Emmy Award-winning ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit previews college football’s Statement Saturday by discussing this weekend’s key Big Ten matchups – No. 6 Michigan at No. 8 Michigan State, and No. 20 Penn State at No. 5 Ohio State – and College GameDay Built by The Home Depot’s visit to East Lansing.
Herbstreit will call the Nittany Lions-Buckeyes game in Columbus (Saturday | 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) with Chris Fowler and reporter Holly Rowe. Earlier in the day, Herbstreit will be part of College GameDay (9 a.m. – noon, ESPN) as college football’s premier pregame show travels to Michigan State for the first time since 2015.
This weekend has been dubbed Statement Saturday. How important are these two Big Ten games in terms of the national picture and the conference title race?
Herbstreit: These teams have been building momentum, especially Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State towards this weekend. This is the weekend we really learn who these teams truly are. Is Michigan State, which to me Mel Tucker’s got to be the Big Ten, if not National Coach of the Year, are they a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten east? This is the weekend we learn that.
And Jim Harbaugh. Here’s a guy that, his own fans had him on the hot seat – his own fans questioning whether or not his teams were ever going to get over the hump. And here they are undefeated, playing as efficient as anybody in the conference. And now, they get their chance to go on the road against a top-10 team to kind of show, you know, we are that good.
Ohio State had a setback early in the year against Oregon. Now they’ve positioned themselves back up where they’ve got a real shot to be in a position to maybe win a Big Ten Championship, maybe get back to the Playoff, but we don’t know. They looked incredibly improved in the last four weeks, but this maybe is the week we learn a little bit more about how far they’ve really come against Penn State.
Then, with Penn State, up until about three weeks ago we had them as a top-10 team looking good and they’ve kind of taken an about face. They have a chance to kind of salvage their season by going to Columbus and trying to knock off Ohio State. So I just feel that instead of speculating who these teams are, we’re going to really find out. We’re going to have some evidence now as far as these teams after this weekend.
Looking at Michigan-Michigan State, how surprised are you that both teams are still undefeated?
Herbstreit: I think Michigan State has been the biggest surprise in the country, not just in the Big Ten. To think about where they were in Mel Tucker’s first year. Keep in mind, like a lot of other first-year coaches in 2020 – it’s a global pandemic, heavy restrictions, no spring football, cancel the season, oh no, now we’re going to have a season, and it’s just unprecedented what he went through his first year. They looked like, obviously, a severe work in progress.
I don’t know if anybody took advantage of the transfer portal as much as Mel Tucker did. And you look on their roster now, most notably Kenneth Walker from Wake Forest and it’s sprinkled all throughout their roster. They’ve upgraded and taken advantage of the 2021 way of doing business, and now they’ve got a confident football team.
They could have lost a couple games, but to their credit, they found ways to win against Nebraska, they won against Indiana. Those games could have gone the other way. But when you find ways to win games, your team starts to believe in your culture, starts to believe in your way of doing things, and I think that’s where Michigan State is right now. I think they’ve become a really confident, dangerous team, and they’re always tough in East Lansing.
For me, Michigan, you can look at anybody else – probably in the country, but look at the offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. They’re taking care of the ball. They’re creating turnovers. They’re doing all the little things that add up to big things to win football games, and this is a team that made wholesale changes to their coaching staff after last year. Jim Harbaugh, the athletic director backed him up and said, “This is still my guy. I still believe in him,” and there were a lot of Michigan fans that were like, “What? We can’t beat Ohio State. What are you doing?” A lot of people were frustrated and to his credit, he kind of blocked that out. Now they’re having a lot of fun. Watch Michigan play. Look at their enthusiasm and the confidence that they’re playing with. It’s like, if you turn on the 2020 film – again, it’s a COVID year, everybody was dealing with it – but if you turn on that film and watch 2020, just the body language and energy versus watching them play in 2021. I don’t know if there’s another team that – from an enthusiasm and confidence and just swagger, I don’t know if anybody’s changed more than Michigan from 2020 to 2021.
So, they come into this rivalry game on the road. You saw what they did when they went to Camp Randall. When the fourth quarter started, that’s supposed to be an intimidating thing when Camp Randall starts bouncing up and down with ‘Jump Around’ and there were players from Michigan – to me, kind of out of character for a Jim Harbaugh team, they’re just having fun, swinging towels, jumping up and down with students from Wisconsin, kind of like, “We’re not afraid of this. We’re having fun with this kind of mentality,” and I think they’ll walk into East Lansing with all the booing and all the stuff they’re going to be hearing, and they’re just going to kind of wave their hands like, “Oh, we love this. This is what we want, we want to be here.” That’s my impression of Michigan and the mindset, the mentality, of how they’ll come into that game.
With College GameDay back in East Lansing, do you have a favorite memory from doing the show there?
Herbstreit: I just think of a lot of great teams over the years that Mark Dantonio had. College GameDay would go into East Lansing quite a bit with his teams. Those three years that Connor Cook was quarterback, I would argue that those were three of the best years in program history, and we were there for a lot of those big battles.
Passionate fan base. They despise Michigan. Coming off 2020 when no fans could be there, they will be at an all-time high and it’ll be a wild scene in East Lansing on Saturday morning.
Switching to Penn State-Ohio State, what do you expect from this game?
Herbstreit: Well, I’m a little bit different than everybody else I’ve heard from this week. It’s almost like sometimes we forget the sport we cover. You know, we try to make sense out of things that happened. For example, well, Penn State lost to Iowa and they got beat by Illinois, Ohio State’s going to kill them. Maybe they will, I don’t know. I’ve just seen it too many times that when a team that has talent like Penn State has an off day – they were in a fog against Illinois. They took advantage of it. Brett Bielema is doing a good job in Champaign. He’s got a team that’s growing each week. And Penn State was just in one of those funks. And to think that they’ve forgotten how to play football is ludicrous. Too much pride on that roster. Too much talent on that roster. They have been backed into a corner. They have a chance to salvage their season by beating Ohio State in Columbus. I don’t know if they will, but I expect them to be the kind of team you would expect them to be, and not the team that played against Illinois last week.
The concern you have is how healthy is Sean Clifford. Can they run the football? That has been an issue for them at the line of scrimmage, and the way Ohio State can score, I mean Ohio State, I think, has the most explosive offense right now in the country with the way C.J. Stroud is settled in. The three best receivers on one team in the country – Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba – and tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who’s an NFL tight end. TreVeyon Henderson at running back is a freshman. It’s an embarrassment of riches and now the quarterback has experience and reps under his belt. They are really dangerous – I think they’ve scored 57 points a game the last four games. And a few of those games they’ve had to kind of pull back. They could have probably scored well over that, so that’s who you’re playing, and you’ve got an offense that’s kind of stuck in second gear since Sean Clifford got hurt against Iowa. So, if he’s healthy – which their head coach James Franklin came out and said he expects his quarterback to be 100% healthy. If he’s healthy, Penn State’s going to have to try to create explosive plays in the run and pass game to stay up with Ohio State. I think that’s the only way that they’re able to be competitive and win the game. Two areas: create turnovers and create explosive plays on offense in the pass game. Those would be the two things that have to happen, I think, for Penn State to be in this game and try to pull off the upset.
You’ve obviously played in and called so many big games at The Shoe. How excited are you to go back to be in that atmosphere for a huge game like this?
Herbstreit: Anytime I get a chance to go back, it’s always like I’m an eight year old. I just happen to have a headset on and am calling the game. Make no mistake – I’m a proud alum, passionate about Ohio State. Dad was a captain, I was a captain, I have a son on the team. But when the game starts, I just break the game down. I talk about the game. I have no issue just analyzing.
My highlight is being around that stadium, feeling the energy as it fills up. I’m kind of an old-school guy and when the band comes down the tunnel and comes into that stadium, the stadium comes alive. I get as excited to watch the band come in as I do the game itself, so I always try to make sure I’m upstairs in position to watch the band’s entrance. The discipline which they come in with and the way they play the fight song to open up the beginning of their performance, yeah, that’s a highlight for me. You’re just feeling the juice, the energy of that stadium. I’d be lying if I said it’s just like any other stadium. It’s not. It’s where I played and it’s the team that I grew up loving, so it’s a very special thing for me, every time I get a chance to go back there.