We’ve reached a game on the 2018 Revenge Tour on our top 10 games of the Jim Harbaugh era. Coming in at No. 8 on the list was a special one, as the Big House hosted a top-15 matchup between the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines and the No. 14 Penn State Nittany Lions.
Season Significance: 7, Pre-Game Hype: 7
The year prior, the game was in Happy Valley and wasn’t close. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley posted 161 total yards and three touchdowns as the Nittany Lions cruised to a 42-13 win. Michigan was completely embarrassed from start to finish.
A year later, the two teams were on similar trajectories. Penn State had rolled early in the season scoring 177 points in its first three contests. However, they came to Ann Arbor at 6-2 after losing to strong Ohio State and Michigan State teams by five total points. They were a high explosive offense with a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, suddenly fighting to stay alive in the Big Ten.
Michigan had fallen to Notre Dame to open the season in a disappointing career opener for quarterback Shea Patterson. The team was still trying to figure out how to handle a quarterback of that caliber while also staying tried and true to the traditional run game Pep Hamilton and Jim Harbaugh liked to run. They hit their stride midway through the year in a stretch of games remembered as The Revenge Tour.
At the time it may have been the most hype a Michigan squad has been since Harbaugh took over, and what came in this one capped off the most impressive three-game stretch of his career to this point.
A clash between two of the top teams in the country meant the winner still had a shot at the Big Ten title with the goliath that was Ohio State still lingering for the Wolverines.
Highlight Play Score: 7, Individual Performance: 6
There was a lot of NFL talent on the field this day for both teams, but Michigan’s defensive line was the real talking point. Chase Winovich and Josh Uche had three of the Wolverines’ five sacks and reigned terror on Trace McSorley all game long. It was easily the worst day of his career throwing 5-for-13 for 83 yards and an interception (we will get to this later). To make it worse, he also lost six yards rushing on 12 attempts. With no room to get comfortable, he never had a chance against the most ferocious defense in the country led by Don Brown.
On the offensive end, Karan Higdon carried an absolute load for Michigan. It started early with a 50-yard run that put the Wolverines in the red zone:
A few plays later, Patterson would keep it on a read-option, faking a handoff to fullback Ben Mason and bolting to the pylon for a touchdown:
The rest of the first quarter was pretty sloppy, as Michigan failed to convert a 4th down play and missed a field goal. Penn State somehow did worse by punting on consecutive possessions before McSorley mishandled a handoff to Miles Sanders and gave the ball right back to the Wolverines after that missed field goal.
Michigan took over and went for it AGAIN on 4th and 2. This time, handing the ball off to Ben Mason for an easy first down. A few plays later, Patterson looked deep to Donovan Peoples-Jones and opened up the scoring yet again:
After that, the game went into another dry spell as both teams failed to pick up a first down on six of the next seven possessions heading into the third quarter. This is when Michigan really started to take control.
A 13-play, 90-yard drive was capped off by an RPO inside the 10-yard line as Patterson found Zach Gentry to put the Wolverines up 21-0:
Just two plays into Penn State’s next possession, a tattered and torn McSorely was out of the game. His backup, Tommy Stevens, threw maybe the worst pass in the history of college football on his first attempt. Brandon Watson was waiting on the other end as no Nittany Lion was around him, and he marched it 62 yards down the field for a pick six:
No first down for Penn State again on the next possession as Michigan took over around midfield. On 1st and 20, Chris Evans got to the edge and picked up 32 and a first:
Later in the drive, Higdon carried three bodies on him into the end zone as the floodgates were open and Michigan took a 35-0 advantage:
McSorley re-entered the game and on his first pass, he too threw an interception, this time into the hands of David Long:
Evans punched it in on the ensuing possession for Michigan to take a 42-0 advantage. Penn State would finally get some points on the board with the reserves in the game, but the fat lady had already been singing. Michigan finished off three-straight games with top-25 opponents with three wins as they crushed the Nittany Lions 42-7.
Historical Significance: 8
This capped off a huge stretch of games for Michigan and added to its momentum. It was a moment where fans and the team were celebrating some extremely enjoyable wins and keeping their hopes alive for beating Ohio State and heading to a Big Ten Championship afterward. The Revenge Tour part of their season to re-earn the respect of the national media had been completed and was still riding until the end of the season loss at OSU.
Total Score: 35/50
This one was actually tied with the 2016 Citrus Bowl win over Florida, but it had a higher Highlight Play score, the tie-breaker between the two.
Had Michigan gone on to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten title, this game probably shoots up the list. Still, it will be remembered as a resounding victory over a big-time opponent at home.
If there weren’t so many slow moments in this game, it would probably be much higher. But there was not a better example of what Brown’s defense was capable of with their elite pass rush than this game.
For that and the win that capped of the Revenge Tour, this game deserves its flowers as one of the best since Harbaugh has taken over.