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'M' secondary smells Nittany Lions' blood

BY JOE SMITH
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 10, 2002

Michigan senior safety Charles Drake is often jokingly labeled a "dirty player" in practice by his teammates.

"I wouldn't call it dirty, but I do get my share of licks and hits in when they're not quite expecting it," Drake said. "Although I may catch some unassuming freshman off-guard, the older players know that us in the secondary are just trying to simulate game-like situations."

But the amount of swagger, trash talk and late bumps at practice by members of the secondary - which Drake has nicknamed "The Wolf Pack" - doesn't rub all Wolverines the right way.

"We get sick and tired of it as receivers," Michigan tight end Bennie Joppru said with a grin.

Michigan's safeties seemed to be in attack mode in their last game, when Drake, Cato June and Julius Curry each recorded sacks. In addition, two interceptions by cornerback Marlin Jackson and another by Drake translated into three Michigan touchdowns.

But against an explosive Penn State offense this Saturday, the "Wolf Pack" knows it has to be careful not bite on play-action fakes.

By going for the kill instead of sticking in their right positions, the secondary could be victimized by big plays on play-action - something that has been an Achilles heel for the defense all season long.

"That's something that (Penn State) is probably going to focus on after watching film," said senior safety Julius Curry.

Penn State might be the most balanced team Michigan has faced so far. The Nittany Lions average nearly five yards per carry on the ground, but they also stretch the field with 260 yards in the air per game. Add intangibles like quarterback Zack Mills' scrambling ability and tailback Larry Johnson's playmaking skills out of the backfield, and it seems even more important for Michigan safeties and linebackers to stay at home in their zones and not overpursue.

Mills "doesn't really stay in the pocket much, but when he does he throws the ball very effectively," Curry said. "He can throw off his back foot 40-50 yards pretty precisely and he can run the option real well. We're going to have a big challenge ahead of us."

Despite Mills slightly spraining his shoulder and Johnson hurting his knee in the Nittany Lions' 34-31 win at Wisconsin last Saturday, the Wolverines are expecting nothing but the best from a dramatically improved Penn State offense.

Michigan shut out the Nittany Lions 20-0 last year in State College, and the Wolverines have won the past five meetings between the two schools.

But while legendary coach Joe Paterno hasn't reinvented the wheel offensively, he helped invigorate his team's efficiency - which is the main reason Penn State is 4-1 after five games instead of 1-4 like it was a year ago.

The Nittany Lions have nearly doubled their total offensive yardage per game (283.6 to 435.8) and dramatically increased their average point total (13.8 to 37) compared to this point last year. They've done this by racking up nearly 100 more yards rushing and two more yards per carry. And while they're throwing fewer passes, they're more efficient - passing for 50 more yards per game.