It's not easy to describe the gamut of emotions run by Penn State fans like myself during the entire second half and overtime periods in the Nittany Lions' 43-40 triumph over Michigan on Saturday night.
Penn State jumped out to a 21-10 halftime lead thanks to some great defensive playmaking by Jordan Lucas and Anthony Zettel in combination with Christian Hackenberg finding someone besides Allen Robinson to throw the ball to. One of my favorite plays of the day was Hackenberg's second touchdown pass to Brandon Felder. He was initially targeting Robinson on the play, but then pumped faked, dashed to his left and hit Felder in the end zone while his defender's back was turned. It was a great contrast from the Indiana game that saw Hackenberg stare down his primary receivers and often force the ball into coverage.
There would be much forcing of the ball into coverage later on, but we can excuse Hackenberg because it's just tough to find open receivers when there's 50 seconds left in the game and and a seven-point deficit to overcome.
What we can't excuse Hackenberg for is the interception he threw to Ramon Taylor early in the third quarter. The period started with a Zach Zwinak fumble being returned by Michigan for a touchdown, and Hackenberg's error ensured that the Lions would not be pulling away from the Wolverines in the second half. The pass came on a hitch route that I suppose the freshman quarterback assumed would be open. It wasn't.
Also a problem in the second half for Penn State was Michigan tight end Devin Funchess getting behind the defense. Funchess is unique because of his staggering combination of size and speed and he was able to beat State's secondary at least twice on Saturday. Fortunately, only one of those occasions resulted in a touchdown. Actually, Funchess really only beat the secondary once, because on his 37-yard score he was chased by linebacker Glenn Carson. That's a bad match-up if I've ever seen one.
Most of the highlights of this game are going to start with the final drive. Thanks to an interesting interpretation of the pass interference rule, Michigan was able to drive the ball into field goal range with the clock winding down in regulation. That's when the weird things started to happen. A bone-headed delay of game penalty and a three-yard loss by Fitzgerald Toussaint pushed the ball back to the Penn State 35, and Brady Hoke decided to punt instead of attempt a 52-yard field goal that could have put the game on ice.
Fortunately for Penn State and an upset-craving, Michigan-hating national audience, Matt Wile's punt bounced into the end zone for just a 15-yard net distance. There was just under a minute remaining on the clock, but that was plenty of time for Hackenberg to work the magic that not many of us knew that he had. You're a wizard, Hackenberg.
The first pass was innocent enough: a 14-yard sideline route that Robinson just barely landed in bounds on. That set up Hackenberg to aggressively whip a pass to Felder on the next play. At best, it was a 50-50 ball, but the Michigan defense was just out of position enough to create enough space for Felder to make the catch. The Lions were in business as Hackenberg spiked the ball on the Michigan 37, and the freshman wasted no time in going for the equalizing score on the next play.
He just lobbed the ball towards the left pylon and allowed Robinson to make one of his spectacular leaping catches that are becoming less and less surprising to see. That doesn't make them any less incredible, and that clutch grab with time winding down is just another bullet point on the junior's NFL resume. After a replay review confirmed the play, Penn State was just one yard away from miraculously tying the game. A Hackenberg sneak did just that, and we were headed to overtime.
Or we would be, but there were still nearly 30 seconds to play. Dennis Norfleet returned the Penn State kickoff to Michigan's own 35-yard line, and Gardner advanced the ball into Lions territory with a pass to Jeremy Gallon. Two plays later, UM kicker Brendan Gibbons had a chance to win the game with a 52-yard field goal. The attempt was short, and a crazy overtime period was set to begin.
If it wasn't so exciting, the overtime period would be considered a bit of a mess. The Wolverines had not one, but two chances to win the game with field goals, but Gibbons had one blocked and another missed wide left. After Gibbons made a kick to start the fourth overtime, Penn State finally got out of its own way. Coach Bill O'Brien called for his offense on a 4th-and-1, and Bill Belton rewarded the gamble by rushing for the first down. Two plays later, Hackenberg missed Felder in the end zone, but the drive was saved by a pass interference call. Finally, Belton ran off tackle into the end zone to send State College into hysteria.
- This is a huge win for Penn State. It was homecoming, Michigan was in town, and Penn State students and alumni love when their football team beats the Michigan football team. Plus, the Indiana loss had everyone bummed out, and this win did more than enough to raise the fanbase's spirits.
- I didn't mention C.J. Olaniyan above but he had a great game with a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. Deion Barmes has been a bit underwhelming this season, but the Lions are still able to produce a decent pass rush thanks to the breakout junior.
- Saturday night featured a "clutch" performance from Hackenberg, but he still looks like a freshman most of the time. That said, he was able to look off his primary target on a few keys throws, and that made this a big improvement from the IU game despite the two interceptions.