When the conversation turns to Penn State's inexplicably lopsided rivalry with Michigan, linebacker Tyrell Sales always thinks of former Nittany Lion Anthony Adams.
Sales never played alongside Adams, but he shared a sideline with the big defensive lineman at Michigan Stadium in 2005. Sales was a redshirt freshman that year; Adams, a Detroit native and 2003 San Francisco 49ers draftee, was spending the Niners' off-week watching his alma mater in Ann Arbor.
At halftime he was on the sideline, and I remember him expressing the distaste he had for Michigan and how badly he wanted us to beat them, Sales recalled Tuesday. He had played here for five years, and he never beat Michigan.
The Lions lost that game, falling on the final play when Chad Henne threw a short touchdown pass to Mario Manningham. But you knew that. Penn State seemingly always loses when it faces the Wolverines. It has lost nine in a row, a streak dating back to 1997. The last time the Lions defeated Michigan was on Nov. 16, 1996, when Ahmad Collins scored the go-ahead touchdown on a blocked punt in a 29-17 victory in Ann Arbor.
Sales was 10 years old.
To be honest, I don't recall the game, the Butler, Pa., native said. And I used to watch their games. So I know it's been a while. It's something we're all aware of. We've been made aware by a lot of the guys who played before us who also didn't have much luck against Michigan.
It's hard to comprehend, he continued. Penn State's a good program. We've had a lot of success. To think that we haven't been able to get one against Michigan in 12 years - it's almost unbelievable. But you've got to give credit to Michigan. They've been able to come out and be better than us on those Saturdays.
It's never easy sizing up a Penn State-Michigan game. Saturday's matchup is, if anything, even more bewildering than usual in that it requires consideration of two contradictory views.
On one hand, the Nittany Lions have been dominant in rising to No. 3 in the polls, while the Wolverines have looked dreadful at times as they've struggled to master coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. They are 2-4, are coming a 13-10 home loss to Toledo, and are having quarterback trouble with Steven Threet recovering from a bruised elbow.
On the other hand, the Nittany Lions haven't beaten this program since Bill Clinton's first term. So it only makes sense that players would want to proceed with caution.
Which is just what they're doing.
You can see the kind of success [Rodriguez] had when he was at West Virginia, so it's a good offense, and everybody knows it's a good offense, Sales said. We have to play good assignment football, because they have good athletes and they have good schemes. Once that offense starts to click, you've got to watch out. We've got to go out there on Saturday and realize that we're playing a good team. Regardless of their record, it is Michigan. They're always going to be good.