First, Michigan lost to a Michigan State team in Year One of a new coach. Then it lost to a team it hadn’t lost to in 30 years. Then, a week after losing to Wisconsin in the biggest loss in Michigan Stadium history, it took three overtimes to beat conference bottom-feeder Rutgers.
On Saturday, the lows kept coming. This time, the Wolverines (2-4) handed Penn State (1-5) its first win of the season, 27-17, the second time this year a team’s first win came against Michigan.
A group of Nittany Lions took a picture on the field afterwards, an empty Big House behind them, the third team in three games to celebrate on the maize ‘M.’ The Wolverines were long gone from the field by then, left only with the crushing weight of another disappointment.
When Jim Harbaugh was asked after the game what his team’s mood was after the loss, he could conjure up just four words: “I mean, it’s disappointing.” At this point in a season full of questions, it’s one of the few answers Michigan has.
The Wolverines’ last gasp came on their second failed fourth-down attempt of the game with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter — a quarterback sneak with junior Joe Milton, who started the game as the backup quarterback, under center when he’d been in the shotgun practically every other play. Milton was stuffed. On Michigan’s first fourth-down attempt in the first quarter, sophomore Cade McNamara was nearly picked off on a passing attempt.
“In the first half, we just weren’t able to extend the drives,” Harbaugh said. “Had some third-and-short opportunities and then Penn State was able to convert their third-and-shorts, thought that was also, when I said we’re not getting the stop at the critical time and not getting the first down to sustain the drive offensively, that was a big part of the game.”
With Penn State’s top three running backs all out due to injuries, it found a new spark plug in true freshman Keyvone Lee. Lee finished with 134 yards on 22 carries, including 39 yards on the Nittany Lions’ opening drive, 44 yards on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that extended Penn State’s lead to 10 and 33 yards on the final drive of the game, in which the Nittany Lions drove deep into Michigan territory before opting to kneel out the clock.
Junior running back Hassan Haskins was a similar catalyst for Michigan, finishing with 101 yards on 17 attempts, including a 59-yard rush on a first-quarter touchdown drive. But the rest of the Wolverines’ offense seemed discombobulated — a problem only made worse by McNamara hurting his shoulder during a goal-line play in the first quarter, which caused problems all game and led Michigan to twice turn to Milton.
Both teams traded field goals in the third quarter after promising drives that stalled out. Then, the offenses found life in the fourth quarter. First it was the Wolverines, buoyed by an acrobatic catch by freshman wide receiver AJ Henning and topped off with a two-yard touchdown run by Haskins. Then the Nittany Lions followed with a touchdown of their own thanks to 49 rushing yards from Lee.
By then, it was too little, too late for Michigan.
The Wolverines’ chances of going even .500 are slipping away. A reporter asked after the game if Michigan’s players felt like their backs were up against the wall. But for that to happen, there would have to be some semblance of suspense, some semblance of something left to play for.
Senior tackle Andrew Stueber maintained that there was.
“We have the big team, OSU, at the end of the year,” he said. “And we just need to click on all cylinders and I think we’re in contention for that game. We’ve got Maryland too and so we’ve gotta come together, come every day and play.”
But the days have passed when the Wolverines have been true contenders against Ohio State, and even a win against Maryland (a team Penn State lost to) is no guarantee.
Every week, it seems, is a new basement for this program. Then the bottom falls out again.