Michigan vs. Penn State: Will Wolverines Make It out of Happy Valley Undefeated?
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Michigan is on the brink of starting the season at 6-0 under coach Brady Hoke for the first time since 2011, the year he took over the program.
But if the No. 18-ranked Wolverines are to equal Hoke's best start thus far, they'll have to find a way to climb past coach Bill O'Brien's Penn State Nittany Lions (3-2) at the oh-so-unfriendly confines of Happy Valley.
Thanks to Week 6's 42-13 thrashing of Minnesota, Michigan, which is 10-6 against Penn State, finally appears to be a legitimate Big Ten contender—a status they held firm to prior to the start of this fall.
However, preseason hype turned into in-season disappointment after struggling against Akron and UConn. The time is now for Team 134's elite to step forward and take hold of what has been a wildly inconsistent 2013.
Will Michigan beat Penn State?
The good news is that they've recently shown signs of doing so, and that bodes well for Hoke's chances on Saturday.
This past weekend, Devin Gardner threw for 235 yards and a touchdown in the victory over the Gophers. But his biggest accomplishment was maintaining composure and, most importantly, possession of the ball; he was turnover-free for the first time this year.
Making himself known wasn't a problem for Devin Funchess, a sophomore receiver/tight end hybrid who reeled in seven catches for a career-high 151 yards and a touchdown in the homecoming triumph at The Big House.
There's a slight chance that star linebacker Jake Ryan could see action against Penn State. The junior suffered an ACL tear during the spring, but he's inching closer to full health, according to a report from CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli.
Hoke: Jake Ryan could "potentially play" vs. Penn State.— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) October 7, 2013
If the pieces fall together for Hoke, Michigan will reach 6-0 and bowl eligibility before trudging through the rest of its conference schedule. If the pieces fail to adhere to one another, well, it'll be a long October.
Avoiding a Letdown
In 2011, the Wolverines were ready to show that they were capable of moving past the Rich Rodriguez era. At 6-0, facing Michigan State was the perfect opportunity. But as fate would have it, the Spartans rattled off their fourth straight series victory, ending Michigan's streak of early-season perfection.
All wasn't lost after that 28-14 setback; Hoke's team went on to win the 2012 BCS Sugar Bowl and finish the year with 11 wins.
This fall is a bit different, though. Michigan needs to reach 6-0 for many reasons, but the No. 1 reason is to prove that they're indeed legit, not a bunch of undefeated frauds. Already questioned due to issues of inconsistency, the Wolverines didn't play up to par in 2012, creating more pressure to perform in this season, Hoke's third at the helm.
O'Brien's Nittany Lions stand in the way, but downing them on the road should help restore a bit of optimism toward Team 134. Sure, youth has been shown and mistakes have been made, but this is still a solid group of athletes who can win the Big Ten.
Let's repeat that: This is still a solid group of athletes who can win the Big Ten.
Those who feel differently are grossly underestimating the expertise of Hoke's staff, which includes defensive mastermind Greg Mattison and offensive guru Al Borges.
Penn State hasn't wowed as of late. Led by true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and junior wideout Allen Robinson, the Lions are struggling to find their niche after an embarrassing 44-24 loss to the lowly Indiana Hoosiers in Week 6.
Hoke says Penn State QB @chackenberg1 has grown each game. "I have a lot of respect for Christian and how he plays the game."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) October 8, 2013
Saturday is a crucial game for both sides. But Michigan has the most to lose. The Lions are rebuilding after being rocked by the Jerry Sandusky child molestation controversy. They're not expected to beat everyone and win their league; they're expected to put their chins up and go to work so that way they can compete in coming years.
The "coming year" is now for Hoke. He can't afford a loss; the Wolverines are in desperate need of a confidence-booster, and getting a conference win away from The Big House would serve as that.
The rest of the season hinges on this week being "lucky No. 7." Steve Heiser of the York Dispatch believes that Penn State has a fighting chance to capitalize on what could be a golden opportunity—and that's beating Hoke.
If Gardner Shines, Wolverines Roll
Gardner was noticeably more confident during the second half versus Minnesota. It probably helped that his team poured on 28 points, but that's beside the point.
Happy feet weren't as big of a problem as they were in previous weeks. Gardner couldn't get much done against Akron and UConn due to his inability to remain calm in the pocket.
When flushed out, he tends to force throws—and that's led to eight picks through six games.
Confidence may or may not be an issue, but his mindset has certainly gained a ton of coverage.
Some Wolverines fans may feel that Gardner isn't the right man for the job. That's fine; everyone has their opinion. Reasons have been given to doubt the 6'4", 210-pound former Inkster High phenom.
The same was true for Jason Campbell, who, after bumbling a bit, had a stellar career at Auburn while Borges called the shots on offense. Borges, now in his third year at Michigan, told the Detroit News' Angelique Chengilis that Gardner is in a similar ordeal.
But it's not impossible to restore Gardner to the previous version that fans saw in 2012 while he ran the show for the injured Denard Robinson.
Borges successfully worked with Campbell. Per Chengilis' report, Borges claimed that he could do the same with Gardner:
I don't think it was any earth-shattering coaching [with Campbell]. All it was was making a kid believe that you still were convinced he was the answer when a lot of people might not have thought that. If the guy coaching you is the same way or starts scaring him, he will go out there and play so guarded you won't get anything out of him.
There has to be a delicate balance between keeping him aggressive and using good judgment and making sure he understands what you want—with not turning the ball over being at the top of the priority list.
Getting the second-half Gardner from Week 6 is imperative. Borges' experience speaks for itself, and if he still has the quarterback magic like he did while at Auburn, Gardner should be OK this Saturday.
Play Like It's The Big House
Beaver Stadium isn't as wild as Michigan Stadium, but it's not a welcoming place for visitors, especially at night. With a whiteout planned, more than 107,000 Penn State fans are expected to show up to boo the Wolverines.
How's that for taking a dose of their own medicine?
For the first time all year, Michigan faces a Big Ten crowd which reaches a level of crazy intensity just like the Maize and Blue followers do in Ann Arbor.
The chatter from the stands is a concern for senior All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan, who recently texted Hoke about the matter. Lewan said the following about the conversation, according to a report from Scout.com's Josh Newkirk.
... I think it's just different because we haven't played Penn State at Penn State since my redshirt freshman year and aside from me, Cam (Gordon), and maybe like one other guy; no one's really had significant snaps there. The noise isn't really that distracting, you have to be on your p's and q's—you have to know what your calls are going to be. Sometimes we will be standing face-to-face, and I won't be able to hear myself think or hear you talk. So it's a great atmosphere. I am sure it will be a white-out night game. Penn State's awesome; it's a fun place to play.
If anyone knows about the neighborhood that is the Big Ten, it's Lewan. The underclassmen stand to benefit by simply listening to Lewan's advice on how to faze out a hostile crowd. It's much more different than drawing inspiration from a stadium full of friendly supporters.
Lewan says Penn State is "probably" the loudest place he's ever played. "That or Ohio State ... sorry, 'Ohio,' I apologize to coach Hoke."— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) October 7, 2013
This time, everyone in the bleachers wants to see Michigan fail. Saturday will be an excellent learning experience for Team 134's youngsters.
The deck isn't stacked against Michigan's favor, but going to Happy Valley to challenge a developing team with a hotshot quarterback will be a monumental task for the secondary.
Conversely, facing Michigan's Blake Countess, who is tied for the national lead with four picks, will be quite the undertaking for Hackenberg, who was throwing to preps a year ago.
Hoke can get out of Pennsylvania with his perfect record intact if his team shows up in the way it did during the second half against Minnesota.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines' football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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