- Terra Molengraff/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 12, 2013
STATE COLLEGE — The ball danced through the night air and up into a blur of white and a glare of lights. Freshman cornerback Channing Stribling waited for it to come down near the one-yard line and so did Penn State’s Allen Robinson.
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It emerged from the glow, a loud and charging object close enough for Michigan to grab and put away, just like Penn State had been. Stribling jumped first but too quickly. As he came down, the ball slipping above his fingers, Robinson jumped and snatched it away. The crowd turned rapturous. One quarterback sneak later and the score was tied, thrusting the game into a frenzy and the Michigan football team into a four-overtime battle to claim not only the victory, but also some semblance of an identity in this timid, discordant half of a season.
After 55 minutes and 27 seconds full of failed opportunities, Michigan would have four more chances. Each time, Michigan’s decisions or execution exposed a team unsure of its personality. Each time, the Wolverines failed to convert
After the 43-40 loss to Penn State on Saturday in four overtimes, Michigan has reached the halfway point of the regular season. Each game peels off a new layer from this enigmatic team, yet after each game, the Wolverines know precious little more about themselves. Is Gardner more likely to throw for 300 yards or for three turnovers? Will the offensive line move anyone off the ball? Can the defense be elite? Definitive answers continue to elude.
Saturday, when the ball came down into Robinson’s hands with a minute left in regulation, the center fell apart and the game descended into a loud madness. Decisions presented themselves with remarkable speed. Here, teams rely on their strengths. What would Michigan rely on?
After six games, Michigan is a team without an identity. The offense isn’t sure what it is. The line was blown off the ball for much of the game. Even with Gardner extending drives with the scramble, the Wolverines still finished with 2.8 yards per attempt on the ground against Penn State. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint finished Saturday with 27 yards on 27 attempts, the lowest yardage for a back with that many carries in program history, according to Andy Reid of Rivals.com.
At times, the passing game has been a force. Gardner completed 15 passes against Penn State for 240 yards and three touchdowns. But constant turnovers make throwing the ball a dicey proposition. Gardner had three more of those Saturday.
With about 90 seconds remaining, Michigan had the ball within field-goal range on the Penn State 27-yard line after nine straight runs chewed up the clock. Score a field goal here, or get a first down, and it would render moot any late heroics from Robinson or Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. It was third-and-9 and Michigan faced a choice: go for the kill with a pass, or call a run and risk a 44-yard field goal.
The Wolverines hesitated and sent in the wrong play. Instead of calling a timeout, Michigan took a delay of game penalty. Instead of passing, Michigan called another run and lost another three yards. The 44-yard field goal became 52. Instead of risking that, Michigan called a pooch punt, which netted 15 yards.
The problem was, the defense, in its own way, is still looking to define itself. It’s close, but not yet a defensive juggernaut, like Michigan State, because the defense is incapable of generating big negative plays. The defense has bailed out the team more than once, but it is too young to be consistently dominant.
Penn State drove 80 yards in 29 seconds and made it look easy. Yet Michigan still had a chance to win before overtime. Gardner threw 25 yards to Gallon. Though Gallon stepped out of bounds with eight seconds left, Gardner spiked the ball, wasting a second. Gardner completed another pass for five yards. Now seven seconds remained.
But even the coaching staff suffered from an identity crisis against Penn State. Through more than two years, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has established a style of aggression. If he erred, he’d do it going for a fourth down instead of punting, going for the win instead of the tie. But when Michigan had the chance to ice the game for good, it turned to a running game that was doomed as soon as the play call came in.
“We had all kinds of opportunities at every position,” Hoke said. “As coaches we had opportunities.