Associated Press, October 17, 2017
(AP) Second-ranked Penn State is well-rested, and needs to be.
The Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), idle last week, begin a season-defining three-week stretch by hosting No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1) on Saturday night.
The game is scheduled to be a "white-out" in 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium.
"The only thing I like more than Christmas is a white-out football game," Lions coach James Franklin said Tuesday.
It's probably safe to say he has far less affection for the Big Ten schedule-maker. After Saturday's test, Penn State travels to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State.
For now, the Lions are focused on a Wolverines squad that blasted them 49-10 last Sept. 24 in Ann Arbor. PSU won nine straight games afterward en route to the Big Ten championship, and is 15-1 since. Its only loss was a 52-49 Rose Bowl thriller against USC.
Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said the Lions are "a different team" than they were last season against the Wolverines, when in his estimation they "weren't ready to play."
"We have a different mindset," he said.
Cornerback Amani Oruwariye said the Lions don't view Saturday's rematch as a revenge game, but rather as "a platform to build from."
"The numbers speak for themselves — 15-1 since the last time we played them," he said. "We told ourselves we're not going to prepare the way we did, we're not going to come out the way we did, we're not going to have the energy that … we did. I think every team needs that kind of game, to just look at themselves in the face, look at each other in the face — just, 'Let's get it done.'"
Franklin, a self-described "live-in-the-present guy," believes several factors beyond that loss have contributed to his team's hot streak. He listed player development, added maturity and improved chemistry as factors.
"I really don't think last season's game has a whole lot to do with this Saturday's game," he said. "I don't think past historical records have a lot of factor into this game Saturday."
Lions running back Saquon Barkley, the FBS leader in all-purpose yards per game (217.0), has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and quarterback Trace McSorley has also played well. Saturday's game, however, looms as a defensive struggle.
Penn State is atop the FBS in scoring defense (9.0 points per game), while Michigan leads the way in total defense (223.8 yards per game).
Franklin described Wolverines coordinator Don Brown, with whom he used to work at Maryland, as a "greedy" defensive boss — i.e., a coach who tries to muffle every offensive strength of an opponent. During his film study, Franklin has been particularly impressed by defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who in his eyes "looks like a first-rounder" in next spring's NFL draft.
The Wolverines are also in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense and pass-efficiency defense.
"I think we are getting better each week," Hurst said of the defense. "I think we are really starting to create our own identity and are starting to really gain an understanding of who we are as a defense. I think that is really important.
"We kind of knew what we had last year, and this year has been a little more unknown, but I think we have really started to develop into our own."
The Wolverines followed up a loss to Michigan State with a 27-20 overtime victory at Indiana last Saturday, as junior Karan Higdon ran 25 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns — all career highs. His 25-yard scoring run in the extra period proved to be the difference.
Quarterback John O'Korn was only 10 of 20 for 58 yards through the air, however, and said Monday that his outing was " definitely not up to my own goals and aspirations."
"I need to pick it up," he added. "Simple as that."
The Wolverines are eighth or worse in the Big Ten in every major offensive category except rushing, and have scored only six touchdowns on 18 visits to the red zone. As a result, coach Jim Harbaugh has not been eager to single out O'Korn for criticism.
"We're trying to get all 11 (guys) on offense playing more precise," Harbaugh said Tuesday. "That's what we're working on. That's what our preparations are."