Breaking Down Penn State’s Matchup With Michigan
By: David Abruzzese and Ethan Kasales
Big Ten conference play is finally upon us, and no, it doesn’t start out easy. The Nittany Lions head to Ann Arbor for a highly-anticipated meeting with No. 4 Michigan. Penn State enters as a heavy underdog with gaping holes throughout the entirety of its front seven — including all three starting linebackers. But, Saturday’s 3:30 ABC kickoff must go on, so let’s take a look at Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines.
This unit is, well, incredibly talented to say the least. After years of question marks at the quarterback position, the Wolverines have finally found their man in junior gunslinger Wilton Speight. The first-year starter wasted no time in lighting up the stat book, accounting for 686 yards, eight touchdowns, and only one interception through three games. He’s accurate, poised, and knows how to win football games. He’s got an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, and a stout offensive line ahead of him that figures to give the depleted Nittany Lion front seven fits. He currently sits fourth in the Big Ten with a 166.3 passer rating, and averages 228 yards per game.
While Speight is dangerous on his own, the offense’s supporting cast poses an even greater threat. Michigan’s three-headed rushing attack of Chris Evans, De’Veon Smith, and Ty Issac will try and take advantage of Penn State’s depleted linebacking corps with fresh legs. The team struggled to slow down the run with its starters, meaning the onus is on Brandon Smith and Co. to keep this battle based through the air. Worse yet, Jabrill Peppers will get some looks. He’s dangerous regardless of how he gets the ball, and the Wolverines will utilize him to the greatest extent.
The Wolverines’ slew of receiving threats will be a handful for Penn State’s young and talented secondary — none more than senior tight end Jake Butt. So far, he’s got 15 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns, but that number figures to grow with questions surrounding who exactly will cover Butt. Odds are the likely candidate will Marcus Allen given his athleticism, but there’s no doubt Butt will cause problems all afternoon. Senior Jehu Chesson surprisingly hasn’t caught a touchdown pass yet, but his seven catches for 127 yards are good for third on the team thus far. Senior Amara Darboh’s season has been an entirely different story, as he leads the team with 10 catches for 204 yards and four touchdowns thus far. Cornerback Grant Haley’s status is unknown, meaning John Reid will line up across the Wolverines’ top target. It’ll be key for the Lion to take Butt out of the equation and force Chesson or sophomore Grant Perry to step up.
The Wolverines held their non-conference opponents to an average of 15 points through the first three games of the season, while putting up a ridiculous 51 per contest on offense, but oddly didn’t feel compelled to release a depth chart ahead of their 45-28 win over Colorado. Jabrill Peppers is arguably the most versatile athlete college football has ever seen, as the East Orange, N.J., native leads Michigan in total tackles (28), tackles for loss (9.5), sacks (T-1 2.5), and all-purpose yards (278). James Franklin mentioned that redshirt freshman Ayron Monroe has been playing Peppers on Penn State’s scout team this week, but it’s virtually impossible to replicate the various looks No. 5 will give the Nittany Lions on Saturday. He returns kickoffs and punts, can line up at corner or safety, but Peppers has also grown into a special linebacker in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s 3-4 base scheme.
Senior linebacker Ben Gedeon turned in a strong start to 2016 for Harbaugh’s maize and blue, registering 25 total tackles — good for second on the defense behind Peppers. True freshman Rashan Gary, the nation’s No.1 overall recruit from the Class of 2016, is already terrorizing opposing backfields with his speed and advanced mechanics as a 6-foot-5, 287-pound defensive end who could play any position along the line if need be. He;ll back up redshirt senior Chris Wormley, but should rotate in a frequently against Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions. Gary and Peppers attended the same Garden State high school — perennial power Paramus Catholic — and both have the ability to break games open with one play. They’re simply that good.
Michigan sports a veteran secondary led by safety Delano Hill, whose younger brother Lavert — a one-time Penn State verbal — has seen the field as a freshman corner for the Wolverines. Harbaugh’s bunch is absolutely loaded with seniors, as Hill is joined by Dymonte Thomas, Jeremy Clark, and Channing Stribling (Remember Allen Robinson?) in the defensive backfield. There aren’t a whole lot of weak points for Michigan, especially on its experienced defense, so expect the Nittany Lions to put a premium on points early in Saturday’s game as they hope to keep things close and give themselves a shot.