This was always going to be a difficult game. Penn State began the season ranked in the top ten in most polls. The top five team in some. The most talented team James Franklin has had, many said. One of the best defenses in the country - one brimming with NFL talent. Saturday wasn’t the annual “White Out” game in Happy Valley, but it was unquestionably Penn State’s biggest home game of the year - one that Nittany Lions fans had been not-so-patiently waiting for all season.
Add to that the media firestorm that’s surrounded Michigan and its players the past two-plus weeks. As much off-the-field drama as any team has had to deal with in recent memory. How much drama? The Wolverines left for Happy Valley not knowing if their head coach would be taking the field with them Saturday. Not finding out that he wouldn’t until just before kickoff.
Given all of that, it would be understandable that Michigan might stumble. After all, there’s no sin in losing to a top-ten team on the road under the best of circumstances, let alone doing so while under a cloud the likes of which Michigan has been under.
But as interim head coach Sherrone Moore said after the game, “We’re (Michigan) built for this.” And built for it, Michigan proved to be. In front of a raucous crowd of more than 100,000, Michigan was able to shut out the distractions and shut down the Nittany Lions, riding Blake Corum and a resurgent running game to a convincing 24-15 road victory.
That Michigan defeated Penn State wasn’t shocking. After all, the Wolverines were a slight favorites. But the manner in which they did so was surprising.
Penn State came into Saturday’s game boasting a defense that ranked second in the nation against the run, allowing just a tick over 60 yards a game at a paltry 2.0 yards per carry. A defense that held Ohio State to fewer than 80 yards on the ground three weeks earlier. You’d think it would a rather dubious strategy to challenge Penn State’s strength. Particularly considering the run game has been far from Michigan’s strength this season.
No matter. Michigan packed the line of scrimmage and put the game in Corum’s hands. Michigan rushed for 227 yards on the day, with Corum leading the charge with a season-high 145 yards on 26 carries. Corum’s 145 yards were the most allowed by Penn State since, well, since Michigan’s Donovan Edwards rushed for 173 yards on the Nittany Lions last season. “This is why I came back this year (rather than leaving for the NFL),” Corum said after the game. “Not for stats. For these guys, for these games.”
And what a game it was. It wasn’t just that Michigan was able to run on Penn State that was noteworthy, but that it was able to do so with such impunity.
After a fortnight of never-ending talk of sign stealing and tipping plays, Michigan all but told Penn State what was coming. Behind its interim coach, Michigan abandoned its passing game all together and all-but-dared Penn State to stop it on the ground. And that’s not hyperbole - Michigan ran 26 offensive plays in in the second half without attempting a single pass (at least not one that didn’t result in a pass interference penalty). In all, the Wolverines ran the ball on their final 32 offensive plays of the game.
Michigan’s shift to its running game was significant, but for more than just the unusual stat line it produced.
When the possibility arose that Harbaugh might not be on the sidelines Saturday, conventional wisdom was that with offensive coordinator Moore and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter still in place and calling their respective games, Michigan would still look and play like Michigan. If there was an area where Michigan might miss its head coach, it was thought to be in making real-time decisions and in-game adjustments. Harbaugh has been effusive in his praise of Moore and his readiness to be a head coach. “He’s beyond ready (to be a head coach),” Harbaugh has said of Moore. But would Moore be able to make the key decision or in-game adjustment if one was required Saturday?
Moore proved more than capable.
Through the game’s early stages, Penn State’s pass rush was a problem for Michigan. Particularly the speed and aggressiveness of its edge rushers. Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy completed seven of his first eight passes for 60 yards, but was under duress on most of his throws.
Moore saw this and adjusted. Michigan went heavy, counterbalancing the Nittany Lions’ speed and using their aggressiveness against them. Stacking the line - not just with two tight end sets but also with extra offensive linemen - Michigan controlled the line of scrimmage and controlled the game.
Penn State’s defensive coordinator and part-time comedian Manny Diaz made no counter-adjustments. As a result, Corum and the Wolverines dominated the second half of action and left town with a hard-fought 24-19 victory - keeping alive their conference title hopes while quashing Penn State’s.
For Penn State, the frustration goes beyond Saturday’s loss. Franklin has had elite teams each of the past two seasons. Teams that have gone undefeated in games not against Michigan and Ohio State (where the Nittany Lions are now 0-4). Great teams, great players, great expectations, but ultimately teams that were unable to reach the top of the conference. And with the best of the Pac 12 set to join the conference next season, competing for a Big Ten championship isn’t going to get any easier for Franklin and the Nittany Lions.
For Michigan, Saturday’s victory marked its 22nd consecutive conference win and 26th in 27 conference games. The victory also not only keeps Michigan’s undefeated season and dreams of a conference three-peat alive, but also sets up a titanic clash with Ohio State in two weeks. A game with not just bragging rights at stake, but one rife with conference championship, college football playoff and national championship implications. A match-up that promises to be one of the most eagerly anticipated chapters in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry since … well, since last year.
And one that’s officially on the clock.