'We have to tackle better': Penn State runs through Michigan en route to first win
Ann Arbor — It is difficult to know where to look first under the hood of this Michigan football team, mainly because there are so many parts missing or working well.
There isn’t enough time to rebuild this season, which seemed to chug forward in a triple-overtime win a week earlier but stalled like a clunker against Penn State, a team that was winless.
Penn State took advantage of Michigan’s poor tackling and the inability of the offense to consistently convert on third-and-short during a 27-17 victory over the Wolverines on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Michigan is now 2-4 this season and 0-3 at home. Penn State is 1-5.
“Obviously it’s not the outcome we wanted,” right tackle Andrew Stueber said. “It’s tough to be in this position. It’s not what we imagined. As an older guy on the team, you’ve really got to keep everybody up, keep pressing on. Coach (Jim) Harbaugh after the game said to keep pressing on, moving forward. You’ve got to keep getting better, come with the mindset to work.
“There’s definitely no quit in this team, there’s no question in that.”
But there are considerable deficiencies, particularly on defense, which was plagued by missed tackles.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who entered the game with eight interceptions, was error-free against Michigan and was 17-of-28 for 163 yards. He also ran for 73 yards on nine carries and had a touchdown. Keyvone Lee rushed for 134 yards on 20 carries and had a touchdown. Backup quarterback Will Levis also ran for a score.
The Nittany Lions finished with 254 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the second biggest rushing total Michigan has allowed this season. Wisconsin gained 341 rushing yards in a 49-11 victory over the Wolverines Nov. 14.
“We definitely got hurt throughout the game on the slant route, the quarterback draw and perimeter screens,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t tackle nearly good enough, as well. Coming up with the right call at the right time to get the stop and also make the tackle to get our defense off the field, we came up short.”
The Nittany Lions entered the game 124th nationally in turnover margin — Clifford had eight interceptions and the team had five fumbles — but were turnover-free against Michigan. The Wolverines, meanwhile, had two fumbles and lost one when Mike Sainristil misplayed a punt return, leading to the Nittany Lions’ final points of the first half, a 22-yard field goal.
Michigan entered with a defense ranked 91st yielding an average 437.8 yards a game. Penn State finished with 417 yards.
Defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw wasn’t prepared to do an autopsy on the defensive performance without seeing the film, but there was one aspect that was glaringly absent.
“I do know we have to tackle better,” said Upshaw, who had Michigan’s lone sack.
This loss wasn’t all on the defense, of course. It was Cade McNamara’s debut as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback and was 12-of-25 for 91 yards, but he was hindered by a right shoulder injury suffered late in the first quarter.
McNamara, who provided a spark in the loss to Wisconsin and then led the comeback at Rutgers last week, earned his first start but was hurt guiding the Wolverines to a touchdown that tied the game, 7-7. He appeared to get injured after running for three yards to reach the Penn State 2.
Hassan Haskins, the lone highlight of the offense, then scored his first of two touchdowns. McNamara left for the locker room at the end of the first quarter and Joe Milton took over. The two combined to go 13-of-28 for 112 yards.
Just before the end of the first half, McNamara returned. But Milton was inserted late in the fourth as McNamara’s shoulder began to be an issue.
“Cade, really gutty performance to come back, but the shoulder did start to tighten up. I could see it,” Harbaugh said. “He was doing everything he could to stay in the game. I just felt like it was tightening up and felt like going to Joe was the best option for us. I can tell you this, Cade was doing everything he possibly could to rally the team and to play on. The shoulder was tightening up on him, so that was the reason.”
Regardless of who was in at quarterback, third-and-short situations were an issue for the Wolverines against Penn State. Michigan was 4-of-12 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth.
“We had some third-and-short opportunities, and Penn State was able to convert their third-and-shorts,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t getting the stop (on Penn State) at the critical time and not getting the first down to sustain the drive offensively. That was a big part of the game.”
Haskins, though, had his second straight 100-yard game. He rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries and had two touchdowns. A week earlier, he rushed for 109 on 25 carries. He ran behind an offensive line that had to adjust when right guard Zak Zinter left after aggravating a thumb injury he suffered against Rutgers. Left guard Chuck Filiaga moved to right guard and Trevor Keegan play on the left side.
Michigan has two games remaining, at home next Saturday against Maryland, and then at Ohio State, before a season-ending cross-over “bonus” game. Stueber said the players know there’s still plenty to play for.
“Getting better every day,” Stueber said of the team’s first goal. “We still have the big team, OSU, at the end of the year and we each need to play on all cylinders and I think we’re in contention for that game. We’ve got Maryland, too, and so we’ve got to come together and come every day and play, come in and work. We’ve got to play every day, every practice, getting better and better, and I think there’s still a lot more to play for this season.”