The Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a primetime matchup against Big Ten conference rival Michigan Wolverines Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.
Both teams suffered losses in their previous games and are looking to get back into the win column. The Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1) are fresh off a bye week, which couldn’t have come at a better time after the team’s ugly 29-6 Homecoming loss to Northwestern as 11-point favorites. Meanwhile, the Wolverines (2-4, 0-4) make their return to the Big House after losing their third consecutive game, 26-24, at Rutgers as three-point underdogs.
The Wolverines are in unfamiliar territory this season, at the bottom of the Big Ten conference. But they will be looking to extract revenge against the Nittany Lions after Penn State mounted an incredible 43-40 comeback victory over Michigan in four overtimes last year in Happy Valley. That loss seemingly marked the beginning of the Wolverines downward spiral, which has clearly carried over to this season. Michigan is just 4-9 since then, and is 0-2 in the Big Ten this season for the first time since 1967. Overall, the team has lost four of its first six games this season, with three of those losses coming at the hands of Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, teams Michigan is expected to compete against year in and year out.
Michigan’s poor play has put both head coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon’s jobs on the line as the team begins the second half of the season. Hoke made national headlines two weeks ago after he allowed concussed quarterback Shane Morris to re-enter a 30-14 home loss to Minnesota, showing that there is a serious lack of communication between the head coach and his training staff.
Former starting quarterback Devin Gardner resumed those duties in last week’s loss against Rutgers and will remain the starter moving forward. He was 13-of-22, passing for 178 yards and one interception with a passer rating of 118.0 for the game.
Behind quarterbacks Morris and Gardner, who have combined to throw the most interceptions in the nation (10), Michigan’s passing offense ranks No. 107 in the country (173 ypg). Its rushing offense ranks No. 55 but will now be without leading rusher Derrick Green (471 yards), who is out for the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone. De’Veon Smith (282 yards) will replace Green as the starting running back. Defensively, Michigan has also struggled. Its scoring defense ranks No. 10 in the Big Ten.
After winning their first four games of the season prior to the Northwestern loss, head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions will look to start a new winning streak with a win against Michigan at the Big House. Penn State is 3-5 all-time in Ann Arbor but has just one victory in their last six trips to Michigan, a triumphant 35-10 win in 2009. Despite a 4-1 overall record, slow starts and a severe struggle to protect sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg have contributed to inconsistent play by the Nittany Lions this season.
Four of the five starting offensive lineman for Penn State are first-year starters. Not only has the unit been unable to protect Hackenberg, who has been sacked 14 times this season, but they have also struggled with opening holes for running backs Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch.
Hackenberg has regressed statistically speaking this year. His quarterback rating is 122.2 this season, which is down from the 134.0 rating he posted last season. The sophomore quarterback has thrown only four touchdowns to six interceptions. He threw 20 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions last year.
The Nittany Lions rank No. 96 in scoring offense (22.8 ppg) and No. 113 in rushing offense (101.0 ypg). However, the defense has been a strength this year, as it ranks No. 10 in scoring defense (14.6 ppg), No. 9 in total defense (288.8 ypg) and No. 2 in rushing defense (60.2 ypg).
This will be the 18th time Penn State and Michigan face each other. The Wolverines lead the all-time series (10-7) but have lost the last four games versus the Nittany Lions. It will be the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history. Michigan enters the game as two-point favorites.
*Section Photo credit to Justin K. Aller, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to USA Today Sports