Here it is. Michigan week. For the past decade (save two years when mercifully Michigan was left off the schedule), this has been the worst week of the year for Penn State fans. Will this be the year that Joe Paterno finally solves the Michigan riddle? Or will the decade of ownership continue?
Signs point to this being as good of a chance as any for Penn State to break the 8-game losing streak to the Wolverines. Michigan's defensive weaknesses have been exposed in their two losses to Appalachian St. and Oregon. However, those teams play quite distinct schemes than Penn State, and you can't count on Joe Paterno and his putrid offensive coaching staff to realize this and make changes to take advantage of Michigan's weaknesses. Paterno has a long history of playing it cautious and close-to-the-vest in tough road games. If that trend continues, I see Michigan pulling the "upset". Open up the passing game, let Morelli be the gunslinger which appears to fit his mentality. PSU has the weapons on the outside with Butler, Williams, Norwood, Golden, and Bell. Not only that, but sophomore TE Andrew Quarless is back on the field and should play a key role underneath and down the middle and in the red zone. I hope Paterno realizes this and doesn't play his typical ultra-conservative style, but after seeing this happen for years, i'm not too confident. Penn State has been slow offensively to begin games this season, and that's another trend that cannot continue if they expect to end the streak. It's imperative that they get an early lead, and not turn the ball over early, to demoralize this fragile Michigan psyche, and to take the crowd out of it. Having a lead also takes Michigan's biggest weapon, Mike Hart out of the game, which leads me to the next matchup, UM's offense against the strong PSU defense.
UM's offense begins and ends with Mike Hart, who has brutalized Penn State in recent games. With the quarterback situation in question, it can be assumed that Hart will be fed early and fed often. Even if Henne plays on his gimpy knee, Michigan will want to keep him from getting hit by the big and quick PSU defensive front. If the freshman Ryan Mallet plays, UM will certainly want to keep him from being confused and pounded by PSU's defense. All of this leads to a busy afternoon for Hart. I know Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington are very dangerous receivers, but PSU's secondary is experienced and talented. The key is stopping the run. I expect Hart to get 100 yards in this game, but if he gets it on 35 carries rather than 20, PSU is in good shape.
Special teams could play a big role. AJ Wallace for Penn State has broken long kickoff returns in each of the last two games. This is the kind of play that builds momentum, builds confidence, and could help avoid the "here we go again" mentality that has permeated the Penn State mindset in this series.
More than X's and O's and matchups, I believe that this game will come down to who plays with more urgency, heart, drive, confidence, and fire. Momentum will be huge. Penn State needs to keep the Big House crowd, which has nothing left to root for but a Big Ten title run and keeping this streak alive, out of the game. I believe that after two embarassing losses, Michigan is fragile and if Penn State gets them down early, they could fold. This game will be won between the ears. Don't make mental mistakes. No turnovers, no key penalties in the red zone.
I've said for a while that this is a guaranteed Penn State loss until they actually prove that they can beat Michigan. But for the sake of predictions, I won't bug my eyes out like Mike Hart and guarantee a Michigan win. I think this is finally the year. It's not going to be easy, but I like Penn State 23-17.