After a week of rest, relaxation and preparation, Penn State heads to Ann Arbor to take on the 2-4 Wolverines who are reeling due to both on- and off-the-field problems. The Nittany Lions were also brought down to Earth a bit two weeks ago in a Homecoming disaster of a loss to Northwestern. What does the first Big Ten game under the lights in the Big House hold for these teams? Here's what our staff thinks:
Matt: This game scared me the second it appeared on the schedule. It has continued to scare me every week since the season stated, even as Michigan dropped all 4 of their games this year against power conference opponents (and Notre Dame). Sure, the Brady Hoke era is winding to a close, and the natives are beyond restless in Ann Arbor, but um, have you seen our offensive line? Michigan's strongest unit is undoubtedly it's defensive line, with their linebackers not too far behind. Unless Herb Hand has worked a miracle in the bye week, I expect Michigan's front 7 to make life miserable for Hackenberg, while the running game continues to be non-existant. PSU's defense keeps them in the game, but it's not going to be enough.
Nikki: I expect Michigan's defensive line to make things difficult for Penn State, at least as difficult as things have been so far for the offense. I expect the defense to perform better with Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell seemingly healthy, but I think this game will be a little too close for comfort.
Penn State 13-10
bscaff: In 2003, Penn State traveled to Lincoln, NE for a night game against the #18 Huskers. It wasn't a defensive struggle, it was simply a struggle. Turnovers, penalties, and poor execution reigned. At one point, a drunk Husker fan stood up in the stands, wobbled briefly while his compatriots sat nervously looking up at him, and announced, "this is a close game...(drunk pause)...between two bad teams." Then he sat back down. He received a cheer from the sober people - that's how poorly the game was played. However, trailing by 8 points late in the fourth quarter, Zack Mills completed a 31-yard pass to Gerald Smith to move the Lions inside the Huskers 40. But four straight incompletions followed - including, if I'm remembering correctly, an absolutely atrocious HB screen on 4th down - and that was the ball game. Nebraska won 18-10. Awful.
Two years later, Penn State traveled to Northwestern. The 2005 Cats weren't ranked, and they'd just been toasted the previous week by a ranked Arizona State squad, 52-21. But they were talented. Brett Basanez, Tyrell Sutton, and Jonathan Fields led the offense, while Tim McGarigle, Barry Cofield, and Nick Roach anchored a better-than-you-thought defense. Michael Robinson threw three interceptions that day. Then, with under 2 minutes remaining, trailing 29-27, and facing 4th-and-15 from his own 15 yard line, MRob connected with Isaac Smolko for a life-saving first down. And a few plays later, on 3rd-and-6, he got a deep ball off to Derrick Williams as he was crushed in the pocket. DWill caught it, ducked a trailing Northwestern DB, and walked the game winning TD into the end zone. Beautiful.
One of these scenarios likely plays out Saturday night: a mistake-filled, awful contest that Penn State loses; or, a mistake-filled, beautiful contest that Penn State wins. Both are equally likely, and the difference might not be more than a single 4th down conversion. I'm hoping for the latter.
Penn State 24-23
Devon: Penn State will start this game as they tend to start all games this year: slowly. The offensive line will fail to establish the run, Christian Hackenberg will take his damn time settling in, and the defense will get gashed down the seam. Thankfully, Michigan's own ineptitude in the red zone will keep them from cashing in on some early red zone chances--Bob Shoop will bend but not break. But Penn State will go to the half trailing, and again looking completely hapless on offense.
But as they come out of the locker room for the second half, someone will hijack the Michigan Stadium PA system. Nobody will understand what's going on until--BAH GOD, THAT'S MILES DIEFFENBACH'S MUSIC. The bye week will have given him all the time he needs to recover from his knee injury, and his presence will not only help keep Frank Clark in check, but spur those around him. Angelo Mangiro's snaps will be forceful and on time. Brian Gaia will seal off Michigan defenders, not Andrew Nelson. And behind the first pocket he's seen all year, Hack Magic will ensue that not even John Donovan can prevent. Penn State reels off three straight touchdowns to start the second half and never looks back.
Or the offensive line can come out of the locker room the same way it went in, and these two teams can cripple fight their way to a 13-9 finish. One or the other, really.
Penn State 30-13
Ryan: Where do I begin? Which defect will outweigh which in this slugfest? We can all lampoon the severity for both sides to get a win this week, but it comes down to a couple things.
1) Don't drop Hackenberg back 35 times in a row
2) James Franklin reiterated the importance to never abandon the running game. SO RUN THE BALL!
3) This defense should be licking their chops at this glorified McGloin-Bolden quarterback situation.
4) When they're down, keep them down. Michigan football is at an all-time low and this could be the final straw for the hope of bringing this season back to life.
1) Devin Funchess, Devin Funchess and more Devin Funchess
2) Blitz early, blitz often, blitz some more. Michigan is only averaging two sacks per game this year. I fully expect that number to increase after this week.
Everything said there can be ultimately thrown out because this game means more than just another game and everyone knows that. Michigan plays at Michigan State and Ohio State and already lost on the road to Notre Dame. This is the home game they've had circled all year. If it were a low scoring affair, I'd favor Michigan because we've seen how measly Penn State's offense can look. But two week to prepare for one team and a slope that just keeps getting more slippery by the day for the other outweighs the argument.
Penn State 14-10
Middle Nick: I could very well see Michigan winning this one on Gardner's legs, but I think the Lions will be up for it. The run defense will continue its stifling ways (Against running backs, that is), and force Gardner to throw the ball around a bit. Mike Hull and Trevor Williams will grab picks, but Gardner will try to make up for it with his legs and rush for over 100 yards. He'll run one in for the first score of the game, but the Wolverines will settle for field goals from there.
On the offensive side of the ball for Penn State, Hackenberg will break out of his funk a bit. Kyle Carter and Daesean Hamilton will be the main beneficiaries of Hack's improved passing from last week, as both will catch touchdown passes and go over 70 yards receiving. Akeel Lynch will break a 7 yard run on his first carry, and will stick in the backfield for the remainder of the night, eventually piling up 80 yards. Ficken will kick a pair of field goals, including one 53 yarder that will make the half-filled Big House ooh and aah as they make their way to the exits in the early 4th quarter. The many recruits on hand for the game come away unimpressed, and Franklin gets out his poaching gear.
Penn State 27-13
Chad: Three defensive/special teams touchdowns will be scored on Saturday night, which would only be fitting in a matchup of the two Benny Hill-iest teams in the B1G (non-Purdue-and-Illinois division). It's a pretty even matchup on paper but I'm betting Michigan's players will have that little extra to give with their backs firmly against the wall. I like the Wolverines to squeak this one out, though I don't think I would make the same pick if this game were being played at any other time on Saturday.
New Nick: >I don't see our offense lighting the world on fire, but with the combination of our defenses overall success coupled with Michigan's offensive struggles, i think we pull it out. Unless Devin Funchess really goes off i just can't see Michigan getting all that much going on O.
Penn State 20-9
Tin A: Honestly, I don't even want to predict this game. Very little that could possibly transpire on Saturday would surprise me. That being said, I just get a really bad feeling deep down inside that Michigan is going to play their best game of the year and pull out a win. While Devin Gardner will be held in better check than he was last season, I still see him making enough big plays with his feet to frustrate this Penn State defense. Don't even get me started on the clusterfuck that is PSU's offense, led by an offensive line that reinvents the old saying "good job, good effort." They will reach the end zone once in spite of themselves, after that though, it will be all field goals and a safety (there's too much DERP potential on both sides for this not to happen)
I hope I'm wrong on my prediction, but I still bear scars from having watched this Michigan program run off nine straight victories spanning from the time I was in 8th grade up until a couple of years after I graduated from PSU. A few of those losses occurred against Michigan teams whose seasons appeared to be on life support before playing us, and I get the sinking feeling we're going to see a repeat of 2002/2005/2007.
On that note, I am available if you're looking for entertainment for your kid's birthday party.
Old Nick: This game hasn't really caused me any anxiety, maybe because I don't yet know how this staff does coming off byes and the general ineptness of Michigan this season. Virtually no result on way or the other would surprise me. If Penn State gets out of the gate quickly, the game could get away from the Wolverines and the same could be true the other way around. Really, as with every game this season for the Nittany Lions, it hinges on what the offensive line is capable of producing. The week off has me optimistic the coaches figured how to work around the issues, while working to minimize them.
Penn State 31-17
Dan: This game will come down to the matchup of Michigan's strongest unit on the field (their front seven) against Penn State's weakest (the offensive line) and I see Frank Clark and company having a field day. I have zero faith in the offense to establish a running game or protect Hackenberg long enough for him to make those 12-15 throws he'll need to to win this game. The defense will keep Penn State in the thick of things until the second half where I think Michigan musters a bit of offense as the defense begins to tire out from being on the field seemingly all game. It's going to be ugly, folks.
FROM THE PREVIEW:
Jared: Penn State 16-13
FROM THE PODCAST:
Cari: Penn State 20-10
Adam: Penn State 24-21
Bill: Michigan 21-17