UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was all right there in Ronnie Bell’s hands.
The ball, hitting his jersey between the numbers as he leaned slightly forward. The game, a chance to erase a 21-point deficit and pave the way for overtime, hung there, too. The trajectory of a season — and maybe, just maybe, a chance to flip narratives and tilt the Michigan football program along its axis.
With just over two minutes left, facing a fourth-and-goal from the Penn State four-yard line, the hopes of a program handicapped by an inability to win games of this ilk, against opponents like this, in environments like these rested in Bell’s hands.
Then the ball hit the turf.
Penn State, buoyed by an early 21-0 lead and atmosphere unlike many in college sports, held on to beat Michigan, 28-21, as the Wolverines’ furious comeback came agonizingly short.
“Ronnie’s a fierce competitor,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson after the game. “He’s being pretty hard on himself right now. That definitely didn’t take away the fact that he made a ton of great plays to put us into that situation. So, we’re just going to move on.”
Amid the bevy of what-ifs, though, moving on won’t be easy.
What if Michigan’s hadn’t gone and allowed 21 points on the Nittany Lions’ first five drives, threatening to get swept away in the sea of white inside Beaver Stadium?
What if the Wolverines’ offense had capitalized on opportunities inside Penn State territory, instead of reflecting on four drives in opposing territory that ended scoreless?
What if those 50/50 plays — including multiple offensive pass interference calls and non-calls — turn in their favor?
What if that ball stays in Ronnie Bell’s hands?
“Of course it’s frustrating,” said junior center Cesar Ruiz. “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.
“… 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.”
Added sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone: “We gave up some key explosive plays in the beginning, and it came back to hurt us. Like a game like this, with a team as good as this, we can’t allow any explosive plays. We did that.”
Statistically, Michigan will reflect on the box score and feel it was the superior team. It outgained Penn State, 417-283; nearly doubled the Nittany Lions on first downs, 26-14; had close to 15 minutes greater time of possession; converted on third down at a higher rate, 41 percent to Penn State’s 30 percent.
Throughout most of the game, in the shadow of a seemingly-insurmountable deficit, though, it hardly felt that way.
“Yeah, it didn’t (go off the rails early), but our guys play with great effort and great character,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “… Made adjustments at halftime. They were good and I felt like our guys were not nervous. They were playing and executing. It felt like, just keep going and get this game won.
“That was our belief.”
Harbaugh came out of the halftime exuding that belief. Staring down a 14-point deficit and an eighth loss against ranked opponents on the road in nine attempts, Harbaugh told ESPN: “This will be our finest hour.”
With just over six minutes, Patterson and the Michigan offense had a chance to prove those words prophetic. They marched methodically inside the Penn State 10-yard line, the fans increasingly hushed, tension mounting. It all came down to a fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line, when Patterson found Bell flashing toward him. The ball hit the turf, and the ramifications soon came into focus.
The Wolverines are now 1-8 on the road against ranked opponents in the Harbaugh era. They are a middling 16-12 on the road in that span. With two Big Ten losses, their season, as they once envisioned it, is ostensibly over, if still not mathematically so.
When the clock ticked to an end, the final grain of sand falling through that hourglass, Harbaugh walked off the field with the rest of the team back into an all-too-familiar locker room setting.
His finest hour, once again, must wait.