State College, Pa. – Michigan relied on its red-zone defense, strong pass protection from its offensive line and a kickoff return from Jourdan Lewis to win on the road again.
The Wolverines defeated Penn State, 28-16, on Saturday to remain perfect this season in Big Ten road games. But the Michigan fans among the 107,418 at Beaver Stadium moved on quickly and began the “Beat Ohio” chant as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Michigan improved to 9-2 and 6-1 Big Ten. Penn State is 7-4, 4-3. If Ohio State defeats Michigan State later Saturday, Michigan and Ohio State will play for the Big Ten East Division title.
Regardless, rebounding from a 5-7 season a year ago to this kind of success under coach Jim Harbaugh has been meaningful to the players.
“It’s really special,” said tight end Jake Butt, who had a touchdown reception and now has 1,012 receiving yards, fifth among Michigan tight ends all-time. “It’s been our goal since the beginning of the year to try to become Big Ten champions.
“We’ve faced a lot adversity this year, but it’s so special. To have our name up there as one of the better teams in the Big Ten, one of the better teams in the country, is a culmination of all of our hard work we’ve been putting in since winter, spring, camp, all year. Everybody is pretty excited about it.”
Red-zone defense has been a hallmark of Michigan this fall, and this game was no different.
Penn State reached the Michigan 1-yard line and 6-yard line in the second half and came away with field goals both times. The Nittany Lions also reached the Michigan 6-yard line on their first drive and were held to a field goal. They also were held to six rushing yards in the second half.
It was quite a rebound from a week earlier at Indiana when the defense, playing without nose tackle Ryan Glasgow, out for the season with injury, for the first time. Indiana gained 307 yards rushing.
“It’s been so good in the red zone, forcing again three field goals,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been remarkable the way our defense has played. In that facet I can’t imagine anybody is playing any better; maybe someone is playing as good in terms of red-zone football. It’s a real strength for us.”
In 25 trips to the red zone, Michigan opponents have scored 21 times, including 13 field goals.
Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock was 25-of-38 for 256 yards and touchdowns to Amara Darboh and Butt. He also had an interception and a fumble. Rudock is the first Michigan quarterback to throw for 250 yards or more in three straight games. He threw for 337 against Rutgers and 440 at Indiana.
Rudock orchestrated four touchdown drives, but perhaps his best was a 70-yard, seven-play drive just before halftime that included a 26-yard third-down completion to Darboh. Butt caught an 18-yard pass for a first down at the Penn State 11, and Darboh caught the 11-yard touchdown to regain the lead, 14-10 with 51 seconds left.
Rudock took two sacks from a Penn State defense that had been averaging a national-high of 4.2 a game. Carl Nassib, the Nittany Lions' sack leader, did not play because of injury. Meanwhile, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times, including two by Taco Charlton.
“You just find a way,” Rudock said when asked about winning on the road. “Defense found a way to step up and make their stops, and offensively we found a way to get enough points on the board. That’s all it is -- finding a way, scratching, itching, clawing to get points on the board.”
The Wolverines, who were penalized 13 times for 117 yards, had an enormous boost from special teams in the second half.
After Penn State pulled within 21-16 with just more than eight minutes left in the game, Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis responded with a 55-yard kickoff return, giving the Wolverines the ball at the Penn State 40.
“That was a great play,” Harbaugh said of the return. “Jourdan was in the huddle and he looked over me and said, ‘I’m going to break their back right here,’ and I said, ‘Go ahead, have at it.’ It was a phenomenal return. He was competing like a maniac throughout that return, just refusing to go down.”
Michigan then drove 40 yards on five plays with De’Veon Smith scoring on a 1-yard run for a 28-16 cushion.
Late in the third quarter, receiver Jehu Chesson recovered a fumbled punt by DeAndre Thompkins, giving the Wolverines the ball at the Penn State 9-yard line and setting up a touchdown run by Sione Houma.
Harbaugh said the focus among his players has been intense as they prepare for their regular-season finale.
“A good five, six weeks we’ve been playing with this playoff mentality,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a lot of fun to be in this environment and this position. It’s fun to be in the playoffs. We’ve been in it for weeks in our minds and in our preparation. We’re just having at it.”