The Michigan Wolverines escaped Happy Valley with a win over the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, coming up with a 21-17 victory. This one felt like a typical Jim Harbaugh coached game. On the road, against one of the better teams in the Big Ten, Michigan could not put the game away despite countless opportunities.
It was a textbook way for Michigan to lose a tough game in November. The Wolverines started awfully slow, surged back to take the lead, and then nearly choked it away at the end. But this time was different. When the game came down to its most important moments, the Wolverines delivered.
Erick All scored a 47-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the deal, running a short crossing route and becoming wide open in the flat as Penn State dialed up a heavy blitz. From that point on, it was a footrace to see if All could get to the end zone first. Several Nittany Lions secondary members caught up, but All had just enough speed to kick the pylon and reach over for the score.
ERICK ALL with the wheels! Touchdown Michigan pic.twitter.com/5XAmNZpVkX— Barstool Blue (@BarstoolUofM) November 13, 2021
The play won Michigan the game and saved the season after so many failed attempts to do so throughout the course of the afternoon.
While we can run that one play over and over in our heads to remind us the Wolverines are still playing meaningful football with just two weeks remaining in the regular season, there was quite a significant amount of issues that a great team would have solved much quicker. Let’s take a deep dive into how this one went down.
Pressure from the Michigan defensive line was a problem for Penn State all game long. Aidan Hutchinson nearly got home and forced an intentional grounding penalty by Sean Clifford. After allowing a first down on 3rd-and-17, David Ojabo got the first sack of the game for the Wolverines. Then, Penn State picked up another first down on 3rd-and-8. Good coverage by DJ Turner on top receiver Jahan Dotson a couple plays later forced a fourth down. Michigan called timeout before the Penn State punt and James Franklin STILL picked up the first down on a fake punt on an 18-yard throw from the Penn State punter Jordan Stout. The drive, however, would end in just a field goal for Penn State after a Junior Colson and Hutchinson sack. Penn State took a 3-0 lead, and it was the first time all season Michigan did not score first.
The noise in Happy Valley got to the Wolverines early. The first play of the game for the offense was a false start, putting Michigan behind the sticks as snow flurries fell on the field. On third down, Cade McNamara threw it off the back of Andrew Vastardis’ head, and the Wolverines were lucky it wasn’t picked off.
Clifford and the Penn State offense took over and the tempo from the first drive continued. Containing Clifford was an issue for the Wolverines defense. It felt like every play that fell apart through the air, the Penn State quarterback was picking up five or six yards on the ground. Then, he struck with his arm finding Theo Johnson for a 19-yard game. There were lots of hands on the hips for the Michigan defenders as Penn State continued their hurry-up offense. The Nittany Lions ran 13 plays in just over four minutes of game time; a pace that the Wolverines have not been accustomed to this season. They got all the way to the 2-yard line, but Michigan’s defense stood tall once again. Franklin tried to get tricky for the second time with a fake field goal pass from the holder to the kicker. This time, the Wolverines snuffed it out and stripped the ball away recovering at the 29-yard line.
That gave some room for the Michigan offense to work with as they weren’t pressed against their own goal line. But, for the second time in as many drives, a penalty forced the Wolverines to go three-and-out as they had nothing going for them. Another excellent punt by Brad Robbins pinned Penn State at the 2-yard line to start their ensuing drive.
The first quarter ended with a 3-0 lead for the Nittany Lions. Penn State had possession for 11:42 of the first quarter and outgained the Wolverines 145-15. The home team ran 33 plays to Michigan’s six, the largest difference of plays in the first quarter in FBS this season. It was something that needed to change and quickly if the Wolverines were going to sort this one out. Miraculously, it was still only 3-0, Penn State.
The second quarter began with a couple of unsuccessful throws by Sean Clifford. Then, Hutchinson strip-sacked the Penn State quarterback on 3rd-and-long, forcing a punt.
Michigan took over inside the 10-yard line finally got some offense going. They moved the chains for the first time on the day as Cornelius Johnson caught a shallow pass from McNamara and ran up the sideline for 22 yards. A few plays later, McNamara was sacked by Arnold Ebiketie to make it 3rd-and-13. But, Michigan stayed on the field after a screen pass and a couple of broken tackles by Haskins picked up a first down. On 4th-and-2, Michigan handed the ball off to Haskins who moved the chains after a good extension on the right side. He ran for another first down on a similar play on 3rd-and-1 later in the drive which put Michigan just outside the red zone.
Then McNamara threw a dart to Roman Wilson down the field for the touchdown of the day. Even after that abysmal first quarter, Michigan had a 7-3 lead following the 15-play, 90-yard drive.
Now, Michigan had the momentum after forcing a three-and-out from the Penn State offense. It was all Haskins on the next drive. McNamara dropped a ball off to him checking down on a pass play, picking up seven yards. Then, he took a first down carry and rumbled for 16 yards up the gut. A flea-flicker gained 15 yards on a pass-interference penalty against Penn State. A failed end-around to A.J. Henning made it 3rd-and-14 for the Wolverines. But, a screen pass to Haskins picked up 12 and Harbaugh decided to go for it. It was another handoff to Haskins, but it was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down and Penn State took over at the 38-yard line.
On the second play of the Nittany Lions’ drive, Clifford found a wide-open Parker Washington for a 44-yard gain to the 25-yard line. Plenty of pressure got to Clifford on the next three plays forcing two incompletions. Then, Ojabo plucked the ball right out of Clifford’s hands on third down on a drop back for a pass. Penn State recovered and lined up for a 52-yard attempt that went through the uprights to make it 7-6.
It was a strong finish to the half for the Wolverines. They had the commanding touchdown drive that led to 136 yards in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ defense allowed just 26 total yards. The defense was the main reason they survived the first quarter flop. Haskins continued his dominant run on the season with 17 touches for 96 total yards in the first half. The Hutchinson-Ojabo duo also showed why they may be the fiercest in the country. The two combined for 4.5 of Michigan’s five first-half sacks.
Michigan began the second half with the ball and they wanted to run the football. Haskins gained 12-yards and a first after breaking a tackle in the backfield. Then, McNamara found Johnson on a shallow crossing route and he ran upfield for a 25-yard pickup. Another 12-yard run by Haskins pushed the Wolverines inside the redzone. A wheel route to Erick All moved the Wolverines to the 2-yard line. Then, McNamara went with a play-action to Haskins and flipped it into the endzone to Roman Wilson for his second score of the day. Michigan grew the lead to 14-6 after an impressive opening drive.
The second half opened like the first half ended for Ojabo and Hutchinson. Hutchinson cut in from the right end and pulled Clifford to the ground while being held by an offensive lineman. The very next play, Ojabo’s pressure off the edge forced Clifford to throw it away. A short incompletion later, and Penn State punted back into the hands of the Michigan offense following a seven-play, 22-yard drive.
A weird handoff to All and two ugly throws from McNamara intended to be back-shoulder passes deep down the field resulted in a three-and-out for Michigan. Puzzling that on a potential put-away drive, the ball didn’t touch Haskin’s hands a single time. It was a complete waste of an opportunity for the Wolverines.
One play for Penn State, put the ball was already at midfield following a 10-yard run by Kayvone Lee. Then, Clifford found a hole in the Michigan defense and hit Parker Washington for a 20-yard connection. Just outside the red zone, the Penn State offense stalled on a promising drive, again. Stout went out for a 43-yard field goal and chunked it, the ball carried right and went off the post and out. Michigan kept their 14-6 advantage.
Harbaugh made the correct decision to give Haskins the ball on the next drive and he did damage right away. The first play was a 12-yard gut punch to the Penn State defense on the right side. Later, he picked up a 3rd-and-1 with a run right up the middle. An incompletion and a false start by Zak Zinter made it 2nd-and-15. Michigan couldn’t recover from the mistake and elected to punt after their second opportunity to put this one away.
Needing some offense, Penn State began to find more creative ways to get their best player, Jahan Dotson, involved. A jet sweep picked up a couple of yards and then an excellent route left him wide open to convert a 3rd-and-7. Michael Barrett picked up a big sack as Clifford attempted to scramble outside the pocket. Then, for the first time on the day, a holding penalty was called against the Penn State offensive line after Hutchinson was held on another 3rd-and-7. Vincent Gray made a great stop on a check-down pass from Clifford effectively ending the drive and the third quarter.
A fantastic punt pinned Michigan on the 1-yard line for a big field position win for Penn State. The Wolverines picked up nine yards but were just short as Haskins’ knee was down after making a catch just shy of the line to gain. A punt into the wind gave the Nittany Lions the ball right around midfield.
Suddenly, Penn State had maybe their strongest opportunity to tie this game. A fourth down conversion from Clifford to Dotson sparked the offense. The pair met again on a slant for a first down on another do-or-die conversion on the drive. The Nittany Lions were suddenly inside the Michigan 10 yard line.
On third down, Clifford hit Dotson on a slant again, but this time, Turner was there waiting for a huge tackle short of the endzone. Now fourth down, Clifford found his tight end Tyler Warren for a 2-yard touchdown despite really strong coverage by the Michigan secondary. The two-point conversion was good on another Clifford-to-Dotson connection and the game was tied 14-14 after a 15-play, 53-yard drive that took only 5:11 off the clock.
Now, Penn State had all the momentum on their home turf, and their defense, which had played rather well all day, started to make some plays. They stuffed Haskins behind the line of scrimmage. Then, swatted a ball away on a McNamara throw. Ebiketie came around the edge and stripped the ball out of McNamara’s hands for a turnover that immediately put Penn State in the redzone.
Once again, the Michigan defense bailed out the offense as Macdonald dialed up plenty of blitzes to try and steal back some momentum. Clifford hit the ground twice on three plays and limped off the field after throwing the ball away on third down. However, Penn State took the lead 17-14 following a 31-yard field goal.
Needing to score, Haskins started off the ensuing drive exceptionally well with a 17-yard run up the middle. Five straight carries for the Michigan back picked up two first downs to take the air out of the crowd a little bit. Then, Happy Valley got REAL quiet as Penn State sent a blitz, but McNamara found a wide-open Erick All on a short crossing route and he did the rest for the 47-yard game-winning score.
Now, the balance of the game and the season was on the heels of the Michigan defense, and they delivered. Rod Moore disconnected what would have been a first down on a toss from Clifford to Dotson with a monster hit that took the talented receiver out of the game on fourth down. Michigan blitzed just about everybody on fourth down and Clifford overthrew his receiver out of bounds.
Michigan’s offense was handed the ball, already in field goal range, and the goal was to move the ball on the ground. Haskins picked up nine and a half yards on the first two plays. Then, a McNamara sneak picked up the first down with two and a half minutes left and just one timeout remaining for Penn State. Haskins ran down the left side for a 12-yard gain to officially seal this one off. Haskins finished with 31 rushes for 156 yards and five receptions for 45 yards in the win.
Everyone and their mother is pointing to November 27th’s game against the Ohio State Buckeyes, but a matchup with Maryland stands in the way. Kickoff next Saturday in College Park is at 3:30 ET.