Behind Enemy Lines: Penn State beat writer Jill Beckman
For Michigan, it all comes down to this.
Win on the road against No. 2 Penn State, and the College Football Playoff is still in sight.
Well, that outcome is much less rosy.
The Wolverines will enter Happy Valley on Saturday night as the underdogs for the first time all year. It’ll be their biggest test of the season so far — the Nittany Lions boast the nation’s top scoring defense and have a high-powered offense led by running back Saquon Barkley, an early contender for the Heisman Trophy.
The Michigan Daily spoke with Jill Beckman of The Daily Collegian and Philly Inquirer ahead of this week’s game about Barkley, Penn State’s defense and what it will take for the Wolverines to pull off an upset.
TMD: I really want to hear your thoughts on this team this year. 6-0, (ranked) No. 2 — what’s impressed you the most so far?
JB: Yeah, you’re right, the undefeated record is really impressive, but also they haven’t had too much of a test so far. They’ve had some challenging Big Ten opponents but this three-game stretch is going to be the hardest of the season. What’s impressed me the most, obviously, (running back) Saquon (Barkley) is being Saquon. Franklin said that we’re going to see some new tricks from him the second half of the season. I think they were saving some big things for him, so I don’t think we’ve seen his full potential yet. And then our defense has been looking really good. Yeah, I would say right now, the defense and I think (quarterback) Trace McSorley have been impressing. His numbers have improved a little bit since last year, but the offensive line has been struggling so he hasn't looked as good as he possibly could, but I still think he’s a solid quarterback.
TMD: Yeah, so I noticed Barkley has been held under 100 yards rushing for four out of the six games this year. How have teams really been able to stop him? Have they been loading up the box, or has it just been the offensive line unable to block six or seven people?
JB: I think the offensive line is to blame completely. They haven’t been looking good, and we’ve been seeing Trace being sacked a number of times per game, and they’re containing Saquon. That’ll be a struggle too this weekend. I think it’ll be the biggest test basically on both ends — if Michigan’s defense can contain Saquon, that shows a lot from them and then if Saquon can get past the best defense in the country, then that shows a lot from Penn State’s offense. So I think it’ll be a test on both ends but the offensive line has been Penn State’s biggest struggle right now.
TMD: That Iowa game — close call, but Penn State had nearly 600 yards of offense. I don’t think that’s quite sustainable for teams to try to upset, if they’re getting outgained like 600 to 273. What would you say is the more realistic path to an upset for Michigan?
JB: I mean, it’s going to be them playing really solid on defense. I just don’t think, from what we’ve seen, that their offense will be able to put up a lot of points this weekend. I just don’t see that happening. So I think the way to the upset will be containing Saquon and the rest of the offense, getting to Trace because, like I said, the OL hasn’t been looking good. Yeah, scoring as many points as you can against Penn State’s defense — which isn’t easy — but I think the key to a Michigan upset would be showing that their defense is as good as it’s been all year, as good as people say it is.
TMD: Another big part of that Penn State offense is (tight end) Mike Gesicki. He had those four touchdowns in the first two weeks, but it seems like he’s really slowed down in production in the four games since. What have teams been throwing at him to stop him? Is it something where teams are focusing so hard on Gesicki that Penn State’s spreading the ball to the outside receivers, or is it something where Penn State just needs to get him going at some point?
JB: I think teams have noticed that he makes the big plays once in awhile. He’s not going to be that guy every time, but he makes those big plays here and there, and they’ve noticed that. Gesicki wasn’t always this good, he had a few pretty bad seasons, and all of a sudden now, he’s this really great player. So I think Penn State, like you said, is trying to spread the ball out more because opponents are starting to pick up on that.
TMD: You talked earlier about that defense. Michigan’s pretty highly-touted, but Penn State is No. 1 in scoring defense right now — what has stood out to you about Penn State’s defense so far?
JB: A lot has stood out. They’re getting a lot of turnovers, which is a key part, and then you have a lot of guys who are really versatile and they’re making those big plays and if they get the ball on defense, they’re going to go score a touchdown. You're seeing a lot of those big plays. It’s actually funny because at practice yesterday, (defensive end) Shareef Miller, he … basically said, ‘They’re acting like we’re nothing but we’re going to show them who the best defense is Saturday.’ I think that was it. So I mean, they can do a lot more. They can score. That’s going to be huge.
TMD: On defense, what has been the most impressive unit to you so far? I know last year, I think Garrett Sickels is gone, he was that defensive end that was pretty good. Linebackers, cornerbacks, who has stood out to you so far on defense?
JB: You have Marcus Allen, he’s been really impressing. He’s a safety. You have Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker, he’s been consistent the past few years. He’s always been solid. That’s a good question — there's so many. I would say asides from those two, (cornerback) Grant Haley, he’s been really impressive. He just got named to some Watch List or Award List or something. Shareef Miller has been good. I think those guys are the key pieces.
TMD: Looking at special teams, Tyler Davis the kicker last year put up elite numbers, 22-of-24, this year under 50 percent, what has gone wrong with him so far?
JB: That’s a good question. I think we’re all kind of wondering the same thing. Last year, he was so impressive. I don’t know that I have the answer for you, to be honest.
TMD: Are they going to bring in another kicker, or is this his job? Is it just his job until they find someone else, I’m not really sure who else they have on the roster.
JB: I don’t think they have much depth at that position, as far as I know. It’s just going to be him unless something changes. To be honest, I can’t tell you what’s gone wrong with him. It was such a dramatic decrease in production from him. Last year, everyone was raving about him. This year, the stats are just not looking good at all for him.
TMD: It seems like that’s one area that’s a little under-discussed when it comes to Penn State, because you look at the offense, McSorley, Barkley, Gesicki. But it could really hurt them in big games, right, because against Iowa, two-point victory and he missed two field goals — you wouldn’t even have needed that touchdown if he had made those, right?
JB: Yeah, definitely. And I think asides from Tyler Davis’s drop in production, I think the special teams unit has actually been really solid. Even this week, James Franklin actually said the special teams unit has had the best two days of practice that they’ve had since he became coach at Penn State. So they made some tweaks, I guess, so maybe we’ll see some better stuff from them this weekend. But that was something that stood out in my mind, for sure.
TMD: And then to wrap things up — it really seems, in the past few years and maybe even before that, that this has taken on a new meaning, the game between these two teams. Would you see it as a rivalry, maybe, on par with Michigan-MSU, Michigan-OSU, or do you think it’s still on its way to getting there?
JB: Looking at it right now, obviously all three of those teams are ranked now, and at this point last year, we definitely could not say that Penn State is on the same level as those two teams. After that Michigan game last year, Penn State-Michigan, it was a disaster for Penn State. But now they’re definitely on that level. I’d say that, yeah, they’re definitely rivals now because it’s a competition. It’s not obvious that Michigan’s going to beat Penn State or it’s not even obvious that Ohio State’s going to beat Penn State. So I would say it’s a rivalry because they’re all playing at a really high level.
TMD: Because it just seems like, in the week leading up to the game, from both sides there’s been a little different atmosphere when the players and coaches have been talking about this matchup in particular.
JB: Obviously, Michigan and Ohio State, those Big Ten teams have always been, at least recently, our biggest games, but Penn State wasn’t at the level of a Michigan or Ohio State the past few years. So it’s definitely different this year now that Penn State’s ranked No. 2 right now. The Big Ten East is just so good right now.