STATE COLLEGE — As the public-address announcer’s voice echoed throughout Beaver Stadium, the No. 12 Michigan football team streamed onto the field for postgame handshakes with wide smiles and a sense of purpose.
The announcer listed stats from the game, but the players weren’t listening. The 13 penalties, two turnovers and countless miscues mattered as little as the four touchdowns and margin of victory.
The Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 9-2 overall) had just defeated Penn State, 28-16, and all that mattered now was Ohio State.
Michigan overcame a slew of untimely penalties, a poor run game and a hostile Penn State crowd to not only win, but also keep its Big Ten Championship hopes alive.
“It was a great win,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The amount of players that contributed to this win was very higher — probably our highest total of the season. … There was a lot of guys sucking it up and playing good, winning football.”
Much of that good, winning football came from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock. After compiling 777 yards and eight touchdowns in the last two weeks, Rudock was back at it against the Nittany Lions (4-3, 7-4) on Saturday.
In a back-and-forth game, the reigning Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns on 25-for-38 passing. Both of his touchdowns came immediately after the defense allowed a score.
After the Nittany Lions scored a field goal on the opening drive, Rudock found junior tight end Jake Butt for a touchdown on the ensuing possession. Later, when Penn State took a 10-7 lead with a touchdown, Rudock connected with redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh for an 11-yard score to close the first half.
“Just finding a way,” Rudock said. “Scratching, itching, clawing, whatever you have to do to get points on the board. It’s what we have to do.”
With the performance, Rudock became the first quarterback in Michigan history to throw for 250 yards or more in three consecutive weeks.
As in recent games, the run game continued to struggle for the Wolverines. Five backs combined for just 87 yards on 30 carries, but senior fullback Sione Houma found the end zone after the Nittany Lions fumbled a punt, setting Michigan up for an easy score.
And with just over five minutes to go in the game and Penn State trailing just 21-16, junior running back De’Veon Smith scored from two yards out to provide the dagger Michigan needed.
Before that dagger came, the Wolverines’ defense continued to exhibit the big-play woes that have plagued it all month. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley broke loose for a 56-yard run on the game’s opening drive to set up a field goal, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg found receiver Saeed Blacknall for a 25-yard touchdown in the first half’s waning moments.
Michigan’s defense buckled down in the second half, however, ending the game with 10 tackles for loss and just 207 yards — including just 74 in the second half — allowed on 54 plays. In four trips to the red zone, Penn State mustered just nine points.
“It’s been remarkable the way our defense is playing, and I can’t imagine anyone’s playing any better,” Harbaugh said. “The amount of guys that stepped up was really a lot. … I’m really trying to single one guy out, but I can’t.”
With each defensive stop and ensuing score, the Wolverines quieted the crowd of 107,418 in Beaver Stadium. As the players left the field, the hundreds of Michigan fans that made the trip remained and began chanting “Beat Ohio.”
Michigan had conquered its latest opponent, and was on to the next week.
“Whenever you win a road game, you’re not just overcoming the other team, you’re overcoming the other team’s fans,” Harbaugh said. “That really makes you feel like a man when you do that.”
Despite the win, the Wolverines’ hopes of winning the Big Ten East took a hit on Saturday when, later in the afternoon, Michigan State defeated Ohio State in Columbus. Michigan’s path to the Big Ten Championship Game now hinges on not only a win over Buckeyes, but also Penn State upsetting the Spartans in East Lansing.
However, after a long and hectic season, the Wolverines can tune out the noise and focus solely on Ohio State. With wide smiles and a sense of purpose, Michigan’s dreams are still alive.
“It’s fun to be in this environment and this position,” Harbaugh said. “It’s fun to be in the playoffs. In our minds, we’ve been in it for weeks.
“We’re right where we want to be, and we’re playing for the championship.”