UNIVERSITY PARK — For the first time all season, Beaver Stadium will likely be packed with nearly everyone in attendance wearing white.
For the fourth time in a row, Penn State (3-2, 0-1) will look to beat the Michigan Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) — a team that had dominated with nine straight wins from 1997 to 2007.
Michigan will invade Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. kickoff televised nationally on ESPN.
“We tell them, ‘Look, this is an exciting opportunity.’ I mean, Penn State-Michigan, ESPN, 5 o’clock, 108,000 (fans). We’ve got Nittanyville going crazy over here,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “I think it would be crazy to think this is just another game. ... Our kids are really excited. I love this time of year personally because the weather changes, it gets a little colder. It just reminds you of football, Big Ten football.”
If the forecast holds up, O’Brien will have to wait for chilly gameday conditions. It is expected to be near 65 degrees at kickoff with partial clouds.
Last weekend in Bloomington, an overcast sky gave way to a shaky performance by the Nittany Lions, while Michigan throttled Minnesota at the Big House. Now, inside the White House, both teams will have something to prove. The Wolverines, although 5-0, struggled to put away wins against Akron and Connecticut. Penn State is out to show it can bounce back after an embarrassing loss to the Hoosiers.
Senior linebacker Glenn Carson said Penn State is motivated and ready to do so. Carson, who leads the team with 39 tackles, said Penn State’s hiccups so far have come due to a lack of execution, which he thinks the team can correct. He doesn’t believe talent or character lapses are the issues.
“It all goes back to the kind of guys we recruit here,” Carson said “We have a high expectancy of recruiting great character guys and we bring in the right guys. And obviously our team has been through more than any other team with all the sanctions and everything. Just going through all that, going through a loss, is something that we’ve been through. We’ve been through (six) times together and with that bend (but) don’t break mentality, we just continue to push through and we have a really tough group of guys.”
Penn State is 4-1 following losses under O’Brien with the only back-to-back defeats coming in O’Brien’s first two games as coach. If the Nittany Lions want to push that mark to 5-1 with a win over the Wolverines, they’ll have to stop one of the conference’s most versatile players.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is second in the Big Ten in total yards with 271 yards per game. The junior does most of his damage with his legs. However, Gardner is throwing the ball more than he ever has, averaging more than 200 yards per game.
“He presents a lot of problems,” O’Brien said. “He’s a dangerous guy because he can run and throw, and there’s a number of guys like that in this conference. I think the thing you’ve got to try to do is really try to keep him in the pocket. When he gets out of the pocket, he’s very dangerous. Very dangerous.”
Gardner is the secondary cog in the Michigan rushing attack led by senior Fitzgerald Toussaint.
A straight-ahead runner who is averaging just under 80 yards per game, Toussaint is running behind a re-tooled offensive line that struggled to open holes and protect Gardner consistently. Senior left tackle Taylor Lewan has been the exception. Expected to be picked in the early moments of the first round of the NFL draft, Lewan has bulldozed his way upfield from the left and right sides so far this season.
In recent weeks, Michigan has experimented by moving Lewan to essentially the tight end spot on the right side to get a bigger push that way.
“It’s something that we’ve seen on film so far at this point,” Carson said. “He’s a really talented kid. He’s obviously, as everybody knows, a really good lineman and we just have to continue to scout those tendencies and ... how they’re trying to utilize him as a player and just kind of stay on top of that.”
Defensively, Penn State players know they must perform better, too.
They were outpaced and outhustled by Indiana as the Hoosiers hung 486 yards and 44 points on them.
“Overall we feel like we can do better than what we have,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “There’s always room for improvement, and if I wasn’t to say that then I would feel like that’s a problem with my answer.”
Meanwhile, Penn State’s offense will be facing the nation’s ninth-best defense when it comes to stopping the run. The Wolverines have been stingy, as their front seven have been up to the task of keeping opposing running games in check. Michigan is giving up just 90 rushing yards per game.
Michigan’s defense has yet to surrender a rushing touchdown this season, though it has given up seven through the air. Penn State’s Allen Robinson is hoping to add to that number.
The junior wide receiver hauled in 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns last week and will be playing his home state’s most hallowed football team for the first time in a game. The Wolverines didn’t recruit Robinson, who attended Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep — just 40 miles northeast of Ann Arbor — but the Penn State receiver doesn’t take it personally.
Either way, he could be poised to stick it to the Wolverines on Saturday.
Robinson was a senior at St. Mary’s Prep the last time Michigan played Penn State. He’ll likely be playing in front of an audience that will include a packed sideline, too. Blue White Illustrated recruiting analyst Ryan Snyder said almost 100 potential recruits are expected to be at the game.
“It means a lot just with the history coming behind this game with all the big games they’ve had thus far,” Robinson said. “I remember the last time Penn State played Michigan, and it’s very exciting for me to be a part of this game.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.