UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After a strong win on Sunday over Rutgers, Penn State (4-8, 1-3 Big Ten) looks to finish the regular season on a high note when they take on Michigan (5-7, 1-3 Big Ten) on Saturday Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Fueled by an outstanding performance by the Nittany Lion offense last weekend, Penn State looks to gain a playoff birth with a win against the Wolverines. The winner of Saturday's contest will secure the No. 4 spot in the Big Ten tournament, a spot the Nittany Lions hope to find themselves in.
Associate head coach and defensive coordinator Peter Toner is hoping this game will prove the final piece to the puzzle that was a trying 2015 regular season. A win against Michigan and a playoff spot will bring validation to the young group of men who have worked hard throughout the season.
"Based on where we're at in the Big Ten we have to kind of treat this as a playoff game," said Toner. "I think at this point I wouldn't say it's do or die but obviously if we don't win our season probably comes to an end mathematically. For the guys we're excited about the opportunity to go to Michigan and do what needs to be done on the field and earn our way into the Big Ten championship series."
Penn State has faced Michigan every season since 2012. The Nittany Lions have won all three contests in those years, including a dominant 22-7 win to open the 2014 campaign. Despite recent successes, this weekend's game will not be without challenges.
The Nittany Lions, having come back from a two-goal deficit against Rutgers, will need to come out strong on defense to stay confident in all 60 minutes of play against Michigan.
"We still have yet to start a game defensively on the right note," said Toner. "Unfortunately we always seem to go down by a couple and I'm not sure if it's our guys overthinking or if they're a bit nervous, I don't know, but we keep working on it during practice. We keep using these scrimmage opportunities and adding emphasis on the early portion of the scrimmages and hopefully our guys will just continue to just have a better focus when the game starts."
Focus will be another key for the Nittany Lions this weekend. In previous years the Nittany Lions have been strong away from University Park, but this year have been inconsistent on the road. This weekend's matchup, in Michigan's "Big House," will prove a challenge for a team that needs one final win. The bus ride will give the players and coaches time to focus and strategize on their one goal of the weekend: to win.
Throughout the season, the team's motto has been "one game at a time." By never getting ahead of the next game on the calendar, the Nittany Lions focus all of their energy on one opponent at a time. Coach Toner emphasized that although this has given the team a new perspective on their season, he does still see room for improvement even as the season winds down.
"I think we just got to keep working on us," said Toner. "I think that's the key. We were talking to our guys last week about just doing what we do, but just doing it a little bit better. I think a lot of our focus earlier in the year tended to be on our opponent versus fixing the things that were going on within our own team."
One other area of improvement the team looks to tackle this weekend is possession time. To start, faceoff specialists like Drake Kreinz will need to win face offs, it then comes down to Penn State's ability to keep and possess the ball.
"Time of possession in this game is going to be key," said Toner. "It certainly highlights our ability to clear the ball effectively. To tip the scales a little bit more in our favor in terms of possession time for our offense and limited possessions for [Michigan's] offense. The fewer times we have to defend them the better off we'll be."
While every game offers the opportunity for improvement, the little changes that the Nittany Lions are focusing on this week could be the difference between extending their season and cleaning out their lockers sooner than they would like.
"I think this is an exciting opportunity for them and for us, knowing that we can extend our season with a win and we certainly look forward to the challenge," said Toner.
Penn State will face Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor at 6 p.m. The game will air on the Big Ten Network.