Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer 423d

Happy Valley gives Michigan chance to prove it belongs on 'big stage'

Saturday's trip to Happy Valley marks a new kind of crossroads for the Michigan football team. If No. 2 Penn State, a 9.5-point favorite, hands the Wolverines their second loss of the season, they risk becoming something they haven't been since the day Jim Harbaugh walked through the doors at Schembechler Hall in 2014: uninteresting.

Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst -- arguably the best defender on arguably the best defense in the country through the first half of the season -- says he's looking at the game against the Nittany Lions as a chance for vindication.

Redemption isn't exactly the theme you'd expect to hear from a 5-1 team that beat its upcoming opponent by nearly 40 points a year ago. But after losing to Michigan State and squeaking past Indiana in consecutive weeks, Michigan is slipping from its spot on the upper tier of the Big Ten, a spot where its players think it belongs.

"What an opportunity to show ourselves after two kind-of-tough games," Hurst said Monday afternoon. "... They were both really tough games. [This is an] opportunity to redeem ourselves and keep ourselves in the talks for the playoffs and the Big Ten championship."

Most objective observers didn't expect Michigan to be in those conversations at the outset of the season. Oddsmakers looked at the personnel turnover on both sides of the ball and saw an eight- or nine-win team. The local newspapers largely agreed. ESPN's Football Power Index predicted 8.4 wins in 2017. If Michigan continues with its current mix of productive progress and growing pains, those projections could end up being spot on.

But for some reason, hitting expectations on the nose feels as if it would be seen as a disappointment.

Perhaps that's because the defense has been dominant enough (the nation's best in total yards allowed and third-down stops) to threaten the three top-10 teams remaining on the schedule and keep Michigan in any game it plays. Maybe it's due in part to how defiantly this team brushed aside the notion that youth could be a hindrance after it beat what has turned out to be a subpar Florida team to open the season.

More than likely, though, it's because under Harbaugh, Michigan has been anything but boring for the past three years. Year 1 brought a surprisingly quick ascent. Year 2 was chock full of blowout wins and heartbreaking losses.

In between, Harbaugh has filled the time with unorthodox innovations and oddball offseason headlines. He has kept the college football world guessing, which is why seeing him and his team do what is expected of them is a bit of a letdown. Scraping out close wins against unranked teams is boring -- not necessarily for those taking part in the moment, but in the grand scheme of things.

"It doesn't have to be that way," Harbaugh said Saturday when asked if that would be the formula for Michigan the rest of the way. "We can grow. We can learn."

Hurst said pulling out a close win against Indiana leads him to believe that the defense still has its best football in front of it. Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said his unit will take strides forward with discipline this week.

On offense, quarterback John O'Korn said that he "has to pick it up, no way around it." Harbaugh said the fifth-year senior under center could also use some help from the 10 other players around him.

Michigan's players didn't shy away from calling this weekend a make-or-break type of challenge for them. Safety Tyree Kinnel said the team noticed and discussed that they slipped two spots (from No. 17 to No. 19) in the AP poll after beating Indiana.

"It's a big stage for us Saturday," Kinnel said. "We're already down one game, and we want to get back in the picture. I think we do have something to prove this week."

If Michigan does knock off the Nittany Lions on the road, then its turn at the crossroads of relevance will be sharply positive. A victory would cement Michigan in that postseason conversation until mid-November as a plucky, battle-tested group that finds a way to do enough to complement its defense. Lose the game, though, and that learning and growing period is likely to happen with a little less attention than this group has grown accustomed to.

Penn State is pulling Michigan into the spotlight for one of the country's biggest games this Saturday night. Will it kick the Wolverines off the big stage by Sunday?

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