Penn State defensive end Jerome Hayes doesn’t like thinking about the last-second loss to Michigan in 2005.
Then-Wolverine receiver Mario Manningham’s touchdown catch as time expired spoiled Penn State’s dreams of an undefeated season – one of five straight painful losses the Nittany Lions have endured at Michigan Stadium since 1996.
Which brings No. 13 Penn State (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) to its next visit this weekend to its maize-and-blue house of horrors to face Michigan (5-2, 1-2).
The party line in Happy Valley, from coach Joe Paterno to the scout team walk-on, is to forget the past. Hayes was in his redshirt freshman season in 2005, and there aren’t too many other players left from that team.
“In ’05 … I don’t really talk about ’05,” Hayes said Wednesday when asked why Ann Arbor has been so tough on the Nittany Lions. “That last second thing to Manningham was a heartbreaker.”
To their credit, the last three games of the series at Michigan have been close, with the Wolverines winning by a combined margin of 10 points. Michigan is 5-2 all-time against Penn State at the Big House, but Paterno doesn’t consider the Wolverines’ home that tough a venue.
“I don’t think it’s particularly a tough place to play if you’re ready to go and you’ve got some kids that look forward to playing in places where they are 100,000 people there to watch you,” Paterno said.
At least Penn State heads into the weekend having broken a nine-game skid overall to Michigan after a 46-17 victory over the Wolverines at Beaver Stadium last year.
Still, the Nittany Lions’ last win at Michigan came on Nov. 16, 1996 – when most of Paterno’s current players were in grade school.
“I don’t think it takes extra motivation, or do we think about what happened there before,” Paterno said “We got to forget about it.”
Penn State heads to Michigan on a three-game roll, fresh off a 20-0 homecoming drubbing of Minnesota. The offense overcame a slow start and a slew of penalties to provide more than enough cushion to a defense playing perhaps its finest ball of the year.
That sets up a classic Big Ten contest Saturday between the Nittany Lions’ league-leading run defense (75 yards per game) against Michigan’s spread offense, which leads the Big Ten in rushing at 235 yards per game and is keyed by two talented freshman quarterbacks, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.
Despite the gaudy statistics, questions still linger about Penn State. Each of their six victories have come by at least 18 points, albeit against either subpar nonconference foes or middle-of-the-pack or lower Big Ten teams (Illinois and Minnesota).
The Nittany Lions lost their lone tough game, 21-10 at home to undefeated Iowa.
“No, I don’t think we’re going to see it as a statement game. We’ll look at it as a great challenge,” said linebacker Josh Hull, Penn State’s leading tackler (69). “If you’re a fan, this is the type of game you’ll enjoy watching.”
Fellow linebacker Sean Lee’s return last week from a left knee sprain bolsters a fierce linebacking corps, while the defensive line has proven to be one of the Big Ten’s best.
It’s on offense where Penn State has gotten banged up. The latest casualty is second-string tailback Stephfon Green, who limped off the field last week against the Gophers.
Green hurt a right ankle that has bothered him in the past. Paterno called it a “chronic” issue, and said the ankle “gets loose on him once in a while.” Green is questionable for Saturday, though Penn State may see the return of reserve tailback Brent Carter (right knee).
It’s no sweat to first-string running back Evan Royster, who is averaging more than 100 yards a game the last three weeks. He doesn’t mind getting more touches to pick up the slack.
When asked why Penn State has problems at Michigan, Royster said “I guess it has something to do with the rough feelings between the two schools. … They always come to play us no matter what.”
Asked to elaborate, Royster said the intensity stems from the rivalry. “Just the fact that they were on a streak of beating us nine or 10 years, there’s always going to be hard feelings, and we’re going to want to beat a team that’s done that to us the last decade.”
Leave Paterno off the team’s injury report, though. The 82-year-old coach returned to the field this season after having hip surgery nearly a year ago.
Ever the jokester, Paterno toyed with a reporter who asked how he was holding up seven games into the season – several of which have been played in bad weather.
“Now that you mention it, what was that question?” Paterno quipped before taking out a handkerchief to blow his nose. “I’m kidding you! … I think I’ve been doing well. I feel pretty good.”