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Smeltzer: Michigan Game Could be Start of Something Great or Awful

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Keyvone Lee

The parallels are striking for Penn State.

In 1994, Penn State won its first five games.

Then, it had a bye week, and its first opponent coming out of the bye was Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Penn State was ranked highly at the time, coming into the Michigan game No. 3. Michigan came in at No. 5.

In one of the most famous games in Penn State history— played Oct. 15, which is the date this years Michigan meeting falls on— it beat Michigan 31-24, with Kerry Collins hitting Bobby Engram for a game-winning touchdown pass that might have been the signature moment of Penn State’s most recent undefeated season.

This year’s Penn State team probably isn’t as good as the ’94 squad. The Collins, Engram and Ki-Jana Carter-led Lions are one of the best in school history, and many fans will go to their graves saying that they should have had the chance to play for a national championship.

But this Penn State team is good, too, and its No. 10 ranking reflects that.

On the other side, Michigan might be better now than it was in 1994.

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team is 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the Coaches Poll and fifth in the AP.

Michigan is coming off a Big Ten championship season that ended with a trip to the College Football Playoff.

Michigan has won 11 straight regular-season games and is 18-2 since the start of 2021, so things are well in “Harbaugh Land.”

This year’s Penn State-Michigan game is a heavyweight bout that neutral fans will watch. That’s why it’s Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” game and why some feel it should have been picked for ESPN’s College GameDay.

It’s a game that could greatly impact either team’s season for the better. In 1994, Penn State went on to finish 12-0 and No. 2 in the nation after beating Michigan, and the losing team fell out of the national championship picture and ended up finishing 8-4.

This year’s game could be great for Penn State like that game was.

Or, it could be a disaster similar to a much less pleasant Saturday in Penn State history.

Penn State fans would like to forget about 2021, and so far, this year’s team is helping them do that.

At this time last year, Penn State fans were still trying to forget about 2020, and the 2021 team was helping them forget as well.

Penn State won its first five games last season and rose to No. 4 in the country.

Then, Game 6 happened.

Penn State came to Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium to play the No. 3 team in the country, and, well, you probably know what happened, so I’ll keep it brief; Sean Clifford got hurt, Ta’Quan Roberson couldn’t do the job in relief, Penn State lost and ended up finishing 7-6.

So Penn State has been on both sides of the type of game that’s ahead of it. Unfortunately for fans, the bad side happened recently, and the bad taste from the Iowa game still hasn’t left Nittany Nation’s collective mouth.

Beating Michigan Saturday won’t entirely get rid of that taste. Michigan is just the first round of a three-week October gauntlet Penn State has ahead of it. The two games after Michigan— at home against Minnesota and Ohio State— are games Penn State could lose.

But if Penn State loses to Michigan— whether it’s a hard-fought loss or a Maize and Blue boat-racing— fans will think about Iowa and worry about the other shoe dropping again.

Penn State has done a lot of things right this year, but one thing it hasn’t had enough time to do yet is erase what consecutive mediocre seasons created.

Through five games, the 2022 team hasn’t done anything the 2021 team didn’t do in the same amount of time.

Is it fair to think that this year’s team is better? Sure. Penn State has improved in multiple areas— such as running the ball— that have already paid dividends. 

But at the end of the day, Penn State hasn’t accomplished anything record-wise that it didn’t last year, and because of that, fans are justifiably waiting for something bad to happen.

If Penn State loses Saturday, it won’t be the end of the world. Michigan is— in theory, at least— the better team, and the early 7.5-point spread indicates that America believes that. A loss wouldn’t immediately kill Penn State’s chances of winning the Big Ten and certainly wouldn’t destroy the possibility of it having a good season.

If Penn State wins Saturday, however, great things— a Big Ten championship, a playoff berth, etc.— become much more realistic.

Those great things might not happen even with a win Saturday.

But what’s for sure is that by beating Michigan, these Nittany Lions would send a message that they aren’t what they were in 2020 and 2021.

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