Michigan went on the road to face a wildly unranked Penn State team and came out of Happy Valley with a 21-17 come-from-behind-from-ahead win that probably doesn’t happen in many other years under Jim Harbaugh.
It was arguably Harbaugh’s best win at Michigan, and not necessarily because of the team the Wolverines beat, but because of where it happened, when it happened, and how it happened.
A 6-3 Michigan team probably doesn’t come out of there with a win. (Although that’s putting a lot of faith in James Franklin’s late-game coaching.)
Two weeks ago Michigan gave up a 16-point lead to Michigan State and that loss still stings. They led 14-6 midway through the fourth quarter against Penn State and not only gave up the tying touchdown and two-point conversion, but also fumbled the ball deep in their own territory with under seven minutes to play. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they were able to hold Penn State to a field goal.
And then the offense went and won the game, just like we’ve all been saying they would.
Any win at Penn State is a good win. They’re almost all tough. This was not an easy game for Michigan. They were put to the test and they passed.
But I do wonder how things would have turned out if a couple of Penn State defenders didn’t run into each other on Michigan’s game-winning touchdown.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan ran for 144 yards on 41 attempts, with three of those carries being kneel downs and two of them being sacks. So excluding that, they rushed for 166 yards on 36 attempts for a slightly-above-average average of 4.6 yards per carry.
Hassan Haskins was the workhorse again without Blake Corum. Haskins rushed for 156 yards on 31 carries, with a long of just 17 yards. Of his 31 carries, 22 of them went for 4 yards or less. He did have seven carries of 12 yards or better, which feels like a season high to me.
The Wolverine running game right now is not overly effective, but it has had enough moments of effectiveness when it has needed to.
There was no running quarterback for Michigan this week as Cade McNamara took all of the snaps. He did run the ball a couple of times, but that wasn’t really part of the offense at any point.
McNamara completed 19-of-29 passes for 217 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked twice.
His best throw of the day was a 21-yard strike on a skinny post to Roman Wilson for the Wolverines’ first touchdown of the day. The rest of his completions were once again very close to the line of scrimmage.
McNamara completed just 5-of-12 passes that traveled further than 5 yards downfield. He was 14-of-17 on everything else. His completions traveled just over 3 yards down the field and of Michigan’s 217 yards passing, 148 of them came after the catch.
That’s a pretty standard YAC percentage from Michigan based on my recollection. One of these days I will do some charting of CJ Stroud’s throws just to see if I’m making too much of McNamara, but here are some YAC numbers from Ohio State the last couple of weeks as a comparison.
Of the 361 yards passing last week against Purdue, 223 of them came after the catch — including 102 of Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 139 yards. Two weeks before against Penn State, 133 of OSU’s 305 yards were after the catch.
So congratulations to me for confirming my suspicions that Ohio State throws the ball down the field more than Michigan. Can you believe I’m getting paid to do this kind of research?
Michigan’s game-winning score came on a simple mesh or drag route from tight end Erick All. All caught the ball at the line of scrimmage and got freed up because his defender ran into another Penn State player, which allowed All to race up the right sideline for a 47-yard touchdown with just 3:29 to play in the game.
I’m not sure how often the Wolverines are going to be able to count on that happening this season, but they probably weren’t counting on exactly that happening on Saturday either.
All has been very good this season but I don’t know if anybody had 47 run-after-catch yards for him on their Penn State bingo card.
This was not a great performance by the Michigan offensive line. Aside from the tough sledding in the running game — which Penn State can do to people, there were three false start penalties and some soft pass protection at times.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo combined for five sacks and two forced fumbles.
At some point in the broadcast, ABC showed a stat that Penn State’s two starting offensive tackles Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace had combined to allow something like 18 sacks on the season.
Pitting those two against Hutchinson and Ojabo was not a fair fight. And even labeling it any kind of “fight” would be inaccurate. It was more of a welcoming party.
“Are you here to see our quarterback? Right this way! We have a lovely selection of that guy over there.”
Michigan sacked Sean Clifford seven times.
And yet they still trailed late in the fourth quarter. That has to be concerning for Jim Harbaugh.
Penn State ran for 109 yards, but if we adjust for sacks and stupid fake field goals, the Nittany Lions actually rushed for 171 yards on 34 attempts, which comes out to 5 yards per carry. That’s a very good number for Penn State and not a very good number for the Michigan run defense.
I tend to think that the Wolverines weren’t too preoccupied with the Penn State running backs, which is why they were in the nickel so much and why perhaps running the ball was easier than expected.
Michigan was clearly concerned with some aspects of the Penn State passing game, and for good reason. Receiver Jahan Dotson is one of the nation’s best.
Clifford targeted Dotson 16 times. He caught nine of those passes for just 61 yards — and 33 of those yards were after the catch.
So every time Penn State threw it Dotson’s way, they averaged 3.8 yards per attempt. That is a very impressive number for a Michigan defense that allowed almost nothing down the field. The Penn State tackles simply couldn’t hold up long enough to really mount much of an effort to take some deep shots.
Clifford threw for 205 yards on 23-of-43 passing with one touchdown. Two weeks earlier, he completed 35-of-52 passes for 361 yards against Ohio State.
Penn State found some ways to move the ball in this game but James Franklin also found some ways to squander the field position. The Nittany Lions made it to Michigan’s 25-yard line six times. They scored ONE touchdown, kicked three field goals, missed another, and faked a fifth.
Credit the Wolverine defense for standing tall when backed up.
Michigan started two true freshmen on defense this week. Junior Colson started at linebacker and led the team with 12 tackles. Rod Moore started at safety for Michigan, which opened in nickel. He played alongside starter Brad Hawkins while Dax Hill was in his customary slot role. Moore finished with six tackles.
Cornerback DJ Turner also had some good moments in this one. He continues to get better. Turner was the guy who gave up the tying touchdown and 2-point conversion but he had tremendous coverage on both plays. Sometimes you can do your job and still get beat.
It is good to see young players stepping up and earning roles for the Wolverines. That tells me the talent is increasing. But having freshmen in the back end of your defense against a group of playmakers like there are in Columbus is going to be a concern for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.
Speaking of Macdonald, kudos to him for the design of the defense on Penn State’s final fourth-down play. The Nittany Lions were faced with a fourth-and-2 late in the game on their own side of the 50-yard line, so Macdonald stood all of his defenders up and put them on the line of scrimmage. Clifford had no idea who was coming and who was staying. The Wolverines brought five and Clifford threw a fourth-down pass up for grabs 20 yards down the sideline because that was the only place he believed would be free of extra defenders.
It was a great call by Macdonald.
The Michigan Special Teams
Even though the Michigan special teams had two moments they’d like to have back, they were still in a position to make plays both times.
The first was a fake punt that was read the entire way by Michigan defensive back Quinten Johnson who stayed with the intended receiver who was leaking out, but he stopped running to look back for the ball or some such thing and the fourth-down pass was completed over his head.
The other mistake came on a play where a Wolverine gunner simply knocked a punt into the end zone rather than downing it. He was in position to make a play but it just didn’t happen. It wasn’t devastating because Penn State eventually punted on that drive, but had the Nittany Lions been forced to start the drive on the 2-yard line, who knows how that late-third quarter drive shakes out.
Punter Brad Robbins averaged 52.4 yards on his five punts, which included a 65-yarder that was downed at the PSU 2-yard line. All four of Jake Moody’s kickoffs were touchbacks. When Ohio State and Michigan do play, don’t expect freshman receiver Emeka Egbuka — who is the Big Ten’s best kickoff returner (32.1 yards per return) — to get any opportunities to return a kick.
The Michigan special teams also deserves credit for stopping a terrible fake field goal play at the 2-yard line.
This has been an excellent group all season long. They just don’t allow the hidden yards that can impact the field position battle. Ohio State and Michigan lead the Big Ten with just five punt returns allowed this season.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that for maybe the second or third time this season, Jim Harbaugh won a game that he wouldn’t have in the past.
And after the game, there wasn’t the relief of a coach who knows he got away with one. It was the joy of a coach that saw his team go and take a game when most people watching thought that game was over.
It was the joy of a coach who got to rip up a narrative that so many wanted to start spouting.
Two weeks earlier at Michigan State, the Wolverines gave the game away and then had two possessions to take it back. They failed. Hell, they had three possessions that could have either extended the lead or got it back, and instead they turned it over on two of those possessions.
That’s a hollow feeling.
This time, however, they made the plays to win the game. Both on offense and defense, they got the job done. They kept their conference title hopes and playoff hopes alive.
More importantly, his team is still engaged. They sure appear to be locked in. Nobody has checked out. It’s funny how that happens if you just keep winning.
This was a great bounce back for a team that could have been flattened.
It also means that this Michigan passing game will want to attack Ohio State a little further downfield if they want to have any kind of success in two weeks.
Keeping things near the line of scrimmage is not where the Buckeye pass defense has been susceptible this season. It’s the intermediate stuff between the linebackers and safeties that has caused issues. It’s the middle of the field.
But these are areas where Cade McNamara has not been great this season.
If Michigan is going to beat Ohio State, they need him to be at his best in places he’s normally at his worst.
That’s a lot to ask but they wouldn’t be asking it if it didn’t mean the world.
And this year for Michigan, it could mean so much more.
The Road To The Game
Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 – Michigan 38 – Wisconsin 17 (5-0, 2-0)
Oct 9 – Michigan 32 – Nebraska 29 (6-0, 3-0)
Oct 23 – Michigan 33 – Northwestern 7 (7-0, 4-0)
Oct 30 – Michigan State 37 – Michigan 33 (7-1, 5-1)
Nov 6 – Michigan 29 – Indiana 7 (8-1, 6-1)
Nov 13 – Michigan 21 – Penn State 17 (9-1, 7-1)
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State