hoping that the Big House will be empty again because that was just the best schadenfreude ever.

Ben Berkman (season record: 3-2): Penn State 16, Michigan 10

In his three years as Vanderbilt’s head coach, James Franklin posted a 3-1 record coming out of bye weeks. All of the victories were against top programs: Missouri, Georgia, and Florida. The lone loss? Alabama, the defending national champion, in Franklin’s first season.

Franklin may not be at Vanderbilt anymore, but I think his three game post-bye week winning streak will continue Saturday night.

After the embarrassing loss to Northwestern, it’s clear Penn State is not a great football team. But Michigan is even worse. If you take out games against scrubs Miami (OH) and Appalachian State, the Wolverines are allowing nearly 30 points a game. A bad defense is exactly what the Nittany Lions and their struggling offensive line need. Away from Beaver Stadium — at Croke Park and Rutgers — Penn State has performed admirably, and demonstrated late-game poise in both instances.

Even if Penn State struggles to score early on – it will – Michigan’s offense will stall right alongside. The Wolverines’ running back Derrick Green is having a big year with 471 yards (Belton leads Penn State with 189), but Green broke his clavicle last week and is out for the season. That’ll leave quarterbacks Devin Gardner and a quasi-concussed Shane Morris to battle it out in the air. The two have a combined five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

An ugly game awaits.

Tim Gilbert (season record: 3-2): Penn State 19, Michigan 10

There was a time, a month ago, when this looked like the marquee road game of my senior year. That the aforementioned distinction might go down as the game against Rutgers speaks volumes to Michigan’s train wreck of a football season.

Look at it this way: If Michigan can’t get past us, who is limping in after the most embarrassing game I’ve seen us play in my four years here, it almost certainly will not make a bowl game. A loss would put it at 2-5, with games at Michigan State and Ohio State remaining. And even if it wins one of those nearly-guaranteed losses, it would need to run the table against Indiana, Northwestern, and Maryland, three Big Ten teams that have proven quite solid. Combine the nighttime atmosphere with the turmoil Michigan is currently in, and this suddenly looks like one of the biggest games of the year for the Wolverines.

That’s about the only justification I can think of for Vegas putting Michigan a one-point favorite — some sort of X-factor bullshit. Penn State showed some of its true colors against Northwestern, but they aren’t ugly enough to lose to Michigan. I’m feeling a pretty #B1G (read: ugly as hell) game on Saturday, but the Nits will take it.

David Abruzzese (season record: 4-1): Penn State 21, Michigan 7

Well, my Northwestern prediction really bit me in the ass, but that won’t sway me from staying on the Nittany Lion bandwagon. We all know Michigan sucks during every waking minute of the day, but it brings a special brand of terrible to the table this season. The Wolverines are a team in complete disarray, coming off a PR nightmare with the Shane Morris situation and a close loss at the hands of Rutgers.

The Nittany Lions have had ample time to prepare, so expect the flurry of mistakes and missed assignments that we all suffered through two weeks ago to be gone. If anything, expect the running game to provide a cushion for Christian Hackenberg and give Hack the confidence that he’s not the only one who needs to make plays. You can definitely count on DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis to put up some big numbers, giving cornerbacks Blake Countess and Jabrill Peppers hell in the process. If Penn State’s offense stalls out like it did against Northwestern, then there is a slim chance that it regains the momentum it had against UCF.

Devin Gardner will be hit often and early, and look for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to mix up his blitz packages and make life utterly unpleasant for the senior quarterback. Defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson need to plug the middle, acting as brick walls. I fully expect Mike Hull to have his troops ready to play under the bright lights of the Big House, bringing plenty of intensity. If Gardner manages to throw the ball, I don’t think another five-interception game is too much to expect from the Nittany Lion secondary. I mean, Gary Nova looked like Peyton Manning last week against the Wolverines. Nova is far superior to Gardner, at least this season, and Penn State gave Nova nightmares when the Nittany Lions traveled to Piscataway. If the unit executes its assignments, this should be a one-sided affair.

This bye week was exactly what the team needed, and should result in a completely different Penn State team. What a better stage for some good old, smash mouth football. The bright lights will be on, and we’ll see who comes to play.

Stephane Hardinger (season record: 2-1): Penn State 19, Michigan 13

This is an incredibly tough game to predict because Michigan is abjectly terrible (but playing at home to save its season) and Penn State is coming off its worst performance of the season by far. The offensive line has been the main issue for the team so far, and while I don’t expect the run game to have a dominating performance, I do expect Hackenberg to get enough time to do some damage against a defense that has struggled when it plays legitimate teams this season. The old adage says, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none,” and that’s certainly true of Michigan with Devin Gardner and Shane Morris. I expect the Penn State defensive line to harass Gardner into a few poor decisions, and the secondary to capitalize on a couple of them. It’s going to be another ugly, ugly game (shocking), but I think Penn State pulls out a road win in a tight slugfest. I see it being a lot like the Rutgers game, but with less Gary Nova-ing to be found.

Jake Somerville (season record: 0-0): Penn State 20, Michigan 13

Everyone I’ve talked to about this game all week has absolutely no idea how it will trend. Michigan is clearly desperate for a win with an absolutely horrendous 2-4 record and its worst Big Ten start in almost 50 years. The fact that this one is in the Big House also makes me hesitate a little, but at the end of the day Michigan has just been awful. I expect a week of rest to do Penn State some good. Though it’s going to take more than a bye week to find the Lions’ nonexistent running game up to this point, I believe they’ll have some of the kinks worked out and be a little bit more effective on the ground. Christian Hackenberg should have a much-needed breakout game against a pass defense that allowed Gary Nova to throw for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns. On the defensive side of things, Penn State’s defensive line is going to continue to do what has made it the top scoring and top run-stopping defense in the Big Ten. Michigan’s top running back Derrick Green went down with a broken clavicle last week and that should only help the cause. The secondary has shown that it can be susceptible to big plays, especially against a mobile quarterback (see: UCF second half), but Devin Gardner has shown that he likes to throw to the opposing team (seven interceptions in six games). I expect Penn State to strike early and set the tone.

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