Giger’s 5 keys: Penn State searching for identity

Five things to look for as Penn State tries to bounce back from a shocking blowout loss to Indiana against a Michigan team that’s undefeated but barely beat weak opponents Akron and Connecticut.

SUBHD: No. 1: ID yourself

What is the identity of this Penn State team? At this point, it really doesn’t have one, and that’s a problem after five games.

“I think our identity is we’re a tough team,” coach Bill O’Brien said Tuesday, three days after the Hoosiers, not exactly known for their toughness, controlled both lines of scrimmage against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State threw the ball 55 times against Indiana, and O’Brien finally acknowledged Thursday on his radio show that the team has to run more.

That means a heavy dose of Zach Zwinak tonight, and if we’re reading between the lines correctly, perhaps a lot more Akeel Lynch. O’Brien said more guys would get a chance to play this week, and Lynch would seem to be the best and closest player ready for additional responsibilities.

Perhaps PSU’s identity is as a team that will always throw the ball 45-plus times a game, and in many ways that will be exciting and fun to watch. But if Christian Hackenberg isn’t ready to shoulder that kind of burden — and as much potential as he has, he doesn’t appear to be ready for that yet — then O’Brien must know when it’s time to commit to the run to win in the Big Ten.

SUBHD: No. 2: Calling out O-line

There’s no way around it: Penn State’s offensive line has been the team’s biggest disappointment this season.

It was supposed to be a very good line, but it has failed to open up holes for the running game and has committed several very costly penalties. It has, to its credit, been able to protect Hackenberg.

It’s tough being critical of offensive linemen because they generally work their tails off and receive very little credit. The only time those guys get mentioned is when they struggle. That’s why they’re getting mentioned now.

SUBHD: No. 3: Calling out D-line

No need to overanalyze this one. Just see No. 2 above, and transfer it to the other side of the ball.

The line has essentially been a non-factor in both of PSU’s losses. If it doesn’t play well tonight, it will be three losses.

SUBHD: No. 4: Know your foe

Just like Penn State, Michigan is searching for an identity. It speaks volumes that the Wolverines are ranked No. 18 despite being 5-0, but they haven’t earned a lot of respect primarily because of the narrow wins over 1-5 Akron (28-24) and 0-4 UConn (24-21). They do also have a good win over Notre Dame (41-30) under their belt,

But here’s the most important thing: Michigan has found a way to win its closest games, and there’s a lot to be said about that intangible. Penn State hasn’t been able to do it.

From a personnel standpoint, lest we forget Michigan has 85 scholarship players, 24 more than Penn State. The fact that the Lions have only 61 scholarships isn’t the reason they lost to Indiana, which still didn’t have as many good players as PSU, but that could be the reason they lose tonight.

It’s not an excuse, as O’Brien says, it’s just the reality of the situation. Michigan has typical Michigan talent, while the Lions only have about 75 percent of typical PSU talent.

SUBHD: No. 5: Player to watch

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner isn’t as electrifying of a runner as predecessor Denard Robinson, but he’s a better passer. He has, however, thrown eight interceptions, so the Lions’ secondary needs to be ready to make plays on the ball.

Penn State’s front seven must keep Gardner contained, not let him run wild and force him to try and win with his arm. That’s assuming PSU can stuff the run, but that’s hardly a given after seeing the Hoosiers go for 150 last week.

Prediction: Michigan 30, Penn State 24

Follow Giger’s live in-game updates on Twitter @CoryGiger