UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The door opened and the noise from outside streamed in, fans lingering in the bowels of the stadium, still singing, “We are Penn State!”
Inside the visiting media room, Khaleke Hudson kept talking, his words juxtaposing the commotion outside. The senior VIPER spoke of Michigan’s defense, how it had given up too many big plays, how that was the difference in a 28-21 loss to Penn State on Saturday night.
“It was nothing that they did,” Hudson said. “It was not that they outschemed us or anything, it was just our mistakes that we made ourselves. Things we knew how to do. We just messed up.”
The Wolverines committed a few too many penalties. They didn’t play through their hips enough. Occasionally, their eyes landed in the wrong place.
Little things, yes. But Saturday’s game, especially the first half, was a display of how easily little things can turn into big things.
Michigan outgained the Nittany Lions by almost 150 yards. It had more first downs and a better third-down conversion rate. And it handily won the time of possession battle, with its offense on the field for over 15 minutes longer than Penn State’s.
Stats like that usually add up to a win, but there’s a reason the Nittany Lions ran so many fewer plays and scored more points. They had six plays of over 15 yards — including three of their four touchdowns — with three of those plays over 30 yards. Chunk plays only take up a few seconds. Meanwhile, intermittent offensive struggles, as the Wolverines had throughout the game, eat up clock.
“Big games like this, you can’t do anything wrong,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Cameron McGrone.
He was right. Michigan’s defense, for the most part, was very good Saturday. But it wasn’t perfect, and the big plays burned the Wolverines again and again.
McGrone’s theory was slightly different than Hudson’s, maintaining that, “it’s not that we did anything wrong, it was just, they outplayed us in that play.” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had yet another explanation.
In the first half, he said, the Wolverines got burned on one particular play — the slot fade route. That play worked to perfection on a 25-yard touchdown to star receiver KJ Hamler on third down in the second quarter. Michigan adjusted in the second half, but there, it was another mistake that cost it. Whether it was poor coaching, a lack of focus or being rattled by the raucous whiteout crowd, the Wolverines missed their defensive playcall.
With one minute left in the third quarter and the Nittany Lions on first down from Michigan’s 47, the Wolverines lined up in cover-zero, with senior safety Josh Metellus the lone player assigned to Hamler.
Hamler ran a post route straight past Metellus, caught Clifford’s pass in stride and motored into the end zone. The play put Penn State up by two scores and ended up being the deciding touchdown.
And while the play seemed to be on Metellus for his lack of speed, he shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. According to Harbaugh, the players missed a hand signal that would have told them the correct formation to be in.
“Didn’t get a call in there, KJ on a safety, and it was a huge play,” Harbaugh said. “(We) didn’t have the right defense, and the play was a good call, so we didn’t have a post safety.”
So in the end, it didn’t matter that Michigan gained 417 yards to the Nittany Lions’ 283. It didn’t matter that the defense had a good showing the rest of the night, with five tackles for loss and six three-and-outs.
All it took were a few missed assignments that turned into big plays, and that was all Penn State needed to send its fans home singing along to Zombie Nation.
“This game was just down to who made the big plays,” McGrone said. “And you see who won.”