Struggling Michigan back home against Penn State
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — This was supposed to be a game Michigan fans could look forward to on an underwhelming home schedule.
A night game at the Big House with Penn State in town. It had all the makings of a memorable evening.
Of course, that was before the Wolverines lost three games in a row, leaving coach Brady Hoke’s future very much in doubt. Now, the talk around Ann Arbor is of empty seats, disillusioned fans and a program struggling to find its footing.
It’s hard to predict what the atmosphere will be like at Michigan Stadium on Saturday night when the Wolverines host the Nittany Lions.
“There is no place in the country like the Big House when it gets rocking. That’s what we’re looking for,” Michigan offensive lineman Jack Miller said. “We’re coming home, the first night game of the year at home, and having a fun night. We’re looking forward to the support from fans and the students, and hopefully, they can give us an extra edge.”
The last time Michigan (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) played at home, the Wolverines were embarrassed in a 30-14 loss to Minnesota. Quarterback Shane Morris took a hard hit in the fourth quarter but didn’t immediately come out of the game. The school acknowledged more than 48 hours later that he had a probable concussion, and Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon faced questions about why the situation wasn’t handled better.
Then Michigan went on the road and lost to Big Ten newcomer Rutgers last weekend.
“I thought our guys were united. I thought they played hard together. I think they played and fought,” Hoke said. “Sometimes fighting alone doesn’t get a victory. I think we need to change those results and execute a little better, coach a little better. It always starts with me, and us.”
Penn State (4-1, 1-1) had last weekend off, but the Nittany Lions are also coming off a loss. They were beaten 29-6 by Northwestern on Sept. 27 — and Penn State was not exactly dominant in its other Big Ten game, a 13-10 win over Rutgers.
Here are a few things to watch under the lights in Ann Arbor:
STEPPING UP: Just when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse for Michigan, the Wolverines lost RB Derrick Green to a broken collarbone against Rutgers. Green has averaged 5.7 yards per rush this season, but now fellow sophomore De’Veon Smith may need to play a bigger role.
Smith is averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
“He’s played. He’s been successful and we understand it’s going to be a challenge,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “You always hate to see a young man get injured and not be able to fulfill his season that he has worked so hard for, but we are going to prepare for the next guy that’s going to take on that role.”
HOMECOMING: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel was a top recruit from Michigan when he left the state to play for the Nittany Lions. He’s tied for second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with seven.
C.J. Olaniyan, Zettel’s teammate on the defensive line, grew up about 50 miles from the Michigan campus in Warren.
Penn State has allowed 14.6 points per game, the best mark in the Big Ten, and the Nittany Lions are also No. 1 in the conference in rushing defense.
THIRD QUARTER WOES: Some of Michigan’s problems can be traced to what happens immediately after halftime. The Wolverines have lost six of their last seven in Big Ten play, and in those games, they’ve been outscored 44-7 in the third quarter.
PROTECTING THE PASSER: Michigan’s blocking problems have been well documented. The Wolverines have struggled to protect QB Devin Gardner since the latter part of last season. Penn State, however, allowed five sacks in the narrow win at Rutgers and four against Northwestern.
SOPHOMORE SLIP?: Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg threw 20 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions as a freshman last season, but 2014 has been a struggle of late. In the Nittany Lions’ last three games, he’s been sacked 11 times with two interceptions and no TD passes.
“There’s been a lot on his shoulders, and it’s always easy to find fault when things don’t go well,” Franklin said. “Christian is growing just like we’re all growing, and I’ve been pleased with it. So, I think obviously at the quarterback position and a lot of positions, we want to continue to make great choices and make good decisions with the football.”