A lot is on the line Saturday when these two teams meet.
Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) looks to throw the ball in the second quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Beaver Stadium. (Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports)
(C+P) — Disappointment, and the subsequent search for redemption, can arise at various levels.
For Penn State, it’s primarily centered on their lack of offensive production.
For Michigan, its mounting problems couldn’t even be contained within the confines of its tremendous stadium.
The Wolverines’ poor performance in 2014 continued this past Saturday with a 26-24 loss to Rutgers thanks to a defense that allowed more than 400 passing yards. Now at 2-4 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1967, to say that fourth-year head coach Brady Hoke is under fire would be kind.
The flames were burning even before the season began, with the torches having been lit by a rabid fan base that annually demands a national title contender.
Hoke’s hot seat got warmer with a dreadful 31-0 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 6. Then came this current three-game losing streak: sizable home defeats to Utah and Minnesota preceding the narrow setback to the Scarlet Knights.
Aside from too often being on the wrong end of the score, here are some other ugly numbers: 109th in passing, 57th in rushing yards, and 103rd in points per game. Not only are they far away from the top-25 rankings, they are no longer relevant in a conference that they used to dominate.
“Sometimes fighting alone doesn’t get a victory,” Hoke said. “I think we need to change those results and execute a little better, coach a little better. It always starts with me, and us.”
These problems on the field have translated to controversy and discontent off the field.
Hoke’s tenuous status as Michigan’s man was made even more questionable when he failed to remove sophomore quarterback Shane Morris during the Minnesota contest after he took a blow to the head.
Athletic director Dave Brandon admitted that Morris did suffer a mild concussion and that “a serious lack of communication” between the coaching staff and medical personnel led to the QB being reinserted without proper neurological testing.
That apology didn’t sit too well with many fans as students and alumni staged a massive rally on campus, pleading for Brandon’s dismissal.
Of course, these cries wouldn’t be as strong if Michigan were winning regularly. And to return to that winning form, the Wolverines will have to overcome the loss of starting running back Derrick Green—out for the season with a broken clavicle. Green had accumulated 471 yards on the ground with three touchdowns on 82 carries and will now have to be replaced by the trio of De’Von Smith, Justice Hayes and Drake Johnson.
“I’m very confident in the three guys that will be doing most of the work as a running back,” Hoke said. “I’m highly confident of what they bring and what they can do.”
Devin Gardner returned to first-string quarterback for the Rutgers game and will once again be the starter on Saturday against Penn State, a team that is well-set at that position with sophomore Christian Hackenberg.
A five-star recruit from Fork Union Military Academy, he took the reins of the Nittany Lions offense almost immediately, and went on to win the Big Ten Newcomer of the Year in 2013.
In 2014, under new head coach James Franklin, we’ve seen obvious signs of growth—with more than 1,500 passing yards in five games.
But, as with all developing quarterbacks, there are points of regression. For the first four weeks of this season, it hasn’t cost his team a victory. On Sept. 27 against Northwestern, Hackenberg had his worst day in the blue and white in a 29-6 loss. But it would be a mistake to lay all the blame on the shoulders and arms of the Lions’ prized signal-caller. He didn’t get much in the way of support from the rest of the offense.
Hackenberg’s lack of accuracy (57.9 completion percentage) and consistency (four TDs, six interceptions) is partially the product of an inexperienced offensive line that allowed its QB to be sacked 14 times and hurried on several more occasions.
In addition, the rushing attack has gained just 101 yards per game (ranked 116th in the nation). Bill Belton leads the team with only 189 rushing yards and 3.9 yards a carry.
“We had been playing a certain way for four weeks and had been able to get by with it by just being gutsy and perseverant and finding a way at the end of games, and you can only do that for so long,” Franklin said.
It’s quite possible that Belton, Hackenberg and the rest of the offense can be rejuvenated when it travels north to take on the embattled Wolverines and recall the highlight of the 2013 season.
As Michigan and Penn State get set for their 2014 match-up, there are many differences from last year’s encounter. Franklin gets his first taste of this Big Ten clash, and the game will be played on Michigan’s turf. Whether the home field factor is an advantage or source of added pressure for the Wolverines and their head coach remains to be seen.
“That environment I don’t think is like any other,” Hoke said. “We have great fans, and they are fans with high expectations, and they should be. We feel the same way.”
Just as there is a chance for redemption inside the Big House on Saturday night, there is also the possibility of added frustration and the consequences that come with it.
Should the Nittany Lions lose, the team and their new head coach would need to revert to the drawing board in order to regain a winning form.
Should the Wolverines fall, it may be time for a new head coach.