When Michigan and Penn State square off Saturday, the Wolverines will be the underdog hoping not to lose their second game of the season and a shot at a Big Ten championship berth. The roles have been reversed from the previous few years, when Michigan has bullied the Nittany Lions, winning the last three meetings, spoiling their College Football Playoff hopes, and flipping their recruits.
As the No. 2 team in the AP poll with the No. 3 recruiting class, Penn State is hoping this season is when their fortunes change against the Wolverines and coach Jim Harbaugh.
The provocation under Harbaugh started in 2015, on Nov. 21, when Michigan traveled to Happy Valley and defeated Penn State 28-16, the Nittany Lions' fourth loss of the season.
Only eight days later, defensive back Lavert Hill decommitted from Penn State, and a big part of that decision was Michigan. The Wolverines were recruiting him tenaciously, and the Detroit prospect eventually became a recruiting battle between the two schools in the last few months before signing day in February 2016.
The Nittany Lions did everything they could to get Hill back in the fold, including introducing him on the big screen at a Penn State hockey game on his official visit. It wasn’t enough, though, as Hill eventually signed with Michigan after a tug of war between the two programs.
He was one of three Penn State commits flipped by Michigan in that recruiting class, including defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour and kicker Quinn Nordin, who became well-known for his sleepover with Harbaugh on an in-home visit in January.
Michigan also landed athlete Khaleke Hudson in that class, and while he never committed to Penn State, the Nittany Lions were one of the top choices for Hudson, a Pennsylvania native.
The Wolverines finished that season with the No. 6 recruiting class and a 10-3 record, capping it off with a win in the Citrus Bowl against a ranked Florida team. Penn State had the No. 18 recruiting class and finished the season at 7-6 with a loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
For the 2017 recruiting class, Michigan also finished with the No. 6 class, while Penn State was at 17.
In the 2016 season, the Wolverines handed the Nittany Lions and coach James Franklin their second loss and were a big part of why Penn State was eventually kept out of the College Football Playoff, adding to the list of pestering by the Wolverines.
But something happened to that Penn State team after its loss to Michigan last season. After that loss, the Nittany Lions have gone on a 14-game regular season win streak and have exploded on the recruiting trail, with a five-star receiver commit in Justin Shorter and 12 total ESPN 300 commitments to go along with the No. 3 class in 2018.
“Was that loss a factor in what happened after that loss and how we moved forward, how we approached it? Yeah,” Franklin said.
“You need to be constantly learning and growing. Some moments are bigger than others, I will agree with that. But you need to constantly be learning and growing.”
Michigan has the No. 16 recruiting class and sits at No. 19 in the AP poll, as Penn State finds itself in an unfamiliar spot ahead of Michigan in recruiting and the on-field rankings.
The roles have reversed this season, and now some of those prospects Michigan flipped in the 2016 class will be tasked with stopping the Nittany Lions from dashing the Wolverines' hopes of reaching the Big Ten championship game and maybe even the CFP.
Hill will have to defend against Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley; the Nittany Lions are averaging 291.2 passing yards per game. Hudson will try to slow down electric RB Saquon Barkley, who is averaging an FBS-best 217 all-purpose yards per game. And Nordin will most assuredly be called upon in what will be a raucous night environment at Beaver Stadium.
A loss for either team would be devastating, but a win for the Nittany Lions would quickly turn them into the tormentor instead of the tormented.