The stakes for the No. 12 Michigan football team are clear entering Saturday’s game at Penn State. A win will keep the Wolverines alive in the race for the Big Ten title, while a loss would likely end those hopes.
But what does the game mean for the Nittany Lions?
We spoke with Connor Whooley, the Daily Collegian’s sports editor, for the Penn State perspective.
The Michigan Daily: How do people in State College feel about Penn State’s season? Is it a mixed bag or mostly positive?
The Daily Collegian: It’s definitely a mixed bag in State College. 7-3 is obviously a good mark for a team that’s still dealing with depth issues and a roster that hasn’t been recruited by its head coach, but Penn State fans expect fast results. A lot of people aren’t happy with the play of Christian Hackenberg at times, and even more people are upset with the play-calling from offensive coordinator John Donovan. Students, for the most part, seem somewhat indifferent, though they have voiced their displeasure with Donovan as well. On the other side, though, a lot of people understand that this team is still building, and while it may look really bad at points, this team is still going to a bowl game and has a bright future ahead.
TMD: Michigan is still in the middle of its honeymoon period with Jim Harbaugh. What’s the relationship like at Penn State between the fans and James Franklin?
TDC: I think Franklin’s honeymooon period came to an end last season. While it’s understood that he’s still recruiting his guys and still building, like I said, Penn State fans expect fast results. Some people aren’t happy with the soft schedule the Nittany Lions have and some people have begun to see Franklin as a salesman who can bring in recruits but has a hard time producing on the field. A lot of the negativity comes from the message boards and trolls, though, and I think most Penn Staters are still OK with Franklin at the helm.
TMD: What’s the deal with Christian Hackenberg? He had such high expectations entering the season, and it seems like he has really struggled at times.
TDC: James Franklin always uses this term, and I’ll throw it out here: “It’s a combination of things.” The offensive line is still very shaky, and though it is improving, he still gets clobbered from time to time and frequently throws with pressure around him. Also, people have complained about the play calling from Donovan like I’ve mentioned, which plays into the system Franklin is trying to install. He wants to run a spread system with a mobile quarterback. Hackenberg is a true pocket passer. He’s an athletic guy, but he’s built to sling it, and this offense has limited him. There have also been times where he’s simply been bad on his own, and I can’t put my finger on that. My best guess is that with all these factors he can’t get into a rhythm like he did in Bill O’Brien’s offense two years ago. I still think a lot of the media, including myself, sees his full potential as a solid NFL prospect.
TMD: What should Michigan fans expect from Penn State’s defensive front?
TDC: Penn State has arguably one of the best defensive lines in the country. Defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel were both expected to be monsters before the season, and they have at times, but former walk-on defensive end Carl Nassib has been the star and has put up huge sack numbers all year. Couple that with Garrett Sickels on the other end flying under the radar and creating a lot of pressure, and there are four really talented guys who will crash against Michigan’s offensive line. Behind them, though, it gets hairy at times. Penn State lost senior middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White in its season opener against Temple, and Jason Cabinda has done a good job filling in, but with Brandon Bell still trying to stay healthy and a redshirt freshman in Troy Reeder on his other side, the corps has had trouble at points. As for the secondary, the unit has trouble tackling all season, and with the loss of senior safety Jordan Lucas, it will only get shakier. When it’s really humming, though, it can truly compete against a lot of offenses in the Big Ten.
TMD: Prediction for the game?
TDC: I called myself crazy for this, and I really just went with my gut, but in my prediction for The Daily Collegian, I said Penn State 27, Michigan 24 with Hackenberg leading a surgical drive late for a game-winner.