Michigan’s dream season on the line at Penn State

Thursday, November 19, 2015 - 8:00pm

Royce Jenkins-Stone looks forward to facing Christian Hackenberg.

Royce Jenkins-Stone looks forward to facing Christian Hackenberg. Buy this photo
Grant Hardy/Daily

 

In many ways, the No. 12 Michigan football team’s season has already been something of a dream to Michigan fans.

The Wolverines have a surprising eight wins, their only two losses have come in nightmarish fashion, and every up and down has been sandwiched by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s odd quotes about machine gun-laden worms, steak vitamins and Pattengill pickup basketball games. The first 11 weeks were as wild as they were unexpected, and the unseasonably warm fall is icing on the cake.

Of course, the biggest dreams of all are still in play. As Michigan (5-1 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) travels to State College to take on Penn State on Saturday, it has a chance to get one step closer to a Big Ten Championship.

With a goal to play for, the Wolverines aren’t trudging to the season’s end — they’re bouncing.

“When you’re winning, you’re able to keep a bounce in your step,” said fifth-year senior offensive lineman Graham Glasgow. “You want to keep it rolling, so I think it just comes down to, do we want to win? Yes, we want to win, so keep the bounce and the little nicks and bruises you have, get ’em right and let’s play.”

Though Michigan is the favorite to win and keep its dreams alive, the Nittany Lions (4-2, 7-3) are a stout opponent, and the two teams have a precedent for making things interesting.

Last season, Michigan eked by Penn State, 18-13, in a come-from-behind win. In 2013, it was Penn State that battled back at home, scoring 10 points in the final six minutes to tie before outlasting the Wolverines in triple overtime, 43-40.

This season, both teams are improved, but many of the players from past years remain on the roster, understanding the battle that Saturday can become.

“Penn State presents a big challenge, and our team will be prepared for it this week,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Outstanding defense. Offensively, outstanding quarterback, outstanding running back, receivers that are outstanding, so … formidable task, and it is a road game.”

Harbaugh has said throughout the season that the key to winning road games is to “pack your defense,” and that might be what both teams do best.

Michigan and Penn State have used defense to stay in every game. The Wolverines are currently second in the nation in total defense, while the Nittany Lions are 13th.

Both teams boast similar styles, using a bruising front and attentive secondary to make even the best quarterbacks miserable and force the run. Michigan and Penn State boast the nation’s second- and 11th-best pass efficiency defenses, respectively.

On the other side of the ball, quarterback play could very well become a deciding factor in Happy Valley. Fifth-year senior Jake Rudock has played as well as any quarterback in the country in the last two weeks — throwing for 777 yards and eight touchdowns against Rutgers and Indiana — but has shriveled against strong pass defenses like Utah and Michigan State.

Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg, once touted by many as a potential first-round draft pick, has shriveled against just about everyone this season. His interceptions are down, but he has topped 300 yards only once all season and is 11th in the Big Ten in QBR.

The fact remains, however, that Michigan has given up big plays in recent weeks, and the big-armed Hackenberg can give any daydreaming defender nightmares.

“We are looking forward to rushing the passer,” said senior defensive end Royce Jenkins-Stone. “We are looking forward to rushing Hackenberg, disrupting his timing and getting inside his head.

“When you have someone that’s an NFL prospect, it’s kind of like ‘Oh, okay, I gotta get after him.’ (NFL scouts) are watching him, so they’re watching me now, so I’ve got to find a way to get in the spotlight just like him.”

Before you pinch yourself to see if you’re dreaming, realize that you are not. Michigan has the ability to win the Big Ten Championship and beyond, but the road to the championship runs through State College.