Penn State returns to the road for what has to be considered a dangerous game in Ann Arbor this afternoon.
The oddsmakers have established the Nittany Lions as a five-point or so favorite heading into their Big Ten match-up with Michigan.
It's not too often teams could come into the Big House and be favored, but after last year's rough 3-9 campaign, the Wolverines have been working to rebuild their traditional luster.
Given the problems PSU has had against Michigan in the past, with the Wolverines winning nine straight between 1997-2007 before the Lions broke the streak with a 46-17 win at Beaver Stadium last year, Joe Paterno has every reason to be wary of this one.
The Lions enter the contest at 6-1, ranked 13th in the intial Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and Associated Press writers' polls (11th in the Harris Interactive and USA Today Coaches polls), with their lone loss to Big Ten leader Iowa. At 2-1 in the conference, PSU has no more margin for error and while it is bowl-eligible, it will need to keep winning if it is to have a shot at a BCS Bowl game.
Last week Penn State threw out another defensive gem, shutting out Minnesota 20-0 and shutting down the Golden Gophers' Eric Decker, the Big Ten's leading receiver, limiting him to one reception.
The offense, which had no problem moving or holding onto the ball, struggled in the red zone again and needed a outstanding TD grab by Derek Moye to maintain breathing room against the Gophers. Moye ended with six catches for 120 yards.
The Lions are headed to Michigan with some banged up parts. While linebacker Sean Lee is expected to play, Paterno said in his weekly press conference (www.gopsusports.com) that tackle Nerraw McCormack is still not 100 percent with an ankle injury, leaving Ako Poti to start at right tackle. McCormack is listed as possible, as are running backs Stephfon Green (ankle) and Brent Carter (knee). Paterno suggested Brandon Beachum or even Joe Suhey as backups to Evan Royster if Green or Carter couldn't play.
The Wolverines, with former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez in his second year after taking over for Lloyd Carr, are a much improved club this year and are 5-2 heading into this afternoon's clash. Defensively, Michigan is allowing 21.9 points and 363 yards of offense per game, and Paterno expects the Wolverines to apply heat to QB Daryll Clark.
They are very aggressive and they are tackling much better than they did a year ago, and they just seem to have a lot more enthusiasm,"said Paterno. They go to the ball well, they line up well and sometimes they are so aggressive that they get themselves in a jam and some people have made some big plays on them. But when you make big plays on them, you've got to be awfully precise, because they are coming, and we know they're going to be coming after us."
Senior defensive end Brandon Graham leads the Wolverines with 12 tackles for losses, and redshirt junior linebacker Obi Ezeh is the leading tackler with 55 stops. Safety Jordan Kovacs, a redshirt freshman, leads the secondary with 45 hits. Junior cornerback Donovan Warren has three interceptions and has broken up seven passes.
Offensively, Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor with the reputation of producing wide open offenses, with which he was so successful at Morgantown, and the Wolverines have shown the ability to light up the scoreboard.
Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring (37.3 points per game) and rushing offense (235 yards per game) and is second in total offense (426.4). Last week the Wolverines tacked on 63 pound and 727 yards of offense against Delaware State.
Freshman Tate Forcier is at quarterback for Michigan, and he has stepped into the role. His biggest win so far was the 38-34 shootout with Notre Dame, another offensive-minded squad. For the season, Forcier has completed 81 of 140 passes for 1,027 yards, with 9 TDs against 4 interceptions.
"He's a kid that for three, four, five years now, started school in January, what we call a 'gray shirt', and they get spring practice in,"noted Paterno. "Obviously, he's playing very, very well as he is, as a freshman."
Forcier's top targets are a trio of sophomores in Martavious Odoms (19 catches, 238 yards) and Darryll Stonum (12-189) and tight end Kevin Kroger (12-174).
Seniors Carlos Brown and Brandon Miner lead the Michigan ground attack. Brown is averaging 7.6 yards per carry and Minor has added 274 yards. Both Forcier and back-up QB Denard Robinson are running threats as well.
Certainly, Michigan can be a test for the Lions' stingy defense, which has answered the challenge all season and is giving up just 8.7 points and 238 yardsof offense per game.
Michigan and PSU boast the top two punters, average-wise, in the conference in the Lions' Jeremy Boone and the Wolverines' Zoltan Mesko (45.6 yards per kick).
Michigan leads the series with PSU 10-4, with the four games prior to last year's Lions' laugher being decided by a combined 17 points, all by seven points or less.
The Lions have had their share of heartbreak at the Big House. In 2002, Michigan won 27-24 in overtime. In 2005, Mario Manninghan caught a TD pass from Chad Henne with no time left to give PSU a 27-25 loss, its lone setback. And in 2007, Mike Hart had a big game, rushing for 153 yards on 44 carries in a 14-9 Wolverines win.
Paterno was asked if those tough finishes give the Lions some extra motivation this week.
"I think you've got to be awfully carefull when you start with extra motivation,"responded Paterno. "Rich Rodrigues, I know, got a lot of flack last year but they are doing a heck of a job this year. Those kids are playing well and have been in every ball game, so I don't think this takes any extra motivation, nor do we think about what's happened there before."
NITTANY NOTES - Today's game is being televised by ABC in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff ... Joe Paterno is featured in an article in Sports Illustrated this week (the Oct. 26 issue), with senior writer Joe Posnanski doing an eight page, in depth profile ... three PSU players hail from Michigan: punter Ryan Breen, linebacker Chris Colasanti and tackle DeOn'tate Pannell ... Michigan is the NCAA all-time D-1 leader in football victories with 877, while Penn State is sixth with 806 ... PSU visits Northwestern next Saturday in a 4:30 p.m. start before returning home against Ohio State on Nov. 7.