Out-played and out-coached.
Those were Jim Harbaugh’s words after the Michigan football team found itself on the wrong side of a three-touchdown blowout in Madison last month. In the first half of Saturday night’s 28-21 loss against No. 7 Penn State, the same words applied and the same outcome seemed inevitable.
The woes began before a second even came off the clock. The 16th-ranked Wolverines couldn’t get their act together before the first play from scrimmage, prompting Harbaugh to burn a timeout as the play clock neared zero.
It set a sloppy tone offensively, to say the least. When a fourth-and-one scenario presented itself in plus territory on the opening drive, Harbaugh elected to punt, passing up a chance for U-M’s offense to dictate the game. Minutes later, his Wolverines were the ones being dictated.
Michigan couldn’t get out of its own way for much of the first half, often plagued by drops, penalties and a lack of trust in itself.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford found ways to carve up Don Brown’s defense with his arm and legs. His two touchdown passes to receivers with mismatches in single coverage — a tight end guarded by a linebacker and a speedy wideout covered by a safety — while his rushing score gave the Nittany Lions an early 21-0 lead, amplifying the impact of the whiteout crowd in the process.
With seven minutes left in the first half, the Wolverines looked well on their way to another lifeless road loss against a ranked team.
At that point, “out-played” and “out-coached” appeared to be accurate summarizations of the game. Brown failed to adjust well enough to create favorable coverage matchups and U-M’s offense seemed to make a momentum-killing mistake in every big moment.
But sure enough, Michigan began to figure it out. Shea Patterson led a five-minute, 75-yard drive punctuated by a 12-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet with just over two minutes left in the half. With the Wolverines showing a pulse, the initial seemingly insurmountable three-score deficit now seemed manageable.
As U-M limped out of the locker room to begin the second half down by 14, Harbaugh made a promise to ESPN’s on-field reporter.
“This will be our finest hour,” he told Maria Taylor.
Quite frankly, it was.
The Wolverines used a big second half to establish eye-opening statistical upper-hands, but ultimately couldn’t come through when it mattered most. When the dust settled, though, Michigan out-gained Penn State by 134 yards, converted third downs at a rate over 10-percent higher and owned a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.
Numbers aside, Shea Patterson played arguably the best half of his career at Michigan. With U-M’s season-long goals hanging in the balance, he toughed it out and made all the gritty plays when his team needed him. He got the ball out of his hands quickly, found open receivers and scrambled well when the pocket collapsed.
He didn’t throw a touchdown, but the gutsiness of his performance felt just as valuable.
That fact made Penn State wideout KJ Hamler’s 53-yard touchdown all the more difficult to stomach for the Wolverines. After Charbonnet’s second touchdown scamper trimmed the Nittany Lions’ lead to seven at the end of the third quarter, Michigan’s revived defense took the field looking to force Penn State into its fourth punt in as many second-half possessions.
But on third-and-11, cornerback Lavert Hill was whistled for defensive holding. Four plays later, Clifford launched a ball downfield to Hamler, who caught it in stride with safety Josh Metellus lagging behind by six yards. Staring at the back of Hamler’s jersey, Metellus jogged into the end zone eating his assignment’s dust.
“Didn’t get a call in there, KJ on a safety, and it was a huge play,” Harbaugh said of the play after the game. “Didn’t have the right defense, and the play was a good call, so we didn’t have a post safety.”
In a game like Saturday’s, missing a defensive signal is tough to overcome. The same can be said of a mindless hold on third-and-11. Together, they’re a dagger.
But Patterson and the Wolverines’ offense answered the call. The unit responded with a four-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with fullback Ben Mason pushing Patterson across the goal line on fourth-and-goal. That type of response to adversity and sheer will to win, which wasn’t on display as players hung their heads in Madison, has felt absent to this point.
After U-M’s defense forced a three-and-out, Patterson took charge and produced one of his best drives of the season. He completed four of six passes for 36 yards, bringing Michigan inside the Nittany Lions’ 10-yard line.
On fourth-and-goal, a defining moment of the Harbaugh era took shape. Patterson surveyed the left side of the field and saw Nico Collins covered, so he rolled right as Ronnie Bell broke back to the ball. He delivered a perfectly-placed ball that only Bell had a chance of catching, but it bounced off his chest and fell to the turf.
And, with that, Michigan’s preseason aspirations shattered as the program’s reputation of faltering in big games was reinforced.
It was the Wolverines’ finest hour, but it still wasn’t enough. Michigan looked like the better team for most of the game. The statistics back it up, but they’ll return to Ann Arbor with their second conference loss of the season before the end of October. In the end, an accumulation of big-play miscues prevented the Wolverines from finally breaking through.
To beat the likes of Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, U-M must eliminate the very mistakes that allow a 21-point hole to materialize in the first place. When an avalanche of miscues starts picking up steam, someone has to put an end to it before it spirals out of control. That’ll help the Wolverines stop digging their own graves with slow starts against ranked teams, particularly on the road.
Until then, the zero in Harbaugh’s win column as an underdog will remain intact.