After losing its last two games against FBS teams in heart-breaking fashion, Michigan had a chance to make a statement against Penn State on Saturday to set the tone for the rest of the season. A win over the Nittany Lions would have given Michigan tons of momentum heading into the final four games of the regular season and made a New Year’s Day bowl a realistic possibility. Not to mention, Michigan fans everywhere would have been able to once again chant “We own Penn State.”
Unfortunately, the wait to use that chant again will last at least another year, because the Nittany Lions were victorious on Saturday, winning 35-10 in dominant fashion. It was the first win for Penn State at Michigan Stadium since 1996, and unlike some of the close games in the past that ended with the Nittany Lions losing in dramatic fashion, this game was over with quite a few minutes left on the clock.
Michigan started the game off with a tremendous touchdown drive that appeared to set the tone for how the game was going to go. Instead it turned out to be false hope more than anything, because Penn State answered with a quick score and never looked back. Michigan’s offense seemingly forgot how to play good football after that first drive, committing both forced and unforced errors throughout the rest of the game. It was very reminiscent of the struggles the offense had against Michigan State and Iowa where simply moving the ball was nearly impossible on all but a few drives. The same could not be said for Penn State in this game, because it lit up Michigan’s defense with big runs and big passes on its scoring drives. Michigan’s defense did make quite a few stops that kept the game within reach until around halfway through the third quarter, but just like against Iowa, there were too many big plays that led to points for the Nittany Lions.
- As mentioned, Michigan got the ball first and went right down the field for a touchdown. Michigan used a healthy combination of runs and short passes to keep the ball moving. Things were going so well that the offense only faced one third down on this drive, and even then it was only a 3rd and 1. Michigan converted it by giving the ball to Brandon Minor, who eventually scored a touchdown from 1 yard out. The touchdown was set up by a 20-yard pass to Martavious Odoms two plays earlier. Odoms limped off the field after going down at the 2-yard line, but the effort was certainly appreciated. By the way, he wasn’t the only player to get banged up on this drive. David Molk suffered a right knee injury only four plays into his return, forcing David Moosman to move back to center. As you will see later in this half, that turned out to be a big loss for Michigan.
- Despite the momentum being in Michigan’s favor, Penn State wasted little time in evening the score back up and taking some of that momentum back. A bad kickoff gave Penn State good field position, and a 14-yard pass and a 41-yard run quickly moved them down to Michigan’s 8-yard line. Evan Royster was stuffed for a loss of 2 on the next play, but Daryll Clark proceeded to find Graham Zug on 2nd and goal for a 10-yard touchdown, making this a tied game.
- Following Michigan going three and out, Penn State picked up right where it left off and quickly moved the ball into Michigan territory again on this drive. Clark found Zug again, this time for a gain of 18, and then PSU went to the ground. Royster ran for 8 yards, and then Clark followed that up with an 8-yard gain of his own. Joe Suhey picked up 7 on the next play, and Royster put Penn State on the 23-yard line with a gain of 4 more yards. Michigan’s defense finally put the clamps down at this point and came up with a stop, but Penn State took the lead on a 34-yard field goal.
- Michigan did manage to pick up a first down on its next drive, but that was the only time it moved the chains. Zoltan Mesko came out for a punt shortly after and only kicked it 36 yards.
- Penn State moved into Michigan territory at the end of the opening quarter on a couple of 8-yard passes, but Michigan’s defense made a stop after that and forced a punt.
- Just like Michigan’s last drive, it picked up one first down and nothing more. Zoltan Mesko got a much better punt off this time, and Penn State started the next drive at its 27-yard line.
- Michigan’s defense made another stop, giving Denard Robinson the ball at his 17-yard line when he led the offense onto the field after the punt. Forcier was again struggling and the offense wasn’t doing much, so Robinson came in to hopefully give the unit a spark. Initially, that is exactly what he did. Robinson ran for 7 and 6 yards with a 7-yard gain by Brandon Minor in between. A holding penalty on Penn State moved the chains again. After a 2-yard pickup by Robinson, he had Kevin Koger wide open for what would have been another first down. The throw wasn’t perfect, but Koger dropped it, making it 3rd and 8. Robinson scrambled to the right and tried to make a play, but he was picked off by Navorro Bowman, who returned the interception to Michigan’s 40-yard line. Robinson hurried the snap because Penn State was making a substitution and didn’t appear to get a 12th player off the field in time, but there was no flag and Penn State took over with great field position.
- The interception didn’t directly lead to points, because Penn State went three and out and punted the ball away from the 33-yard line, but it set up what I feel was the turning point in this game.
- The punt was fair caught by Donovan Warren at the 8-yard line, and Michigan made its field position even worse by Carlos Brown being tackled for a 3-yard loss, Mark Ortmann moving early for a false start, and Tate Forcier taking a delay of game penalty that backed the team up to the 2-yard line. That came after an incompletion, making it 3rd and 16 for Michigan. I was already thinking ahead to fourth down and was worried about the seemingly inevitable punt getting blocked or there being a problem with the snap, but David Moosman didn’t make me wait until then. He snapped the ball before Forcier was ready on third down, and it went right out of the end zone for a safety. I knew a bad snap was inevitable with Moosman, but it really couldn’t have happened at a worse place on the field.
- The safety was sort of like a soft punch in the arm, but Penn State kicked Michigan right between the legs on the first play after the free kick. Daryll Clark found Andrew Quarless in the middle of the field, and he outran Obi Ezeh and Jordan Kovacs for a 60-yard touchdown. Ezeh simply was slow off the blocks and let Quarless have enough of a cushion that he could make the catch and turn up field for the touchdown. The safety help never arrived, and Quarless ran into the end zone untouched. Just like that, Penn State went from being up by 3 points to leading 19-7.
- Michigan’s offensive struggles continued on the next drive and it went three and out again.
- Penn State did the same thing, and Junior Hemingway had a nice 19-yard return on the proceeding punt, giving Michigan the ball at PSU’s 39-yard line with 1:38 left in the half.
- Tate Forcier and Greg Mathews hooked up on a great pass and catch to move Michigan down to the 19-yard line, and Brandon Minor got the Wolverines all the way down to the 2 with runs of 6, 7, and 5 yards. This once promising drive came to a screeching halt after that last run, however. Forcier fumbled the snap on 2nd and goal, and with the clock running, he decided to spike it on third down. That stopped the clock with 13 seconds and made it fourth down, forcing Michigan to kick a field goal. Forcier should have snapped it and thrown the ball to the end zone considering there was plenty of time to do so, but Rich Rodriguez took the blame for the spike after the game, saying that he wanted to make sure the Wolverines got some points before halftime. They did, as Jason Olesnavage made a 23-yard field goal, but Michigan blew a chance at taking a shot to the end zone and possibly making this a one-possession game going into halftime.
- Despite how poorly Michigan played after the first drive of the game, Penn State only led 19-10 as the second half got underway. That wasn’t the case for long, though. Chaz Powell returned the opening kickoff of the second half for 54 yards, putting Penn State in position to quickly increase its lead. That is exactly what happened on only the fourth play of the drive. Daryll Clark found Andrew Quarless on the first play of the drive for a gain of 31, and then after two short runs, he found Graham Zug in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. Penn State attempted a 2-point conversion to make this a three-possession game, but Clark’s pass was incomplete. Still, Penn State now led 25-10, and Michigan was fading fast.
- Michigan needed to get going on offense, but things went extremely poorly on its first drive of the second half. After two incompletions and a sack, Zoltan Mesko boomed a punt 62 yards. Penn State took over at its 25-yard line after a 10-yard return by Zug.
- Penn State moved the ball near midfield on a couple big runs, but it had to punt after an incomplete pass, a 2-yard run, and a sack.
- Denard Robinson came back into the game and just like his first drive, his second one ended with a turnover. On only the second play out there, Robinson lost control of the ball right before he went down, and Penn State’s Nick Sukay recovered it at the 22-yard line.
- Only two plays later, Daryll Clark found Graham Zug yet again for their third touchdown hookup of the day, making the score 32-10 and making it feel like the game was over. There was plenty of time left, but Michigan’s offense wasn’t about to get things turned around.
- Michigan went three and out in ugly fashion yet again, with this drive including another dropped pass by Kevin Koger and a holding penalty on Steve Schilling that negated a 20-yard pass to Carlos Brown.
- Penn State also went three and out, and Brandon Graham blocked the ensuing punt to give Michigan a glimmer of hope. The ball took a bad bounce, and Graham was unable to pick it up for what likely would have been a 20-yard or so touchdown. Even so, Michigan still had the ball at the PSU 24-yard line.
- If Michigan was going to get back in the game, it had to score a touchdown on its next drive. That blocked punt could have been the spark that started a Michigan comeback, but instead it was just another little bit of false hope. I say that because Carlos Brown didn’t protect the ball and had it knocked out of his hands two plays after the blocked punt. Navorro Bowman fell on it, giving Penn State the ball and essentially killing any hope of a Michigan comeback.
- The two teams traded punts to end the third quarter, and Michigan didn’t get the ball again for quite some time. A roughing the punter penalty kept the drive alive for Penn State, and the 18-play, 10-minute long possession finally came to an end when Collin Wagner made a 29-yard field goal.
- Michigan finally put together a decent drive and drove deep into Penn State territory. Tate Forcier was intercepted on 4th and goal from the 19, however, allowing Penn State to simply take a knee on the next play to end the game and make the 35-10 victory official.
There isn’t anything else to say about this game, because Michigan simply looked awful. Let’s move on and take a look at the last part of Michigan’s season.
The Wolverines head to Champaign next week to play 1-7 Illinois. Before the season I certainly didn’t think this would be one of the most winnable games on the schedule, but that’s exactly what it is: a game Michigan should win. Illinois is downright awful, and not only is it 1-7, but its only win this season was against Illinois State, a 3-4 FCS team. Michigan can’t afford to lose a game like this, because a loss would probably send this entire team into a tailspin. Bowl eligibility is on the line next Saturday, and every win counts at this point.
Purdue comes to Ann Arbor on November 7, and unlike Michigan’s matchup with Illinois, this game looks a lot tougher than most thought it would be. After all, the Boilermakers already beat Ohio State, and Michigan’s only Big Ten win so far was surviving an upset scare at home against Indiana. Considering Purdue is above both Michigan and Indiana in the conference standings, I wouldn’t exactly count this as an automatic win or anything like that.
Barring something unusual happening, Michigan will be an underdog in its last two games of the regular season. The road trip to Wisconsin is going to be very tough, as Camp Randall is not an easy place to play. After that, Michigan returns home to play Ohio State in the regular season finale. As much as Terrelle Pryor has struggled at times, Michigan’s defense seems like it will be susceptible to giving up big plays against him. Pryor’s best throws are when his receivers are open, and chances are the secondary will have a breakdown at least once against OSU. Michigan also seems to have trouble containing opposing quarterbacks. I don’t mean that in the sense that running QBs give the defense problems; Michigan just doesn’t do a very good job of keeping contain. (See Kirk Cousins’ ability to run the ball against U-M earlier this month as an example of that.) Add Ohio State’s ferocious defense to the mix and count me as beyond nervous for that game as well.
When it boils down to it, the remaining schedule presents two games Michigan should be favored to win and two games Michigan should be favored to lose. I definitely could see an upset happening along the way, though, with either Illinois or Purdue knocking off Michigan or Michigan knocking off Wisconsin or Ohio State. To me a win over Ohio State is more likely than an upset at Wisconsin, which I see as a loss no matter what. Technically the best-case scenario is for Michigan to win out, which would make the Wolverines 9-3 and give them a great shot at playing in a New Year’s Day bowl. Two upsets is an awful lot to ask, though, so the realistic best-case scenario is a 3-1 finish. Worst-case scenario is an absolute meltdown where Michigan doesn’t win another game and misses a bowl for the second-straight year. I don’t even want to think about the chaos that would cause, so let’s just move on to the realistic worst-case scenario, which is a 1-3 finish. That would make Michigan 6-6 and potentially mean for a (short) trip to the Pizza Bowl. While that isn’t exactly ideal, it’s still a bowl game.
The happy medium between the best- and worst-case scenarios is a 2-2 finish, meaning Michigan likely wins the games it should win and loses the games it should lose. A 7-5 finish was expected coming into the season, but everyone got their hopes up after a perfect September. That was the natural thing to do, but things got a lot tougher (as we first saw against Indiana) once Big Ten play began. Even then Michigan could have won at Michigan State and at Iowa (the current #4 team in the BCS no less) despite relatively bad play, leaving expectations high for many. The loss to Penn State served as a reality check, basically showing that as much as this team has progressed, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully we see more progression in the final four weeks of the season, because it certainly looked like the team, especially the offense, regressed last week. Basically in all of Big Ten play Michigan has struggled, and in the process it has won one close game, lost two close games, and was beat handily by Penn State. I’m sure there will be more close games the next four weeks, and I just hope the end results are more like what happened in September than what has happened so far in October.
Despite all of this looking ahead, it is important to take the rest of the season one game at a time. It’s fun to speculate and guess what will happen the rest of the season, but nothing is more important than the next game. In Michigan’s case, nothing is more important than going to Champaign and beating Illinois. Kickoff for the Illinois game is set for 3:30 p.m. ET, and ABC/ESPN will be broadcasting it on a regional basis.