Penn State Expects Michigan’s Best

The 4-1 Nittany Lions believe the wounded Wolverines are as dangerous as ever.

Penn State coach James Franklin on Michigan QB Devin Gardner.

Ignore the stats and standings for a moment. It's still Michigan, at Michigan.

And not only that, but it is a Michigan team that on Saturday night at 7 will play the first Big Ten night game in the Big House in school history. Not to mention a 2-4 team that is wounded -- their leading rusher is out, and their coach has been under fire -- and will presumably come out swinging as a result.

That's the assignment facing Penn State, and the Lions (4-1) expect it to be a formidable one.

“I think it definitely will be a challenge,” middle linebacker Mike Hull said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. “Whenever a team's in the position that they're in, they're going to do anything to get back on track. I really do think it's going to be a great game, and I think Michigan deserves more credit than they've been getting. They're a good team. They run the football well. It's hard to beat teams like that, so we're definitely going to have to bring our 'A' game.”

Added cornerback Trevor Williams, “They're better than what their record says. We're going to have to come ready to play. It's definitely going to be a very competitive, physical-type game.”

The Wolverines dropped their third straight last Saturday at Rutgers, a 26-24 verdict that was in doubt until RU defensive end Kemoko Turay blocked a 56-yard field goal attempt in the closing minutes. It was also a game that was watched with some interest by many in the PSU camp, since the Lions eked out a 13-10 victory at Rutgers on Sept. 13.

With his team on a bye Saturday following a 29-6 loss to Northwestern Sept. 27, Penn State coach James Franklin said he huddled with his two daughters in his newly furnished “man cave” and took in the proceedings from Piscataway on television.

“To be able to watch another team play under the same circumstances that we played under is valuable,” he said on Tuesday's Big Ten conference call.

He did not get into the specifics, but the guess here is that Franklin found it noteworthy that Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova threw for a career-high 404 yards, as well as three touchdowns, against the Wolverines. PSU picked Nova off five times in their meeting last month.

Hull, who watched the game at his home in suburban Pittsburgh, viewed things from another perspective.

“I'm definitely looking at some of their schemes and how they like to run the ball or what type of blocking they're doing,” he said. “I don't just watch it as a normal spectator anymore, I don't think. I just notice, maybe the way they're blocking certain plays or who's keeping the ball or who's their go-to targets, things like that.”

He saw a UM team that runs a similar scheme to last year -- “maybe a little bit more complex,” Hull said -- when PSU eked out a 43-40 victory in quadruple overtime. Also a team that features “probably the best offensive line we will have faced so far this year.” And he does not believe it is a big deal that the Wolverines lost tailback Derrick Green for the season in the Rutgers game, with a broken clavicle -- that they will challenge the Lions with their ground game, no matter what.

“It's all about us,” Hull said. “We like to focus on us and what we can control.”

“I definitely think it's going to be a crazy atmosphere. It's what Big Ten football's all about, and we're really excited to go in there and play a game that's going to be really tough, like it always is.”

De'Veon Smith (282 yards, 6.0 ypc) is expected to start in place of Green (471, 5.7 ypc), with Justice Hayes (101, 5.3 ypc) also getting some work.

“We obviously think he's a pretty good football player,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of Smith on the Big Ten call. “He's a physical back. He's improved when it comes to (pass) protection and when you look at third down.”

Hoke, justifiably criticized when he reinserted woozy quarterback Shane Morris in a loss to Minnesota two weeks ago, is expected to start Devin Gardner at QB for the sixth time in seven games Saturday. Gardner had a huge day against the Lions last season -- 240 yards and three TDs passing, and 121 yards rushing -- but has been inconsistent this year.

He has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 911 yards and five touchdowns, and run for 131 yards and three scores, but he has also been picked off seven times. Michigan as a team has turned it over 15 times while recording just two takeaways, a minus-13 ratio that is next-to-last among the nation's 125 major-college teams. Only Eastern Michigan, which has the same ratio in one fewer game, is worse.

Michigan is also among the worst teams in the country in scoring (22.3, 101st), total offense (354.0, 100th), passing yardage (173.2, 107th) and passing efficiency (108.7, 110th).

But again -- it's still Michigan, at Michigan. And under the lights.

“I definitely think it's going to be a crazy atmosphere,” Hull said. “It's what Big Ten football's all about, and we're really excited to go in there and play a game that's going to be really tough, like it always is.”

“It's historic,” Hoke said of the start time. “We look forward to it, and I know our fans are looking forward to it.”

At the same time, Hoke said, “We've got our work cut out for us.” He passed the obligatory plaudits in the direction of PSU's Christian Hackenberg, calling him “one of the great quarterbacks in the country,” adding that he was duly impressed with the Lions' defense, particularly its “very salty front.”

Penn State enters the game first in the conference in rushing defense (60.2 ypg) and scoring defense (14.6 ppg), and second in total defense (288.8 ypg) -- numbers that rank, respectively, second, 10th and ninth nationally.

Hull, who made a career-high 16 tackles in the loss to Northwestern, leads the conference with 53 stops. And he would like to believe that he and his teammates were refreshed by the bye week, seeing as the regulars did no hitting and very little running during the three practices that were held.

“I think a lot of guys got their legs back a little bit, got healthy,” he said.

Williams agreed that he spent the week “just rehabbing, getting healthy,” as well as studying film.

Also, he added, “Just working back on the fundamentals. … I think the Northwestern game we got away from the fundamentals. I think the bye week helped us to clean and polish everything up.”

Overall, Hull said, the defense has played “pretty well.”

“Definitely a lot of room for improvement,” he added. “I really think the defensive line's playing really good this year. We just need to keep working on communication, body position, so we aren't missing as many tackles -- just getting our drops and making sure everyone's where they're supposed to be, every play.”

Especially this week. Especially against a team that figures to defy the stats and the standings.

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