While Michigan’s offense marched down the field in the game’s final minute, defensive end Alan Branch stood by himself, away from his teammates near the student section.
With the Wolverines up by three late in the fourth quarter and Penn State driving into Michigan territory, Branch had a chance to stop Nittany Lions quarterback Michael Robinson on what turned out to be a three-yard touchdown draw.
“I was the first person who touched him,” Branch said. “I reached my arm out, but I didn’t have enough body to get him down. I was right there.”
That play gave Penn State a 25-21 lead with 58 seconds left.
Branch placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders.
So Branch stood alone, disappointed that he had let Robinson run right by him. That is, until Mario Manningham caught Chad Henne’s pass on the game’s final play. Then Branch’s melancholy turned into jubilation. Not knowing what to do, the sophomore “ran back and forth three or four times” before grabbing his helmet and joining his teammates to celebrate on the field.
The victory certainly took the sting off his missed tackle.
“It’s a lot easier when you win the game,” Branch said. “I’m going to look at the film in a completely different way now.”
Aside from Robinson’s scramble, Branch played well on Saturday in just his second start at defensive end. He recorded three tackles – including a stop on Penn State tailback Tony Hunt that forced the Nittany Lions to attempt a field goal on their opening drive – but lost containment on Robinson twice.
It was that type of day across the front seven. Michigan contained Robinson and the rest of Penn State’s playmakers for most of the game. But as they’ve done all season, the Wolverines gave up big plays in the contest’s critical moments.
Michigan let Robinson exceed his season averages through the air and on the ground – throwing for 239 yards on 19-of-34 passing while rushing for an additional 67 – and registered just one sack. But the Wolverines’ defense prevented the fifth-year senior from turning those yards into points until the fourth quarter. Then, in addition to a four-yard touchdown run three minutes into that frame, Robinson accounted for all 73 yards that Penn State gained on its final scoring drive.
“It was tough,” linebacker David Harris said of defending Robinson. “He’s a heck of an athlete. He can run better than most tailbacks. He can also throw the deep ball very well, so we just had to – try to contain him.”
Said rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley: “We just gave up big plays. And those big plays – they cost.”
Although Michigan’s propensity for giving up big plays is troubling – especially when it has to face Iowa quarterback Drew Tate this weekend – the defense did make a number of big stops of its own on Saturday. After the Wolverines tied the score at 18, Michigan’s defense prevented the Nittany Lions from crossing midfield on their ensuing series. Woodley sacked Robinson for a loss of eight yards to stop the drive at Penn State’s own 27-yard line.
Woodley’s four tackles for loss were the most in the game and as many as the Nittany Lions recorded as a team. The junior leads the Big Ten and ranks 16th in the nation with 14 tackles for loss this season.
But Woodley wouldn’t have forgiven himself or the rest of the defense if Michigan had lost the game.
“Instead of stopping Penn State, we ended up letting them score,” Woodley said. “We put our offense in that situation. The whole time they were down there, I was blaming the defense for getting bit in that situation.”
Manningham’s catch allowed the defense to forget about those mistakes – at least until they sit down to watch film.
“I’m not going to think about that right now,” Harris said with a smile after the game. “We won; that’s all that matters.”