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STATE COLLEGE — The inevitability had set in. 

After leading by eight points for more than a full quarter of play, the No. 6 Michigan football team found itself trailing. Moments earlier, Penn State had taken a three-point lead after a strip sack from defensive end Arnold Ebiketie led to a field goal. One drive before that, the Nittany Lions had converted on three fourth downs as part of a 15-play, 53-yard touchdown drive that tied the game. 

As junior quarterback Cade McNamara trotted onto the field for a comeback attempt with just under six minutes remaining, echoes of the Wolverines’ loss to Michigan State two weeks prior reverberated through Beaver Stadium. Michigan — especially Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan — couldn’t do it. It didn’t have the playmakers to pull out a comeback win on the road.  

And yet, it did. 

Six plays into perhaps the Wolverines’ season-defining drive, McNamara connected with junior tight end Erick All on a crossing route. As All cut up the field for what would become a 47-yard, game-winning touchdown reception, one thing became abundantly clear: 

This Michigan does have the playmakers. 

Despite the Wolverines’ struggles to put the game away throughout the second half, they made big plays — on both sides of the ball — when they most desperately needed them. In those situations where the Michigan teams of the last six years would have folded under pressure, the Wolverines found the ability to make game-changing plays. 

“I think we got the most talent in the Big Ten,” senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said. “Guys who stepped up this game and made a play.”

On the offensive side of the ball, McNamara was that playmaker. Regardless of any occasional missteps — he failed to connect on a few deep balls throughout the game — he made the right decisions and threw accurate balls when the offense needed him to. 

That was true even before the game-winning touchdown pass. Early in the second quarter, after the Wolverines failed to convert a single first down on their initial two drives, McNamara orchestrated a 15-play, 90-yard drive that consumed 7:30 minutes of game clock. Seventy-eight of those yards — including a 21-yard dart to sophomore receiver Roman Wilson for the touchdown — came through the air. 

“He threw the ball before I was even looking,” Wilson said. “That was probably the best ball I’ve seen — I mean, he throws a lot of good passes — but at least that I’ve caught from him. I mean, that was beautiful.”

On defense, too, Michigan’s playmakers stepped up when they were needed most. On Penn State’s opening possession, after a pair of runs from quarterback Sean Clifford and a successful fake punt put the Nittany Lions in prime scoring position, Hutchinson and freshman linebacker Junior Colson sacked Clifford to force a field goal. It was the defense’s third sack on that drive alone. 

In moments where the Wolverines’ offense continued to sputter, the defense continued to make plays. Hutchinson ended Penn State’s third drive with a strip sack; junior edge rusher David Ojabo did the same on the final possession of the first half. After McNamara’s fourth quarter fumble gave the Nittany Lions the ball at Michigan’s 16, fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins put a hit on Clifford that forced another field goal. 

The defense rarely gave Clifford the time to make plays of his own. When the dust settled, the Wolverines had tallied seven sacks. 

“It gives us confidence,” McNamara said. “It makes us want to do well for them even more. We know it’s our job to go down the field and score points, but when they give us that extra momentum, it just gives us more confidence to go do it even more.”

That playmaking on both sides reflects a message that Michigan has preached all year: complementary football. Time and again this season, the defense has picked up the offense in moments where it has struggled. In most scenarios, the offense has been there to do the same for the defense. 

It’s been visible throughout the season. It was most visible in Saturday’s game. It was even visible after the postgame press conference, when Hutchinson expressed his faith in McNamara as the two stood up to leave:

“That’s my quarterback!”