Three of the last four meetings between No. 7 Penn State and No. 16 Michigan witnessed the victorious team come out on top by four touchdowns or more. The meeting on Saturday night in Happy Valley seemed to be headed in the same direction, but going into the fourth quarter, we appeared to be destined for a potential nail-biter finish as the Nittany Lions held just a seven-point lead after being up by three scores at one point in the first half -- and an exciting finish in the "White Out" conditions is just what we received.
Behind quarterback Sean Clifford tossing for two touchdowns and rushing for another, Penn State jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. Michigan was being written off for dead, but the Wolverines scored on a Zach Charbonnet 12-yard rushing touchdown just before the half to cut it to 21-7. The third quarter -- which included a 100-yard kick return to open the half by K.J. Hamler called back for holding -- saw very little action until Michigan flashed a bit more effort to rise from the dead in the form of another 12-yard rushing score from Charbonnet to give us a 21-14 score in Happy Valley. The Wolverines would never be able to get closer than that, however. While K.J. Hamler's touchdown return didn't stand, there was no taking his 53-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter off the board. Michigan would again answer, but it could never finish the comeback. The Wolverines found themselves facing a fourth-and-goal in the final minutes. Shea Patterson escaped pressure and found receiver Ronnie Bell in the end zone, but Bell couldn't pull the pass in. A few plays and a first down later, Penn State was taking knees to ice the game.
The win improves Penn State to 7-0 on the season, and keeps them on pace for a clash with Ohio State for the Big Ten East crown. Michigan falls to 5-2 on the season, and as many will tell you in the coming days, the Wolverines fall to 1-10 against top 10 teams under Jim Harbaugh.
Here are the major takeaways from an exciting game in Happy Valley.
1. Penn State is the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten. If that wasn't clear before this weekend, it should be now. With No. 6 Wisconsin suffering a 24-23 upset loss to lowly Illinois earlier in the day, it removed some of the luster from the Badgers' blistering start. If you can't beat Illinois, it's hard to imagine you beating Ohio State. Now, after beating Michigan, Penn State joins Minnesota and Ohio State as the remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten. Nobody considers the Gophers a threat to win the conference, even if they do appear to be the favorite to win the West. Still, while Penn State might be the biggest threat to the Buckeyes at this stage, it's hard to know how much of a threat it truly presents. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. But it wasn't the most impressive of wins. The Nittany Lions got off to a white-hot start in front of a white-out crowd, jumping ahead 21-0. They then spent the better part of 30 minutes clinging to that lead as tightly as possible.
This game went from looking like it would be a Penn State blowout to the Nittany Lions needing a dropped touchdown pass in the final minute to hold on to the win. The Penn State offense was outgained by the Michigan offense 417 yards to 283. It was 4-for-13 on third down. It averaged only 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. This was far from a pristine performance. It was enough to win, but will it be enough to beat Ohio State?
2. Penn State needs to find more consistency on offense. From what I've seen of the Nittany Lions thus far in 2019, what I saw on Saturday night really wasn't anything new. They get hot .. and then they run cold. Penn State had 203 yards and 21 points in the first half. It only had 80 yards of offense and seven points in the second half. That's bad enough, but it looks worse when you realize that 53 of those 80 yards and all of the points came on one 53-yard touchdown strike to Hamler. In fact, Hamler's two touchdowns (a 53-yarder and a 25-yarder) accounted for 27.6 percent of Penn State's total yards on the night. He finished with six receptions for 108 yards. When Clifford targeted Hamler, he was 6 of 7 for 108 yards and two touchdowns. When Clifford targeted anybody else, he was 8 of 18 for 74 yards and a touchdown.
Maybe the key is just getting the ball to Hamler?
If only it were that simple! It's obvious there's a connection between Clifford and Hamler. They've been playing together since high school, and there's a chemistry between them. Still, it would do the Nittany Lions a world of good if another reliable receiver emerged in the offense. It would also help if the Nittany Lions found a more consistent ground game. On Saturday night the team's leading rusher, Noah Cain, was conspicuously absent most of the game, finishing with 19 yards on five carries. The team's leading rusher was Ricky Slade, but his 48 yards came on only three carries. It's hard to be consistent on offense against good defenses when there's only one player they need to fear.
3. Even in defeat, Michigan may have finally found the formula on offense. The Wolverines aren't looking for moral victories here. This loss is a killer when it comes to the Big Ten East title race, as well as dreams of a Big Ten title. That doesn't mean there's nothing good to come from it, however. Michigan's offense seemed to find a consistency in the final 35 minutes of this game that it hadn't shown much of this season. It's well-known that Michigan is transitioning to a new offense this season, but it's also easy to forget that those transitions aren't always simple. Just because LSU dove in headfirst and started ripping the galaxy apart at the seams doesn't mean every offense will. A few years ago, the Penn State team that Michigan played tonight made a similar change on offense and sputtered in the first half of the season before finding a rhythm in the second half. It's possible we saw the start of that for Michigan tonight.
To be blunt, Shea Patterson looked rattled to start this game. It might have been the Penn State crowd, or it could have been the Penn State pass rush. It was likely a mixture of both. But whatever it was, he looked like someone who would prefer to be anywhere else in the world other than the pocket. Then Michigan put a touchdown drive together before halftime, and Patterson relaxed. He kept his composure in the second half as well, and instead of panicking, he found Michigan's skill players in space, and they did the work. Patterson's final stat line doesn't look very good (24/41, 276 yards, 1 INT), but the numbers don't say it all. When Michigan needed its starting QB to put together a drive late in the game to tie it, Patterson did so. On fourth-and-goal, with the game on the line, Patterson bought time and found an open receiver in the end zone. The ball was dropped. That happens. But if Patterson continues to play like he did in the second half for the rest of the season, and Zach Charbonnet can continue to find room to maneuver in the run game, this Michigan offense is going to look a lot different over the second half.
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