Michigan's Secret Weapon

Zack Mills tosses against UM.

The only thing worse than hearing it once is hearing it again. It drains on the inner earlobes and is maddening every time it creeps back into the mind. At work on Monday morning, the hope is that a major story will flash on the Yahoo! newswire that is not even supposed to be active during work hours. Maybe, just maybe, a big day on Wall Street or a surprising sports trade will halt its recurrence.

For Penn State fans, too often over the recent past the terrible jingle that can't be removed from the conscious is better known as "Hail To The Victors."

Go ahead, use your nearest vomitorium — do not pass Go, do not collect $200.00.

Suffering loss after frustrating loss, waiting an entire calendar year to get revenge that never comes, and listening to conceited Michigan fans taunt is not fun for any Penn Stater. So why is it that for six consecutive games, the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions, one that seemed so promising when Penn State commenced Big Ten play in 1993, has been so one-sided?

An examination leads to a man who for too long has gone unnoticed. Quite simply, he has changed the way football is played in a conference which for the better part of forever saw two teams alternate booking flights to Pasadena every year.

After Gary Moeller did his best non-Bo Schembechler for the first five seasons of the 1990s, Wolverine alumni began to chirp and along came Lloyd Carr, who had been with the program since 1980.

But if you think Carr is the reason State can't beat Michigan, think again.

In Carr's first two seasons as head coach, the Nittany Lions handled the Maize and Blue. The 1995 game in Beaver Stadium is always remembered fondly by Joe Nastasi faking in the snow. The following season, in PSU's first trip to Ann Arbor since Bobby Engram's late touchdown reception put goal posts on Joe Paterno's lawn two years prior, Nittany Lion special teams played a big part in a solid road win.

That victory made it three in a row for State, but apparently Carr had seen enough. Following the 1996 regular season, he completed his smartest rook-to-bishop move to date by naming Jim Herrmann as defensive coordinator. The balding Herrmann is a defensive genius who has single-handedly revamped the Michigan defense and caused fits for Joe Paterno, who still often doesn't seem to realize that opposing coaches might have learned his tendencies by now. It's called video, Joe. Look into it.

Herrmann's tutelage produced stunning results in his first season. The 1997 Michigan defense was downright scary. But before the statistics, which are very impressive, don't forget that was the same year that Michigan not only won a share of the national title, but also produced the ONLY primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy in Charles Woodson.

Just to name a few, Herrmann's inaugural unit led the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. It also finished seventh in rush defense and set an NCAA record by allowing a miniscule 8.8 yards per catch. Oh yeah, he also captured the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach. Not too bad for an opening act.

So while Penn State is officially 0-for-Herrmann, a year by year look at the individual games provides an even clearer view of the way he has impacted State's inability to hold its former place in the conference. He is the silent killer, but his scope does not train from a grassy knoll. He prefers a set of headphones in a booth.

The first matchup was one of the most anticipated home games in Penn State history. Ranked second in the country and undefeated, the Lions never showed up on a soggy November day and Brian Griese needed to produce just nine points to win. Herrmann completely shut down the PSU offense and embarrassed the Lions on their home field in what was basically a shutout until a late Curtis Enis score.

The following year, the first of the two Herrmann shutouts of PSU occurred. He made mincemeat out of Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey during a 27-0 blanking that wasn't even that close. The complete dominance by the Michigan defense on that day made a statement. Two years, two games, eight total points.

Even after Bhawoh Jue's TD interception gave State the fourth-quarter lead and nearly caused the rails to implode Beaver Stadium in 1999, Herrmann's defense held the rest of the way and Tom Brady marched his soldiers downfield twice in draining fashion for loss number three.

But it was the 2000 game that really caused the water to boil over. In the midst of their worst season since the Herbert Hoover administration, PSU was actually in a game that it had no business being in. In the second half, with the outcome still in doubt, the image of a smirk on Herrmann's face told it all. State was in a short-yardage situation, and had three chances to gain what probably amounted to 18 inches.

In shocking Paterno fashion, the call was exactly the same three straight times for a whopping gain of minus-2 yards. It didn't help that walk-on Mick Blosser, who has a great personality (think blind date description) was the lead fullback. What was so telling about that series, though, was the way Herrmann planted his personnel. Not only was he so sure that Paterno would run the ball each time, but he wanted to prove he could stop it without having to completely stack the line, almost as if to rub State's nose in it. And that is exactly what he did. PSU did move the ball up and down the field that day, but when it came to the red zone, forget about it.

If that 33-11 loss was not enough, the second Herrmann shutout in four years followed in 2001.

Now stop for a minute.

When was the last time you watched Penn State rendered scoreless? A program of this stature just does not get shut out. But Herrmann did it twice in four years.

He must have been licking his chops the entire week knowing that freshman Zack Mills was making his first collegiate start. Mills put up decent numbers, but had absolutely no help en route to the only home shutout in Paterno's tenure.

Through Herrmann's first five games as the DC, the numbers say it all. Breaking out the calculator once again - two shutouts and an average of 9.2 points per game allowed.

And, of course, the sixth and final contest ended in controversial fashion. After PSU was on the receiving end of one of the worst missed calls in Big Ten history, it kept its composure enough to take Michigan into overtime, where all it could manage from the 25-yard line against Herrmann's D was a second-chance Robbie Gould chip shot. That is simply not enough to win a great football game like that on the road.

It's not as if State also failed to score against other good teams — that discussion comes to a quick halt when you consider that prior to the 1997 eight-point outing, the Lions put up 31 against Ohio State a month earlier. By no means has the offense been a juggernaut, but it has had its moments. Two weeks after the second shutout in 2001, State dropped 38 on a ranked Northwestern squad for record-tying win No. 323 and the start of the heroics that stamped Mills' mark on the program.

The other argument is that it is not so much Herrmann's doing as far as PSU's inability to beat Michigan, as it is the terrible seasons State has endured during the run. However, only in two of the recent four losing seasons did State even play the Wolverines (2000 and 2001), and in the other four losses — 1997, '98, '99 and '02 — State was ranked going into each game.

Asking a Penn State fan if the two-year hiatus before the resumption of the Michigan series is agonizing is like asking a friend if they've ever seen the Three's Company episode with the double entendre. The seven-year itch has actually become eight.

But since that day in 2002 when Tony Johnson was wrongly ruled out of bounds, a lot has changed within the confines of the Lasch Building. If in fact the rumors about defensive coordinator Tom Bradley having complete autonomy for the first time in 2004 are accurate, imagine what he could do if he continues to have the control that his Michigan counterpart enjoys. Revisit the aforementioned inaugural year of Herrmann's, and there are similarities.

Bradley, who also has been with his program for decades, and also slowly made his way up the ranks, and also hails from in-state, and also is a tireless recruiter, also headed up a record-setting unit in his first "full" year. Scrap's 2004 defense was the only one in the country that did not allow more than 21 points in any game while finishing near the top in multiple statistical categories.

If Paterno realizes how good last season's defense was, he'll have no choice but to continue to give the reigns completely to Bradley. Watching that starting 11 dominate games was at times similar to Herrmann's first year. Holding Iowa, which went 10-2 and beat defending co-national champion LSU on New Year's Day, to a three and out on series after series after series was something special to watch. Performances like that lend hope that 2005 will produce better times.

How long has PSU had its own version of Herrmann on the staff?

Nobody really knows — he might have been here all along. But at least now, Bradley's 2005 defense not only has the chance to reverse the goose egg trend and prevent that dreaded song from being played within earshot of the Penn State faithful, but also raising the noise level inside Beaver Stadium to a decibel that was once so loud, the Michigan coaches whined to the zebras.

Perhaps one autonomous Bradley plus one newly autonomous Galen Hall will equal one win over Michigan. Hey, nobody ever said math had to be the strength of a farming school.

David Pressman is a graduate of Penn State and a writer and analyst for The Sports Network.

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