Media spotlights. Microscopes. Bare bulb-style interrogations. Michigan has been under the lights all season for reasons it would rather forget. Maybe this weekend will be different.
It's Under the Lights weekend at the Big House and this year the opponent is Penn State, likely chosen because they were the only real marquee opponent on the home schedule. With Notre Dame, OSU, and MSU on the road and Nebraska gone to make room for the expansion teams, the schedule is one of the items on the checklist of sins tied to sinking attendance and fan discontent. I've been to both previous Under the Lights games against Notre Dame and while I'm not attending this one, my fingers are crossed that the energy I've felt during those night victories can return and sustain the Wolverines in this battle, too. Say what we will about Dave Brandon on every other day of the year, he did know how to get a party started with the Notre Dame night series, making them buzz with excitement on and off the field. The Wolverines always rose to the occasion, fueled by the decibel level of the crowd and the distraction all that noise caused the Fighting Irish.
Looking back, the first Under the Lights ranks as one of the most exciting and memorable games I've ever attended at Michigan Stadium and I've been going there since the days of the Huckleby, Lytle, and the Dufek brothers. It was as heart-stopping as the 1979 Anthony Carter catch to beat Indiana in the last :06 seconds. And it was as in-your-face fun as Desmond's 1991 Heisman pose against Ohio State. That first stunning night victory over Notre Dame in the year Hoke's Wolverines went 11-2 was the last time I felt like I truly belonged there as a fan, when 115,000 other people and I were a legitimate part of the victory. And the Athletic Department knew it.
Saturday's game will be a tough matchup on the field and a referendum on Dave Brandon in the stands. Ticket prices on the market are dropping and any change to the current call for fair weather might continue Brandon's ongoing attendance woes. It doesn't help that neither team is operating at the historical success level long-time fans expect and the both fan bases tend to be respectful of each other. That's not nearly as fun as the full-on Irish hate in Ann Arbor that made the earlier night games hum.
So what does this game look like? I hesitate to even bother analyzing the details of who's better at each element of the game in making a prediction. I'm not sure who either team really is this year. Penn State is 4-1 on the season, but no powerhouse. Their only loss came at the hands of a good Northwestern team that defeated Wisconsin last weekend. The Nittany Lions also edged past Rutgers earlier, 13-10, though less successful offensively against the Scarlet Knights than the Wolverines. Coming to Michigan after a bye week, they should be rested and well-prepared to meet the challenges Hoke and the Wolverines throw at them. Their ineffective offensive line, inability to establish a great running game, and inability to generate points on passes are considered PSU weaknesses this year. If Michigan's defense plays well, they can expose them and help keep the game in control for Gardner's offense.
Although it wasn't pretty and the result was a loss, I did think Michigan's offense played better against Rutgers than they did in the previous week's loss to Utah. The season-ending injury to RB Derrick Green hurts, but if my weekly desperate prayer is answered and Gardner gets adequate support from the O-line to get his passes off accurately and to buy real estate for the run, Michigan has the talent to take out the Nittany Lions. They're beatable, especially on Big House turf in what should be an electric atmosphere. Should be is the operative phrase.
The extra person on the field Saturday will be the fans. We all know that the Big House can be an intimidating venue when it's packed and rocking. If the attendance is anemic and the students carry out their anti-Brandon boycott of the kickoff (or more), a Michigan victory becomes tougher. If any game requires fan support in the form of unrelenting noise, this will be the one. The Big House should give the edge in a tight game to the Wolverines.
I really want to be a believer for once this season and say Michigan 31, Penn State 21. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to do so, though. It would require the continued improvement of the offense, the energy of the crowd, and a little night magic.
On the other hand, weak fan involvement paired with a team relapse into sloppy habits and poor decision-making, may see a final more in the range of Penn State 21, Michigan 17.
The Wolverines are certainly down, but those kids really need this one to turn around a difficult season. I hope they get everyone's support all evening long, no matter what. Go Blue and light up the Nittany Lions!