Friday, September 23, 2016

Penn State/Michigan represents one of the more underrated rivalries in the Big Ten

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

In the 1990's, Michigan and Penn State were the big bad dudes of the Big Ten. Michigan’s run peaked with the 1997 National Championship, along the way who could forget Daydrion Taylor absolutely blowing up Nittany Lion tight end Bob Stephenson in what may have been the most epic hit this writer has ever seen at a football game.

Penn State roared into the Big Ten in the 1993 season thanks to the arm of Kerry Collins and the legs of Ki-Jana Carter, and immediately set up a fantastic rivalry with the Big Blue. It seemed both teams always had a stud running back, my personal Michigan favorite was “Touchdown Tim” Tshimanga Biakabatuka. Penn State had an outstanding running back after Carter, Curtis Enis, who sadly went on to be the second biggest bust in National Football League Draft history (Tony Mandarich will always and forever be the number one bust in draft history.)

Things have fizzled out over the years, as both programs stalled in the 2000's. Michigan fell into a slump after the 2000 Orange Bowl win vs Alabama, which was highlighted by a stellar performance by the third biggest bust in NFL Draft history, David Terrell. Michigan petered along to many an 8-4 season under Lloyd Carr before the ignominious Rich Rod era.

Of course, no ignominy tops the Shakespearean fall of Joe “If I don’t see it, it isn’t happening” Paterno. For fans of college football, there was no joy in the downfall of Penn State. State College is a special place, an idyllic campus best enjoyed in the fall, especially a Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Bill O’Brien managed to prop the Lions back up before heading on to Houston and the NFL. From there, Penn State hired James Franklin, a man who somehow managed to win consistently at Vanderbilt. If he could win at Vandy, surely with PSU’s resources and fan base Franklin was destined to reenergize Penn State football.

The jury is still out on Franklin, and Nittany Lion fans are getting a little restless. Michigan, of course, has Jim Harbaugh, a man whose boisterous enthusiasm has inspired delusions of grandeur among Michigan fans starving for an immediate return to national relevance. Michigan is certainly closer than PSU, but given what we have seen so far this season, the Wolverines have a few areas to clean up before they can dethrone the Spartans and Buckeyes.


Before I get to Michigan’s weaknesses, it is appropriate to point out this team’s many strengths. Their defense is outstanding. Yes, Colorado managed to expose Michigan’s blitz a couple times last week, but the eventual return of Jourdan Lewis should help correct that vulnerability. The truth is, Michigan fans have been clamoring for an aggressive pass rush for years, and given the scheme of Don Brown and the raw talent of Rashan Gary, an aggressive pass rush they shall have.

Michigan also has an outstanding receiving corps, led by tight end Jake Butt and wide receiver Jehu Chesson. This, however, leads us to our first area of concern— pass protection. Michigan's Wilton Speight has looked like two different quarterbacks. When he has time to throw, he is accurate and poised in the pocket. Under pressure, his passes look like ducks that have had one pint too many over at Ashley’s.

The real concern for Michigan is its inability to establish a between-the-tackles running game. De’Veon Smith may not be Touchdown Tim or Chris Perry, but he is a solid talent who can exploit a defense when he has a little room. He’s like a Ricky Powers that doesn’t fumble. Penn State is giving up 176 rushing yards a game, and Michigan needs to establish dominance in the trenches. If Michigan cannot get a credible between-the-tackles running game in gear by the time they play MSU or Ohio State, the Big Blue will likely see this season’s Big Ten Championship hopes disappear.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions are 2-1 with their only loss coming to long-time rivals, the Pittsburgh Panthers. Christian Hackenberg is gone, relegated to providing New York Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick with beard grooming supplies. Sophomore QB Trace McSorley (no relation to Marty, Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard from the Los Angeles Kings) may not have Hackenberg’s powerful arm, but he does have stronger escapability and sound instincts.

Offense hasn’t been Penn State’s problem this season, as the Lions have averaged 35 points per game. Sophomore RB Saquon Barkley provides the ground attack, and receivers Chris Godwin and DeAndre Thompkins are solid targets for McSorley.

No, what troubles Penn State fans is the defense. The pass defense has been tolerable, but the truth is when opposition is running for 176 yards a game they are likely to continue running the ball, and have no need to rely on the pass. Linebacker U could rename itself Safety U this year, in honor of junior Marcus Allen, a player whose football ability does justice to such a legendary name. Despite Allen’s talent, Michigan’s offense, if clicking, should be too much for Penn State to handle.


Michigan has looked very strong, but against dubious competition. When Colorado had their starting quarterback in, the competition was not dubious and the results were alarming for Michigan fans. Good teams find ways to overcome adversity, and Michigan’s special teams play certainly helped propel them past its awful CU start.

Penn State has played one road game so far, a tough loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions simply do not have the depth and firepower to come to the Big House and beat Michigan. They could put up a solid fight though, especially if they can keep pressure on Wilton Speight and keep Michigan’s running game in check. Even then, Jabrill Peppers can easily break a quick TD and change the complexion of any game.

My prediction: Michigan 45, Penn State 24.

Even if it is close in the second half, Harbaugh will keep his foot on the gas and Michigan will win and cover the spread.

Saturday’s game pits two programs loaded with history, fighting to reclaim greatness. At this point, Michigan is a couple steps ahead of Penn State. I expect Saturday’s outcome to reflect this reality.