Wolverines Seek Sixth In a Row Against Nittany Lions
Entering the 1997 match up in Happy Valley, Michigan carried a meager 1-3 series record against Penn State. But when the two top-five teams clashed, there was no doubt as to which school possessed the superior squad that day. Michigan left Pennsylvania with a 34-8 victory, and a top ranking in the polls. Since that time, Michigan has dominated the series, winning all of the last five meetings. Will that streak continue this Saturday?
There's something different about this Penn State team. Something that Michigan fans haven't needed to worry about from the Nittany Lions in a long time. That something is an offense. In the last five meetings between these teams, Michigan has managed to outscore PSU 145-46. Subtracting a punt return for a touchdown and interception return for a touchdown, both in the '99 meeting, Penn State's offense has managed just 32 points in this stretch.
Flash forward to 2002. The 17th ranked Nittany Lions come to Ann Arbor featuring the Big Ten's second best scoring offense, averaging 37.0 points per game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Zack Mills has led the charge, possessing the conference's third highest pass efficiency rating. Bryant Johnson, Penn State's leading receiver, has pulled in 28 balls so far this year. And RB Larry Johnson is the work horse for the offense, caring the ball 86 times for 541 yards, plus adding an impressive 22 catches for 224 yards as the team's second leading receiver. Michigan's defense, which has shown both brilliance and vulnerability at times this year, will need to bring its best game against this powerful PSU offense.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions have struggled this year, ranking 7th in the conference in scoring defense. PSU performed exceptionally well in stopping the run against Wisconsin last week, but they've also shown susceptibility to the rush at times this season. However, the real weakness of the PSU defense so far this season is the secondary, with the Nittany Lions ranked 102nd nationally in pass defense. Meanwhile, Michigan enters this game following what was arguably the best game of quaarterback John Navarre's career, against Illinois two weeks ago. The Michigan offensive line will need to buy Navarre time to throw, since Penn State features an impressive front four, led by All-American candidate Jimmy Kennedy. If the Wolverine's offensive line performs well, and Michigan is successful in establishing the run, this game has the makings of a high scoring shoot out.
Ultimately, the team that plays the better defense is likely to emerge victorious on Saturday.
One final factor: Following this Saturday's game, Penn State cycles off of Michigan's Big Ten schedule until 2005. So the Big Ten race and a major bowl bid are not the only things these teams are playing for Saturday. The Nittany Lions are also desperate to break their streak of Michigan losses, while the Wolverines are determined to carry six years worth of bragging rights into the break.
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