Penn State-Michigan Was Actually Supposed to be a Great Game

It’s easy to forget now, but the Michigan-Penn State matchup at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Ann Arbor was once supposed to be a really good game.

Penn State fans circled that game on their calendars in the preseason as the big-time road matchup for the Lions this year, just like Ohio State was last season. Sure, neither Penn State nor Michigan were ranked entering the year, but Michigan received votes in both the AP and USA Today preseason polls and was supposed to be a decent, if not great, team this season. And with an easy early schedule sans a game against Notre Dame, it looked like Michigan could easily be ranked when the Lions rolled into Ann Arbor.

It didn’t take long for that to go off the rails.

After a home win against Appalachian State to begin the season, the Wolverines were embarrassed with a 31-0 loss on the road against then-No. 16 Notre Dame in primetime on the second Saturday of the season. The third week saw a bounce-back with a win against lowly Miami (OH), but from there things would fall. Measurably.

Michigan lost at home to Utah in Week 4, 26-10, and to add insult to injury, a lightning delay of over two hours with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter left the Big House nearly empty for the closing stretch of the game. The next week saw another home loss, this time to Minnesota, by a score of 30-14. The loss meant that Michigan would have three of ’em entering October for the first time in the 135-year history of the school’s football program.

But Michigan wouldn’t get off that easy. No, things got worse. The Minnesota loss was marred with questions about embattled head coach Brady Hoke’s handling of QB Shane Morris’s concussion. Morris, who was already limping due to a leg injury, took a vicious hit to the head early in the fourth quarter. He came up looking wobbly and disoriented, but was left in the game to throw another incomplete pass before he limped off the field. Morris would be reinserted into the game shortly thereafter, but he later exited the game for good and left the field on a cart after the game. The announcers during the game were appalled that Morris was allowed to stay in, and Hoke faced questions about his decisions afterwards.

In defending his and his staff’s actions, Hoke didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, saying, “I don’t make decisions on who plays, who doesn’t play,” and responding, “I assume so,” when asked if Morris was examined for a concussion before being reinserted. Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon addressed the situation in a lengthy statement in which he blamed “a serious lack of communication” for the disaster that transpired.

This was all been going on while the school found itself in the awkward position of having its name linked to head coaching candidates while the job is still occupied by Hoke. Hoke is a lock to be fired after the season; at Michigan, you don’t lose three games in September (two of which were at home) and live to tell the tale — especially not after 8-5 and 7-6 seasons made his 10-2 debut year in 2011 look like a massive outlier.

The San Francisco 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh and LSU’s Les Miles are some of the higher-profile names being bandied about, but the situation seems similar to the one at the University of Texas last season, where Nick Saban was being rumored to replace Mack Brown for nearly the entire season until he got a new contract at Alabama, and Texas hired Charlie Strong.

The Wolverines aren’t going to get Harbaugh (who has been to three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl in three-plus years as an NFL head coach) or Miles (a head coach with a national championship pedigree at a premier SEC school), and Michigan fans would be wise to temper expectations.

The Wolverines, after all of this, managed to lose to Rutgers in Piscataway 26-24 on Saturday, allowing our friend Gary Nova to throw for 404 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions in the win.

And that brings us to this week, with 2-4 Michigan hosting 4-1 Penn State. The Nittany Lions have their own set of problems, namely some questionable playcalling and a hideously terrible offensive line that has torpedoed the run game and routinely failed to give Christian Hackenberg any semblance of time and space in the pocket to make throws. The two wins against Akron and UMass are largely irrelevant in terms of evaluating Penn State’s true talent — and winning by a combined five points over 2-2 UCF and Rutgers away from home, alongside a blowout loss to Northwestern at home, suggests that the Nittany Lions aren’t world-beaters themselves.

And yet, they’re still not as bad as the five-alarm dumpster fire that currently calls The Big House home. Heading into the season, ESPN probably thought they were getting at least a decent, if not spectacular, game this week between a 4-2 or 5-1 Michigan and a 3-2 or 4-1 Penn State team. Penn State has lived up to expectations this year, despite it not exactly looking pretty most of the time, but Michigan has been a nearly unmitigated disaster. The team ranks 109th in passing yards, 57th in rushing yards, 104th in points scored, and 52nd in points allowed — compared to 25th, 116th, 99th, and 10th, respectively, for Penn State.

All in all, Penn State fans, don’t expect this year’s Penn State-Michigan game to be quite as good as last year’s.

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