Michigan’s match-up against Penn State Saturday was just the type of game in which Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines struggle: A November road game against a ranked opponent. Such games are challenging for any team, but Harbaugh and the Wolverines have struggled more than most. But if Saturday’s contest presented a challenge for the Wolverines, it also presented an opportunity. For a team desperate to prove that this year is different - that this team is different - Saturday’s game provided Michigan the chance to show that such proclamations are more than just words.
Things didn’t exactly start out well for the Wolverines, as Penn State got off to a strong start. How strong? In the first quarter, Penn State ran 34 offensive plays to Michigan’s six. Outgained Michigan 145 yards to five. Held the ball for nearly 12 of the quarter’s 15 minutes. And those six offensive plays that Michigan ran? The Wolverines managed to work in two false starts and watched their first pass of the game connect not with an open receiver, but with the back of center Andrew Vastardis’s head. A more one-sided quarter is difficult to imagine.
Yet as one-sided as the quarter was, Penn State had only a 3-0 lead to show for it. And after that first quarter, Michigan righted the ship and flipped the script, controlling the clock and the game over the next two quarters. On the back of senior running back Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 156 yards on 31 carries on the day, the Wolverines methodically built a 14-6 lead and seemed on the verge of putting away the Nittany Lions and putting to bed the narrative that they can’t win games like this.
Penn State had other ideas, though. And led by senior quarterback Sean Clifford, it was the Nittany Lions’ turn to right the ship. Just when it seemed like Michigan was going to put the game on ice, Clifford engineered a fourth quarter, 15-play, 53-yard touchdown drive. A drive in which Penn State converted three fourth downs (in three opportunities). The final fourth down conversion, a two-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Warren, brought the Nittany Lions to within two points of the Wolverines and brought the crowd to its feet. And the coup de grace? A Penn State team that has had difficulty converting two-point conversions (the Nittany Lions came up empty on seven attempts in one game alone) converted the subsequent two-point conversion to tie the game at 14.
It was a back-breaking drive for the Michigan defense. A defense that has played so well for so much of the season, that had played so well for much of this game, just couldn’t get off the field. Despite the constant pressure applied by Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and company, Clifford kept the drive alive with clutch play after clutch play. Thanks to Clifford’s heroics, the game was tied and the home crowd was alive. Things weren’t looking good for the Wolverines.
And then they looked a lot worse.
Two of McNamara’s best qualities are that he rarely gets sacked and even more rarely turns the ball over. But rarely is not never, and facing a third and long from Michigan’s 24-yard line, the Nittany Lions got to McNamara, sacking him and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Penn State’s Derrick Tangelo. Suddenly, with the ball inside Michigan’s 25-yard line, Penn State had the end zone - and victory - in its sights.
At this point, with the Nittany Lions on the verge of a comeback victory and the Wolverines on the verge of another come-from-ahead loss, the headlines were all but written. Michigan, once again, unable to make the big play when it was needed. Once again, coming up short in a big game. You could almost hear the collective groan emanating from Ann Arbor.
Against this backdrop, the Wolverines defense stiffened. Minutes after not being able to get a critical stop, Michigan’s defense held the Nittany Lions to a field goal. That set the stage for McNamara and the Michigan offense. Trailing by three, with less than six minutes to play, McNamara led the Wolverines onto the field for what would be a game-defining - if not season-defining - drive.
Michigan wasted little time in responding. After Haskins got the Wolverines to midfield, McNamara found tight end Erick All on a crossing route that All turned into a 47-yard touchdown. With the touchdown, the Wolverines reclaimed the lead. But did they score too quickly? Giving Clifford and the Nittany Lions more than three minutes to engineer a game winning drive of their own, it looked to be a stressful finish for Wolverine fans.
Michigan’s defense eliminated any late-game drama, however, stopping the Nittany Lions on four plays and handing the ball back to McNamara and company to run out the clock on a satisfying 21-17 victory.
Was the game a turning point for Harbaugh and Michigan? Time will tell. But it did show that Michigan can win big games on the road. And that like its players have been saying all year, this is a different Michigan team.
And sitting at 9-1, when most pundits had the Wolverines winning only seven or eight games all season, it’s hard to argue.