TheMaizeAndBlueReview - Wolverine Watch: It's Time To Get A Grip
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Wolverine Watch: It's Time To Get A Grip

The scene couldn’t be much bigger for a Michigan team desperate to declare itself a Big Ten contender.

ESPN College GameDay, nestled into Happy Valley. A whiteout at Beaver Stadium, rocking with leftover hatred from the Lloyd Carr days, when Penn State once lost nine in a row to the Wolverines.

A pair of the biggest names in college football history, scrambling to reestablish themselves among the elite. Two proud programs trying to emerge as the No. 1 challenger to the Evil Empire that has dominated the Big Ten landscape far too long.

The Wolverines and Nittany Lions share plenty in common, including a tough, defense-dominated victory over Iowa. The Hawkeyes represent the only quality Big Ten opponent Penn State has faced. Michigan isn’t looking back at its other one — for good reason.

The biggest difference between James Franklin’s Nittany Lions and Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, so far? That’s easy, and not good news for the invaders from the west.

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Jim Harbaugh and Michigan's offensive coaches are looking for ball security and scoring on Saturday.
Jim Harbaugh and Michigan's offensive coaches are looking for ball security and scoring on Saturday.

Penn State’s bench apparently features a vat of Stickum for hand dipping prior to entering the game. Michigan’s sports a vat of Crisco.

The Nittany Lions have turned the ball over precisely six times in going 6-0 the first half of the season. That’s four lost fumbles, and a pair of Sean Clifford interceptions on 159 passing attempts.

Michigan senior quarterback Shea Patterson isn’t far off, when it comes to caretaking through the air. He’s tossed a trio of pickoffs in 161 throws this year. That’s not the issue.

Where the Wolverines are dropping the ball is … well, dropping the ball. They’ve fumbled it away nine times this season, tied for the second-worst safeguarding job in the nation. Only Colorado State— with a dozen fumbles lost and backs barred from hoisting newborns in the hospital — is worse.

Michigan has actually put it on the turf 17 times thus far, but scrambled back to cover eight of them. Still, multiply the potential and realized giveaways by two and you’ve got 34 fumbles and 18 fumbles lost for the regular season.

Those sorts of numbers haven’t been seen in Michigan football since the Rich Rodriguez days, when the “Spot The Ball” mantra turned into “Drop The Ball” reality once the snap occurred.

Rodriguez’s spread-offense squads lost 18, 13 and 14 fumbles in going 15-22 over the course of three forgettable seasons in Ann Arbor. Michigan hasn’t seen a dozen lost fumbles in a season since, but will almost certainly get there this year.

That’s no way to win in Happy Valley. In fact, it could be a recipe for a blowout.

“They’ve got to tighten it up,” assured Michigan Radio sideline reporter Doug Karsch. “You can’t go to Penn State on national TV and expect to win a night game without a buttoned-up ship. They’ve just turned it over too many times.”

Karsch insists the fumbles are a function of Michigan’s young, inexperienced performers in the backfield. There’s an element of truth to what he says. Freshmen and even redshirt freshmen are certainly not physically developed to the level of seniors, while they are unaccustomed to greater closing speed and harder hitting at the college level.

Michigan featured a senior back last season in Karan Higdon, and the Wolverines lost three fumbles all year — tied for best in the nation.

Michigan football senior quarterback Shea Patterson will direct an offense looking for more explosion and consistency.
Michigan football senior quarterback Shea Patterson will direct an offense looking for more explosion and consistency.

“He was a strong, strong kid, and he didn’t fumble the ball very much,” Karsch said. “Mike Hart, famously, went 300-some carries without fumbling the ball. Mike was just a small ball of muscle.

“These backs have a ways to go, physically, and when you see the kids, up close and personal, as freshmen, and then see them as seniors … it just happens as they go through college.”

But that’s not all of it. Patterson has gone through college, and he’s fumbled six times, losing four. Lack of protection led to a couple of those early, along with Patterson’s penchant for trying to get rid of the ball at the last possible second — sometimes too late.

Penn State features a defense that can take advantage. Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Jack Ham — a radio analyst for Penn State broadcasts — says this group is the “fastest, most physical defense he’s ever seen for the Nittany Lions,” according to Jed Donohue of the PA Sports Network during his appearance on TheWolverine.com Podcast this week.

That’s a tough combo, any way you slice it.

On the other hand, there’s U-M senior linebacker Josh Uche, exhibiting the kind of defiance you’d expect.

“If we execute, there’s nobody in the country that can beat us,” Uche insisted. “That’s a fact. We execute and do our jobs, do what the coaches ask of us, execute our game plays, there’s no one in the country that’s touching us.”

If they don’t, there are several that can, including Penn State.

“Get a grip” usually applies to football fans in general. Saturday night, it needs to be Michigan’s mantra.

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