This is not a week for clichés. There will not be any “one game at a time” speeches coming from Bill O’Brien or his staff.
No, the Penn State coach is not watering anything down for the Nittany Lions headed into today’s game against No. 18 Michigan.
“I think it would be crazy to think this is just another game,” O’Brien said. “I think this is a great opportunity for our team. Our kids are really excited.
“I love this time of year personally because the weather changes, it gets a little colder. It just reminds you of football, Big Ten football. This is a big game, and our kids are very excited about it.”
So while the Lions have gone out of their way to stay focused on the unbeaten Wolverines — avoiding discussion of last week’s disheartening loss to Indiana — they aren’t about to downplay the importance of the game.
And for good reason. It’s not just that a loss would send Penn State into its second and final bye week at 3-3. But another loss that feels as rotten as last week’s would make for a long two weeks before facing Ohio State.
Senior linebacker Glenn Carson put it best.
“I think everyone’s just looking to get back on the field and redeem ourselves,” Carson said.
This is their chance. Penn State announced a week ago this would be a sellout and the 5 p.m. kickoff gives fans plenty of time to get in their seats after a full afternoon (and in some cases a full morning, too) of tailgating.
The student campout at “Nittanyville” has been in full force since Tuesday night and the game will be a Beaver Stadium-wide White-out for the fans.
“It’s Penn State vs. Michigan,” Carson said. “It’s a classic matchup, and we’re really excited to play this game. It’s a great outcome for the fans. A night game, that atmosphere and two big-time time programs.”
Michigan certainly knows something about it, as the Wolverines’ last two trips to Happy Valley have come under the lights. Coached at the time by the defensively deficient Rich Rodriguez, Michigan lost both games, surrendering 87 total points.
The last visit was in 2010, but some of Michigan’s upperclassmen still remember the scene well.
“Sometimes we’ll be standing face-to-face, and I won’t be able to hear myself think or hear you talk,” said All-America tackle Taylor Lewan, who was a redshirt freshman at the time. “So it’s a great atmosphere. I’m sure it will be a white-out night game. Penn State’s awesome. It’s a fun place to play.”
Penn State will take any edge it can get against the undefeated Wolverines.
On the other hand, Michigan looks far from invincible despite a 5-0 record. Coach Brady Hoke’s squad needed to rally to beat two of the worst teams on the schedule in Akron and UConn.
So even after a decisive win over Minnesota last week, there’s still an uneasy feeling in Ann Arbor.
The game could hinge either way on the play of Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. The junior has proven dangerous both passing and running, but his decision-making has been questionable.
Gardner’s eight interceptions are the most in the Big Ten, two more than any other quarterback and four more than Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg.
Where trouble could arise is when Gardner can break free of the pass rush and extend the play, putting pressure on the Lions’ young corners to maintain coverage for longer and longer.
“We have to keep him in the pocket,” O’Brien said. “When he gets out, we have to attend to what we call our ‘scramble rules’ and make sure everyone’s in place.”
That puts the spotlight back on the Penn State secondary, which gave up 624 yards and five touchdowns through the air in losses to UCF and Indiana.
The unit knows this could be a defining game.
“It’s always going to mean a lot, especially coming after a loss,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “We want to get back on track and make that happen. Penn State and Michigan has always been a big-time game.
“I’d be lying if I said if it wasn’t a big game. We as a team understand value of this game and we have to come out Saturday ready to play.”