Penn State hasn’t beaten Michigan in almost 11 years. This could be the year that finally changes.
After faring well in three non-conference games, the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions look to avoid a ninth straight loss to the Wolverines on Saturday at Ann Arbor in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
As Penn State (3-0) sets it sights on a second conference title in three years, it will try to beat the Wolverines for the first time since a 29-17 win at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 16, 1996.
“A team like Michigan, who we haven’t beaten in a long time, I am definitely anxious to get out there and play,” receiver Deon Butler said.
“We want to go out there and send a message. It would be nice to get that monkey off of our back.”
The Nittany Lions overcame a slow start to beat Buffalo 45-24 last Saturday and will face its biggest test so far against Michigan (1-2), which beat Notre Dame 38-0 this past weekend to rebound after disappointing home losses to Appalachian State and Oregon.
The Wolverines may have history on their side when facing Penn State, but will face a Nittany Lions’ defense that ranks eighth in the nation by yielding just 217.7 yards per game.
“Penn State has had great teams down through the years, and this is an outstanding football team in every phase of the game,” embattled Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “It’s truly one of the best Penn State defensive teams that I’ve seen.”
Though the Nittany Lions trailed 3-0 after a quarter and didn’t take the lead until there was 2:34 remaining in the second quarter last Saturday, they led comfortably until a defensive letdown yielded 21 fourth-quarter Buffalo points.
Penn State can’t afford a letdown Saturday as it tries to stop Michigan running back Mike Hart.
Hart rushed 35 times for 187 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame. It was his most productive day since gaining 195 yards in a 28-14 victory over Minnesota on Sept. 30, 2006.
Hart is averaging 110.0 yards in two games against the Nittany Lions and had 112 on 26 carries and a touchdown in Michigan’s 17-10 road win over Penn State on Oct. 14.
While the Nittany Lions have to face Hart, it’s unsure if they’ll have to contain Michigan quarterback Chad Henne. Carr said the senior is “day-to-day” with what appears to be a sprained knee after he watched from the press box last Saturday while wearing a brace as freshman Ryan Mallett went a modest 7-for-15 for 90 yards and three touchdowns in his first collegiate start.
“The final decision on an injury always rests with the doctors, but it is tougher when you have a sprain, it is more dependent on the player,” Carr said.
Michigan’s defense dominated the reeling Notre Dame offense after giving up 73 points against spread offensive formations in its first two losses. It now faces a Penn State unit that outscored its first three opponents 135-34.
Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli was 20-for-27 for 202 yards with a career-high four touchdowns against Buffalo. He is 55-for-87 for 628 yards with eight TDs and an interception in 2007. Morelli was 11-for-18 for 133 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions against Michigan last season.
Michigan will likely have to deal with the Penn State’s running back tandem of Rodney Kinlaw and Austin Scott.
A career backup, the senior Kinlaw rushed 23 times for a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo.
Scott, meanwhile, began the season a starter and appeared to have secured the job after rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-10 victory over Notre Dame on Sept. 8, but was sent to the sidelines after two early fumbles last Saturday.
“Nobody’s a No. 1 tailback when you got two kids as equal as they are,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “They’re both first-stringers as far as I’m concerned.”
Penn State has never beaten Michigan while ranked in the Top 10, going 0-4. The Wolverines, though, look to avoid a third straight loss to a Top 10 team since a 47-21 win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame on Sept. 16, 2006.
Michigan leads 9-3 in the all-time series with Penn State.