'This one's huge': UM wants to restore reputation in pivotal game
Ann Arbor — Michigan is a double-digit underdog heading into Happy Valley to face No. 2 Penn State this weekend, and the Wolverines’ AP ranking dropped two spots after a road win.
The 19th-ranked Wolverines feel like they keep getting knocked back and are looking toward Saturday night’s “white out” game at Beaver Stadium as a way to right the national perspective regarding who they are.
Michigan is 5-1, 2-1 Big Ten, with a loss at home to Michigan State. The Wolverines were ranked No. 7 entering that game. Penn State lost 49-10 to Michigan last year but went on to win the Big Ten championship. The Nittany Lions are unbeaten and coming off a bye.
“This one’s huge. This is a pivotal game for my career, for the team as a whole, for the season, for the future of Michigan football,” Chase Winovich, from the Pittsburgh area, said Tuesday night after practice. There’s a lot riding on this game.
“It’s pivotal for the season because they won the Big Ten championship last year and they’re a great football team. They’re No. 2 in the country. We got bumped down, down to 19 now after a win, and so it’s one slap in the face after another. We’re 11-point underdogs. We’ve only been beaten in the Harbaugh Era one time by more than five points. It’s one thing after another. It’s a big thing we have to prove to ourselves and to the world and for the season if we lose this one, it’s tough to win the Big Ten with two losses.”
The theme among the players who spoke to media after Tuesday’s practice focused on taking the opportunity of a big stage like Saturday night, which will be televised nationally and has attracted ESPN’s College GameDay to State College, to show everyone how good they believe the Wolverines are.
“Coach has already told us this is the big stage, that everybody is going to be watching this game,” safety Tyree Kinnel said. “People are counting us out already. We just moved back two spots after a win, so we definitely have a chip on our shoulder and we’re definitely ready to show the country what we can do.”
All the players said they saw the polls and were stunned to see Michigan drop after a win.
“We thought Indiana was a really good team,” said Kinnel, who had the interception to end the game in overtime last Saturday. “We don’t keep it on our minds. We pay attention to it though. We do want to prove everyone wrong and show the country we can beat Penn State this Saturday.”
Michigan’s defense is ranked No. 1 nationally, so it probably should come as no surprise it was the defensive players Tuesday night who spent the most time discussing the big stage and showing the college football world just how good the team is.
“We want to show the world we can play against anybody,” linebacker Khaleke Hudson said. “They’re the No. 2 team, we want to come in and play hard and prove we’re also a good team.
“We had a loss against Michigan State, but we have to put that behind us. A lot of people assume we’re not this or not that and we want to come out and show that we’re Michigan, and we’re going to play Michigan football which is hard-nosed football.”
Receiver Kekoa Crawford enjoys the team's role this week.
“I like being the underdog,” he said. “I like being doubted. It’s more of a chip on my shoulder and more of a chip on this team’s shoulder that we can go out there and prove we can play with the best. It’s a big game, plain and simple.”
After losing big at Michigan last season, Penn State won eight straight, including a win over No. 2 Ohio State, to finish out the regular season and win the Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions defeated No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship then lost a wild 52-49 game to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State coach James Franklin on Tuesday told reporters his team isn’t focused on the loss to Michigan last season.
“I was kinda surprised they turned things around,” Winovich said of Penn State’s rebound in 2016. “During the game, I don’t think we had the highest regard for them. They were able to turn it around, so my hat’s off to them. They had a great season after that point. I know they’re going to be coming at us with everything they’ve got. I’m sure they were embarrassed in their own way. No one likes to lose by that much, especially because they’re a prideful team like we are.”
The Michigan players said they are looking to restore respect for their program at Penn State.
“We think it’s a big stage for us this Saturday,” Kinnel said. “We’re already down one game, and we want to get back in the picture. We want to definitely beat them. We do have something to prove this weekend.”