HAPPY VALLEY — Saquon Barkley took the direct snap, cut away from the teeth of the defense and ran off into the night.
All week, Michigan’s vaunted defense was billed as a potential roadblock for one of the nation’s most electric players.
Barkley stomped all over that notion on the second play from scrimmage.
On a play where he and Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley swapped spots in the backfield, Barkley made it clear the Wolverines wouldn’t dictate the terms Saturday night. He ran it right at them — and then blew right past them for a tone-setting touchdown in the Nittany Lions’ 42-13 win in Happy Valley. The loss dashed any realistic Big Ten title hopes for Michigan and closed the curtain on any pretense that 2017 wouldn’t be a rebuilding year.
“They made the big plays,” said Wolverines’ quarterback John O’Korn, “and we didn’t.”
Michigan’s top-ranked defense entered Saturday having shut down any and all comers. But none of those teams had McSorley or Barkley.
Before Saturday, the Wolverines allowed an average of 85.8 rushing yards per game. It took Barkley three carries to eclipse that.
Michigan entered the game with the nation’s second-ranked passing defense. McSorley threw for 282 yards and one touchdown, while also rushing for 76 yards and three more scores.
The two were dangerous on their own. McSorley hit tight windows all night, exposing Michigan’s secondary for the first time all year. Barkley was simply unstoppable, averaging over seven yards per carry while leaving defenders grasping at air.
The Wolverines had no answer when the two worked in tandem, either. On the second drive, McSorley drew a defender in before pitching the ball to Barkley, who waltzed in for a score. Later, in the third quarter, McSorley saw a linebacker isolated in coverage and lofted a ball down the sideline into Barkley’s hands for a 42-yard touchdown.
“I thought their offense played extremely well — (that’s an) understatement,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They were hitting on all cylinders. Their back (Barkley) is really good, as advertised, and the quarterback, McSorley, played extremely well. Quarterback was hot and receivers made plays downfield. It was impressive.”
There was a slight glimmer of hope in the second quarter, when cornerback David Long intercepted an errant McSorley pass. Michigan drove down the field, capping off an impressive 59-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown from running back Karan Higdon on 4th-and-goal.
Two possessions later, running back Ty Isaac followed his blockers into the endzone, cutting Penn State’s lead to one point and temporarily quieting the home crowd.
The Wolverines wouldn’t score again.
Led by McSorley, Penn State put together an impressive response. A well-placed throw to DaeSean Hamilton picked up 36 yards. A back-shoulder fade to Gesicki gained 17. And then McSorley kept it himself and ran in unscathed for a three-yard touchdown that stretched the lead back to eight entering halftime.
As the Nittany Lions picked up steam, Michigan’s offense ran out of gas. Dropped passes, missed blocking assignments and poorly-timed penalties ended several promising drives.
McSorley continued dealing, Penn State’s defense clamped down and the rout was on.
After the game, O’Korn drew a comparison. Last fall, it was the Nittany Lions who were left reeling after a blowout loss at the hands of the Wolverines.
That Penn State team would go on to win the Big Ten. This Michigan team, O’Korn argued, could do the same.
But with two devastating losses in conference play already, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where the Wolverines still accomplish their preseason goals.
Contenders don’t usually get third chances after they’ve already been knocked out twice. Michigan’s season was irreparably damaged by its loss Saturday night, and based on cornerback Lavert Hill’s glum reaction, it’s safe to say many Wolverines already understand that.
When asked what he had left to play for, Hill didn’t mention a Big Ten Championship or the College Football Playoff.
He and his teammates have nothing left to play out but the string — and that’s a cold, unfamiliar reality that the Wolverines will have to learn how to deal with for the rest of the year.