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Lion In Wait: Penn State Versus Michigan

Lion In Wait is Onward State’s football column for Penn State conference games.  Published Friday at 5 P.M. before games featuring Big Ten opponents, LIW emphasizes the game from a fan perspective.

“We’ve been fortunate, the only tough game we’ve been in we’ve lost.”

When you really think about the above quote from Joe Paterno, he’s right. The season thus far has not been one of last-minute heartbreak. September 26th’s loss to Iowa was certainly a disappointment – especially considering the hype generated by the stadium-wide whiteout, visit from ESPN’s College Gameday, and revenge storyline – but it was more of an excruciating slow-motion car wreck rather than an if-only-this-call-had-been-made-everything-would-be-different loss.

Nothing like, say, Penn State’s loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2005.

At the same time, there is another way to interpret Joe’s press conference statement – the only tough game we’ve been in, we’ve lost. Penn State’s number 13 BCS ranking is based on an incredibly soft schedule with one game against a ranked opponent. Although they’re in the Big Ten title race with a 2-1 conference record, the Nittany Lions are still untested.

This Saturday’s trip to Michigan Stadium offers the unique opportunity to answer for both interpretations. The Wolverines are much better than their two-loss record indicates, engineering an impressive win against Notre Dame and nearly knocking off the Iowa Hawkeyes two weeks ago. Add in the fact that Michigan has dealt more than their fare share of heartbreak to Penn State for the past decade, and you’ve got a bona fide statement game.

This is a pivotal moment in the Nittany Lions’ 2009 football season. They can either best an opponent that has had their number for years – or fail to live up to their national ranking. A season never hinges upon one game – but this is pretty damn close.

History Lesson

Do I really need to go over this? If you have any emotional investment in this game, you’re quite familiar with recent history. It’s been riddled with stuff like this:

Public Enemy Number One

Tate Forcier – Quarterback #5

Remember the 2008 season – when we all laughed away as Rich Rodriguez struggled to match his available personnel with his offensive scheme, leading to a 3-9 record for the Wolverines? Those were good times for rivals of the maize and blue. Unfortunately, RichRod now has his quarterback (two, actually, if you note alternate option Denard Robinson’s contributions this season), and he’s taking the role of quarterback for a storied football program in stride as a true freshman. Forcier even went as far as to say he “doesn’t get nervous.”

While his athletic ability is incredibly valuable to implementation of the Wolverines’ spread offense, you can’t teach a player to have a short memory. And when your quarterback can take the game one drive at a time, a swarming defense loses its ability to frazzle the conduit for offensive production. Penn State’s defense is expected to be the answer to the high powered offense (ranked 10th in the nation in points scored) Michigan fields, but in order to beat this guy, they will have to play four full quarters of quality defense. Because unlike other passers, Forcier won’t be stymied by a few bad plays in the first half.

The X-Factor

Sean Lee – Linebacker #45

ESPN’s Big Ten blog had a particularly enlightening piece on Forcier’s superior passing performance out of the pocket. The bottom line of the post was, against FBS teams, Forcier is completing under 17% of his passes for ten or more yards. Since big plays are what changes games against good defenses, it’s imperative that the lions keep the Michigan quarterback in the pocket and force him to play conservatively. No one outside of the Penn State locker room knows how close to 100% Sean Lee is, but if Lee and Bowman can be on the field together for a large portion of the game, the Lions can neutralize Forcier with coverage and tackles for loss.

Tips For The Game

1) If something good happens, don’t switch your seats. This isn’t a tip per se, but rather a superstition I was raised to follow. Logically, there is no evidence to suggest that seating arrangements can affect the outcome of an athletic event (especially one that is happening miles and miles away), but I’ll just say – I’ve enjoyed a good number of victories as a friend or family member has been forced to watch from the kitchen.

2) Camelbak! I thoroughly encourage everyone watching the game at home to abuse the function of this hiking accessory. Fill it up with your beverage of choice, and you’ll never have to get up to get a drink for the rest of the game! Plus, the over-the-shoulders design affords you full use of both hands! That’s 50% more hands to clap or make obscene gestures with!

3) Remember, the game is at 3:30 – and Michigan still sucks.

Prediction

The Nittany Lions are a five point favorite, indicating that most of the experts think there’s a pretty good shot that Penn State’s 10 year dry spell in the “big house” will be broken.

Penn State 34, Michigan 31. I can’t bring myself to pick against Penn State, particularly when playing such a reviled opponent. However, this Wolverines team tends to take things down to the wire – so don’t be surprised if we get our hearts broken in the fourth quarter. All we can do now is be optimistic that Navorro Bowman and co. can keep this from becoming a shootout.

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About the Author

Mark

Mark McColey is a Senior majoring in Advertising and Labor-Employment relations. Among his loves are Penn State Football, The Steelers, The Penguins, The Simpsons, Tina Fey, and Arrested Development.

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