Penn State football: It's Manny vs. Michigan in 2 weeks. Is Diaz's defense ready?
Manny Diaz is out of practice games.
Whatever fine-tuning Penn State’s new defensive coordinator needs to accomplish before the Lions’ epic showdown at Michigan in 2 weeks’ time will have to happen at the team’s practice facilities and meeting rooms.
The former Miami Hurricanes head coach has made major progress over Penn State’s 5-0 start, but work remains as the team enters its bye week. The transition from former coordinator Brent Pry’s basic, highly successful bend-don’t-break style to Diaz’s gambling attack mode seems to be gaining momentum. But worries remains as the unit prepares for a major step up in class.
After getting by 5 straight unranked underdogs, top-10 Penn State now must face No. 4 Michigan — in Ann Arbor. Assuming the Wolverines get past Indiana this Saturday while the Lions rest, the teams will be set up for their biggest showdown since the 1990s.
The Wolverines offense will present a huge challenge. Led by a powerful line considered one of the best in the country, Michigan averages 456.6 yards per game, nearly evenly balanced between run and pass.
Sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy, a much-hyped 5-star recruit a year ago, completes a nation’s best 78.6 percent of his passes and hasn’t thrown a pick through 5 games and 4 starts this season. Diminutive but thick and powerful running back Blake Corum averages 122.2 yards per game and 6.6 per carry — and has a nation’s best 10 rushing touchdowns already. Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson lead a balanced receiving corps that also includes tight ends Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker.
Ups, downs from soggy Saturday
Other than one brief stretch in Penn State’s 17-7 victory over Northwestern, Diaz’s group dominated during the downpour Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Here are the positives:
- Held NU to 13 yards on 15 plays on its first 5 drives.
- Forced 3 first-half turnovers.
- Made 3 fourth-down stops in 4 tries, including a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.
- Got a team-high 8 tackles from interior lineman PJ Mustipher, a key player against teams like Michigan with strong o-lines and a penchant for running up the middle.
- The other DT, Hakeem Beamon, batted down 2 passes at the line of scrimmage.
- Limited Ryan Hilinski to 15-of-37 passing and a season-low 210 yards.
- Held NU to 31 rushing yards, the 4th time the Lions have held an opponent to 100 or less.
- Held a 5th straight opponent to less than 4 yards per carry.
- Surrendered a season-low 7 points, holding a 4th straight opponent to 2 touchdowns or less.
But there were negatives:
- The 47-yard pass play that gave Northwestern its points was the longest play allowed by the Lions this season, and just the latest example of what can happen when a Diaz blitz gets picked up.
- The Wildcats had 9 plays of 10-plus yards, pushing the Lions’ total surrendered to 73, which ranks 12th in the B1G and 98th in the nation.
- The defense gave up 156 yards over back-to-back drives in the second half. Only a stop on 4th-and-goal from the 1 kept NU from closing to 17-14 with almost 12 minutes left to play.
- PSU had only 1 sack, the 4th time in 5 games it has had 2 or less.
- PSU had only 5 tackles for loss and remains in the middle of the B1G pack in that category.
Matching up with Michigan
Diaz joined James Franklin’s staff promising havoc and chaos, and his defense has delivered. And they will keep bringing it, do-or-die, when Penn State takes the field at The Big House on Oct. 15.
Penn State’s defense is young and fast and aggressive. A bunch of bulked up, reckless gazelles roaming the 120×53.3 looking for collisions. And therein lies the rub. These defenders don’t just cause chaos and havoc, they sometimes get caught up in it.
They’ve definitely given up too many 3rd-and-long conversions this season. As mentioned above, only 2 B1G teams give up more plays of 10+ yards. It’s also true that Penn State gives up more 20+ plays than all but 2 league teams. There is a silver lining, though. Thanks to the secondary’s tight, clingy pass coverage, the Lions have allowed only 4 plays of 30+ yards. Northwestern’s home run ball was a rarity against Diaz’s defense.
Michigan will try to jam the ball down Penn State’s throat on the ground, pounding away with Corum and backup Donovan Edwards until the Lions prove they can stop them. Mustipher will play a key role, clogging the middle and occupying blockers so the defense’s young speedsters can run free and deliver blows. The Lions will also need to crowd the box, tackle better than they have all year and play a lot of man coverage, something they’ve proved comfortable doing so far. Joey Porter, Ji’Ayir Brown and the rest of the secondary will have to win 1-on-1 matchups as well as they have all season.
McCarthy hasn’t been forced to win a game with his arm so far, as Jim Harbaugh and his co-offensive coordinators have limited him to a bunch of dump-off throws and only a couple deep shots. McCarthy has at times held the ball longer than he should while surveying passing options, which should make him vulnerable to Diaz’s myriad blitzes.
If the Lions can make Michigan one-dimensional, they might be able to rattle the young, relatively inexperienced quarterback. Michigan has committed only 2 turnovers through 5 games, and the Lions might need to force at least that many to win in Michigan Stadium in front of 110,000+ Maize-clad fans.
The offense can help by scoring early and forcing Michigan to play catch-up. Iowa’s robust defense didn’t force a single turnover as Michigan built and protected a 20-point lead Saturday in a 27-14 win at Kinnick Stadium. If McCarthy and the Wolverines can handle that atmosphere, it’ll be hard to rattle them at home.
But if anybody can, it’s Diaz.
His variety of formations, stunts and attack angles could confuse and speed up McCarthy in tense situations, if Penn State can just create some of those.
Penn State has forced 11 turnovers over the past 3 games, including 4 while completely unhinging run-happy Auburn on the road. It has also covered and recovered well on the back end, holding opponents to a field goal or less on 60 percent of their red zone trips. That’s an echo to Pry’s top-10 scoring defense from a year ago. Indeed, Penn State is holding opponents to 14.8 points per game, tied for 14th among the 131 FBS schools.
PSU has veteran leadership in Mustipher, Brown, Porter, Curtis Jacobs, Jonathan Sutherland and Daequan Hardy. But about half of the key players on the defense are young to super young, with true freshman LB Abdul Carter the extreme example. That can make watching this year’s group exciting and exasperating at the same time.
It should also make Michigan’s preparation a challenge. And who knows what Diaz will add to the arsenal over the next 13 days.