Behind Enemy Lines (with a friend): Penn State beat writer, Mike Persak

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 9:30pm

Michigan will square off with Penn State on Saturday night.

Michigan will square off with Penn State on Saturday night. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Ahead of No. 16 Michigan’s clash with No. 7 Penn State this weekend, The Daily called up an old friend. Mike Persak, former Michigan Daily Managing Sports Editor, now covers Penn State football for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We dialed up his number, turned on the recorder and let the (half-baked) thoughts flow. 

The Michigan Daily: So, what do you want to talk about?

Mike Persak: Do you want to know what I cooked for dinner? 

TMD: What did you cook for dinner?

MP: I figured out that it actually isn’t that hard to just make homemade chicken parmesan, so I’ve just been making chicken parmesan for myself like four nights a week.

TMD: I’m happy for you.

(awkward pause)

TMD: What else do you want to talk about?

MP: What do you think about tomorrow?

TMD: Tomorrow? Tomorrow’s Friday, it should be a good day—

MP: (Expletive) off. Saturday.

TMD: What do I think? I think (Michigan) is going to get blown out, honestly. I said two touchdowns, and I think it could be more.

MP: I’m not so sure.

TMD: Why? Why not?

MP: Penn State, their offense hasn’t been good against good defenses. I think Michigan has arguably the best defense that they’ve played so far.

TMD: Yeah, but are we sure Michigan’s defense is really good?

MP: Well, I don’t know. That’s the thing. Michigan, when they show up on defense they’re really good. But, yeah, it’s a good question. I think — I split Penn State’s schedule into two spots. And they’ve played Idaho, Buffalo, Maryland and Purdue. Those four teams are not that good, and they really beat up on them. And those two teams have good defenses and they scored 17 points in each game. The only way I see it being more than two touchdowns is if it’s, like, 24-3, which I’m not necessarily ruling out, but it seems like unlikely. I don’t see Penn State running up the score here.

TMD: To me, it’s the kind of thing where if Michigan, let’s say they turn the ball over early and Penn State goes up a score or two scores, it’s over. It’s done.

MP: Yeah, it might just avalanche quickly. But the thing that’s funny to me is that I actually think these two teams are kind of similar offensively in that I think that both offenses are really close to like breaking out. Like, really breaking out. Penn State has technically broken out already, they have a top-10 scoring offense because they really kicked the you-know-what out of the teams they’ve beat up. But if you told me that one of the offenses kind of exploded on Saturday, and it was like kind of crazy and out of nowhere, I wouldn’t know which offense it would be, even if I think it’s probably Penn State.

TMD: I would be kind of shocked if Michigan’s offense went to Penn State during the night game and exploded.

MP: No, no. I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen. But I think Michigan’s offense is closer than people think it is.

TMD: That’s interesting. Go on.

MP: I was reading a stat … comparing when Joe Morehead came in as OC at Penn State in 2016 and when Josh Gattis came in as offensive coordinator for Michigan. (unnecessary rambling) Through the first six games, it’s extremely similar. The difference is that Michigan is 5-1 and Penn State was 4-2 at that time. And that was the year Penn State won the Big Ten championship. I’m not saying Shea (Patterson) is going to turn into Trace McSorley and Hassan Haskins or Zach Charbonnet is going to be Saquon, but the offense, it’s more different than people think it is. I think people thought it’s just a matter of scheming guys open, but that’s not the case, you know?

TMD: I think that’s interesting. People here talk about 2016 Penn State as the optimist’s take on this year, because they do have so much talent.

MP: Yeah. And it’s a different kind of talent, because Penn State was just like quarterback — they had Gesicki, Saeed Blacknall on the outside. They had some good receivers. But it was like, Trace McSorley was sick, and they finally just had to trust him. And Saquon was a god. But the other thing was, I remember watching that Penn State team and being like, ‘Jesus Christ, they just throw bombs and that’s all they do.’ The Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin that year, they just threw bomb after bomb after bomb.

TMD: McSorley throwing those slot fades on Michigan. I don’t know, I think the optimist’s take on this Michigan team is 2016 Penn State, and the pessimist’s take on this team is 2017 Michigan.

MP: For sure. And whatever way it goes. … I could see it either way.

TMD: How has your perspective on—

MP: Hold on, shh shh, listen.

TMD: I’m listening.

MP: (Crackling noise)

TMD: What was that?

MP: That was a beer can.

(Laughs)

TMD: Anyway. How has your perspective on the Michigan football program changed since you flew away from the nest?

MP: I mean, it’s pretty much the same. The answer is what everyone says. Michigan is convinced that it’s still the late ’90s and Michigan is Michigan. I heard it put well by someone that, like, I’m not writing off — Michigan I think in any given year could make the College Football Playoff under Jim Harbaugh. But to expect them to be a perennial contender for the Playoff, it’s just not where the program is right now. I think people outside of Michigan get that, and I think people who watch Michigan every year don’t quite get that. But that’s just fandom.

(Random Lions blabber. Super Bowl bound. Other nonsense.)

MP: Do you think that Michigan currently has a Big Ten championship-winning quarterback?

TMD: Yes. 

MP: You do?

TMD: I mean, it depends how you define “Big Ten championship-winning quarterback”. They don’t have the best quarterback in the Big Ten. But they have a quarterback who’s capable of leading a Big Ten — I still think this roster is talented enough to be good enough to put themselves in a position to win a Big Ten title. I just do. And I still think the talent is there with Shea Patterson. I just don’t know.

MP: Last year, I would have told you that I thought Shea was good enough to be a Big Ten championship, potential College Football Playoff. This year, obviously, he hasn’t been great. But I also don’t know… if I see Joe Milton or Dylan McCaffrey as being that either. Who knows. Maybe it’s J.J. McCarthy.

TMD: J.J. McCarthy, the next reason for Michigan fans to point two years down the road.

MP: I’m old enough to remember when Alex Malzone was that guy.

TMD: Then Shane Morris. Remember him?

MP: I do. What’s he up to? Still at Central?

TMD: Uhhhhh. We’ll cut this. 

TMD: I have two more questions because I don’t want to transcribe more. First question: prediction?

MP: I don’t know. I’m really bad at predictions. … I’ll go 28-10.

TMD: That’s pretty convincing.

MP: Yeah, 28-10, but it’s like closer than that. Do you know what I mean?

TMD: 28-10, but really it’s an eight-point game. Got it.

(Laughs)

MP: 28-10, but really Michigan wins by 35.

MP: I don’t know that’s just reaching into my gut and pulling out a random score that I think might happen. But if I have to make a prediction, don’t think Michigan’s going to be able to score on Penn State very well. See, man, the other thing is Penn State really hasn’t faced an offense like this from one of the good teams... 

TMD: I don’t know how much of the Michigan offense you’ve watched, but uh…

MP: I mean, I watched pretty much the whole game last game, and I watched pretty much the whole Wisconsin game. And Army. I have got the spectrum of both (good and bad). Either way, yeah, prediction: 28-17.

TMD: If we talk to you on Saturday morning, that’ll be 28-26.

MP: It’ll be 45-2, Penn State.

(Random Vegas spread talk. Mike offers gambling advice. Isn’t sure what can feasibly be printed, per his contractual obligations. Swears he’s not betting on Penn State games. That’s unethical.)

TMD: Last question, where should I go —

MP: Wait, is Louisville at home against Clemson? 

TMD: I don’t know.

MP: Because if so, that’s my pick: Lousiville to cover against Clemson.

TMD: Last question, where should I go for dinner tonight?

MP: How about a good Piada push?

TMD: Interesting. Very interesting. I’m going to turn off the recorder now.