Everybody except possibly head coach Joe Paterno wants revenge for last year’s last second loss to Michigan. Joe just wants to win. Or so he says, anyhow. Today, we’ll look at the possibilities of that happening this Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Of one thing you can be assured: Beaver Stadium will be rocking. A “white-out” declaration ensures that the student section will be a sea of white and a Friday night pep rally at Rec Hall will work them to a preliminary frenzy, which will be augmented by the bars of State College. A “Paternoville” tent city will appear outside the gates of the stadium, although the administration recently ruled that tents would not be pitched until Thursday morning. (I guess the party atmosphere that prevailed at last year’s Paternoville was too much for them.) When game time arrives, Beaver Stadium will be loud, proud, and ready.
All that spirit has to mean something to the players on the field. This young team needs that. However, their coach says:
“I think this Saturday night should be a very exciting, special night. The crowd wonâ€™t win the game for us. I will give you a clue. We have to win the game. It isnâ€™t going to come down to the crowd. The Michigan kids are not going to be intimidated by any crowd. They are going to play because they are a good, solid football team. The crowd will help, they will have a lot of fun and it will be great to see all of the white. It makes you feel like it is one of those events in your life that very few people take part in, but it isnâ€™t going to win the game.”
This Turkey happens to agree. If the game is to be won, it will have to be won on the field. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the battle ahead.
Michigan (6–0, 3–0 Big Ten), ranked #4, comes into the game with an impressive season to date. They lead the series with Penn State 8–3. Their rush defense is tops in the country, allowing an average of only 40.3 yards per game on the ground. When they have the ball, the Wolverines have the #1 rushing offense in the Big Ten, and they have a couple of deadly receivers in Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston to provide the long ball threat. Much of Michigan’s success stems from big, powerful, experienced offensive and defensive lines. Nevertheless, they are a complete team, with few weaknesses. Chad Henne has matured into a competent quarterback, and Mike Hart is an impressive running back.
Manningham Will Not Play
It came as a surprise to Coach Paterno that Michigan’s star sophomore receiver, Mario Manningham, would be sitting out this game because of recent arthroscopic knee surgery. You might remember Manningham as the guy who caught the last-second pass that beat us last year. His performance this year has been of breakout caliber, leading the Big Ten in receiving yards per game.
It appears to this Turkey that the surgery decision was made with the intent of having Manningham back for the season finale with Ohio State. So, they think that the Nittany Lions are the “soft part” of the schedule, do they? I guess they feel that way about Iowa, too. Otherwise, they get to play Northwestern, Ball State, and Indiana, before they face Ohio State on November 18.
Manningham missing this game is sort of like backing out of a prom date with the McCabe sisters. You really want to be there but you know you’re not needed. So you conveniently schedule your surgery for the night before the prom. Any way you look at it, you win.
Insult aside, I don’t think we’ll even notice Manningham’s absence, because the Wolverines have a gaggle of great receivers led by fifth-year Senior Steve Breaston. Our improving, but still young secondary will have a lot on their hands, once Michigan softens up the defense by dominating the line of scrimmage and running at us relentlessly.
Mike Hart Leads the Attack
Junior running back Michael Hart has been tearing up the field this year, ranking second in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation in rushing yards. Hart is a sure-handed ball carrier, with no lost fumbles in 579 consecutive touches, including none at all last year. Hart is not only a great running back, but also a capable receiver. He functions well on pass protection and picking up the blitz.The talented, 5’9″, 190 pound returning starter is bolstered by the aforementioned large, powerful, and experienced offensive line and is spelled by sophomore Kevin Grady, who has scored three touchdowns.
Henne—the One that Got Away
You all know that returning starting quarterback Chad Henne was recruited by Penn State. The 6’2″ 223 pound junior is second only to Troy Smith of Ohio State in passing efficiency in the Big Ten. Henne has thrown 11 touchdown passes in the past four games.
Talk amongst Yourselves—Discuss!
OK, I’m getting tired of writing about Michigan’s big stars. There are too many of them. So, let’s look at this thing from a higher level of abstraction.
The Wolverine offense is solid, as individuals and as a unit. The offensive line averages over 300 pounds. Mike Hart’s punishing running behind them can wear down defenses. Obviously, the Penn State strategy on defense will be to shut down Mike Hart as they did with Antonio Pittman of Ohio State. Making Henne pass might not be enough, but the absence of Manningham will hurt them a wee bit. The Nittany Lion defense will wear down as the game progresses, but they could keep it close enough to give the offense a chance.
Michigan’s highly effective run defense does not portend well for Tony Hunt continuing his string of consecutive 100-yard games. Add to this the fact that Hunt was hobbled late in the Minnesota game. While our offensive line was lacking Levi Brown and Robert Price for that game, the line functioned well against the nation’s #98 rushing defense. Brown and Price will be back this week, but the steadily improving o-line will be working against the nation’s #1 rushing defense. I do not see a 100-yard game for Hunt.
On special teams, Michigan has the edge. Garret Rivas is a solid place kicker. Steve Breaston is a great return man. See Steve run. Oh oh oh.
Our quarterback, Anthony Morelli, continues his maturation. (Deon Butler’s word.) I think it is ridiculous that people are already wanting to replace him with Darryl Clark. These are chronic malcontents who think that quarterbacks come equipped to play right out of the box. They need game repetitions to get their act together at each new level. Look at Vince Young and Matt Leinart in the NFL. You don’t just stick a new guy in that position and expect that he’ll be amazingly great right away. But I digress. With Hunt’s running compromised by the inability of our offensive line to handle the Michigan front seven, one big key to this game will be Morelli’s ability to see the field and hit receivers. And the receivers will have to be able to catch balls without worrying about losing their own balls when they get clobbered by Michigan’s secondary. Most of all, Morelli can’t be out there trying to force the ball into coverage. Michigan’s corners are very good. Even if Morelli is careful, you can expect an interception or two in this game. Morelli’s best game might not be good enough to win.
It is obvious that we still need to learn how to make big plays, particularly in the red zone. In this game, it will not be easy. Hell, last week, against Minnesota’s Swiss cheese defense, it was not easy. If we can’t learn from those mistakes, we’ll have lost this game before it even begins.
We need to take care of the ball and not incur stupid penalties. Michigan is a very well disciplined team with a big positive turnover margin. If we can’t take care of the ball, we’re sunk.
And, In Summation…
This Turkey will issue the usual Turkey Poop Prediction in due course. At the beginning of the season, I decided that the Lions would win this one, just because I’ll be attending. Well, since that time, I’ve seen enough to recognize the error of my ways. I am not extremely optimistic about this game. I just want to keep it close enough to avoid further national TV embarrassment of the sort we suffered against Notre Dame and Ohio State. I know that this is a negative sort of philosophy, but it is realistic. If Minnesota can score 21 on our vaunted defense, what will Michigan do? I say they’ll score more. Michigan 31, Penn State 9.