Smoke still drifted over the field at Beaver Stadium, a remnant of the pregame fireworks show. Fans clad all in white raised their pom-poms in unison, screaming as Penn State players gestured to get even louder. Amid the commotion, Michigan took the field.
Before running a single play, the Wolverines took a timeout, and everyone who’d seen Michigan play a game in the past five years said, “Here we go again.”
This team is known for going on the road and playing scared, and on that front, coach Jim Harbaugh is guilty until proven innocent.
In previous games, that’s manifested itself in the team completely crumbling after allowing an early score — like at Wisconsin, when it was 35-0 by halftime after the Badgers scored on their first possession.
But that’s not what happened Saturday, at least not quite.
This time, the players did about as much as you could’ve asked for after a slow start. Instead, it was Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis who panicked.
The Wolverines put together a first drive that was surprisingly good. Junior wide receivers Nico Collins and Tarik Black each had a catch — Collins’ for 17 yards and Black’s for seven. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson kept the ball himself on a read for two more after criticism he hadn’t done so enough.
Michigan stared the whiteout right in the face and drove into the Nittany Lions’ territory. For a minute, it looked like an offense that maybe really was hitting its stride.
It was fourth-and-1 from Penn State’s 47, the perfect time to be bold. The Wolverines could’ve sent a message that their pregame jitters were over, that the narratives weren’t true this time, that they were here to win.
Instead, the punt team came on the field.
“We were playing for field position, and we wanted to get the ball put inside the 15 or 10-yard line,” Harbaugh said. “Unfortunately, it went into the end zone.”
Playing for field position can be a legitimate strategy, but it’s one you use when you’re playing a team like Iowa, one that struggles to string big plays together. It’s what you do with a game you expect to be a 10-3 slog.
Anyone who thought that was where Saturday’s game was headed was deluding themselves. Penn State runs a pro-spread offense and has a playmaking receiver in KJ Hamler, who has at least one catch of 20-plus yards in every game this season. On Saturday alone, the Nittany Lions hit six plays for 15 or more yards. Against a team that moves the ball like that, field position doesn’t mean a lick.
Statistically, fourth-and-1 conversion rates are pretty high — Michigan did it itself with a Patterson quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter. A 2017 Football Study Hall report concluded that in college football, with just one yard to gain, it’s better to go for it than punt anywhere past a team’s own 43.
But decisions like this aren’t just about the analytics. Harbaugh’s been preaching all season that the offense was better than anyone had seen. Going for it would’ve been a manifestation of everything he’s been saying. Last week against the Illini, he did just that, converting a fourth-and-2 quarterback run in the fourth quarter that turned into a touchdown.
“We all knew that we wanted to get the first down and end the game on our terms,” Bell said after the Illinois game. It follows that Michigan would’ve wanted to start a game on its own terms, too.
One playcalling decision probably wouldn’t have been make-or-break, and the truth is, the Wolverines probably wouldn’t have scored a touchdown on that first drive. But at the end of the first half — after they had found the end zone and cut the deficit to two scores — Harbaugh opted to try a 58-yard field goal with Jake Moody instead of going for it on fourth-and-6. (He missed). Then, in the third quarter, Patterson appeared visibly frustrated when Harbaugh opted to punt on fourth-and-3 from the 50. (Michigan scored a touchdown on its next possession.)
“Thought we could make it,” Harbaugh said of the field goal attempt after the game. “Right at that line where we could make it and it’s a long field goal. It was that or go for it on fourth down, so we decided to kick the field goal.”
Yes, it was fourth-and-6. But Moody, while generally reliable, has never made a field goal longer than 48 yards. If the Wolverines were still playing for field position, kicking was probably the riskiest choice — and without the upside of rejuvenating the offense’s confidence.
In his Monday press conference, Harbaugh extolled Patterson’s virtues, calling his performance against Penn State “heroic” and reaffirming that he’d seen that potential all season.
“He’s excited about it, being in that atmosphere and playing that type of game,” Harbaugh said. “You could sense it from everything about him.”
And after Patterson had his best game of the season in the toughest possible environment, it was easy to believe. Except that, on the sidelines of Beaver Stadium, Harbaugh didn’t act like a coach who could sense Patterson’s enthusiasm.
Instead, he acted like a coach who was scared, who was doing damage control before there was any damage to speak of.
There is, of course, blame to go around for Saturday. The defense gave up too many big plays. Bell wasn’t the only wideout with a crucial drop. Patterson threw a costly interception on a screen pass attempt.
But on a day when the offense bucked the trend and fought back, a day when it showed that — at least after a shaky beginning — it wasn’t scared, Harbaugh seemed to abandon the trust he’d so steadfastly preached.
Sure, Michigan didn’t make the most of its chances until it was too late. But facing his best opportunity yet for the elusive big road win, Harbaugh didn’t give his team nearly enough of them.
Maybe he was the one rattled by the lights.
Gerson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.