ANN ARBOR - You would think an unbeaten Penn State team, riding high, leading the Big Ten, and saturated with confidence after knocking off Ohio State, would present a pretty terrifying specter for 3-3 Michigan.
Not so, says Michigan senior defensive tackle Pat Massey. The view from the doldrums, as the Wolverines try and rebound from a final-play loss at home to Minnesota last weekend, is very promising, Massey said.
"We couldn't ask for a better situation coming off a loss," Massey said. "To be able to play against a team that is as good as Penn State, it's a huge opportunity for us."
The reality is that Michigan has its heels on the tip of the precipice and can not afford to back up one inch farther. A pair of conference losses before reaching the halfway point in the Big Ten schedule has the two-time defending champs in desperate straits.
"Obviously, three losses isn't good at any point of the season, no matter when we lose them, so we just have to come out and do a better job," senior linebacker David Harris said. "This game is a great opportunity for us to prove that we are still in it, and we are still in this thing."
The Wolverines are going to need a lot of help to finagle a share of a third straight Big Ten crown, but nothing would advance that cause more quickly than defeating Penn State, which has sole possession of first place for the first time in six years. Harris said this season's version of the Nittany Lions has used speed, talented quarterback Michael Robinson, and a great defense to win its first six games.
"They have a lot of big play potential, and they have lots of speed that can stretch a defense," Harris said. "Their quarterback is the most dangerous quarterback in the country. He is strong and fast - it's like having another running back in the backfield, and he is their leader. We just have to come out and find a way to shut down their offense."
Massey sees Robinson as the key to everything Penn State does on offense, so slowing or stopping the Nittany Lions has to start with an awareness of Robinson.
"Their quarterback is really a running back with a quarterback's arm," Massey said. "He is somebody who can do it all. They are running a spread offense that has been very successful and has been getting the job done for them. I know they are known for their defense right now, but they have a very good offense."
The task of containing that offense became even tougher for Michigan when it lost safety Willis Barringer, a senior from Scott High School who has started every game this season, with a leg injury in the Minnesota game.
Brandent Englemon, Michigan's other safety, was also injured last week. Ryan Mundy, who started all 12 games last season at safety, has not played a down this year due to injury.
"We are awfully thin back there," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of his defensive backfield. "We lost Ryan Mundy earlier, so we're very, very thin.
Because of the packages that Penn State runs, we're as thin as we possibly could be, and we will just have to see what we can come up with."
Carr plans to start freshman Brandon Harrison and sophomore Jamar Adams at the two safety spots against Penn State. His biggest concern on the other side of the line is Michigan's inability to make trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line productive. The Wolverines are second from the bottom in the Big Ten in red-zone offense, with just 14 touchdowns in 29 trips inside the 20.
"I think we have been very, very ineffective in the red zone," Carr said. "That's the one thing that stands out in my mind. We just have not been able to get the ball into the end zone for different reasons, and that's something we have got to get corrected."