By Bryan MacKenzie
Deep breaths, folks.
Look, I get it. You're nervous. You've seen the memes. You've looked at the numbers through the hilarious prisms erected by Michigan's detractors (Harbaugh is 1-4 against Michigan's rivals! He can't finish higher than third in his own division! Etc! Etc!). And naturally, you've started to internalize it. And you're worried.
Sure, Harbaugh took over a 5-7 Michigan team, and led them to Michigan's first back-to-back ten win seasons since 2002-2003. But what if he falls short of 10 wins this year? What if, deep down, he's somehow Brady Hoke?
Sure, he turned Wilton Speight into a top-three passer in the Big Ten. And turned Jake Rudock into a top-three passer in the Big Ten. And made a Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick. And made the NFC Championship game with Alex Smith. And honed Andrew Luck into the best QB in college football. And beat USC as a six billion point underdog with Tavita Pritchard in Pritchard's first career start. But we all saw John O'Korn these last few weeks. What if the first decades and a half was all smoke and mirrors, and Harbaugh is not really a quarterback whisperer?
Even prior successes are seen not as marks to the good, but as bars against which the future will be measured. Sure, Michigan has beaten Penn State twice already since Harbaugh arrived, including a 49-10 drubbing last year over the eventual Big Ten Champ... SO WHAT DOES THAT SAY IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM THIS YEAR?
In a way, we Michigan fans forgot what this was like. We spent a decade riding the ups and downs that came from oscillating between good and bad. We forgot the ups and downs that come from oscillating between good and great. We forgot what it was like to have 7-5 be deemed the Year of Infinite Pain. And we're afraid of backsliding. We're in a place now where we tend to see bad games not as the doom, but rather as the harbinger.
That's how 5-1 can feel like an existential crisis.
So this week, there is a great deal of talk about what this game means, not in terms of this game, but in terms of the future of the program. I have seen talk of a road game against the #2 team in the country as a "must win." Not because of what it would mean, necessarily, but because of how it would make Michigan fans FEEL.
The bottom line here is that Michigan is facing the #2 team in the country. On the road. At night. That team has a generational talent at running back. Michigan is starting a backup quarterback. A loss here, even in the best of circumstances, would be the expected result.
Don't get me wrong. I think Michigan can win this game. Its defense is as good as any in college football, and if they get a couple of breaks, Penn State is beatable. Harbaugh has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a better football coach than James Franklin.
So, you know what? You can have this one, James. Go ahead and talk after the game about how this was like beating Akron. Pretend you didn't kick that sad field goal last year. Ignore the fact that you were 0-3 against Michigan. I'm not worried. I know a guy with steel in his spine, and that guy holds grudges.
Penn State 20, Michigan 17
[Nick after THE JUMP]
By Nick RoUMel
Last week I met my friend Mike in Cincinnati and we drove to Bloomington for the game. Well, he drove. And he didn’t actually drive to Bloomington, but to Indianapolis—despite two phone GPS apps and the navigation system in his Porsche GTS Carrera. Or Cayman. I forget which, but Mike is not only the founder and CEO of a successful company, but a race car driver (and instructor) on weekends.
That experience—and his car—came in handy when we found ourselves in Indianapolis just forty-five minutes before kickoff, and traffic was backed up like a fraternity toilet on a Saturday night. So what did we do? Back roads, baby!
Mike passed everything from harvesting combines to soccer moms to good ol’ boys in pickup trucks. And he only got the finger once.
We made the stadium by kickoff, but couldn’t find a place to park. So we asked the cop directing traffic, who was squinting at these two guys wearing Michigan gear in a Porsche, and he told us the only available parking was four miles south and we had to take a shuttle. We were skeptical.
Nonetheless, Mike did a U-turn in front of the cop and headed south. But it soon dawned on us we were being played. So naturally, Mike did the only thing one would do in that situation. He pulled into a Super 8 and tried to reserve a room for the night, just so we could park there.
I think not.
They wanted $200 (and that did NOT include the romance package). But the sympathetic clerk relented and told us to park on the service drive, right next to the prominent “No Parking” sign, and she would be sure to watch our car. (Wink, wink. I’m sure she called her cop friend and they had a good chuckle, but the car was there after the game)
We hoofed it to the stadium. I still have a scar on my forehead from walking into a tree while checking my GPS for the byzantine walking route to the stadium. But we made it, partway through the first quarter.
Which, finally, brings me to football.
We watched a Michigan offense that ran dryer than a rural Indiana town on a Sunday afternoon, completely hapless, until they went all “Bo” on the Hoosiers. That was the Power I, putting the fullback in front of Karan Higdon, and just giving him the ball. Relieved Michigan fans leaving the “small house” (announced sellout must have included 15,000 invisible people) were happy to escape with a victory, but apprehensive about facing a much more formidable foe in Happy Valley the following week, a night game, after a home team bye week (sound familiar)?
Fear not. We got this matchup! Fair enough: Saquon Barkley is sick, strong and fast, with sudden cutbacks reminiscent of Mike’s Porsche passing joggers, bicyclists, and Amish buggies on a winding curve. But we will contain him, assuming we also remember to watch him in the flat on passing downs. And my prediction, more certain than the final score – Karan will outgain him.
Penn State’s team is quite ordinary without Barkley. Offensive line is adequate, QB Trace “I’m not a country singer, dammit” McSorley is a bit plodding, and the wideouts are meh. (Yes, meh can be an adjective.) Last week we watched Rashan Gary run his butt off, full tilt, all game. With Devin, Chase, Maurice and the rest of Don Brown’s boyz, we will defense them well.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s pass rush is nothing special, and except for Marcus Allen at safety, they are not scary on defense. If we stick to the Power I, and variations thereof - and O’Korn thinks with his feet first, arm second – we can wear this team down.
Keys: hold onto the ball, and try to commit less than sixteen penalties. Differences: Quinn Nordin. Moral justification: The Penn State Pederasts still don’t get it. Just a few months ago, school trustee Albert Lord disparaged the child abuse victims of Jerry Sandusky. He emailed a reporter, “Running out of sympathy for 35 yr old, so-called victims with 7 digit net worth.”
So, Blue, let’s rough ‘em up. Last time we went into Nambla Valley and they were ranked #2 in the nation, we laid the worst home whupping on Penn State since 1931. You may vaguely recall that game, in 1997.
I was there as well. The obnoxious roaring lion sound was only activated about three times, two of them after most of the fans had left the world’s largest erector set when it was 34-0.
Call me Pollyanna. But it’s not just that I want us to win; I truly believe we will. As surely as Mike made it from Indianapolis to Bloomington on a game day, in only 45 minutes.
MICHIGAN 19, PENN STATE 14