STATE COLLEGE — It was the impossible test waiting to happen.
Coming into a matchup against No. 2 Penn State, the No. 19 Michigan football team knew what it needed to do. Its top-ranked defense would likely be canceled out by the Nittany Lions’ ninth-ranked unit, so it would be up to its offense to play up to par with Penn State’s.
But matching the offensive firepower of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley is a tall task. Saturday night, in a 42-13 loss, it proved to be too much to ask.
The Nittany Lions entered the game averaging 39.7 points per game, while the Wolverines were averaging 27.2. Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn and junior running back Karan Higdon needed to lead the effort in closing the gap, but when Penn State hit them, Michigan couldn’t answer back.
The opening five minutes were a microcosm of the game as a whole. The Nittany Lion offense scored two touchdowns. The Wolverine offense went three-and-out twice.
They both ran six plays, but to completely different results.
On Penn State’s first drive, McSorley completed a six-yard pass and then Barkley took a direct snap 69 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
On Michigan’s initial drive, Higdon rushed twice for three yards before O’Korn was sacked for a loss of five.
For the Nittany Lions’ second act, Barkley rushed for five yards, McSorley rushed for 23, McSorley threw for 35 and Barkley ran the last 15 for another score.
For the Wolverines’ follow-up, Higdon rushed twice for three yards again before O’Korn completed a pass for a loss of six.
Where Penn State looked explosive, Michigan looked static. If it weren’t for a momentum-stopping interception from sophomore cornerback David Long, the Nittany Lions may have kept the ball rolling and the Wolverines may never have found life.
“I thought their offense played extremely well. Understatement,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They were hitting on all cylinders.”
Michigan responded to the pick with a renewed sense of vigor, scoring 14 unanswered points in the second quarter.
On the first scoring drive, O’Korn threw for 21 yards and rushed for 12, while Higdon rushed for 12 and the touchdown.
On the second, O’Korn passed for 41 yards and rushed for 14, while fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac rushed for 11 and the score.
With 1:45 left in the first half, the Wolverines had managed to cut their deficit to 14-13. It looked like Michigan’s offense could go toe-to-toe with Penn State’s despite the early shot to the face.
But in a mere 52 seconds, McSorley and Barkley showed why the Nittany Lions are on a level the Wolverines haven’t reached.
McSorley completed a 12-yard pass and then a 36-yard bomb. Barkley ran for another nine. And then McSorley sealed the deal with a 17-yard completion and a three-yard rush up the middle.
With 53 seconds left in the half, Penn State stretched its lead back out to eight. Michigan didn’t score again Saturday.
“To me, that was the biggest thing,” O’Korn said. “They made the big plays and we didn’t.”
After the Wolverines went three and out again, the Nittany Lions got the ball back with six seconds left. They had enough time to take a deep shot at the end zone. With the success of their big plays on the night, it would have been expected for them to at least try.
They took a knee instead. Michigan didn’t give them a reason why they shouldn’t.
Penn State went on to score a total of 42 points, which is the most the Wolverine defense has given up under coordinator Don Brown. After the game, fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray spoke on behalf on his unit. He was at a loss for words.
“(It was) pretty much everything we’ve seen,” he said. “They had a great scheme.”
That pretty much said it all. Michigan’s defense couldn’t contain the Nittany Lions’ offense, despite knowing what was coming. But just as importantly, the Wolverines’ offense couldn’t match up with it.
Michigan brought a knife to a gun fight, and after taking multiple shots, the Wolverines simply couldn’t get up.