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Full Version: Michigan hoping to break its fall vs. Nits
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Quote:Minnesota had just beaten Michigan on the Wolverines' home field, winning the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 1986 and only the third time in the last 36 meetings. Maybe it was the exuberance of the moment, or maybe it was planned beforehand, just in case, but Golden Gophers tailback Laurence Maroney figured such an occasion warranted a celebratory flourish. So he grabbed a Minnesota flag, ran to midfield and planted it.

"I didn't see him do that, but I heard about it," Michigan linebacker Dave Harris - whose 18 tackles were wasted in the last-second, 23-20 defeat last Saturday - said of Maroney's defiant dash. "It's a sign of disrespect. I don't know what he was thinking, but what he did wasn't right."

Being the stickler for good manners that he is, Penn State coach Joe Paterno would sternly disapprove of any of his players giving the host team another figurative slap in the face tomorrow afternoon should the No. 8 Nittany Lions (6-0) plunge the Wolverines (3-3) a bit deeper into possibly their worst season in 15 years. The Nits might indeed have found their way out of the fog that had enveloped the program in recent years, but JoePa understands that records don't count for much when a visiting team rolls into the Big House.

"I don't care if they're 6-0, 3-3, 0-6 or whatever," Paterno said. "Michigan is a very challenging place to play."

For now, it isn't quite as challenging as it has been. Already, the Wolverines have lost twice in 107,501-seat Michigan Stadium, matching their total for the four previous seasons. Michigan fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 after the setback to Minnesota, only the second time in the last 117 weekly polls that college football's winningest program has been unranked.

Michigan hasn't been at .500 this deep into a season since 1990, and is in danger of falling to 3-4 for the first time since the Big Blue opened 1-5 en route to a 4-6 finish in 1967. That, incidentally, was the last season the Wolverines had a losing record or as many as five losses.

There is still room for a turnaround - 8-3 and a Jan. 1 bowl trip wouldn't look too bad to glum Michigan fans at this point - but the margin for error has narrowed considerably for coach Lloyd Carr's up-and-down team.

"Everybody has to keep fighting," said Tim Massaquoi, the fifth-year senior tight end out of Parkland High in Allentown. "We're going to try to turn this thing around."

So why is Michigan, which began the season ranked No. 4 and had hopes of competing for the 12th national championship in school history, struggling?

"We've had a lot of injuries," Massaquoi noted. "It puts a lot of pressure on the young guys to step up and make plays. We've done that sometimes. Sometimes, we haven't. It's just a lack of consistency. There are times when we haven't been in the right position to make plays."

That was the case against Minnesota, when the Gophers were backed up deep in their own territory with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter and a backup quarterback on the field. Overtime appeared imminent.

But a 61-yard sweep down the right sideline by Gary Russell put Minnesota close enough to break a 20-20 deadlock on Jason Giannini's 30-yard field goal with a second remaining.

"Sometimes we haven't been in the right position to make plays," Massaquoi said. "To be at Michigan and be 3-3... it's really unheard of. It makes you question yourself.

"For me personally, I didn't play well [against Minnesota]. There were plays to be made and I didn't make them. It makes you ask yourself, 'What are we doing wrong?' We have to get back to doing the things that made us successful in the past."

It's not exactly a panic situation, but defensive tackle Patrick Massey admits that frustration is mounting.

"We're coming so close," Massey said of the three losses, which have been by a total of 13 points. "The games we've lost, we've been just a few plays away from winning those.

"Take [Russell's long run to set up the game-winning field goal]. We had a missed assignment here, a missed tackle there and we gave up a big play at the wrong time. It happens. But it never used to happen to us this often."

Now the Wolverines, their pride bruised, must find a way to derail a Penn State team that is building a head of steam, now that some big-play freshman speedsters have added offensive firepower to a defense everyone figured would be among the best in the nation. More important, the Nits - who, incidentally, are three-point underdogs - are lining up on both sides of the ball as if they expect to execute at critical junctures.

"You can see their speed on film," Michigan cornerback Leon Hall said of rookie wide receivers Derrick Williams and Justin King. "It's obvious that they have some real fast guys."

Massaquoi admits to being impressed by Penn State's 17-10 upset of then-No. 4 Ohio State, but he said he likes the challenge of going against an undefeated team that is riding the wave that the Wolverines had hoped to catch. There is only so much satisfaction, however, in playing the role of spoiler.

"The expectations here are high," Massaquoi said. "That's the level we compete at. There's always pressure to win at Michigan. We go into every season thinking that we're going to win the national championship. Why would we shoot for anything less?"
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