Rodriguez, Wolverines reach key juncture

We all know the block M in the Big House stands for Michigan, but it might as well stand for Magnified.

Throughout Rich Rodriguez's tenure, everything about the Michigan program has been blown up: victories, defeats, quotes, recruiting, player departures, win streaks, losing streaks. Rodriguez and the Wolverines have been hounded by hyperbole.

At times, it has been too much, unfair, overkill. How many must-win, make-or-break, do-or-die games can Rodriguez possibly face?

But there are moments when those extravagant adjectives are appropriate for a team and a coach.

For Michigan and Rodriguez, Saturday's game at Penn State is one of those moments.

The Wolverines head to Happy Valley at 5-2, coming off of a bye week after dropping back-to-back Big Ten games to top 20 teams (No. 5 Michigan State and No. 18 Iowa). The arc of Michigan's season has had eerie similarities to 2009: a quick start behind a red-hot young quarterback; several shootout wins followed by losses to better competition in Big Ten play; a big-play offense slowed at times by turnovers; a defense plagued by major breakdowns.

Given what happened last season -- Michigan dropped seven of its final eight games to miss a bowl -- the fear is déjà vu for the Maize and Blue. Rodriguez would have a hard time surviving a third consecutive season without a postseason appearance.

By beating Penn State, the Wolverines can become bowl eligible, end the losing streak and quiet talk of a re-run.

"Our guys will be even hungrier because we had a bye week and we're coming off a loss, which doesn’t sit well with anybody," Rodriguez said. "Our guys are even more anxious because of that."

Michigan has had two weeks to prepare for a Penn State team that entered the season ranked in the national polls but now is simply trying to become bowl eligible.

The Lions have suffered a wave of key injuries, particularly on defense, and could be without starting quarterback Rob Bolden on Saturday night. Coach Joe Paterno said it's "very doubtful" Bolden will play after suffering an apparent head injury against Minnesota and still having some memory issues when examined Sunday.

Michigan, meanwhile, has a healthy and rested Denard Robinson going against a Penn State defense that allowed 433 yards to last-place Minnesota last week. The Wolverines have endured their share of injuries, but linemen David Molk and Mike Martin are expected to play.

This is the type of game Michigan has to win.

Keep in mind that as bad as last year's collapse turned out to be, if Michigan had simply beaten Illinois and Purdue -- two teams that went a combined 8-18 -- there would have been a different feeling about the program, Rodriguez and the direction. A 7-5 season never will prompt a parade in Ann Arbor, but it would have signified real improvement.

After visiting Penn State, Michigan returns home Nov. 6 to face a much-improved Illinois team. Then comes a trip to Purdue, a team the Wolverines haven't beaten under Rodriguez. The regular-season concludes with two challenging matchups against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 11 Ohio State.

Michigan doesn't want to wait until late November to become bowl eligible.

Everyone wants to know how many wins Rodriguez needs to return in 2011. The number might not be as important as showing progress in Big Ten play. Rodriguez is 4-15 in Big Ten games, a statistic repeated throughout the last week and a half.

It's imperative for Michigan to show progress Saturday night in Happy Valley, stop the losing and silence the negative talk.

Rodriguez was asked Monday what he thinks of the constant debate about how many wins he needs to keep his job.

"Are we still talking about that now?" he said.

Informed that the chatter increased in recent weeks, Rodriguez replied, "I'm not listening."

If Michigan loses Saturday, he might not have a choice.

The noise will be deafening.