UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's first-ever meeting with Michigan today already held historic implications. But when Michigan was ambushed by Michigan State last week, that Big Ten matchup in Beaver Stadium suddenly had the ring of a salvage operation.
The wounded Wolverines (1-1 in the Big Ten, 3-2 overall) need a victory today to keep alive their hopes for a sixth straight conference title.
The Nittany Lions (2-0, 5-0) need a victory to keep pace with unbeaten Ohio State, whom they meet in two weeks.
And whatever edge seventh-ranked Penn State had with two weeks to prepare for Michigan was obscured in the Wolverines' 17-7 loss in East Lansing, Mich., a week ago.
"I think it's an even bigger game as far as a challenge because Michigan lost," Lions coach Joe Paterno said. "They'll be a much tougher team to handle because of the loss."
In the wake of that defeat, Michigan fell from No. 9 to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and had its mental attitude questioned by coach Gary Moeller. "Any time you lose 17-7 like we did, you question your team's toughness," he said. "I think with us it's more mental toughness than anything else. It's not that the effort isn't there, but we're just making a lot of mistakes."
Most of the problems were on offense, where Michigan's 33 rushing yards represented its lowest total in 18 years. It was also the first time in seven games that tailback Tyrone Wheatley failed to gain at least 100 yards. He had 33 on 11 carries.
Paterno calls Wheatley "the best running back in the country right now," and Penn State has a pretty good one itself. Ki-Jana Carter, who gets most of the playing time in Penn State's three-man tailback rotation, is averaging 121.8 rushing yards
TC game and 7.2 a carry. Wheatley is averaging 116 and 5.5, but he's also a threat catching passes and returning kickoffs. Carter doesn't mind the rotation system.
"If I get tired, Mike Archie or Stephen Pitts is just as capable as I am of being a game-breaker," he said. "Our rotation wears down other teams."
The respective quarterbacks, meanwhile, have had vastly different results. Michigan's Todd Collins (234.6 passing yards per game) has thrown for 200 or more yards in six of his seven career starts. Penn State, with Kerry Collins (133.9 yards), ranks last in Big Ten passing. With John Sacca gone from the team, Paterno said sophomore Wally Richardson will compete with Collins for the starting job.
Both coaches prefer to run first and pass later. Most likely, it will come down to Wheatley vs. Carter, and may the best ground game win. Thanks to a 526-yard effort against Maryland, Penn State is averaging 297.6 rushing yards per game. Michigan checks in with 161.8.
On defense, Penn State has come up with 14 interceptions and 18 sacks. But the Lions built their numbers against mediocre-to-poor Division I teams. Penn State's opponents are 10-13 this season, compared to 14-7 for Michigan's opponents.
Not surprisingly, Paterno says he doesn't know how good the Lions are yet.
"We have not been in trouble yet, we haven't been behind yet," he said. "This is the first team we've gone against this year that we just don't know whether we're good enough . . . We haven't played a team the caliber of Michigan. We have not played the kind of athletes we're going to play this week."
Moeller was more than happy to return the compliment. "Penn State has a ton of depth," he said. "They play a lot of people. Their tackling chart has more names on it, I think, than we have on our whole defense."
Out of desperation, Moeller says, he expects the Wolverines to play well today. A season that started with talk of a national championship is on the brink.
"It should bring out your best when your back is up against the wall," he said. "When you're Michigan, everybody wants to beat you. We don't get any left hooks. We're going to get everybody's right cross."