It is amazing how a few words can summarize a four-overtime loss.
Like these: “We couldn’t finish.”
Then these three: “We missed tackles.”
Oh, and these: “We had opportunities.”
And then: “We missed opportunities.”
Those comments were uttered by Michigan players and its head coach after the Wolverines missed on a number of fronts during a deflating 43-40 overtime loss at Penn State on Saturday.
The Wolverines are 5-1, 1-1 Big Ten, out of the top-25 and in early trouble in the Legends Division with a tough final half of the season ahead. But more than that, weaknesses that were evident but glossed over during slim victories against Akron and UConn now are exposed and on the table for everyone to see and examine.
There’s no doubt, the autopsy of this game won’t been pretty. And cleaning up things will not be easy.
Michigan returns home this week to play Indiana at Michigan Stadium, where Brady Hoke-coached teams have yet to lose. Then the Wolverines get another bye during which to regroup and prepare for a brutal five-game stretch that begins at rival Michigan State and concludes with rival Ohio State, with road games at Northwestern and Iowa and a home game against Nebraska tossed in.
The Wolverines said the right things after the loss, in which they came back from a 21-10 halftime deficit to take a 10-point lead into the final 10 minutes of regulation — before a freshman quarterback-led Penn State team took it all away.
“It’s hard to lose a first game,” said senior receiver Jeremy Gallon, who had 95 yards on seven catches and a touchdown. “We’re not going to let this determine the rest of our season. We have a lot of football to play. It hurts, but we have to move on.”
What will determine the rest of the season is the decisions that are made to improve a young team that midway through the schedule is still making plenty of mistakes on offense, taking few steps forward, and relying far too much on the defense.
Hoke is not a finger-pointer. But he came as close as he’s come to directing some of his frustration after the loss, and that included, rightfully so, the coaching.
“The biggest thing you take from it, we had all kinds of opportunities at every position,” Hoke said. “As coaches, we had opportunities.”
With the 34-24 lead with 10:28 left, Penn State made a 43-yard field goal to pull within 34-27 with 6:35 left. And then the head-scratching moments began. Michigan then drove to the Penn State 27-yard line but an illegal procedure penalty pushed the ball to the 32.
“We had the wrong play in, and the clock ran down on us,” quarterback Devin Gardner said.
Fitz Toussaint, who had six rushing yards in the first half and 27 for the game — 1-yard per carry — then was stuffed for a 3-yard loss and with the ball at the Penn State 35-yard line, Michigan called time out with 57 seconds left. Hoke opted to have Matt Wile pooch punt on fourth-and-17.
Hoke said he considered a field-goal attempt, and might have gone with that option had there not been the 5-yard penalty.
“But if we could pooch it down there or (have) them starting at the 20 instead of the 35-yard line, I like those odds a little better,” Hoke said.
In retrospect, obviously, the potential points might have been the better option.
Penn State had one last drive left with 50 seconds left and made the most of it. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed a 29-yard pass to Brandon Felder, beating freshman cornerback Channing Stribling. Hackenberg picked on Stribling again, this time throwing for 36 yards to Allen Robinson who made the catch over the freshman.
“We’ve been playing him a little bit more, some dime stuff, trying to put another DB on their tight end,” Hoke said of Stribling.
Hackenberg scored on a one-yard run to tie the game at 34.
And then there was overtime.
Normally sure-footed Brendan Gibbons missed a 33-yard field goal that would have won the game after Frank Clark recovered a Penn State fumble in the third overtime. And in the fourth, after Gibbons made a 40-yarder, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien decided it was time to win the game. He made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-one and then the Nittany Lions scored the game-winning touchdown.
“We could sit here and keep trading field goals back and forth, but eventually it was time for someone to win the game, and I had the opportunity to do it,” O’Brien said. “I felt like it was time to go for the win.”
Yes, Gibbons missed a critical kick, but this loss wasn’t on him.
This loss was about an anemic rushing attack, a jumbled offensive line and a first-half hole dug by the Wolverines thanks to three turnovers. These aren’t new problems, though. They’ve been there this season, only to be masked and tucked away by wins and the legitimate resiliency of the team to overcome these difficult spots.
It was only a matter of time before they became exposed enough to lead to a numbing loss.
But now what?
The biggest overall issue seems to be the offensive line. All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan missed the second half with an undisclosed injury, but even when he was in the game, the Wolverines’ backs — primarily Toussaint — struggled. Of Michigan’s 149 rushing yards, only 28 came from the backs, and that included one yard from freshman Derrick Green on three carries.
Is the lack of production the backs or the line? Both, of course, but probably more of the latter. With Lewan out, right tackle Michael Schofield moved to the left side and Erik Magnuson, a redshirt freshman, to the right. Then redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant, who made his second start at left guard after Graham Glasgow moved to center, was pulled for redshirt junior Joey Burzynski.
Even the non-finger-pointing Hoke suggested something has to be done with the line play.
“(We’d) better take a hard look at it,” said Hoke, whose bottom line is to produce tough offensive and defensive lines, critical for winning games. “It wasn’t good enough, there’s no question. I don’t think it’s a toughness thing. I think we have a hard time sometimes targeting at times, or combo-ing off the blocks well enough.”
But there are a lot of things Michigan has had a hard time doing. Hanging onto the ball is one of them. Gardner had three turnovers in the first half, with two setting up Penn State for relatively easy scores. Michigan is averaging 2.5 turnovers a game, and that’s simply not going to fly the final six games of the season.
Hoke said recently he hasn’t determined the personality of this team but called it “resilient,” a team that found ways to win. Until Saturday. Now, the Wolverines’ resiliency truly will be tested.
“To lose in overtime, if you let it take a toll, it will,” Hoke said. “I was happy with how they kept fighting. You can keep fighting, but you can fight a little better. You’ve got to make the punches count a little more.”