Michigan vs. Penn State: 10 things every fan needs to know about this rivalry
It’s not a rivalry in the classic sense, because Penn State and Michigan ignored each other for more than 100 years, never meeting on the football field before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.
But the storied programs have made up for lost time, taking turns spoiling each other’s seasons while they each chased Ohio State, mostly futilely, during the current century.
Here’s a breakdown of the Michigan vs. Penn State series as the teams were heading toward their latest epic showdown — and 26th meeting — on Oct. 15, 2022:
The unfriendly beginning
Michigan, along with MSU and Indiana, voted against accepting Penn State and making the league name nonsensical for the rest of time.
The other Big Ten members won out, extending an invite to PSU in 1989 and including the school in football starting in 1993. That ended 4 decades of unchanging tradition in the league, which carried exactly 10 programs from when MSU joined in 1950 until PSU crashed the party.
What’s humorous given the current state of the soon-to-be 16-team league is that a main argument the Midwest schools made was that State College, Pa., was hard to get to and too far away.
2 top-5 showdowns in first 5 years
The series started with a bang, with both teams gaining wins in their most historic recent seasons.
Penn State prevailed at Michigan, 31-24, in mid-October of 1994 en route to an undefeated season and No. 2 finish behind Nebraska. (Lions fans hated being in the B1G and being forced into the Rose Bowl rather than a meeting with the Huskers to settle No. 1 on the field.)
Michigan, which won the very first meeting in ’93, broke a 3-game slide vs. its new league mate in 1997, prevailing 34-8 in an early November game at Beaver Stadium en route to a perfect season and its most recent national championship.
Those were both Top 5 matchups, the only 2 in series history.
My stadium is bigger than yours!
Michigan Stadium is referred to as The Big House, and it edges Beaver Stadium in listed capacity by 1,029 seats (107,601 to 106,572). Both programs draw SRO crowds beyond the listed limit and at times above 110,000. They’ve ranked 1-2 in average home attendance for several years running. Both schools averaged above-capacity crowds in 2021.
UM’s record attendance is 115,109 for a 2013 night game victory over Notre Dame. PSU so far has topped out at 110,889 for a night White Out vs. Ohio State in 2018, a heartbreaking fall-from-ahead 1-point loss.
As for atmosphere, even MLive admits the Maize Out “just can’t measure up” to the White Out. But UM otherwise gets the nod for home field advantage. UM is 8-4 at home in the series; PSU just 6-7.
Bo didn’t know Joe?
The programs boast 2 of the most iconic coaches in NCAA history, but they never met on the field. Unlike Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler didn’t hang around for 46 seasons, closing out his 21-year career in Ann Arbor in 1989, just as PSU was joining the league.
The late Paterno won a record 409 games at Penn State and spent 60+ years in State College including his time as an assistant to Rip Engle.
Schembechler won 194 games while at Michigan, a school record and the 3rd most among Big Ten coaches behind Amos Alonzo Stagg and Woody Hayes. Paterno, who coached 19 years in the B1G, ranks 5th in league history with 162 wins.
Mutual hatred for Ohio State
Both programs have neck strain for looking up at Ohio State in the B1G East since the league went to its latest divisional model in 2014.
Michigan’s hatred for its No. 1 rival dates to the first rendition of The Game in 1897 and has never waned. The Wolverines broke through in 2021 after 8 straight losses, downing the Buckeyes on their way to their 1st Big Ten Championship Game victory and a CFP spot.
Penn State entered 2022 with 1 win in its past 10 tries vs. OSU, in 2016 when the Lions made and won their lone B1G title game. The Lions blew fourth-quarter leads in excruciating 1-point losses in 2017 and 2018.
All-time winning programs
Michigan, which started playing in 1879, ranks as the winningest college football program, with 981 victories through its 5-0 start to 2022. Penn State, which started out playing on the Old Main lawn in 1887, stood at No. 8 all-time with 914 wins after its 5-0 start in 2022.
National title thirst
Since the poll era began in 1936, each team has won 2 national titles. Michigan won in 1948 and 1997. Penn State won in 1982 and 1986, beating Herschel Walker’s Georgia and Vinny Testaverde’s Miami in classic bowl games.
Given the history and resources of the programs, both fan bases expect their team to get back in the mix with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson. It’s been too long.
2005’s all-time PSU heartbreaker
Mario Manningham’s 10-yard TD reception as time expired gave Michigan a 27-25 victory in the closest game in series history (through 2021, a total of 25 meetings). It was Penn State’s only loss of 2005, costing Joe Paterno a shot at his third national title.
Visiting Penn State entered the game 6-0 and No. 8 after beating No. 6 Ohio State a week earlier. Michigan was 3-3 and unranked.
The Lions were coming off a 4-7 season in 2004, so no one really knew how thoroughly the 78-year-old Paterno had rebuilt his program. If not for 2 missed FGs and/or a great kick return that set up UM’s 42-second game-ending drive, Penn State might well have completed a rags to riches story that year. Instead, most of the 111,249 in attendance got to celebrate.
Modern times: Harbaugh vs. Franklin
James Franklin became Penn State’s 3rd head coach in 49 years in 2014, and Jim Harbaugh became head Michigan Man a year later. Harbaugh leads the head-to-head matchup 4-3 (through 2021), and both coaches have broken through Ohio State’s stranglehold for 1 Big Ten title and 1 victory over the Buckeyes.
Significant segments of each rabid fans base think that’s not nearly good enough, and have called for their coach’s head. But lucrative contracts and hot starts in September of 2022 had both 50-somethings looking like they might stick around for a while.
Harbaugh has had the higher ranked recruiting class in 5 of 8 seasons, though Franklin had the upper hand in 2022.