There are a thousand reasons why Michigan’s trip to Happy Valley ended in a loss, ranging from poor execution to bad luck to unwise choices. To pinpoint the defeat on a single area is foolish, but there are some questionable actions that need to be addressed going forward.
On three separate occasions against Penn State, head coach Jim Harbaugh elected to take the Michigan offense off the field on fourth down. There is no guarantee that choosing to go for it on any of these drives would have changed anything, but looking at these situations alone, it sure seems like Harbaugh made the wrong call.
Play 1: Fourth-and-1 (PSU 47 - 11:42 1Q)
Michigan started the game with the ball and moved across midfield in part due to a 17-yard Nico Collins reception and a catch by Tarik Black. Faced with third-and-1, Michigan gave the ball to last week’s breakout, Hassan Haskins, who was stuffed at the line for no gain. This has been an issue for Michigan this year, including a few carries by Haskins against Illinois, and it left Harbaugh with a tough decision on fourth-and-1...
Except maybe the decision is not so tough. The Wolverines were moving down the field on their opening possession and really could have used an early score as underdogs in a hostile environment. While converting here does not correlate directly to points, it at least would have given them a chance to score. Instead, Michigan punted — for a net gain of 27 yards.
Play 2: Fourth-and-6 (PSU 41 - 0:51 2Q)
Six yards is not exactly gimme territory, but down 14 just ahead of halftime, the choice here should not be to try a 58-yard field goal. Jake Moody is not even the primary choice for long-range attempts, but any college kicker is going to have a tough time here. The odds of something going horribly wrong are higher than the kick actually going in.
The issue here is the percentages. With such an unlikely chance at making the field goal, Michigan would have been better off just keeping the offense on the field. At the very least, a couple positive plays would have lead to a less difficult kick; in the best-case scenario, the Wolverines could have ended the half only down seven.
Play 3: Fourth-and-3 (50 - 5:42 3Q)
The Michigan defense came out of halftime on fire, holding the Nittany Lions to 14 yards and two punts on their first two possessions. The Wolverines received the ball on their own 10-yard line, but Shea Patterson confidently moved the offense up to midfield. A Haskins run on third-and-4 only gained one yard, and Harbaugh was faced with a similar decision as he did on the game’s opening drive.
There could be some logic in pinning Penn State deep in its own territory and relying on the defense, but the ensuing punt only went to the 16-yard line anyway. Michigan finally had some momentum on offense, and the rest of the game proves that staying aggressive was probably the way to go. Michigan did end up scoring on its next drive, but this was definitely a missed opportunity.
Just go for it
The most frustrating part about these three decisions is that Harbaugh has been aggressive on fourth downs this year; in fact, Michigan was 2-for-4 in this very game alone. The Wolverines are t-26th in the nation with 15 fourth down attempts this season and are converting at a 53.3 percent clip. This paces out to 28 attempts on the year, which would easily be the highest total under Harbaugh.
Clearly Michigan is not always conservative, but choosing to be so in these three instances was a bad time to lean that way. Yes, short-yardage situations have not always led to first downs, but as an underdog on the road, the Wolverines should have kept their foot on the pedal. Maybe they would not have made the difference on Saturday, but these types of coaching mistakes could become even more problematic down the road.