STATE COLLEGE — Every time, it looks like the Michigan football team is at its breaking point. Every time, it looks like there’s no more room to push the Wolverines further up against the wall. And every time, they scratch and claw and push and find an extra inch.
That’s all they need. One inch.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan first explained it three weeks ago, after Michigan stopped Minnesota just shy of the goal line on the final play of the game on Oct. 31. That seemed like a close call, until the Wolverines were in the same position two weeks later — only this time in double overtime, exhausted by Indiana’s up-tempo offense, playing without redshirt junior nose tackle Ryan Glasgow.
Somehow, on Saturday, Michigan found itself in that position again. The Wolverines led, 21-13, with just over eight minutes to play in the game. Penn State was driving toward a game-tying score and two-point conversion. But the Nittany Lions had to get through Michigan’s wall first.
On 1st-and-goal from the six-yard line, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw a fade route at Michigan junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. That was a mistake. Lewis never gave him a chance.
On 2nd-and-goal from the six, the Nittany Lions gave it to running back Saquon Barkley on an outside handoff. That was a mistake, too. Barkley ran for the pylon, but Michigan senior safety Jarrod Wilson chased him down at the two-yard line.
On 3rd-and-goal from the two, Hackenberg threw again, this time well over the head of his intended receiver. That was a mistake, too. The Wolverines swarmed him and his receivers. The drive stalled, and Penn State kicked a field goal, never to have a chance like that again.
Several statistics separated Michigan and Penn State on Saturday, but look no further than this one: The Wolverines won by 12 points. Three times, they held the Nittany Lions to three instead of seven. There’s your ballgame.
It wasn’t a big difference. On Penn State’s three field goal drives, the Nittany Lions fell short of the end zone by a total of 13 yards. Add that to two at Indiana and one at Minnesota, and 16 yards could make the difference between playing for a Big Ten championship in two weeks or packing for a mid-tier bowl.
If you ask the Wolverines, they don’t even need 16 yards. All they need is an inch.
“It’s just a mindset,” said redshirt junior defensive end Chris Wormley. “You go out there, backs against the wall, and you know you have to hold them to three points or less.”
For most of the past three close games — excluding a 49-16 rout of Rutgers in the middle — Michigan has looked extremely beatable. At Minnesota and Indiana, lesser opponents gashed the Wolverines’ defense throughout the game. At Penn State, minor mistakes such as penalties finally seemed destined to cost them.
But in those small situations, they take their inch and they win the game with it. In those small situations, they look unbeatable. In the past four games, opponents have journeyed into the red zone 17 times and scored 14 times. Just two of them have been touchdowns.
After the Minnesota game, people criticized the Golden Gophers for running the ball into the teeth of the Michigan defense instead of spreading the field and trying to make a play. After the Indiana game, people criticized the Hoosiers for spreading the field and trying to make a play instead of running the ball into the teeth of the Michigan defense.
Finally, the Nittany Lions tried every which way to get into the end zone. They couldn’t do it.
You could still argue that each of those situations was mismanaged, but three of these games have passed now. Quarterback sneaks, short curl routes, wildcat formations, fade routes, inside runs, outside runs — opponents have tried everything. When you give this Michigan team an inch, you just can’t take it away.
Now, sometimes the Wolverines don’t even get an inch. The touchdown they gave up Saturday was on a 25-yard pass play when redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers was beaten on a deep route. No. 3 Ohio State, Michigan’s next opponent, has the weapons to burn them many, many more times than that.
But the Buckeyes would be wise not to give Michigan an inch to hold. They will likely be favored, but the Wolverines can earn a major shift in the rivalry. Give them an inch, and they just might take it a mile.