WOLVERINES

Michigan football makes the plays late to win at Penn State, 21-17

Michael Cohen
Detroit Free Press
View Comments

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The scoring drives were beginning to feel like aberrations in a season that threatened to become a mirage.

For so long during Saturday's game — the kind of game against a quality road opponent that Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is prone to losing — the offense appeared stuck in neutral. The numbers for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis' group included a 40% conversion rate on third down, a subpar average of 3.5 yards per carry and three false start penalties that derailed drives. 

WINDSOR:With one fourth-quarter punch, Michigan keeps its Big Ten dream alive

REACTIONS TO U-M'S VICTORY:Why James Franklin is making Michigan football fans grateful for Jim Harbaugh

And yet, the Wolverines led, inching their way in front of Penn State early in the second quarter and staying there until midway through the final quarter, when a trio of fourth-down conversions from the Nittany Lions produced a touchdown and two-point conversion that knotted the game at 14-all. It was the defense that carried Michigan for the better part of four quarters behind seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and some impressive coverage on star receiver Jahan Dotson. But with 5:55 remaining and U-M trailing by a field goal, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald's group needed the offense to pull its weight. 

"After the defense had stepped up for us so many times in the second half, we just had to answer," quarterback Cade McNamara said. "We have to have their back, and I’m glad we were able to."

Facing second-and-9 just a few yards across midfield, quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All orchestrated the type of play that will be talked about for years in Ann Arbor, where hopes of a College Football Playoff berth are alive and well. A bullet from McNamara hit All in stride on a crossing pattern, and the gimpy tight end raced 47 yards down the sideline for the winning score.

The offense answered the call with its season on the line and conjured a moment of magic: Michigan 21, Penn State 17.

"This is a great win," Harbaugh said. "There’s no doubt this team is full of all the championship qualities in guys."

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara looks to pass during the first half on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in State College, Pennsylvania.

While the offense punctuated Saturday's game, it was the defense that won it for the Wolverines. Aside from inquiries about Michigan's injury situation, the primary topic of discussion during the week was how Macdonald would defend Dotson, who racked up 242 yards and three touchdowns last week against Maryland. Yes, Macdonald had resurrected a defense short on confidence following a shoddy 2020 season capped by the dismissal of former coordinator Don Brown, but could he scheme a plan to stop a likely first-round NFL draft pick?

After all, the last elite skill player the Wolverines faced was Michigan State tailback Kenneth Walker III, who embarrassed Macdonald's group for 197 yards and five touchdowns. 

WOLVERINE INJURY UPDATE:Michigan's Blake Corum out for the rest of the regular season: Report

MORE:A real 'genius?' Michigan DC Mike Macdonald will soon have chance to prove it 

But a domination of Indiana's overmatched freshman quarterback replenished U-M's confidence ahead of the trip to Happy Valley, especially for the edge rushers who feasted against the Hoosiers. Outside linebackers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the top pass-rushing duo in the nation, transferred that energy to Beaver Stadium and obliterated the Penn State offensive line from the very first snap, hounding and harassing quarterback Sean Clifford without reprieve. Each edge rusher notched a sack within the first six plays from scrimmage, and the momentum Clifford generated on scrambles was halted when inside linebacker Junior Colson blasted up the middle for a third sack that forced a field goal. 

"It was definitely more in the quarterback’s mind," said Hutchinson, who finished with seven tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. "He knew. He knew we were coming. He knew there was going to be pressure all day."

Penn State's offensive tackles offered little resistance to the speed and power displayed by Hutchinson and Ojabo in a primal performance. Hutchinson's frustration with the substitution issues against Michigan State spilled into a postgame radio interview East Lansing when he said players spent too much time staring at the sideline for signals rather than lining up and "being ball players." He turned his words into action by exploding off the line of scrimmage on a pivotal third-and-11 early in the second quarter to sling Clifford down and knock the ball loose while several members of the defense were unset following a late substitution. 

By the time Clifford threw incomplete on another third down during Penn State’s opening drive of the second half — a drive stunted by Hutchinson’s third sack of the day — he pounded his chest and pointed at the video board while jogging off the field.

"Can there be a better player than him out there anywhere?" Harbaugh said. "I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. Again, probably biased, but he’s that kind of player."

Sprinkled between Hutchinson's eruptions were two more sacks for Ojabo, who has thrust himself into the NFL draft conversation with a remarkable season of his own. His unblocked sack of Clifford in the first quarter was bested by a second-quarter speed rush on third-and-10 that produced his fifth forced fumble of the year. And, more critically, saddled the Nittany Lions with another field goal to keep Michigan in front. 

The barrage of pressure from Macdonald's front seven eased the workload on the U-M secondary, which was tasked with defending both Dotson and a quarterback who attempted more than 40 passes.

During a news conference with local media this week, Macdonald was asked about the coverage options at a defensive coordinator's disposal when trying to defend an elite receiver. He listed a slew of concepts ranging from asking the best cornerback to shadow Dotson anywhere he goes, to putting the No. 1 corner on Penn State's second-best receiver and then doubling Dotson with the No. 2 corner and a safety, to playing various types of bracket coverage. He wouldn't tip his hand about which of those concepts he preferred. 

The plan revealed itself within the first few snaps, as cornerbacks DJ Turner and Vincent Gray — both of whom played fine games in the injury-related absence of Gemon Green — benefitted from safety help on whichever side of the field Dotson aligned. The high-low bracket worked so well that the Nittany Lions were forced to rely on bubble screens and short passes just to get the ball in Dotson's hands. That he finished with nine catches for 61 yards and his second-lowest output of the season spokes to the efficacy of Macdonald's plan. 

"A lot of the downs we were doubling him, and he’s just a really good player," Harbaugh said. "I thought DJ had a heck of a game. I think Vince did as well. Press coverage and throwing deep balls, they weren’t able to get them. You’re not going to totally shut a guy like that down, but I thought it was outstanding play by Vince and DJ."

The final test for Macdonald's group came with 6:45 remaining and the game tied, 14-14, following McNamara's fumble recovered by Penn State deep in Michigan territory. A short run by Clifford on first down gave way to consecutive incompletions on second and third as safety Brad Hawkins leveled the quarterback to force the Nittany Lions to settle for red zone field goal.

The ball went back to McNamara with a chance to win the game. 

"That was so big," Hutchinson said. "I felt like everything was going against us in that moment. They got the touchdown, 2-point (conversion), stopped us, strip sack. We kind of just came together as a defense and, you know, we’re not going to let that ruin our hopes in the championship. We came together, fought that adversity, got that stop. It was crucial."

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13

View Comments