A loss is a loss, they all sting.
But it does matter how a team loses, too.
How the Michigan Wolverines dug itself into an early hole against Penn State isn’t something that can be ignored, nor can excuses be made for certain self-inflicted wounds that were committed throughout four quarters of action. However, there was still valor in defeat on a wild night in Happy Valley, still a level of success despite losing the football game.
The type of loss 28-21 loss the Wolverines had against the Nittany Lions was one that would have left NFL fans optimistic about how their team could fare the rest of the season. Unfortunately for Michigan, this isn’t the NFL, and a team has little to no margin for error. Each loss is devastating, the weight of each one can be felt near and far, and if you lose two games it’s the steepest of climbs to get into the College Football Playoff. A team can improve mightily between September and mid-November and even become one of the best teams in the nation by the end of the season, but if they stumble at any point along the way their late season momentum won’t be rewarded in a major way.
That’s where Michigan’s at in their 2019 season, a two loss team that has shown noticeable improvement between their 35-14 loss to Wisconsin in September and their loss on Saturday to Penn State. Both games resulted in an L for Michigan, but how they performed in those games were entirely different.
“Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.” - Carl Sagan
First, let’s acknowledge what didn’t go well vs. Penn State
- The Wolverines didn’t get off to a hot start offensively in the first half. The first five drives for Michigan’s offense netted just 93 yards and Shea Patterson threw an interception that led to a PSU touchdown. There were a handful of drops on the night by receivers that could have led to first downs, third down conversions, and even a touchdown.
- Chunk pass plays hurt Michigan’s defense throughout the night. Down to down, Michigan’s defense performed great, but it only takes a half dozen plays where a defense doesn’t execute to drastically impact the final score. Long pass plays to K.J. Hamler and Pat Freiermuth led to 21 Penn State points. In all three instances, the receiver was able to gain separation, Hamler due to his speed, Freiermuth due to his physicality. Harbaugh said that on Hamler’s 53 yard touchdown that there was a missed signal that led to the alignment error on defense which pitted safety Josh Metellus on the insanely speedy Hamler in man coverage. If just one of these big plays don’t transpire, the conversation about the game would be entirely different.
Now, let’s talk about positive developments that shouldn’t be ignored
- Michigan battled back. They scratched and clawed their way back into a game on the road in as tough of an atmosphere as there is to play in college football. A night game at Penn State in which PSU selected it as their ‘whiteout’ game. That’s rough. Commentators Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler continued to note how loud the crowd was throughout the night. Michigan was facing the crowd, Penn State, and was arguably facing even more of an uphill battle due to some pretty poor/inconsistent officiating.
- Quarterback Shea Patterson had his best game of the season. Patterson did commit a turnover that was costly, but from there on out in the game he was cool, calm, collected, and in command of the offense. Patterson continued to get Michigan in the correct checks time and time again, and once the ball was snapped he got rid of the ball quickly when facing a corner blitz. Patterson was able to buy extra time in the pocket with good footwork, and his running prowess, being it on designed runs or scrambles, were gritty and often effective. Patterson was 24-of-41 for 276 yards on the day with one interception and one touchdown on a QB sneak. Patterson’s numbers could have been better if it wasn’t for multiple drops by receivers. Patterson showed his competitiveness, toughness, and leadership and he should be commended for putting Michigan in a situation to tie the game with goal-to-go after what happened earlier.
- The team gave good effort from whistle to whistle. “I feel like offensively, we played a whole 60 minutes, we didn’t give up,” center Cesar Ruiz said. “We did what we had to do. We were coming outlying to execute plays the best we could, and we had fight in us. We played hard every single play. Played strong, tried to minimize all the mistakes, thought we did a good job.” Harbaugh shared those same sentiments, saying Michigan played with “great character, great effort. The entire night, both sides of the ball and special teams. Played, fought really hard.”
- Michigan’s offense proved it can get back into a game when down multiple scores. In prior seasons under Harbaugh, the offense didn’t run a no huddle attack and when Michigan trailed in a game there were games where huddling up wasn’t optimal and led to too much of the clock getting drained. For most of the night the play clock was not a factor, Patterson and the rest of the offense were getting the play-calls delivered to them with plenty enough time. The tempo was up, it was fluid, the offense looked like it was on a mission that last two-plus quarters of the game.
- After Michigan’s defense gave up 21 straight points, they were able to right the ship and allow Michigan’s offense a chance to get back into the game. Spanning from the tail end of the second quarter through more than midway through the third quarter, the Michigan D forced a Penn State punt on five consecutive drives. Michigan’s defense made their fair share of mistakes, but had stretches where they played exceptionally well, bottling up the No. 4 rush offense and limiting dual-threat quarterback Sean Clifford’s production. “I thought the defense played extremely well, and do what it had to do,” Harbaugh said. “Got the ball back for the offense and gave our team a chance to win.”
While it’s easy to look at a game and come to the lazy conclusion that losses are bad and wins are good, evaluating Michigan’s loss objectively can’t ignore the bad but can’t throw the good to the wayside either. From a pure scouting perspective, Michigan has improved a lot since the loss to Wisconsin. The team has played a tougher and more physical brand of football ever since.
When asked what the difference was between the loss to Wisconsin and this loss Harbaugh noted the effort and the fight. “Just kept playing, fighting, giving great effort. Our guys were on the details, they knew the game plan, it was a good game plan, just playing ball,” Harbaugh said. “Thought they did a good job of that. I thought they did a good job of going their job and playing their game. Both sides of the ball, special teams, I was impressed by that.”
The Michigan team faced an early deficit at Wisconsin, and the team didn’t respond the way they did against Penn State. “Coach Harbaugh called us out, he called the D-line out,” defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour said in regards to how Harbaugh motivated them following the Wisconsin loss. “He called us out in a way for us to step up. It was a challenge. He challenged us as football players, as competitors.”
The heart and the hustle is now there for Michigan football, now it’s time to learn from their mistakes against the Nittany Lions and expound upon the positive developments. Don’t expect this Michigan team to do anything other than compete in the games ahead. Despite what may be popular opinion, the Wolverines still have things to play for. For starters, Michigan has three rivalry games the rest of the season, all at home. The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is one of the best in all of college football, and once the ball is kicked off on Saturday night that game is going to mean a whole hell of a lot to both sidelines. Michigan won’t be waving a white flag or throwing in the towel any time soon.
After the loss to Penn State Jim Harbaugh said he complimented them on “the effort that they gave, the character that they showed” and told them to “hold their heads high and come back at it again on Monday.” Why? “Because we love football,” Harbaugh said. That’ll be our mission.”