State College, Pa. — There wasn’t that feeling of a moral victory, but maybe there was a tinge of silver-linings talk.
Bottom line, though, the Michigan players knew the 28-21 loss at Penn State, despite a spirited comeback and the first real evidence this season that the offense had found its way, was a backbreaker in the Big Ten East Division race.
The Wolverines are 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten with losses at Wisconsin and unbeaten Penn State Saturday night in a raucous "White Out" at Beaver Stadium. Michigan spotted the Nittany Lions a 21-0 lead by midway through the second quarter before finding its way and staging a comeback.
“I thought our team played with great character, great effort the entire night on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Fought really hard.”
If that’s enough — which, of course, it isn’t — then there you go. What Harbaugh was indicating is that, well, a month ago in similar circumstances, Michigan caved and couldn’t never right itself. So if you’re looking for a moral victory spin, that’s it.
In the loss at Wisconsin a month ago to open Big Ten play, the Wolverines never recovered mentally after an early fumble and Jonathan Taylor running at will in the first quarter. They were different at Penn State. They didn’t hang their heads and allow the game to get out of hand. In fact, they made it a game, just not enough of one.
A drop in the end zone on fourth down late in the fourth quarter prevented the Wolverines from scoring the tying touchdown, but there was so much more than that one play that kept them from fulfilling the comeback — namely, the defense giving up three big plays in the first half. And then there was a miscommunication with a hand signal on the defensive call that allowed Penn State’s speedy KJ Hamler to sprint out of reach with only a safety on coverage on a 53-yard touchdown reception from Sean Clifford to make it 28-14 early in the fourth when Michigan was building its momentum.
There seemed to be a resolve among the Wolverines, even in the aftermath of the loss. With Notre Dame coming to town next weekend for a night game at Michigan Stadium, they said they need to refocus with five regular-season games remaining, including matchups with rivals Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
“At halftime, we were down, and we all came together and said, ‘We’re going to keep fighting for the team. We’re going to do whatever we've got to do. We’re gonna fight, scratch and claw to come out with the victory,’” linebacker Khaleke Hudson said.
“I’m really proud of the offense, and I’m also really proud of the defense how we came out in the second half. Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on top. We’ve got to move on. We can’t change it to a victory for us. Only thing we can do is go back in the lab, fix our mistakes and come back out stronger versus Notre Dame.”
While Michigan had only one loss entering the Penn State game, there seemed to be a lot of commentary befitting a team that had lost most, if not all, of its games. After all, this was the team most pundits had projected to win the Big Ten East and be a factor in the national playoff picture. Now it’s a team that has lost twice on the road to ranked Big Ten opponents, went to double-overtime against Army at home and allowed Illinois to score 25 straight points a week ago to close within a field goal.
So many things have derailed the Wolverines — fumbles, big plays allowed by the defense, an offense still learning its way with a new coordinator. This is the first season of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ speed-in-space offense and when things were clicking Saturday night, there was this sense that maybe the offense finally has something going.
Against Penn State, quarterback Shea Patterson was 24-of-41 passing for 276 yards and an interception, and he also had 12 carries for 34 yards and a touchdown. Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet had 81 yards on 15 carries and scored twice. Nico Collins led the receivers with six catches for 89 yards, while Ronnie Bell, who had the drop in the end zone late in the game, had four catches for 71 yards.
Michigan outgained Penn State, 417-283, so that alone has many scratching their heads in the aftermath. The Wolverines had 141 rushing yards with two backs getting the bulk of carries along with Patterson’s 12. Hassan Haskins had 13 attempts for 28 yards. The offensive line was widely credited for much of the production.
“I thought they protected very well,” Harbaugh said. “I thought they were coming off the ball really well. Thought, especially there in the second half, they were grinding the run game and holes were opening up. I thought our line played really well.”
Notre Dame was off on Saturday and Michigan has been tabbed as a slight favorite for the upcoming night game. This is a non-conference game that really matters, certainly for some sense of accomplishment and pride for the Wolverines.
“We’ve got to move on to the next day,” Hudson said. "We’ve got to work even harder in practice. We’ve got to stay on top of our film work and keep trusting the guys around us.”
Expectations had been high for the Wolverines, but here they sit at 5-2 and No. 19 in the national rankings after dropping three spots. Remember, this team was ranked No. 7 in the preseason Top 25 poll.
Now, though, their words after the Penn State loss suggested they have found a collective resolve.
“We’re not going to sit down and feel sorry for ourselves,” defensive end Kwity Paye said. “We still have a lot of big teams to play. We have Notre Dame, ranked team. We have Ohio State, ranked team. There’s still plenty of opportunity to go out and finish the season great.”
Notre Dame at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 8 Notre Dame 5-1; No. 19 Michigan 5-2, 3-2
Line: Michigan by 1½