Two years ago, Penn State strolled into Ann Arbor undefeated and in line for a potential National Championship bid.
Michigan was struggling, having already lost three games, including two at home.
And up 25-21 with 53 seconds left, the Nittany Lions were ready to celebrate not just the continuation of their dream season, but the end of a six-game losing streak to the Wolverines.
But a Steve Breaston kick return started drive that resulted in a Mario Manningham touchdown catch with no time remaining, extending Penn State’s misery another year.
The Nittany Lions haven’t beaten the Wolverines since 1996, when they left Ann Arbor with a 29-17 victory. Tomorrow, they will try to end the streak that reached eight games with a 17-10 loss in Happy Valley last season.
“You hear it around campus, in the newspapers, even when we’re just being asked questions,” Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler said. “I think everyone will get a crash course on how many times Michigan has beat us in a row, even if you didn’t know.”
The losses have varied in style. Michigan has blown out the Nittany Lions by at least 20 points in half the games and has squeezed out tight wins by seven points or fewer in the other half.
In several of the contests, disputed calls near the end of the game have had a hand in determining the outcome.
Two years ago, Carr argued for and received two additional seconds on the clock during the Wolverines’ final drive. Penn State coach Joe Paterno got the same treatment on the previous drive.
In 2002, referees ruled Nittany Lion wide receiver Tony Johnson out of bounds on a critical third-down reception, killing a possible game-winning drive. Subsequent replays indicated that Johnson was, in fact, inbounds.
These losses still resonate with Penn State fans, players and coaches.
“We’ve played some really good games against them,” Nittany Lions’ coach Joe Paterno said. “Some of them, we could dispute other factors beside just the players. I think that’s the way it goes.”
Although Penn State hasn’t beaten the Wolverines in 11 years, the Nittany Lions have been favored numerous times during that period. This year, No. 10 Penn State (3-0) has beaten each of its opponents by more than 20 points. Michigan (1-2), on the other hand, dropped its first two games of the season before pounding Notre Dame last Saturday.
The Nittany Lions’ defense ranks eighth in the nation, allowing just 218 yards per game. Although its first three games have been against national doormats Buffalo, Notre Dame and Florida International, the defense was expected to be the team’s strength headin into the season.
“When you look at a lot of defenses, you can find a weakness,” running back Mike Hart said. “But Penn State, there’s really no weak point on their defense. Every play is not going to be five yards. There’s going to be plays when we don’t get any yards.”
Offensively, Penn State returns senior quarterback Anthony Morelli and boasts speedsters Derrick Williams and Deon Butler at receiver. But last season, Morelli and the wideouts were shut down, and the quarterback was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with a concussion after an Alan Branch hit.
Asked what he thinks Morelli wants out of the rematch this year, senior linebacker Shawn Crable had a laugh at his opponent’s expense.
“I think he wants to stay in the game,” he said.
As a team, Penn State has been competitive in just half of the games during the losing streak. But as the 10th-ranked team in the nation, the Nittany Lions will be a measuring stick for Michigan in its conference opener.
“I think Penn State might be the best team in the Big Ten,” Hart said. “So we’re really going to find out how good we our this game, find out what are chances are like and how much we’ve improved from the first two weeks.”