Leading the supporting cast are quarterbacks Anthony Morelli and Chad Henne. The juniors are steep in a rivalry that began when they signed with their respective schools and grew while teammates competing for the starting position during heated July practices on Pennsylvania's 2004 Big 33 team. Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge they are not.
One of Morelli's closest allies – and a man who knows Henne well – is Mike McQueary, the current Penn State assistant coach and former quarterback who led the offense during the game that started Michigan's current seven-game winning streak in this series. For Penn Staters, that massacre represents how Michigan players and alumni view their program.
"That's why we're Michigan and they are Penn State," said a member of that 1997 Michigan team that slaughtered the Nittany Lions 34-8. To know Michigan is to know arrogance, but arrogance backed by facts. When a Wolverine supporter rattles off the Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl victories, the all-time wins and the players in the NFL, it is tough to listen but even tougher to argue. Since Penn State joined the league, Michigan – with conference titles in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004 – has upheld its one-third end of the "Holy Trinity" promise while Penn State has not.
10 years, seven games. No coach has caused Penn State more heartache and heartbreak than Carr. The last time Penn State beat Michigan, Paterno was in his 60s, Morelli and Henne were in 5th grade and President Clinton was still in his first term in office. Long losing streaks are expected in conference series such as Florida-Vanderbilt or Texas-Baylor. But that is what Penn State has become to Michigan – just another predetermined victory on the autumn slate. The absence of respect grows with each consecutive victory. Paterno will never fully admit it publicly, but Penn State's losses at Michigan in 2002 and 2005 bother him infinitely more than any other setbacks over the recent past. The inches by which Tony Johnson's feet were inbounds, the inches by which Jason Avant's heel was not. "The inches we need are everywhere," as another famous Italian head football coach once said.
Perhaps the most celebrated character in this story will be an entity with an undeniable connection to the history of the rivalry. The crowd at Beaver Stadium, especially the student section, has been a hot topic around the college football world since last season. But those that recall the last time Penn State beat Michigan at home (1995) can also recall how Carr and his coaching staff complained to the referees because the crowd noise was interfering with the Wolverine offense. A decade of frustration released from a gathering that will likely be the largest in the stadium's history will not be quieted this time around.
Mario Manningham, whose touchdown reception broke hearts across Pennsylvania (thrown by a quarterback who had previously broken hearts across Pennsylvania) is injured and will not play. The sophomore defensive back and prized blue-chipper that would have covered him chose Penn State over Michigan, a decision that ignited the recent recruiting renaissance for Paterno. Intricate connections embedded here are endless.
The only two times Penn State has been shut out in Big Ten action occurred against the Wolverines, who own the best league record against the Nittany Lions at 8-3. In 1994, Penn State and Nebraska both finished undefeated but only the Cornhuskers were awarded the national title. Three years later when Michigan and Nebraska were undefeated, the championship was split.
So as Carr attempts to make it eight straight and Paterno prepares to do his best non-1997, the latter does have a bit of momentum on his side. The Nittany Lions have progressively cut the margins of defeat over the last four attempts from 22 points (33-11 in 2000), to 20 (20-0 in 2001), to three (27-24/OT in 2002) and finally two (27-25 last season.
Wow, desperate times really do call for desperate measures.
Hello? Guys? Is this thing on?
In order to end the decade-long skid, Levi Brown's return to the lineup needs to be more than a morale boost. This offense revolves around the success of Tony Hunt and the collective ability to establish an early running game. After six games, the five-man unit can no longer be considered young and inexperienced. Michigan's 2006 rush defense is frighteningly strong – possibly stronger than its 1997 national title unit. State certainly has the personnel to win this game, but it will take the combination of penalty-free (read: no false starts) football along with timely and balanced play-calling by Paterno and Galen Hall to win that critical upfront battle.
However the final score is reached, drama will surely follow. Whether it is a blowout, a botched penalty call, a special teams snafu or a last-second touchdown, the result will either set the stage for a gigantic November game in Columbus or vault PSU back into the Big Ten title race. But for Penn State, this game is about much more than this season. This program needs to win this game for many reasons; for the continuation of the push to a return as one of the top teams in the conference, for the massive amount of recruits that will watch from the field, for the sanity of a loyal fan base that cannot stomach another loss and for the psyche of a 79-year-old head coach who consistently refers in angst to the closing minutes of the previous two meetings.
This college football season has already seen several big games end in referee/instant replay controversy. Another one in this series would be a crying shame.
By the way, beware of a possible cameo appearance. In a bit of hilarious irony, Dick Honig is now a Big Ten instant replay supervisor. If the league office has the chutzpah to assign him to this game, the final five minutes of the fourth quarter should be...interesting?
Be sure to have that extra two-pack of antacid handy – you'll need it.