It has been a long, long time since Penn State won at Michigan Stadium. You’d have to flash back to the Wally Richardson era to visualize that win, a 29-17 butt kicking by the Lions. Hell, wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary was a junior backup for Richardson that year, 1996.
Thirteen long years since the Nittany Lions pulled it off in da Big House. You would think that this year would be a great opportunity to end that drought, bearing in mind that Michigan is still a developing team that lost to Penn State 46-17 at last year’s homecoming game.
But this year’s Penn State team is not last year’s and the Wolverines have steadily improved since hitting rock bottom at the conclusion of Lloyd Carr’s reign as head coach. Furthermore, we can expect to see a revival of the reviled “sphincter mode” employed by the PSU coaching staff at important away games. And finally, with a 5-2 overall record and a 1-2 conference record, Michigan is just about out of the picture with respect to both the still somewhat mythical national championship and the Big Ten Conference championship, while Penn State is at least still in the conference picture. Thus, head coach Rich Rodriguez does not need to tighten his sphincter – his guys can play loose as a goose.
(Dat dere is ‘ockey talk dere, eh?)
This Turkey really worries about that tendency to tighten up on the road. It’s the whole “playing not to lose” instead of “playing to win” thing. My feeling is that it is the perfect formula to lose on the road. It even gives me a queasy feeling looking forward to playing Northwestern in Evanston next week. But that’s another story. Let me not digress there.
What is this Penn State team all about this season? Do we even know yet? Every week this season thus far, I seem to write that Penn State has not yet been seriously tested. I have to write that again this week. How can I even look at over half a season’s statistics and make any sense out of them if the only halfway decent opponent the Lions have played was Iowa? We think we have a doggone good run defense, but do we? We’ve shut down teams that don’t run very well. We thought that our secondary was weak, but they did a decent job with the couple of hotshot receivers we’ve seen. They’ve been tested a little, having kept Arrelious Benn and Eric Decker quiet. We know that kickoff coverage sucks and punt coverage isn’t far behind. Collin Wagner is not a Robbie Gould or even a Kevin Kelly. The offensive line seems to be coming together, but when they screwed up against Iowa, it was disastrous. We know that Daryll Clark gets flustered under pressure. We have to pray that the offensive line has come a long way since Iowa. The signs are good, but we just don’t know.
Offensively, the running game seems to have greatly improved since its mysteriously impotent early season performance against the likes of Akron and Syracuse. Evan Royster has shaken the flu and is playing well now. Alas, the Lions have lost Stephfon Green for a while due to the ankle injury he suffered in the Minnesota game. Nevertheless, there is depth at running back. The passing game is completely dependent on Clark getting enough time and feeling comfortable. If he is uneasy, he makes mistakes. Fatal ones. He’s got good receivers. Whether he has the protection he needs is up to the offensive line, which needs to prove its mettle in this game. Michigan’s secondary is not very good, and they’ll undoubtedly try to stuff the run, so Penn State’s passing has to be sharp. (Dare I say “crisp”?)
So, the stats are pretty worthless at this point. This will be a smashmouth game that is not about statistical analysis. It’ll be about the emotions and the strategy on the damn field. That’s what football should be, not an endless nerdly recitation of statistics and invalid comparisons.
It’s a Maize Out at Michigan Stadium, their last one of the year. Sure, they stole the concept from Penn State, but we’ll let them get away with it. By the way, they’re not allowed to bring bags to the game – a new university administrative rule. So, they’ll be sober and ornery. A good, favorable home team crowd. I don’t care what Joe Paterno said in this week’s Tuesday press conference, there is a home field advantage at the big house. When the band strikes up “The Victors”, you know you’re on foreign soil.