Perspective Piece: Michigan-Penn State

Forget for a moment the unpleasantness of having a star player absent from a major night game in Happy Valley. When you think about it, it's entirely appropriate that Michigan will stare down Penn State--and 107,000 of the Nittany Lions' closest friends--without the real-life college football version of "Super Mario."

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The playmaking stud who has defined the resurgent Wolverines in 2006 has not been Mike Hart, but Mario Manningham. Against Notre Dame and ever since that conquest in South Bend, Manningham consistently rose above the moment to lift Michigan back to national prominence. The authority with which Lloyd Carr has left behind his demons this season has been matched by the decisiveness with which Manningham has left behind opposing corners and safeties. On an offense that has depended--to an alarming degree, it should be said--on the big play, Manningham has been an amazingly consistent big-play producer. It's impossible to overstate the measure of his contribution to this big-time bounce-back season in Ann Arbor.

So as the college football season hits its midway point, and the debate about the second-best team in America begins to develop some texture and form, it's really quite appropriate that Michigan--one of a few teams looking for that second slot in the BCS title game derby--must go into Beaver Stadium without No. 86. Without Manningham's presence in this game, America will get to see how resilient and resourceful Michigan is. Without Manningham, America will get to see if Michigan has other answers and options on the offensive side of the ball, especially at the tight end position and, moreover, within the red zone. Without Manningham, America will get to see if the Wolverines' defense can carry the load on a night when Chad Henne and his Maize and Blue mates might encounter markedly tough sledding.

It's important to remember that last year, at this same point on the calendar, a formidable and loaded Ohio State team came to Happy Valley against a Penn State club surrounded by question marks. Surely, the 2005 Lions had a lot more weapons--and a much more overpowering defense--than this year's club, which is led by an uncertain and tentative signal-caller named Anthony Morelli. But while PSU had a lot more to offer last season, it still stands that JoePa's team--a year ago at this time--didn't have quite the ammunition Ohio State possessed, and was going to have to win with an inspired defensive performance. That one fact allows for a comparison between the 2005 night game against the Buckeyes and this night fight against the Wolverines for Joe Paterno's team.

The first half of Penn State's season indicates that Anthony Morelli demands patience from everyone in the Nittany Lion camp. That's not a knock on the youngster; it would have been darn near impossible for anyone to do all the things Michael Robinson so ably carried out for JoePa in 2005. Robinson's clutch plays and improvisational adjustments--helped along by fast legs, always friendly to a quarterback who aspires to be productive at an elevated level of football competition--gave Penn State balance on three fundamental levels.

First, Robinson gave Penn State balance between running and passing, a rather obvious reality. Second, Robinson gave PSU a persona in which the Nittany Lions could score on both set plays and broken plays. Robinson's running ability set up defenses who keyed on stopping running backs Tony Hunt and Austin Scott, and offensive coordinator Galen Hall found a great mix to provide unpredictability for the Nittany Lion attack. Furthermore, when set plays broke down, Robinson was often able to make something out of nothing. When a sometimes stodgy Penn State team can suddenly move and groove with a shake-and-bake playmaker such as Robinson, it transforms (and expands) a team's set of options, making it exponentially harder to defend. Third, Robinson gave Penn State a balance between offense and defense. Some games in 2005 demanded that the Lions rely on their all-world defense, but Robinson was good enough that when the defense slightly faltered (Northwestern, anyone?), Penn State--as any elite team will do--won a game with a different style, score and tempo. All in all, Robinson gave Joe Paterno elasticity, flexibility and diversity, three gifts from the heavens for a coach who knows what to do with an embarrassment of riches.

Against Ohio State in last year's major night game for PSU, Robinson was hardly dazzling; but in a game that assumed a very defense-based posture, Robinson didn't commit big turnovers. It was Troy Smith who coughed up the pill, and that was the difference in a hard-hitting war. Whatever the situation demanded is precisely what Michael Robinson was able to do for JoePa last season. One can't overstate how much Robinson meant to Penn State in 2005. It's therefore impossible to expect Morelli to do the same kinds of things this year, especially when you consider that it did take Robinson three years in his own right to finally get the hang of the Penn State way. If Robinson demanded patience, Morelli certainly demands the same from the Penn State faithful. There's simply no question that, like last year, Penn State enters its big night game of the year with fewer weapons than its big-name opponent. The extent to which PSU is outgunned is greater on this occasion, given Morelli's inexperience and his tendency to give up on a play too early, but the larger point still stands: much like Ohio State in 2005, JoePa's boys enter their big night fight with fewer weapons, and must therefore win with defense and turnovers. This is why Mario Manningham's absence makes this game--which had figured to be a lot more manageable for Michigan with Super Mario--so fascinating and, moreover, revealing about the makeup and quality of the Wolverines.

It's not as though Manningham could get injured midway through the second quarter, casting a pall over this game and suddenly striking panic into Lloyd Carr's heart. No, everyone knows the deal beforehand: a receiver--via injury--has been eighty-sixed from the lineup, and Michigan has to find the answers--plus the moxie and resolve--to silence over 107,000 eager Beaver (Stadium) fanatics who will roar like there's no tomorrow. Whether it's Mike Hart busting longer runs, Steve Breaston making more of an impact, or the tight end position providing a little more production, the Maize and Blue have to show they're not a one-trick pony tethered to No. 86. If they do so in particularly impressive fashion, they'll go a long way toward shoring up their credentials as the second-best team in the country. If not, they'll be exposed as a team that, for all its talent, lacks the quality depth that can (and should) compensate for a few injuries.

It's never a happy or positive event when a talented young man gets injured and left out of a football game as big as Michigan-Penn State, under the lights in prime time. But in many ways, the absence of Mario Manningham will enable Michigan to have the ultimate proving ground... and America the ultimate look at just how resourceful the Wolverines are. Let this fascinating test of will and skill commence.

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