Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan for Landof10.com and Corey Masisak is a features writer for Landof10.com. They faced off to discuss Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game between Michigan and Penn State.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Remember when Penn State and Michigan were among the annual titans of college football?
Many faithful college football fans do, and they see that Jim Harbaugh is bringing No. 4 Michigan back to prominence. Penn State, meanwhile, continues to attempt to regain its footing.
Saturday’s Big Ten Conference opener between the Nittany Lions (2-1) and the Wolverines (3-0) at Michigan Stadium is only the 20th meeting between the two teams. Michigan and Penn State didn’t play each other until 1993, despite being two of college football’s highest-profile programs.
LENZI: So, Corey, you’ve had a hand in covering Penn State this season, including Thursday’s feature on linebacker Brandon Smith. But I’m going to ask you a few questions about the product on the field in Happy Valley, which has been a bit maligned in recent years, and for various reasons. First, will Penn State ever have the same type of football success it once had, given recent off-field events (like the ongoing Jerry Sandusky saga), coaching changes and the competitive depth of the Big Ten and, by extension, college football?
MASISAK: The off-field events probably haven’t had/won’t have as drastic a long-lasting effect on the football program as everyone expected. Franklin and his staff have still been able to land blue-chip recruits. Parents don’t seem to be afraid to send their kids there, or anything like that. Maybe a few have, but it doesn’t seem like a major problem in recruiting. The financial backing of the program remains strong.
It’s going to be about the coaching. Penn State’s ability to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State on a long-term, program-building level has not been diminished, but those schools all have one of the top 10 coaches in the country. If Penn State has a top-10 coach, it will be able to compete for conference and national championships once the residual effects of the scholarship reductions wear off.
LENZI: And on that note, is James Franklin on the hot seat in his third season at Penn State, or is it too early in the season to tell?
MASISAK: At a normal program, given the circumstances Franklin inherited, getting to two bowl games and generally being competitive/not embarrassing the school in the first two years would be considered a huge success. Obviously, there is a long list of reasons why this is not a normal school/program.
His biggest issue at this point on the field is that he’s 0-7 against Pitt, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. The team could look much better this season (the offense does, so far anyway), but if he’s 0-10 against those teams by December, the angst will increase. There will probably be former players and influential boosters questioning the coaching staff (wait, that was happening during the first half of the Pitt game).
There’s no way Franklin doesn’t deserve at least another year. He’s dealt with an incredible mess, beyond just not having 85 scholarship players. It looks like hiring Joe Moorhead to run the offense was a strong move. The recruiting has been pretty good.
But … yeah. If Penn State beats one of the East Division’s big three and goes to a bowl game, most of that chatter probably goes away until at least next year. If either of those two things doesn’t happen, his job security will probably be a popular sports radio topic in Pennsylvania in December.
Now what about Michigan’s product on the field? Harbaugh has the Wolverines back in the fold as one of the nation’s prominent programs so far this season. Michigan is averaging more than 50 points per game. Is the offense significantly better than it was last year?
LENZI: The offense is really, really good, and they’ve gone against defenses that either haven’t been great (Hawaii), have forced them to go to the pass (UCF) or that broke down as the game went on (Colorado). Each time, Michigan has found a way to produce offense and to win. Michigan is very good at offensively exploiting this, and that’s what makes this coaching staff so strong, that they have the players identifying this and stepping on the proverbial throats.
MASISAK: But have the Wolverines figured out the pecking order at running back yet?
LENZI: No, and this needs to be a priority at Michigan, which suddenly has the luxury of having a consistent, steady and stable quarterback in Wilton Speight with an effective offensive line in front of him. Michigan can’t rely on the pass the whole time, though somehow they were successful at it last year with Jake Rudock.
Michigan hasn’t had a 1,000-yard back since 2011 (Fitzgerald Toussaint) — and it might be comparing apples and oranges, given that it’s two different offensive schemes and offensive coordinators — but there needs to be some quick definition there. A few weeks ago, we all thought Chris Evans was the answer, but he’s only had 47 yards in two games since his 112-yard, two-touchdown day against Hawaii on Sept. 3
Now about Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Does Penn State’s run game begin and end with him?
MASISAK: Barkley is truly phenomenal. He does two or three things per game that defy the physics of how humans are supposed to move. Pro Football Focus has counted 20 missed tackles in 51 carries this season, which is insane.
Running back is probably the deepest position on the team besides wide receiver, though none of the others are like Barkley. True freshman Miles Sanders might be close, but he fumbled in the red zone against Temple and didn’t return. When Barkley got hurt and missed about half the game against the Owls, the little shifty guy (Mark Allen), the bigger bruising guy (Andre Robinson) and Sanders were all very solid. Penn State would have scored on four straight possessions without Barkley if not for Sanders’ fumble.
There is depth, but not “any of these guys could light up Michigan” depth. Penn State needs a huge game from Barkley.
LENZI: I’m sure you’re also wondering where Jabrill Peppers is going to play this weekend. Or, better yet, where he isn’t going to play this weekend for Michigan.
MASISAK: How many different positions has Jabrill Peppers played so far, and which ones has he been most awesome at?
LENZI: Peppers has been dynamic everywhere — at linebacker, as a punt returner, as a kickoff returner, as a rusher — and the coaches are using his versatility completely to Michigan’s advantage. He’s a player who loves football, but in my opinion, this season he’s most effective at the linebacker/pass-rusher hybrid spot he’s been playing at. He leads the team in tackles (28, including 9.5 for a loss of 45 yards) and is part of a position group that many underestimated entering the year, but has been one of Michigan’s most consistent. He’s also Michigan’s best situational option, meaning he can be plugged in where coaches see a fit at certain points in the game — and his teammates say he provides a necessary spark for them.
MASISAK: Peppers primarily plays on defense, and we saw how Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau had some success last week before he was injured. Is there concern about Michigan’s pass defense?
LENZI: There was in the first quarter of the win over Colorado, when Michigan appeared simply confounded by Liufau and Colorado’s mobile receivers, and you had to wonder if cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who has sat out Michigan’s first three games with back issues and a muscle strain, would have been of any help. Channing Stribling, a cornerback, said earlier this week that this kind of opponent and this kind of offense was necessary for Michigan and for his position group, and said “we gave up plays that were our fault.” Resiliency is a good thing for the pass defense, and the fact that Michigan only allowed 80 passing yards in the second half said a lot about that.
And should Michigan’s secondary — which could or could not have Jourdan Lewis this weekend — prepare for the same type of passing offense as Colorado?
MASISAK: Through three games, it seems like the downfield passing game is heavily tied to the protection. McSorley has made some nice throws downfield when he’s had time, and Penn State’s collection of pass catchers is one place the Nittany Lions can match up with just about anyone in the conference. Tight end Mike Gesicki has become a factor after a couple of years of people wondering if Penn State forgot that it had tight ends, and Barkley is great catching the ball out of the backfield.
One thing to watch for: When Pitt’s defensive line was causing havoc, Penn State used Barkley and Gesicki extensively to help protect McSorley in the second half and it led to some big plays. Barkley might be the team’s best pass protector.
LENZI: Many remember the “Christian Hackenberg experiment” and how he took a physical beating at Penn State? Does McSorley have better protection?
MASISAK: Sort of, is probably the best answer. McSorley has only been sacked five times in three games, which is a huge improvement from the past two years. Left tackle Brendan Mahon has allowed a sack/fumble twice, and one was returned for a touchdown. The offense is designed for McSorley to get the ball out quicker, which has helped. The offensive line is improved, but how much is debatable. It had to be better, but it is far from a strength.
LENZI: Don’t forget, McSorley might see a bit of Rashan Gary, a freshman who’s already making an impact on Michigan’s defensive line.
MASISAK: So Rashan Gary is the real deal, eh?
LENZI: Rashan Gary has a huge, huge upside. Like many of his fellow freshmen, coaches are easing him into the defense, but the athletic defensive end already made an impact with 13 tackles and a sack, as part of a multiple-player rotation for defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Development is a huge part of what Harbaugh and his staff are doing, and they’re also looking for a balance — not just developing them to fit into the system now, but how they will progress over the course of three, four, even five years if they’re redshirted.