By: Thomas Frank Carr
One thing is perfectly clear according to Penn State Football’s Head Coach Bill O’Brien; Last week is over. Done. Behind them. He made evident in his weekly press conference.
“We’ve moved on from Indiana. We’re focused on Michigan.”
It didn’t matter how the question was phrased, O’Brien had one focus,
“I’m not here to talk about scholarships, sanctions, last week’s game...I’m here to talk about Michigan and our team.”
Can you blame him? This game is big for the Nittany Lions. Not only this game a primetime 5pm kickoff, but its It’s a big opponent in the No. 18 ranked Michigan Wolverines. A big test for Penn State on a big weekend… Homecoming Weekend that is. The game has been deemed a white house game where all fans are encouraged to wear white to support the team. It will be a sold-out crowd and O’Brien knows how important it is to his team.
“I’m very biased, (but) this is the best college football atmosphere in the country. It’s just going to be a great night to run through that tunnel and be able to play in front of fans like that. We can’t say enough about our fans. We owe so much to them and we’re just working hard to play well in front of them.”
It will be strength versus strength on Saturday night as the Nittany Lions rushing attack will try to punch holes in the front seven of the Michigan defense.
“On defense they’re stout up front, very stout. The linebacker corps, they play a lot of guys there. The secondary is very disciplined. It’s going to be a great challenge. These guys are a very good football team,” O’Brien said.
It will be a tough test indeed. Michigan is only allowing 90 yards rushing on the ground per game. Penn State had a tough time getting a rhythm established in the running game and ended up throwing 55 passes last week against Indiana. While Indiana had an extra week to get ready for Penn State, Michigan has a vastly superior team to the Hoosiers. It will be critical for the Nittany Lion offense to establish a running game and protect freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Part of the problem for the Nittany Lions has been the turnover battle. Penn State is nearly -1 in the turnover department. Part of that is due to the learning curve of Hackenberg but the defense hasn’t been able to take the ball away from opposing offenses this year. O’Brien says that the team focuses on it in practice,
“Yeah we definitely work on that, we really do. We do a lot of drills on that and couch it up, and whether it’s ball drills, interception drills, strip drills fumble recovery drills, blocked punt drills, we drill it. We need to do a better job in that area, no doubt. We’ve jut got to keep working on it, emphasize it on film.”
The opportunities might be there this week versus a Michigan team that had its first turnover-free game in nearly a year. Michigan mirrors Penn State in the turnover department posting nearly a -1 turnover margin.
The Michigan offense is led by junior dual threat quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner is averaging 270 yards of offense per game so far this year (207 passing 64 yards rushing). He has also rushed for a touchdown in nine straight games. It will be the job of the Penn State defense to contain Gardner.
“I think the thing you’ve got to try to do is really try to keep him in the pocket. When he gets out of the pocket he’s dangerous, very dangerous. He’s a guy they’ve coached very well. I think he’s a much-improved passer. I think he’s a really, really good player,” O’Brien said.
For his part, O’Brien is a fan of the Michigan quarterback on and off the field.
“The other thing about Devin Gardner, from being around him at the Big Ten media day, he’s a great kid, just a really nice kid who represents Michigan really well and its going to be a big challenge playing against him.”
This weekend is critical for Penn State going into a second bye week of the season. A loss this against Michigan would mean the Nittany Lions would be .500 on the season. More importantly they would be 0-2 with two bye weeks and have gone over a month since their last victory (September 21st 34-0 over Kent State). Their next game after their upcoming bye is another primetime showdown, this time at 8pm versus the currently no. 4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.
Again, O’Brien isn’t concerned with any of that. He has his team focused on one thing right now, Michigan. He’s not daunted by the task either,
“I think our identity is we’re a tough team. We’re going to play hard and we’ve got a lot of good players. We’re very focused on doing that against Michigan.”
Ryan Keiser is questionable with a broken hand.
Brandon Felder, who was injured last week, will play and Allen Robinson is also ‘full go’ for this weekend’s game.
**Make sure you tune into ESPN Radio 1450’s full coverage of Homecoming versus Michigan this Saturday.
1pm: Re-air of the Penn State Football Show
2pm Penn State Tailgate Show
5pm: Live play-by-play of Penn State versus Michigan
Postgame and Scoreboard 2013 to follow the conclusion of the broadcast.