No. 2 Penn State faces No. 19 Michigan with high stakes
This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.
The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a “they’re back” moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.
That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.
The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.
One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.
The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State “a well-built team.”
“They’re really good everywhere,” he said.
It’s easy to point to last year’s Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.
All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.
“Like I say with a lot of things, there’s 25 slices in this pie,” Franklin said. “The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don’t make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be.”
Things to know about the 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and ’10.
“I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator,” said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. “What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they’re giving you something.
“Don doesn’t believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They’re going to try to take your run game away. They’re going to take all the easy throws away.”
Barkley’s Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple of weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan’s defense.
“He runs with great balance,” Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said this week. “He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes.”
Penn State’s offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.
“We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks,” center Connor McGovern said.
Michigan’s team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O’Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.
For the first time since 2009, ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.