It’s been a long time since Michigan was in danger of going 0-3 to start the Big Ten season. That’s an outcome Penn State will try to ensure in the first conference night game at Michigan Stadium.
The Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will also try to reboot their season, one that took a bump in a disconcerting loss to Northwestern on Sept. 27.
It’s turned into a disappointing season already in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) became the first Michigan team to lose three games before October and are trying to avoid losing their fourth straight game.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has been sacked 14 times already, isn’t expecting a cakewalk at the “Big House.”
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“They have a lot of talent, and I know that their record to the outsiders’ eyes may not seem that way but it’s still Michigan,” Hackenberg said. “They’re still a great football team. They’re coached very well, have a lot of talent, have a lot of players that can go out and make plays for them.”
But Michigan hasn’t gotten enough recently.
The last time the Wolverines won in their 109,901-seat stadium was Sept. 13 against Miami of Ohio. Losses to Utah and Minnesota followed, followed by last week’s road loss in New Jersey to the Scarlet Knights.
“I think this game, there’s always six, seven plays in a game (that can be the difference),” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “And you got to execute on those plays. … I think we can go back and say, ‘Well if we would have done this or if this wouldn’t have happened, this could have happened.’ But I think as coaches, you don’t think that way. And if you do, you’re making a mistake, because there’s always what’s next and trying to stay focused on what you have to do to make sure we give our players a great opportunity to win.”
But those big plays haven’t happened for the Wolverines. Instead, they’ve made big mistakes. Michigan leads the Big Ten with a minus-13 turnover differential. The Wolverines also lost a quarterback two weeks ago when Shane Morris was hit hard and concussed. Hoke later took heavy criticism for allowing Morris to re-enter the game.
As a result, students have called for Athletic Director Dave Brandon to step down and others were trying to organize a boycott of Saturday’s kickoff.
Penn State players aren’t allowing the negative energy swirling around Michigan to affect their perceptions of the opponent. The Nittany Lions need only to look back to last season’s game against the Wolverines to know they can be formidable. Penn State needed four overtimes to put Michigan away after taking a 21-10 lead at halftime.
“I think Michigan’s a good team. I think their defense is tough,” tight end Jesse James said. “Playing against them last year, I remember (Frank) Clark’s a tough guy, number 57, he’s a real good player. I’m excited for the challenge this week that they offer us.”
Clark leads Michigan with 61/2 tackles for loss and two sacks. He returned a fumble for a touchdown against Penn State last season. Meanwhile defensive linemen Brennen Beyer, Taco Charlton and Willie Henry all have a pair of sacks.
Penn State faces challenges from within, too. Can the Nittany Lions improve play up front, where the offensive line has helped churn out just 101 yards per game on the ground? Can they protect Hackenberg, who has already been sacked 14 times?
James Franklin hopes so.
“We’ve got to protect him, because that’s going to give us our best chance to be successful,” Franklin said.
Keeping elusive Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner in the pocket will give Penn State another opportunity to be successful. The senior ran for 121 yards on 24 carries last season and led the Wolverines in a second-half comeback with two touchdown passes.
Gardner lost his starting job prior to the Minnesota game and has thrown seven interceptions this season.
“The fact that he’s a veteran guy and has played a lot of games, I think that shows up,” Franklin said. “I think the fact that he’s 6’4”, 220 pounds and probably one of the more athletic guys; in terms of being able to pull the ball ... and take off. You saw him do that a couple times the other night and he was able to get to the edge of the defense and really make some positive plays for them.”