UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State knows the multi-dimensional quarterback as well as any team. In 2012, the Nittany Lions faced Northwestern's Kain Colter and Ohio State's Braxton Miller, who might have the most dynamic combination of legs and arm in college football.
Today, they have a new task. Penn State must stop Michigan's Devin Gardner. He's not as polished as Colter or Miller, nor nearly as proven, but he has more than enough talent to convince the defense it will be in for a test. Gardner, considered the top quarterback in his class when he came out of high school, has the potential to make a big play happen at any moment.
Penn State (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) vs. Michigan (5-0, 0-1), 5 p.m. today, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa., Michigan is favored by 2 1/2.
- TV, Radio, Internet:
ESPN; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State:
WR Allen Robinson's 12 catches last week were one short of the single-game school record. ... S Ryan Keiser's status for the game is considered "possible." ... Penn State's defense ranks among the top half of the Big Ten Conference for total, passing and rushing. ... QB Christian Hackenberg ranks eighth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, one spot below Michigan's Devin Gardner.
Gives up 90.4 yards rushing per game. ... Has a young offensive line -- with a redshirt freshman, a sophomore, a junior, two seniors and four backups who are freshmen or sophomores. ... Star LB Jake Ryan might return after missing the first part of this season with a knee injury.
- Hidden stat:
At the pace of the first five games, no one on Penn State's defense will accumulate 100 tackles this season. LB Glenn Carson leads the team with 39.
"I think the thing you've got to try to do is really try to keep him in the pocket," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "When he gets out of the pocket, he's very dangerous. Very dangerous."
Through five games, Gardner, a redshirt junior, is averaging about 207 passing yards and 64 rushing yards per game. Though he's completing 60 percent of his passes, he has thrown eight interceptions -- the same number of touchdowns.
This shortcoming was particularly on display against Akron and Connecticut. Gardner had five interceptions in those two, and Michigan nearly lost both. When he's off, Michigan can be off.
But he's rarely off through the air and on the ground. Earlier this week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke discussed his offense's use of Gardner in a blowout victory last week against Minnesota. Gardner had 235 passing yards, no interceptions and just 17 yards rushing on seven attempts.
Hoke said all seven of those rushing plays were by design, rather than the spontaneous type often developed by a scrambling quarterback, and he did it this way to better open up the field for tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint. While Gardner failed at the rush, he helped supplement it for others and threw the ball accurately.
Penn State's top plan for stopping Gardner starts with assignment football. It sounds easy -- playing sound assignment football essentially means doing what you're supposed to do based on the defensive formation.
When a wily quarterback starts scrambling and zig-zags across the field, it gets tougher. While Colter had just 24 rushing yards against Penn State last year, Miller had 134.
This year, Penn State's defense hasn't been as sharp, giving up more than 450 yards each to Central Florida and Indiana. Linebacker Glenn Carson said the defense's weakness has been the very thing it needs to do best against Michigan and Gardner -- assignment football.
"I would just put it down to execution, just sometimes we're just not functioning as an entire whole, one person, like missing an assignment here or there," Carson said. "And that can hurt us. We're just really not going out and executing it sometimes, and we've just really got to fix that and just play all 11 at once."
The inability to do that has hurt before. And if Penn State struggles to do so again, Gardner is the type of quarterback who can take advantage.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 11, 2013 8:03 PM