In a normal season, a matchup between Penn State and Michigan means two ranked teams going at it for the chance to become the main challenger to Ohio State for the Big Ten East Division title.
But it’s 2020. Nothing is normal. Two of the all-time winningest programs in college football enter Saturday’s game at the Big House as arguably the two most disappointing teams in the nation.
The Nittany Lions (898 wins, ninth all-time) are saddled with the worst start in the history of their program. Another remarkable twist is that they are the only team ever to be ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press preseason poll and start 0-5.
The Wolverines (964 wins, first all-time) own two victories but have been inconsistent, giving up 114 points during a three-game losing streak. Like Penn State, they are faced with uncertainty at the quarterback position.
For Michigan, last Saturday’s 48-42 triple-overtime victory over Rutgers eased some of the heat on head coach Jim Harbaugh. In his sixth season, Harbaugh still has not led the Wolverines to a division championship and is 0-5 against Ohio State going into their Dec. 12 showdown.
With one year left on his contract, the guessing game is whether Michigan will extend Harbaugh before the 2021 season. Plus there’s always the chance Harbaugh could return to the NFL – he was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 through 2014 and went to a Super Bowl.
It got so bad in Ann Arbor that even Desmond Howard, Michigan’s former Heisman Trophy winner who rarely says a bad thing about his alma mater on ESPN’s College GameDay, called out the Wolverines last weekend for their uninspired play after speaking to some other former players.
“The general consensus is there was no fire,” he said. “There’s no juice. They’re just out there playing. And I’ll tell you, Rutgers, they’re going to hit the field with some juice. If Michigan can’t match that energy, they’re in for a long night against Rutgers.”
The Wolverines survived the 4-hour, 24-minute marathon in Piscataway, but only because Rutgers missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt for the win in the first overtime.
Asked Monday about Howard’s “no juice” comment, Harbaugh replied, “The guys were really into it and were passionate. As for juice, the guys played to the best of their God-given ability and that’s everything I ask from them.”
The instability at quarterback for both teams has been an issue, so much so that neither side probably will reveal its starting QB for Saturday until he actually runs out onto the field.
The Nittany Lions’ Sean Clifford has thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles, and three of those turnovers have been returned for touchdowns. Backup Will Levis has coughed the ball up on fumbles three times. The team’s turnover margin is minus-9, and its 2.6 turnovers committed per game are fifth-worst in the nation.
The Wolverines’ Joe Milton hasn’t been that sloppy with the ball but he did throw interceptions on four consecutive possessions – the last two against Indiana, the first two versus Wisconsin. He was lifted in the second quarter last week in favor of Cade McNamara, who accounted for five touchdowns – four passing, one rushing.
Each team has allowed 180 points (36.0 average) on defense although 51 of Penn State’s points have come off turnovers. The Michigan defense, directed by long-time coordinator Don Brown, has been awful, allowing averages of 274 yards passing and 437.8 total yards.
Slow starts also are a problem for both teams. The Nittany Lions have been outscored 117-33 in the first half, while the Wolverines are losing at halftime by an aggregate 100-59. Neither team has put together an effective rushing attack, and Penn State could be down to two freshmen – Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee – if Devyn Ford, who was injured last Saturday, is unable to go.
So it doesn’t figure to be a compelling game, and players must bring their own energy in a 110,000-seat stadium that will have no fans. But one team will leave with a sense of accomplishment in a disappointing season.