No. 18 Michigan 40, Penn State 43: Risk and Reward

Justin K. Aller

Michigan went to Happy Valley, with the win in its hands on several occasions, left the Keystone State with a loss, its first of the season. The Wolverines fall to 5-1 (1-1) on the season.

When Bill Belton ran across the goal line, I couldn't muster up much of a reaction. What was a fairly dominating second half for the Wolverines will be forgotten because they played like a squad playing on literal thin ice, afraid to fall through, doing the careful tip-toeing around inevitability. Not to go all Yogi Berra on you, but the thing about inevitability is that it's, you know, inevitable.

Of course, when I say they played that way, to a very certain extent I mean they were coached to play that way (but I'll get to that later). Michigan went up 10 with 10:28 to go, having erased an 11-point halftime deficit and holding Penn State to just three third quarter points. Despite playing a dreadful first half, Michigan appeared ready to coast to a hard-fought road victory.

Once Penn State drove down the field for a field goal and a Michigan delay of game basically pushed the Wolverines out of field goal range on the ensuing drive, you just knew disaster was on the way, even with PSU only having 50 seconds with which to work. When Michigan took that penalty, it was hard to be too surprised by anything, especially a losing outcome. When surprise is excised from the equation, so is the resulting emotional response, for better or worse.

Naturally, Michigan's punt would go for a touchback and a net of 15 yards. The Nittany Lions had 50 seconds with which to work; when Christian Hackenberg hit that first pass to Allen Robinson, I instantly thought of 2005, and how this was probably going to be that in reverse. Sometimes, you just know.

After a 29-yarder to Brandon Felder, Hackenberg, with the aplomb of a fifth-year senior, tossed one up to Allen Robinson. Robinson, who had had a fairly quiet game (4 receptions for 48 yards to this point) soared well over the 6 feet two inches tall Channing Stribling and came down with the ball at the half-yard line. It was the least surprising Hail Mary play ever, all the way down to the fact of a freshman Stribling being asked to check one of the top wide receivers in the country in crunch time. That's not quite Chris Wormley in coverage against UConn in terms of strangeness, but I'm not sure how that happened, other than the thought that Stribling's height is an asset in a sure-to-be jump ball situation. I suppose that makes sense, but it didn't matter, as Robinson jumped what seemed like four feet in the air.

Entering overtime (after a 52-yard field goal miss on a Michigan mini-drive there at the end) and winning the coin flip, Michigan's best bet was to stop the Nittany Lions in the first overtime period and win it right there.

A big sack by Chris Wormley (who had himself a nice game amid all the doom and gloom) set up a 3rd & long that Hackenberg couldn't convert. Then, Sam Ficken missed, the Beaver Stadium crowd went quiet, and it seemed as if Michigan was in the clear. The waters calmed with an eerie suddenness.

This is where the previous discussion of alternate universes comes into play. What if Michigan hadn't plowed into the line with Fitzgerald Toussaint two times (before getting Gardner to center it on third down) to set up a Brendan Gibbons kick? At that point, a Toussaint run was a known quantity; Michigan would get zero yards, at best. With Michigan playing a line of Schofield-Burzynski-Glasgow-Kalis-Magnuson for much of the second half once Taylor Lewan went down, you couldn't exactly expect much more.

I suppose I can forgive the first offensive series. Other than Captain Hindsight, who knew that Gibbons would get that first attempt blocked? Plus, with an offensive line like that and a quarterback who hadn't exactly been reliable, I understand Borges not wanting to risk a potential game-winning field goal opportunity by going to the air.

With that said, Gardner was having success on the ground when Michigan spread PSU out a little bit. If you're going to run, why not just do it with Gardner? It's not as if that would be any less obvious than a powerless 1st & 10 Toussaint power, but it was working for most of the game. In overtime, we're talking one first down being the difference between a nerve-fraying unknown--a field goal from 40+ yards by a college kicker--to a relatively simple 25-30 yard chip.

Nonetheless, all 107,000+ in Beaver Stadium got behind the Nittany Lions, and as soon as Drew Dileo placed the ball, it was clearly going to get blocked. If Gibbons didn't lowball it into Kyle Baublitz' right arm--herhaps compensating after leaving the 52-yarder short?--Da'Quan Jones was there with a good shot at the swat himself..

For three downs, Michigan planted modestly, conservatively, humble seeds promising humble yields. Come harvest time, there was nothing to pick among the withering stalks of disaster, whistling ominously as the Pennsylvania wind cut through them.

---

From that point on, anything that happened should not have been a surprise, due both to the nature of overtime in college football as well as the nature of Michigan football, historically.

Michigan opened it up slightly in the second OT, throwing twice (but still running Toussaint on first down), but it would have been nice if that second down pass had gone to Funchess and not Jake Butt. Michigan had a nice matchup with Butt on a defensive back (if I remember correctly), but he couldn't come down with it. That's a play that he will make one day, but it was not this day.

The two teams traded field goals in the second OT period before, once again, Penn State more than generously offered up the game to the Wolverines. Allen Robinson straight up dropped the ball on the end around, which Frank Clark recovered, giving the Wolverines another opportunity to win the game with just a field goal. After this one, you must remove the phrase "just a field goal" from your catalogue of phrases.

With this gift in hand, the Wolverines once again plugged away on the ground, testing fate. Toussaint went for zero on first down, then Michigan went to the air, picking up nine yards, as if Al Borges had awoken from some fever dream to the realization that passing is in fact allowed.

In perhaps the most underratedly cruel outcomes of this game, Jeremy Gallon's reception set up a 3rd & 1, providing Michigan's coaching stuff with another doomed running play. Gibbons missed, the ball zooming wide of the uprights like a comet of regret.

Michigan opened it up in the third OT; of course, Gardner's first two passes fell incomplete, as if to lend credence to the staff's previous hyperconservatism. Another unfortunate delay of game penalty put Michigan in a "let's just get yards, any yards" scenario on 3rd & 15.

Gibbons hit, and the game fell to PSU's hands this time. Unlike Michigan, however, Bill O'Brien was in position to act aggressively (albeit "aggressive" is a relative term when you juxtapose this play with Michigan's play calling) after PSU picked up 5, 3, and 1 yards on its first three downs. Instead of putting the game on Sam Ficken's once again shaky leg, O'Brien went for it.

The reward for O'Brien's risk eventually flowered into victory. Even so, if not for a Jarrod Wilson pass interference in the end zone on 3rd & 8, Michigan would have forced a PSU field goal; this was a shame, as Wilson had had a pretty good evening otherwise.

The denouement was so long that the ultimate resolution was clear well before it actually happened. There was no way Michigan had a goal line stand left in the tank after so many close calls. Bill Belton waltzed into the end zone off the left side of the line. I was not surprised nor upset.

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Here's why: imagine yourself as anything other than Michigan fan, and picture yourself watching this team. What do you see? If you're being honest, you'll see a average squad with exceptional talent and ability in spots, but not enough to produce a consistent effort on either side of the ball. Michigan turns it over a lot (i.e. like a bad team). Almost entirely irrespective of its opponent, Michigan runs the ball like an FCS team trying to run into the teeth of Alabama's defense.

The defense is merely a shade or two better than okay--good when its back is against the wall--but lacks a star; Michigan is counting on a guy coming off of a knee injury and returning mid-season to be that guy. The numbers from this game are a little misleading, however. Two of PSU's touchdowns came as the result of post-Gardner interception short fields; unfortunately for the defense, this was not a new development.

The offense is a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity of big plays mixed with turnovers and negative rushing plays. Denard Robinson plays in Jacksonville, but Michigan's best offense still seems to be the Denard offense.

Michigan had innumerable opportunities to win this game and didn't. If you hadn't noticed already, lack of sample size is no longer an excuse for Michigan's road woes under Brady Hoke. Even when things are ugly, good teams win on the road. Michigan does not have a good team this year, 5-0 start notwithstanding. This was a realization that was easy to dismiss after Michigan did in fact pull out those games against Akron and UConn, but you can't really dismiss it anymore.

For the first time possibly, my confidence in the staff as a whole took a hit. Yes, it was one game, one that took almost everything going wrong for Michigan to lose, but Brady Hoke and Co. coached far from their best game. You won't see me saying "FIRE COACH X" any time soon, but this was the first time I seriously questioned whether the Michigan coaching staff is as good as I think it is. That, I think, is the most discomfiting part of this game, as its implications are far more long-term than one loss.

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With all of that said, after Northwestern's loss in Madison, Michigan's goals are still very much within reach, albeit not without significant improvement. The Wildcats have two losses already, and Michigan still has the opportunity to play Nebraska and Michigan State.

Right now, it's much easier to pick losses than wins out of the lineup that is Michigan's remaining schedule. Indiana, as strange as it is to say, will offer a frighteningly stiff test for the Wolverines in Ann Arbor this Saturday.

Now, a few miscellaneous bullets since I scrapped the usual format:

  • Although Michigan gave Hackenberg time much of the night, guys like Jibreel Black, Chris Wormley and yes, Frank Clark, made some big plays. Sure, PSU was having OL issues just like Michigan, but it was nice to see these guys get in the backfield and lay the lumber from time to time.
  • I'm not sure how this happened, but Funchess wasn't targeted at all in the overtime period. However, he did also fail to convert one touchdown early on that went right through his hands (and another, IIRC).
  • Michigan finished with four sacks. James Ross and Jake Ryan added a tackle for loss apiece.
  • Both teams were abysmal on third down. Michigan was 4-for-18, PSU was 3-for-16.
  • Looking at just 1st & 10 carries from the tailbacks during regulation time--i.e. 12 from Toussaint and one from Green--Michigan managed 20 yards on 13 carries, good for 1.5 yards per carry. This figure does not include numerous failures on second and short and other situations. If Lewan is banged up and forced to miss a game or two (I have no idea if this is the case as I write this on Sunday night), Michigan is in enormous trouble. Lucky for them, another bye week awaits after the Indiana game. Even if Lewan is healthy, I can't see how power plays can be a regular feature of the playbook. Michigan running power is a lot like what a dyed-in-the-wool man-to-man basketball team looks like when it tries to play zone. The vaguely spread stuff is working, and Gardner has shown the ability to execute reads correctly, which Denard Robinson wasn't really able to do. While we thought we were past this, Michigan's best bet this season is to keep betting on Gardner's legs and hoping the early game interception disappears, whether via sheer conservatism or real improvement.
  • MGoBlue Notes can be found here. After dropping the last four to the Nittany Lions, Michigan now holds a slim 10-7 lead all-time in that series.
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