Michigan Football: Is the Penn State Game a Must Win?

Jacob StutsmanCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Roy Roundtree #12 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a touchdown with teammates Martell Webb #80, Patrick Omameh #65 and Vincent Smith #2 against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I am not sure which is more shocking: Michigan rolling up 522 yards on Iowa, the 13th best defense in the country, or that despite the yardage, Michigan only scored 28 points.

Wisconsin, for example, scored 31 points against Iowa, even though it only accumulated 347 total yards. Turnovers and penalties once again conspired, just like in the Michigan State game, to produce empty yards that look good on paper but don’t produce enough points.

It’s impossible to prove the assertion that Michigan would have beaten Iowa in the absence of such mistakes, but the yardage number is nevertheless a bit overwhelming. It is almost possible to feel optimism going into the game against Penn State, which has now taken on a much larger meaning. It is, if not a must win, a game that feels very much like it.

With a win against Penn State, Michigan can establish bowl eligibility and end those unfortunate comparisons to the 2009 team (which, by the way, never put up 522 yards against Iowa). And after losses to two talented teams, Michigan needs to prove that it can triumph over a rather unspectacular foe.

Despite starting the season ranked 19th by the AP, Penn State is now only 4-3 and has sunken deep in the estimations of both fans and experts. Some of this was predictable. For example, the tribulations of the quarterback position were presaged before the season began.

Robert Bolden has been the quarterback for basically the entire season, but Penn State’s struggles are reflected in his stats. He has completed only 58.2 percent of his passes, accompanied by five touchdowns and seven interceptions. His QB rating of 119 is only slightly better than the rating of Nathan Scheelhaase, and it is the second-worst rating of any starting QB in the Big Ten.

Against Minnesota, Penn State was out-gained 433 to 351 yards, despite the 33-21 win. Bolden played well, but in the second quarter he sustained an injury and did not return. He was replaced by Kevin Newsome, who did not throw a pass, and then Matthew McGloin. Bolden’s status for the Michigan game is uncertain.

A more troubling occurrence for Penn State is the cavalcade of injuries, which has managed to decimate a good defense. Linebackers Gerald Hodges (hairline fracture), Michael Mauti (high ankle sprain) and Bani Gbadyu (knee) have all missed significant time, although they returned on Saturday against Minnesota.

However, defensive end Eric Latimore has missed three to five weeks with a wrist injury, and Jack Crawford sustained a right foot injury against Illinois. A few players have also been suspended for violating team rules. All of these players should be significantly hobbled or ruled completely out by the Michigan game.

Any other year a loss to a Penn State team this flawed and frail would merely be disappointing, but this year there are much more ominous undertones. The possibilities of a sustained collapse still looms. Though the chances are ultimately small that Michigan somehow fails to win six or seven games, the results would be, needless to say, catastrophic.

Fortunately, Michigan’s offense cannot simply be silenced. If there is anything that has clearly demonstrated the offensive improvements, it is that Adrian Clayborn, who committed unspeakable crimes against Michigan last year, was reasonably forestalled by Taylor Lewan (despite his propensity for penalties) and the rest of the offensive line. Iowa is usually a team that can get some pressure without committing too many men to the rush, but Michigan managed to move the ball on the ground and through the air.

Penn State’s defense is tough, and yet Michigan should be able to pile up yards. The only question is whether the mistakes will eventually disappear or have simply become institutionalized. But it is even more amazing to think that Michigan is doing this without an experienced quarterback, main running threat or senior receiver. Many of the problems, at least for now, can still be explained by youth.

But Michigan does not have the time to wait for players to develop and must wrap up its business now. I don’t want to face Illinois desperate for a win, and as beatable as Purdue looks at the moment, neither would I want to pin the fate of the entire season, or possibly the future of Michigan football, on a single game.

Fortunately, the next three teams on the schedule play directly into Michigan’s defensive weaknesses. Penn State is only the 108th-highest scoring offense in the nation. Both Illinois at 92 and Purdue at 87 aren’t much better.

These teams will probably have some success—Michigan’s defense is analogous to the Colbert bump—but they are ephemeral oases in an otherwise painful schedule. How well they will play is difficult to determine. Ben Chappell, who was almost invincible against Michigan, has struggled against Ohio State and Illinois. I would not underestimate the capacity of the Michigan defense to elevate the play of other teams.

Looking back now it is obvious that Michigan State is a very good team, and it was expected that Iowa would triumph over Michigan. These losses were predictable. But Penn State is the kind of team that Michigan needs to beat. Michigan still might have legitimate excuses for its struggles, but all that matters now, unfortunately, is the bottom line.