There aren’t too many football programs that can claim to have had Joe Paterno’s number through the coach’s storied career at Penn State.
Michigan certainly has the record to prove it.
But as the third-ranked Nittany Lions look to end a nine-game losing streak against the Wolverines on Saturday in Happy Valley, they’ll find a Michigan team coming off one of the ugliest losses in school history.
Paterno and Penn State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) haven’t been quite the national power many thought they’d become when they joined the conference in 1993, but they’ve still won nine games or more 11 times. Yet there’s been no denying the biggest road block between the Lions and the top of the Big Ten - the same school that handed Penn State its first loss as a member of the conference.
Penn State won three in a row over the Wolverines (2-4, 1-1) from 1994-1996, but hasn’t beaten them since. In all, it’s been 12 years, nine meetings and an average of two touchdowns that’s been the difference between the traditional powerhouses, giving Paterno a 3-10 record against Michigan.
“It’s not a mental thing,” Paterno said of the Wolverines’ streak against Penn State. “We had a couple tough ballgames that could go either way. I don’t think it’s a psychological thing at all.”
Rarely have the two found themselves heading in more opposite directions, though. The Nittany Lions have won all seven games by an average of 34.3 points, by far the largest margin in the country. They’re coming off their most impressive performance yet, a 48-7 victory at Wisconsin on Saturday that was the Badgers’ worst loss in Madison since 1989.
“This was a statement game for us,” Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark after throwing for 244 yards and a touchdown and running for two more scores. “People still don’t believe we can do this.”
Michigan, meanwhile, knew it was headed for a bit of a transition in Rich Rodriguez’s first year since replacing the retired Lloyd Carr, particularly after the losses of offensive stars Jake Long, Chad Henne and Mike Hart to the NFL.
But the transition is turning into a nightmare. The Wolverines have the worst offense in the Big Ten (291.5 yards per game and a league-low 18.8 ppg), and reached a new low in their latest loss. Michigan threw three interceptions Saturday in Ann Arbor - one of which was returned 101 yards for a touchdown - as it fell 13-10 to Toledo, the program’s first loss to a Mid-American Conference school in 25 games.
“I’m just extremely disappointed and embarrassed,” Rodriguez said.
“At the same time, we’ve got to stay the course. As I told our team, there’s a lot of positive things that are happening that maybe everybody’s not seeing. All they see is the games on Saturday.”
With a date at Ohio State looming on Oct. 25 that may well decide the Big Ten championship - and possibly determine whether Penn State has a shot to play for the BCS championship - it might seem Paterno would need to guard against his team looking ahead.
Considering most of his players were in elementary school the last time the Lions beat Michigan, he’s not concerned about having their full attention.
“You’re not going to have a bunch of guys coming into State College that are going to be in awe of us,” Paterno said.
“Forget the Toledo game. You literally have to wipe that thing out.”
Michigan is 109th in the Bowl Subdivision in total offense, and that’s been without facing a defense that ranked better than 40th in the nation in total yards in its past five games. The Lions, however, are eighth, allowing 259.3 ypg, are tied for third in the country with 11 interceptions, and have allowed just 11.0 ppg.
The Wolverines don’t know if they’ll have quarterback Steven Threet (elbow) or backup tailback Brandon Minor (ribs) on Saturday, but defensive end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren are expected to return after missing the Toledo game.
They’ll be hard-pressed to stop Clark and the Penn State offense, though. Clark leads the conference and is 11th in the nation with a 160.6 passer rating, has 16 total touchdowns (10 passing) and has thrown only two interceptions.
Michigan has won six of its last seven road games against ranked opponents.