By DAN GELSTON
STATE COLLEGE —
With a perfect season on the line, Michigan has every reason to get pumped entering Happy Valley.
Turns out, so does Penn State.
While the Nittany Lions (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) are struggling with two losses in their last three games, second-year coach Bill O’Brien wants his team to embrace what’s ahead on Saturday.
The game is sold out, with a crowd of more than 100,000 fans expected at Beaver Stadium. The game is on national television, and a chance to show the football national that even an undermanned roster can go play-for-play with one of the top teams in the Big Ten.
“We’ve got Nittanyville going crazy over here,” O’Brien said. “I think it would be crazy to think this is just another game. I think this is a great opportunity for our team. Our kids are really excited.
“We know it’s a big rivalry and a big game.”
O’Brien hasn’t backed down from a challenge since he took over the scandal-ridden program, and the No. 18 Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) seem like a minor speed bump in the big picture of building the program back into a model of success.
With an upset win, the Nittany Lions would be sky high.
The Wolverines, of course, care more about keeping their shot at the Big Ten title firmly alive. The Wolverines have hardly looked impressive, extracting wins over Akron and Connecticut, and if this game gets tight, it could be tough to pull one out in front of a wild crowd. Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan texted coach Brady Hoke on Saturday about how the Wolverines could handle the noise.
“Sometimes we will be standing face-to-face, and I won’t be able to hear myself think or hear you talk,” Lewan said. “So it’s a great atmosphere. Penn State’s awesome; it’s a fun place to play.”
Penn State has won the last three games in the series, including a 41-31 decision in 2010 at Beaver Stadium.
Here are five things to watch today:
Gardner tips: Just how is Penn State going to slow down Michigan QB Devin Gardner? Gardner is a dual threat for the Wolverines, averaging 270.8 yards of total offense this season, which ranks second in the Big Ten. He’s rushed for a score in nine straight games and has thrown or run for at least two touchdowns in nine of the past 10 games.
“Do you really think,” O’Brien asked, “I’m going to tell you what we do in practice to prepare for Devin Gardner?”
A-Rob shines: Penn State’s Allen Robinson leads the Big Ten in yards per game (124.2) and receptions (7.6), and is tied for first in receiving scores (5). He is seventh in the nation in receiving yards and 12th in receptions.
“He got stronger, he’s faster, he improved his speed, which is really hard to do,” O’Brien said. “We’ve moved him around, so he’s become smarter in our scheme.”
Big plays: The Wolverines can grind out touchdowns with the best of them. Michigan has put together 15 scoring drives of 70-plus yards this season, including five against Central Michigan, four against Notre Dame, three against Akron, two against Minnesota and one against Connecticut.
Red hot: The Nittany Lions have been nearly perfect inside the 20, converting 17 of 18 visits into points. Penn State has scored 13 touchdowns and ranks 13th in the NCAA in red zone offense. The Nittany Lions have scored on 48 of their last 53 trips into the red zone dating back to last October vs. Northwestern.
Familiar faces: Penn State and Michigan first met in 1993 and last played in 2010. Starting in 2014, Penn State and Michigan will begin meeting annually as East Division rivals. The Nittany Lions will visit Ann Arbor on Oct. 11, 2014 and Michigan’s next visit to Beaver Stadium is Nov. 21, 2015.