Penn State begins vital three-game stretch with 'White Out' vs. Michigan

In this Oct. 22, 2016, file photo, The Penn State Marching Band plays on the field before an NCAA college football game between Ohio State and Penn State in State College, Pa. A day short of exactly one year since the victory against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions have another white out scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference this time is it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State beats No. 19 Michigan on Saturday night.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Mike Gesicki put some thought into making the 2017 Rose Bowl his last game in a Penn State uniform, but the talented tight end decided to pass on entering the NFL draft and return for his senior year in Happy Valley.

As he prepared this week for the second-ranked Nittany Lions’ game Saturday night against Michigan in front of a “White Out” sellout crowd at Beaver Stadium, Gesicki figured he would have made the same choice to play his final season here 100 times out of 100.

“I have several former teammates and friends that are now playing at the next level,” Gesicki said, “and they’ll tell you right now, if you ask them, there’s nothing in the NFL that can even come close to Beaver Stadium, especially a ‘White Out’ and all the excitement that comes along with these kinds of games.

“So I think just knowing these opportunities only come around so long, I want to make the most of it and know that I have a lot left in the tank. We’ve still got six regular season games left, three of which are going to be home at Beaver Stadium, and I’m not going to take one of those for granted.”

This is the final White Out opportunity for Gesicki and his senior teammates, but the opportunities to advance into the College Football Playoff and play for a national championship are just beginning for the Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) in a three-games-in-three-weeks stretch against ranked opponents.

First up are the 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-1, 2-1). There can’t be any doubt that Penn State will have its full attention on Michigan – especially following the 49-10 pasting the Lions absorbed last year at the Big House – and not what lies ahead on the road.

And what’s coming up are next Saturday at No. 6 Ohio State, which has this week off, and Nov. 4 at rejuvenated Michigan State, the nation’s No. 18 team.

Right now, though, it’s Michigan, a team that head coach James Franklin mentioned nine straight times during his Tuesday press conference to emphasize where his team’s focus lies.

“The rankings are nice,” he said. “The fact that ESPN and College GameDay are coming is nice. The fact that this is a White Out is nice. At the end of the day, none of these things matter. It’s about our preparation. A lot of times probably the most important job of a head coach, in my opinion, is to eliminate distractions. If not handled right, that’s what these can be.”

While Penn State was off last week, the Wolverines were getting tested at Indiana before pulling out a 27-20 win in overtime. Teams coming off a bye sometimes struggle to readjust to game speed when returning to competition, but Lions quarterback Trace McSorley doesn’t see a problem.

“The best way to be able to adjust is having really good preparation in film study and studying the game plan,” he said. “You know exactly what you’re supposed to do each play versus each look. It’s practicing hard, practicing fast going full speed and having a scout team that really pushes us, so the speed of the game when we actually get to it is not a shock.”

The noise from this game could be a shock to the younger players on Michigan. Head coach Jim Harbaugh got his first taste of the Beaver Stadium environment two years ago and called it “as impressive as any place I’d ever been, great atmosphere for football.”

As for Gesicki, it’s something to savor.

“I know that when my time’s done here, I’m going to miss playing at Beaver Stadium, an unbelievable atmosphere, the best in college football,” he said.

Michigan at Penn State

Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

TV: 6ABC. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Records: Penn State, 6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll. Michigan, 5-1, 2-1, ranked No. 19.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (31-15 in 4th season at Penn State, 55-30 overall). Michigan, Jim Harbaugh (25-7 in 3rd season at Michigan, 83-34 overall for college career).

History: Michigan leads, 13-7.

Last meeting: Michigan, 49-10, Sept. 24, 2016 at Ann Arbor.

Talking points

The White Out: One of the greatest scenes in all of college football, a combination of incredible sight and near-deafening sound.

Revenge: Franklin and his players have downplayed or dismissed the revenge angle following last year’s lopsided 49-10 loss at Michigan. The fans will certainly have it foremost in their minds and, then again, who knows what Franklin tells his players behind closed doors?

Battle of elite defenses: This could be a low-scoring game, maybe as low as to suggest the first team to 20 points will win, unless the defense or special teams can post a touchdown or two of their own.

Will Barkley shake loose?: Except for a 53-yard touchdown run in his last game against Northwestern, Saquon Barkley was bottled up for the second straight week. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown certainly has examined those schemes by Indiana and the Wildcats to help formulate his own game plan to stop him.

Chess match: True students of football are in for a treat watching Brown and Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead move their players around in schemes designed to put them in the best position to succeed against the opponent.

Fast start again: The Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents 76-0 in the first quarter of their first six games. Given how fired up the crowd will be at kickoff, an early score could produce noise as loud as a jet engine.

A decisive field goal?: Michigan sophomore Quinn Nordin, who gave Penn State a “soft” commitment before going with the Wolverines, has been almost lights-out on field goals this year and has two of 50 yards or longer. Tyler Davis is 6 of 13 for Penn State after going 30 of 32 his first two seasons, but Franklin is confident the unit will come around.

The quarterbacks: The Nittany Lions’ Trace McSorley has been sacked 13 times in his last three games and needs to get time against the aggressive Michigan pass rush. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ John O’Korn, who threw three interceptions in the loss to Michigan State, must play mistake-free.