For Michigan's offense, close isn't good enough in critical loss

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 1:04am

Michigan scored on just three of eight trips into Penn State territory in Saturday's loss.

Michigan scored on just three of eight trips into Penn State territory in Saturday's loss. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/DAily

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ronnie Bell stood in the middle of Penn State’s end zone, Shea Patterson’s pass floating toward his outstretched fingertips. A few yards away, Nick Eubanks started to raise his fists in celebration, because, somehow, Michigan’s season had a lifeblood.

The belief emanated for just long enough to make dreams seem tangible, something that felt impossible when Penn State led, 21-0, two quarters earlier.

Only, like it had been all game, fleeting hope turned out to be just that. Bell let the pass slip through his arms, Eubanks plastered his hands on his helmet in disbelief and 110,000 white pom-poms rose to the air in unison.

“That definitely didn’t take away the fact that (Bell) made a ton of great plays to put us into that situation,” Patterson said. “So, we’re just going to move on.”

The issue is what Michigan moves on to. The Wolverines’ three biggest rivals remain on the docket, but the season and all the goals they carried into it are gone, a 28-21 loss putting the final nail on a coffin that’s been steadily nearing the grave for the past seven weeks.

On Saturday, for the first time in more than a month, it felt as if that course may be reversible. Michigan’s offense put together its most coherent performance of the season, behind 276 passing yards from Patterson — the second-best total of his Wolverines’ career. “I thought the offense did a lot of really good things tonight,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

As a result, an offense that entered opposing territory nine total times in two previous games against ranked opponents did so eight times against the Nittany Lions. Yet, those lengthy drives too often ended without points. And, at the end, they had just 21 points and another loss to show for it.

“Of course it’s frustrating,” Ruiz said. “Like I said before, you can’t harp on situations like that. You’ve got to just keep executing, keep doing what you’ve got to do. That way, the next time you get in those situations you’ll score. We were in those situations a couple times (and) didn’t come up with a touchdown or any points. But, you know, it’s on to the next drive.”

To their credit, the Wolverines kept that mentality throughout.

When their first two trips across midfield ended in a third-and-1 stuff and a fourth-down incompletion, they came back three drives later and manufactured a eight-play, 75-yard drive to get on the scoreboard. A quarter later, they followed a punt from midfield with a run-heavy, 65-yard touchdown march.

Still, as the final pass fell to the ground through Bell’s arms, it was hard to not reflect on an evening of missed opportunities.

The blame spreads from execution to decision-making. The execution part is obvious — Bell’s drop will forever be the game’s — and maybe the season’s — defining moment. As for his decision-making on two punts from midfield, Harbaugh said, “we were playing for field position and we wanted to get the ball — put it inside the 15- or 10-yard line.” Both times, Penn State took over possession outside the 20.

The most confounding decision, though, came with Michigan facing a fourth-and-6 from the Nittany Lions’ 41 with 51 seconds left in a once-disastrous first half that sat on the precipice of rescue. Despite senior kicker Quinn Nordin — normally the first choice for long field goals — being unavailable, Harbaugh pulled his offense off the field to go for three.

“Thought we could make it,” Harbaugh said. “Was right at that line where we could make it. And it’s a long field goal, but it was either that or go for it on the fourth down.”

The kick fell five yards short, finishing a third fruitless drive into Penn State territory and setting the course for the Wolverines’ second loss.

“It’s just onto the next one,” Patterson said. “We’ve got a big game next week.”

As he spoke, the stream of fans outside Michigan’s media room drowned him out with chants of “We are Penn State,” a fitting end to a day when talk doesn’t matter anymore.