On Monday, the energy felt a little different inside of Schembechler Hall.
Each week, the No. 5 Michigan football team has spoken highly of its opponent and proceeded to go out on the field and win without much of a challenge. Each game has had room for improvement, but when facing a collection of unranked opponents, Michigan has a large enough margin for error to still come away victorious, regardless of its actual performance.
But with No. 10 Penn State coming to town on Saturday, the narrative is different: The Wolverines have a chance to prove themselves against an undefeated squad and quiet the qualms about their weak non-conference schedule and rocky performances against Maryland and Indiana. Michigan is well aware of the stakes — and it’s safe to say the intensity has ratcheted up as a result.
“Penn State is always a tough game,” junior offensive lineman Zak Zinter said. “The intensity level, the focus, preparation level…you’re always going to take it up a notch. We’re back in the Big House, it’s going to be a Maize Out … (and) the preparation does go up a little bit for that.”
Zinter spoke while donning a bright yellow shirt with ‘Maize Out’ emboldened on the front — a shameless promotion for Saturday’s entertainment. It’s an attempt to create as raucous an atmosphere as possible for the biggest game of the Wolverines’ season so far.
But the game takes on a greater stature beyond the Nittany Lions’ name brand. Penn State is 5-0 and has impressive wins in hostile environments against both Purdue and Auburn. It boasts a talent-laden roster, led by veteran quarterback Sean Clifford, who has thrown just two interceptions on the year. They also have a two-pronged running attack fueled by Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who have combined for over 700 yards on the ground.
“They’re good all the time,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They always win a lot of games. Running the ball, throwing the ball, defending the run, defending the pass. They’re really good on special teams and have good specialists, talented players and are well-coached. … Just always good football. Always expect a real big game when you’re playing Penn State.”
On paper, the Nittany Lions are by far the most difficult match-up remaining for Michigan until its trip to Columbus on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Wolverines’ chances to enter the Ohio State game 11-0 and remain in position for a College Football Playoff berth — or at the very least a spot in the Rose Bowl — will be at stake this weekend. And Penn State is a team that can shatter all those ambitions, largely because they boast the same aspirations themselves.
“It’s gonna be a big game,” sophomore safety Rod Moore said. “We expect it to have the same amount of hold that Ohio State has.”
Regardless of the outcome against the Buckeyes, this current matchup could end up holding even more weight. And if Michigan wants to come out unscathed, it will need to win a battle of strengths.
The Wolverines have moved the ball with ease so far, largely leaning on running back Blake Corum. The junior workhorse has rushed for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns so far — good enough for third and second most in the entire country, respectively.
But that production will be put to the test on Saturday, as the Nittany Lions possess a boisterous run defense that’s allowing just 79.8 yards per game, ranking fifth in the country. It presents a stiff challenge that could force the Wolverines out of their comfort zone. They may be forced to abandon the run and put more pressure on sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy to deliver, when he has been largely untested so far.
“(To be successful), we’re gonna (have) to play really good,” Harbaugh said. “It’s the biggest challenge of the year, so far, in our opinion.”
Harbaugh repeatedly acknowledged the momentous nature of the game, and it would be hard for him to hide from it. He knows the weight this singular matchup holds for the trajectory of Michigan’s season.
He also couldn’t help but notice the persistent advertising for his team’s next contest during the NFL games on Sunday:
“If anybody wasn’t realizing that this was a big game, there were constant reminders yesterday.”
It’s evident for the Wolverines, though, that no such reminders are necessary.