This year a "must win" game was supposed to be every game. Each game was supposed to mean one step closer to an undefeated season rather than one step closer to respectability. But them's the breaks when you're Michigan.
On Saturday Michigan can edge one step closer towards righting its ship. By pasting a dysfunctional and disorganized Notre Dame team last week Michigan only managed to stop the water from pouring into its hull. A win over the #8 Nittany Lions the Wolverines can rightfully claim the pumps are working and that they've weathered disastrous four game hurricane that resulted in the program's 30 degree list to starboard. A loss and Captain Edward J. Smith starts sending up hopeless flares as the ship's hull sinks lower in the water and the passing iceberg giggles itself into the icy cold waters of a coaching search and more media scrutiny than the Joan Bennett Ramsey case.
Heading into this weekend's match up, much has been made of Michigan's struggles against running quarterbacks and their successes against the stone footed. Plaintiff's Exhibits A & B were ASU and Oregon. Exhibit A1 for the defense was Notre Dame. Penn State does not possess a quarterback capable of making plays with his feet. That's not true. They do, he's just not starting. Penn State starts a quarterback who makes John Navarre look like Michael Vick, without the prison sentence. Instead of a spread offense, Michigan faces a pro-style, drop back passing attack. They face an offense heavily dependent on the passing attack due to a mediocre tailback. They face an offensive line with injuries that has given up five sacks on the year (to FIU, ND, and Buffalo). Ahem, they also face the conference's best defense.
To those who shout "The Ship is Righting Itself!", I say patience. Only time will truly tell. There is only so much we can analyze, break down, and conclude prior to these young men beating the hell out of each other. All we can discuss is what we know, or what, on the basis of ample evidence, can deduce from the two teams' first three games.
What we know is a loss for either team will confirm for the loser something they've known, deep down about their team for some time but were afraid to voice. In the event of a Michigan loss, it will confirm for the faithful that this year is their worst nightmare. That the coaching is as bad as they suspect and that Michigan is the place where talent goes to die. On the other side, a loss for Penn State will cause great consternation amidst the Penn State fan base. It will also confirm for them the following: 1) Anthony Morelli is as bad as everyone says he is; 2) Jay Paterno is the anti-christ; and 3) that coaching not to lose for the past ten years against Michigan isn't the best idea.
It's a strange game in that both sides will point to the other and say the "Pressure's all on them." To an extent, both side are correct. Michigan still has something to play for, but this is legitimately it if they don't win. Sure they've got a five game stretch of winnable games, but an opening loss in Big Ten play may effectively boot them from bowl consideration. With trips to Illinois and Wisconsin, along with a visit from OSU, a loss to Penn State would indicate a 6-6 season is a very likely outcome. Michigan's dreams of a National Championship are out the window. The only thing they're playing for is a Big Ten Championship, bowls be dammed. Michigan's already been exposed as a fraud, now they're playing to redeem themselves
Penn State, however, is playing for something more. They have a stout defense and a quarterback the national media is in love with. They are 3-0 with a fan base talking national championship. They've put up big numbers and appear to have a favorable schedule the rest of the way. However, in reality, they haven't played anyone. On Saturday Penn State isn't playing for respect, they're playing to show they're not a fraud. Playing to prove they belong and their ranking isn't a fluke. Playing to show that despite a schedule made out of Charmin and Cotton Swabs, they're tough as nails. They believe they're playing for a national championship shot. But they're also playing to exorcise 8 years of demons and losses. Playing to bury 2005. To show Michigan doesn't have a hold on the Lions, the way their fan base seems to think they do.
This really won't be a complicated game. To simple questions will determine the outcome. One, can Morelli keep his wits and pick a part a horrendous Michigan secondary? Two, can Mike Hart run over the statistically best rushing defense in the country? Based on past experience, one will certainly be to the exclusion of the other.
Going into the game Michigan is relatively healthy, with the notable exception being Chad Henne's leg injury. Brandon Graham appears to be back at full strength and the defense isn't nursing any major injuries. Mike Hart appears to be in one piece and any lingering questions about Long or Kraus' health were put aside during the Notre Dame game.
Penn State is hurting along its offensive line. Guard John Shaw is hurting from a knee injury and Lou Eliades suffered a concussion. Penn State's running game is hurting too. Austin Scott seems to have lost Joe Pa's confidence and was replaced in the second half by Rodney Kinlaw who rushed for 132 yards. The Penn State running game has been adequate against its first three opponents but not dominant.
Penn State's area of greatest strength is its playmakers on the outside and at tight end. Andrew Quarless is going to be one of the better tight ends in the conference. Deon Butler, Terrell Golden, and Jordan Norwood all have started the year off well and all have the ability to get behind a defense.
The question mark is Morelli. When Morelli played a defense with the remotest semblance of a pulse (Notre Dame) he only threw for 131 yards, 1 TD and threw a pick six in the process. In terms of overall impact on the game, he and Clausen were even (131, 1TD, 1 INT/TD v. 144, 1 INT). The offensive line has given up 17 tackles for loss, and ball carriers have put it on the carpet 7 times. To date Morelli has thrown for 625 yards and 8 touchdowns. All of those yards have come against the 102nd, 99th, and 86th ranked scoring defenses in the country. (For the record, in terms of total defense, FIU, ND and Buffalo rank 87, 52, and 65.).
If Morelli can stay upright, Penn State should win the game. On Saturday he faces a Michigan defense that seemed to find itself against Notre Dame. If Michigan can pressure Morelli, it will limit Penn State's ability to put points on the board. If Michigan can't get to Morelli, then Penn State wins in a walk. If Jamison, Graham, Taylor and Johnson can prove Notre Dame wasn't a fluke and the Thompson, Graham and Crable linebacking crew can duplicate their performance as well, It'll be up to Michigan's offense to win the game.
As many questions as there are about Morelli, there are more about Michigan's freshman quarterback. Mallett acquitted himself well against Notre Dame, but he didn't see a single blitzer or lineman anywhere near him. This weekend will be different story. Penn State's corners will allow the Lions to send safeties and linebackers on blitzes without fear. Mallett will have to be precise in his throws and reign in his emotions. I expect he'll toss a touchdown or two, but expect at least one pick. If the line degenerates, expect more.
While Mallett has a bright future, he's not going to be the focal point of the Michigan attack. That duty will fall on the shoulders of Jake Long, Adam Kraus, and Justin Boren. It will be up to them to open up holes for Mike Hart. While Hart will be the offensive focus for the Wolverines, how the offensive line fairs against Penn State's defensive front will be the crucial factor on the Michigan side of the ball. Penn State has the luxury of an excellent secondary and perhaps the nation's best linebackers. If the Michigan offensive line can reach the second level and engage the PSU linebackers, Hart can rush for 160 yards. If the line is met at the point of attack and stymied, then Penn State has a significant advantage.
This is a difficult game to call. Penn State's strengths on offense do not exploit Michigan's deficiencies the same way Oregon's did. On defense, honestly, I'm not sure any defense can slow Mike Hart down right now. My heart and brain are torn. Therefore I'm forced to make two predictions.
Brain: PSU 31-21
Heart: Michigan 24-21
I hope my Hart is in the right place.