Michigan came into the day ranked 7th in rushing offense and 2nd in total offense. So we knew it was going to be a tough day for the Penn State defense. Playing without Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore, and Nick Sukay didn't help matters. So keep that in mind while we grade the defense.
The Wolverines came into the game averaging 282 yards per game on the ground. Penn State held them to 233 yards, so you have to consider that a slight win.
Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu played absolutely fantastic. The pair combined for 10 tackles, but more importantly they did a good job of taking up space in the running lanes. Denard Robinson couldn't fly through the hole and be in full gazelle mode by the time he got into the second level. Even though most plays they didn't get a hand on Robinson, they forced him to stop and change directions which allowed the linebackers to get in position to make a play. Still in particular had a monster game. Probably the best of his career.
The defensive ends were virtually non-existent. The zone read option that Michigan employs is designed to wait for the defensive end to commit on his course of action, and then run the opposite direction. I don't know how many times I watched Sean Stanley jump into the backfield untouched and stand there frozen in terror while Robinson stood there with the ball in the running back's stomach waiting for Stanley to make a move. Though it seems like an easy decision to me sitting here on Monday morning, I don't know why Stanley kept going after the running back when the the other guy is torching you for 190 yards and 3 TD on the night. When in doubt, make Robinson give up the ball. I'll take my chances with Vincent Smith or Stephen Hopkins.
Final Grade: Defensive tackles get an A. Defensive ends get a D.
Considering how poorly Penn State has tackled this year I was half expecting this game to be a nightmare. There were some plays where they looked pretty desperate in a pathetic attempt to throw themselves at Denard and try to bring him down in an arm tackle, but for the most part I thought the linebackers did a good job of getting into position and wrapping him up.
Chris Colasanti, I think, played his best game we've seen so far. When Michigan tried to run between the tackles he was usually there to make the play. He was even showing good anticipation and meeting the runner in the hole rather than waiting and trying to catch him six yards down field like he was against Alabama. So maybe something is clicking there for him. But when Michigan ran to the outside he was slow to get out to help too often.
Gerald Hodges was doing a good job of shedding blocks when the ball came his way, but his tackling technique broke down a few times and he just lunged himself at the carrier.
Michael Mauti played well and led the team with 10 tackles. He plays with more fire than anyone on the defense.
Bani Gbadyu is...well, Bani is Bani. He's fast and he physically looks the part, but too many times he got sucked inside and sealed and lost containment. At this point, it doesn't look like he's ever going to get it. What kind of shocks me is you never see him blitz. The coaches love to send Mauti and Stupar on the blitz, but not Gbadyu. Why not turn him loose like they did with LaVar Arrington and say, "Just go get the ball, kid."
Nate Stupar absolutely owned the fourth quarter. He was flying all over the place making tackles and almost had a pick-six at the end. I guess that's why he doesn't play tight end.
Final Grade: B
I know we were all a little apprehensive when word got out that Chaz Powell was going to start in front of Stephon Morris at cornerback, but I thought Powell played a good game out there. There were a couple of times where his coverage was a bit soft and he gave up some easy slants for sizeable games, but I blame the blasted Cover-3 defense for that more than Powell.
Drew Astorino played a tough game. He was critical in run support and came away with 8 tackles. He was also there to break up the pass in the endzone. And he made a good read on Tate Forcier's pooch punt on 4th and 10. That is something Michigan has utilized a few times this season. Astorino recognized it and put himself in position to make a play. Instead of allowing Michigan to down the ball inside the five yard line, Astorino caught it at the 13 and ran it back to the 20, and he nearly broke it for more than that.
Malcolm Willis got his second career start in place of Nick Sukay. For the most part he played well outside of the breakdown that allowed the 60-yard TD to Kevin Koger. Willis also got sucked inside and blocked on Robinson's 32-yard TD run. It was a good learning experience for Willis who is showing good potential. I'm continually impressed with his tackling fundamentals.
Any time you hold the opposing quarterback under 50% completion rate and 200 yards passing you're doing your job. But you can't get an A when you don't cause turnovers.
Final Grade: B
Going into the game we all said Penn State had to come out ahead in the special teams battle, and they did so emphatically. Anthony Fera averaged 49 yards on his two punts and consistently booted his kickoffs deep. He threw them a knuckleball on the line drive in the corner. The ball was never really in danger of going out of bounds, but Michigan's Jeremy Gallon played it perfectly by booting it out of bounds at the two yard line.
Collin Wagner made both field goal attempts (32 and 42 yards) in what has been a 180 degree turnaround from last year when he struggled to make anything over 35 yards. Then he even showed his blazing 5.0 speed by outrunning everyone to the yard marker on the fake field goal.
The return games were fantastic. Stephon Green and Chaz Powell consistently got 25 yards on their kickoff returns. It's such a huge advantage to the offense when they can start on the 25 or 30 yard line as opposed to the 15 yard line like they did all last year. It allows the coaches to breathe a bit and take some chances.
Devon Smith had one crack at a punt return and he made the best of it. Despite a slight bobble he cut to the sideline, picked up some big blocks from Mike Zordich and Malcolm Willis, and ran it back 22 yards to give PSU the ball at the Michigan 37-yard line. Four plays later Matt McGloin hit Graham Zug in the endzone and Penn State took an 18 point lead into the half. Smith's punt return was huge in setting that up.
In all, Penn State won the special teams battle and this was instrumental in winning the game.
Final Grade: A
Penn State came into the game determined to stop the run. When Michigan tried to spread them out, Penn State kept three linebackers on the field and focused on stopping Michigan from running the ball. Once they got the 21-point lead and the clock started running out they backed off and started playing some nickel figuring Michigan was going to have to start throwing the ball. And then Michigan made a run at the end.
Overall it was the formula that has Joe Paterno on the cusp of 400 career victories. Win the field position game, don't give up the big play and hope the opponent shoots themself in the foot. It didn't work so well against teams like Alabama and Iowa that are so disciplined on offense, but it worked against Michigan. The Wolverines made the mistake of thinking they could get two yards with Vincent Smith on the first drive. An illegal procedure penalty on 3rd and 5 killed another drive. They had a 1st-and-goal at the ten yard line, but a holding penalty backed them up to the 20 and made them settle for a field goal. A couple of incomplete passes killed the next drive. All of this happened in the first half and allowed PSU to get out to the 28-10 lead. In the second half Michigan stopped making these mistakes and crawled back in the game, but it was too little too late.
Final Grade: B