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Takeaways from Michigan’s loss at Penn State: Admirable fight, but close doesn’t cut it

The Wolverines went on the road and create a hole too big to climb out of, even if they came incredibly close.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Michigan football went on the road against No. 7 Penn State and very nearly put themselves into position for another thrashing like the one they experienced at Wisconsin, but at some point, a switch flipped.

The Wolverines showed a pulse, and a fight, that we did not see in Madison early this season in an environment that probably surpasses the one that they saw when they played the Badgers. They had the ball with a chance to tie late.

You guys know what happened next.

A 28-21 loss on the road is a respectable effort, but another frustrating example of why close just doesn’t cut it in Ann Arbor and at Michigan, a program that prides itself on competing for Big Ten Championships.

They have not one won since 2004 and they have never appeared in Indianapolis to play in the title game since it was instituted. Unfortunately for the program and its leadership, that drought appears as if it will be continuing.

Let’s get into the takeaways.

Michigan’s coaching staff was a bit too conservative and timid to start this football game with a couple of opportunities to really set the tempo and be aggressive on fourth down in certain situations. To go on the road and fall into a 21-0 hole is not something that is probably going to be the recipe for success and even though they fought back, which they totally deserve credit for.

Officiating in this game was poor, and fairly one-sided at times. Harbaugh and company have a gripe in that area of the game. However, it felt like the staff took their team out of this game early with some bone-headed coaching mistakes and playcalls that defied conventional wisdom. And the the players stepped up to the plate with some bad penalties and drops (more on that soon).

Don Brown also has a rough time in games like this of late with a team finding the matchup that works best for it, this time being the speedy KJ Hamler on just about any Wolverine, and exploiting it. When Penn State needed a big play, they found their dynamic weapon and more often than not they were able to get whatever they wanted there.

Michigan was able to get the score to within 21-14, but when the Nittany Lions needed a Spark, they found Hamler for a long touchdown with Josh Metellus botching the coverage that in a lot of ways sealed this game to put them up 28-14. Then, on the third down that sealed the game, Penn State went to Hamler on a run play and he picked up the first down.

Ballgame.

These are your updated stats in these situations.

Notice how close calls do not affect the win/loss record.

  • 1-10 vs. top-10 opponents
  • 0-8 as an underdog
  • 1-7on the road against ranked opponents

Ouch.

The Drops

Now, we address the elephant in the room.

Ronnie Bell has been Michigan’s most consistent wide receiver this season, but had a brutal drop in the endzone down 28-21 on fourth down to kill Michigan’s chances at tying the game and pretty much ended it.

That can’t happen. Bell knows it. Michigan knows it. And it is a cruel twist of fate. But such is sports and such is life as a Wolverine fan.

What we aren’t going to do is crush the kid over it, seeing as his position group mates fared no better in this game. Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped a pair of crushers early on. Tarik Black had a drop. It’s such a brutal turn of events that when Michigan finally utilizes its wide receivers, as we have clamored for all year, they cannot hold onto the football. It is like the Red Skull guiding people to a treasure he cannot himself possess.

Not sure what else there is to say here. Their struggles were not fun as the other units of the offense came alive.

Here lies Shea Patterson slander: Sept. 2019-Oct. 19, 2019

Michigan fans saw everything they needed to see from Patterson on Saturday night outside of a brutal interception that was a unit-wide breakdown in the first half. Patterson played his best game of the season and showed that his resurgence in the second half at Illinois was not a fluke and that he is the best quarterback to give the Wolverines a chance right now to win these games.

He gave you a chance on the road in Happy Valley. Weeks ago, none of us thought that was possible.

At this point, it’s silly to expect him to play like an NFL draft pick would, but he’s been playing like a good college quarterback does. We get frustrated over lack of QB development, but sometimes you just need a guy to make plays. When Michigan has given him license to do so recently, he has done just that. The problem is that at times, they continue to handcuff him with conservative playcalling, which really does shine a light on where some of the problems are with this program.

The road ahead

Obviously, expectations are adjusted now because we have to take things based on what we see and not as we’d like them to be.

Michigan has three more really difficult games coming (Michigan State counts because #disrespekt) with Notre Dame up next and the buzzsaw that is Ohio State to end the year. At this point, all you can really hope for is that the offense continues its upward tick and this team improves enough to give the Buckeyes a challenge they have not, and maybe will not, see the rest of this year. There’s a shot this team can head into that game at 9-2, but we know what the likely result to end the year is. Still, give yourselves a chance and then see if some old fashioned dumb college football luck can be in your favor for a change.

This is, by definition, a disappointing season. The Wolverines will not, barring a miracle, win the Big Ten and they likely will not beat Ohio State. What they can do is go 2-1 in their rivalry games and at least salvage a bit of goodwill.

What this team is playing for now is the future of this program. If they go 8-4 or worse after this, it might be time to start at least beginning to have some very difficult conversations about leadership. But if they can find a way to eek out a 9-3 record and we see more tangible evidence that the switch in offenses can result in a bright future, that is what you are playing for at this point.

You know where I stand on the Harbaugh era to this point and to rehash that would be piling on. If a loss can be a step in the right direction, at least incrementally, Saturday night was it. Close isn’t good enough, and Harbaugh is what he has been in these big moments, and that is disappointing, but it is also the status quo.

The question we continue to ask ourselves is if this is acceptable or not. An hour or so after a heartbreaker probably isn’t the time for that.

Next week provides another opportunity to try and grab a top ten win and take some antibiotics for what ails them. We certainly come out of tonight feeling better about their chances to do so than we may have expected to feel, but the loss is the loss nonetheless.