'If that’s not grit, I don’t know what is': UM tops Penn State, stays in Big Ten East hunt
University Park, Pa. — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has often spoken of the grit of his current team, which is why what he most enjoyed in a hostile environment at Penn State was how the team didn’t flinch.
And the Wolverines could have.
With their Big Ten East Division hopes on the line, Michigan diffused Penn State’s fourth-quarter momentum, got a critical hold from the defense and scored on a late 47-yard touchdown from quarterback Cade McNamara to tight end Erick All for a 21-17 win before 109,354 at Beaver Stadium.
The Wolverines got an enormous lift from Hassan Haskins, who rushed a career-high 31 times for 156 yards, and also had five catches for 45 yards. He handled the workload for the second straight week with running back Blake Corum out with an unspecified leg injury. There are two regular-season games remaining and it is unclear when Corum, who was in a walking boot in the second half last week, could return.
Michigan is now 9-1, 6-1 in the Big Ten and plays at Maryland next week before returning home to face Ohio State in the regular-season finale. Plenty has to fall in place for the Wolverines, who don’t have outright control to claim the title, but this was an important win to keep their hopes alive.
“If that’s not grit, I don’t know what is,” Harbaugh said during the postgame news conference.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, sitting in the back corner of the room while Harbaugh spoke, quietly chimed in to affirm that comment.
“Absolutely,” Manuel said.
Penn State tied the game, 14-14, with 7:35 left in the game, and on third down of Michigan’s next possession, Arnold Ebiketie sacked McNamara and forced the fumble, giving the Nittany Lions the ball at the UM 16-yard line. Michigan’s defense held firm and Penn State came away with a field goal and the 17-14 lead with just less than six minutes left.
“That was so big,” said edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who had three of Michigan’s seven sacks. “It felt like everything was going against us in that moment. They got the two-point (to tie the game), stopped us, strip sack, and we just kinda came together as a defense and said, ‘We’re not gonna let this ruin our hopes in the championship.’
“We came together, fought the adversity, got that stop, it was crucial.”
McNamara said the play of the defense gave the offensive confidence at that point.
“It makes us want to do well for them even more,” said McNamara, who was 19-of-29 for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Roman Wilson. “We know it’s our job to go down the field and score points. When they give us that extra momentum, it gives us more confidence to go do it even more.”
All had been hobbled by a high ankle sprain suffered late in the Michigan State game on Oct. 30. He was in uniform against Indiana last week but didn’t play. All said the ankle was at “80 percent” and woke up sore Saturday morning. He got loose during pre-game warmups and the adrenaline kicked in.
Harbaugh said they work the play quite a bit during practice but don’t call it much. They saw Penn State in man coverage.
“They had shown some man tendencies throughout the season on really big downs,” McNamara said. “Coach (Josh) Gattis had the perfect call for it. We anticipated it, we got it, and Erick made us right.”
“We were excited to call that one,” Harbaugh said. “Erick took a really perfect pass on the crossing route and circled the entire defense. They were out of leverage, and that was good for us.”
Harbaugh said this was just more evidence of the resolve of his team.
“This team doesn’t flinch,” Harbaugh said. “They don’t even bat an eye when stuff happens. You can see it in our defense when the turnover occurred and got the ball at the 16-yard line and held them again in the red zone, which was really good all day for our defense.
“Offensively, I could see the demeanor. You could see the offensive line, no flinching, you knew Hassan wouldn’t, Cornelius (Johnson) isn’t, Mike Sainristil’s not going to, either is Andrel (Anthony) or Roman. I know Cade’s not. I said, ‘Hey, Cade, you were born for this. Born for drives like this,’ and he went out and did what he does. Very cold-blooded. The guy made a good play with the sack fumble, but (McNamara) didn’t bat an eye. Just came back and took the team down the field for the winning drive.”
Harbaugh was particularly proud of the red-zone defense. Penn State pulled off a successful fake punt early in the game to keep alive a drive but came away with a field goal. On the Nittany Lions' next possession, they botched a fake field-goal attempt, and Vincent Gray forced the fumble and Dax Hill recovered. Penn State also missed a field goal attempt.
Wilson had touchdown catches of 21 and 1 yard for the Wolverines, his second score giving Michigan a 14-6 lead early in the third quarter.
But late in the game, and Michigan trailing, he said the team was focused on one thing while they played from behind, knowing how much the Wolverines needed the win.
“We felt it was our time to really prove that we’re a legit, elite team,” Wilson said. “That was the feeling on the sideline.”
Harbaugh would call that grit.