STATE COLLEGE — The last time the Michigan football team traveled to Happy Valley, its dreams fell to the turf with a season-shattering drop in 2019.
On Saturday, the sixth-ranked Wolverines (9-1 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) once again took the field at Beaver Stadium with everything to play for. A trip to the Big Ten title game and a College Football Playoff berth have eluded Jim Harbaugh since returning to Ann Arbor in 2015, but Michigan players and coaches have spent this fall insisting the 2021 team is different.
But as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
And after Saturday’s 21-17 win over Penn State (6-4, 3-4), the Wolverines left State College with their season goals intact. It’s the exact sort of high-stakes, late-season setting where previous Michigan teams have faltered.
“We’ve understood that’s been the case for a long time,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara, who finished with 217 yards and three touchdowns, said. “We know we were going to figure out whether this team was different in all the work we’ve been putting in to change the culture of this team. It’s going to show when we’re facing moments like this. I think we’ve proven again that we’re different.”
After coughing up a 14-6 lead with less than eight minutes to play, Michigan found itself in a familiar spot. In its last crucial road game, the team entered the fourth quarter with a similar eight-point lead in East Lansing just two weeks ago.
The Wolverines blew that lead en route to a monumental collapse, and when the Nittany Lions tied Saturday’s game down the stretch, it appeared Michigan was careening toward the same result.
All season, the Wolverines have taken pride in remaining composed. Against the Spartans, however, things unraveled quickly. They insisted it’d be a learning experience, a lesson in how to finish games.
Faced with the same situation against Penn State, Michigan had a chance to retake the lead after the Nittany Lions’ game-tying drive. But instead, the Wolverines gave the ball right back to Penn State after a strip sack inside their own 15-yard-line. It took less than a minute for Michigan’s defense to hold the Nittany Lions to a short field goal, but nonetheless, the Wolverines found themselves staring down their first deficit of the second half.
“It felt like everything was going against us in that moment,” senior edge Aidan Hutchinson said. “They got the (touchdown), two-point, stopped us, strip sack. We came together as a defense, and we’re not going to let that ruin our hopes of a championship. We came together, fought that adversity and got that stop. It was crucial.”
Unlike their downfall in East Lansing, the Wolverines had a response this time. McNamara threw a crossing route over the middle to junior tight end Erick All, who took it the rest of the way for a go-ahead 47-yard touchdown. As All stumbled over the pylon, Michigan seized the lead and a hush fell over Beaver Stadium.
“I was real confident they would (score),” Harbaugh said. “This team doesn’t flinch, they don’t even bat an eye when stuff happens.”
Michigan’s offense took care of business in crunch time. The Wolverines knew the pendulum would swing one way or the other based on whether their defense could follow suit.
After allowing three fourth-down conversions in the second half, the Wolverines found ways to keep Penn State off the scoreboard when it mattered most. That success was rooted in the pass rush, which saw Hutchinson and junior edge David Ojabo both get to the quarterback multiple times and force a fumble apiece. Hutchinson and Ojabo each reached the 10-sack mark on Saturday, becoming the first duo in Michigan history to achieve that feat in the same season.
In total, the Wolverines finished with seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
“This is one of those games where we knew they hold the ball and the (pass-rush) opportunities will be there,” Hutchinson said. “You’ve just got to take advantage of them, and I think we did.”
Anchored by strong man coverage and a dominant pass rush, Michigan held the Nittany Lions to just nine yards on their final possession. Penn State tried throwing a ball over the top on fourth-and-1, but the well-covered wheel route fell incomplete.
And with it, the Wolverines proved their actions and words are finally on the same page.
“This is a great win,” Harbaugh said. “No doubt this team is full of all the championship qualities in guys, in football players. They were born to do this. They approach it like, ‘We’re born for these kinds of days.’ ”