STATE COLLEGE With just over a minute to play in the first half on Saturday, Penn State found itself in a position it could have only dreamed to be in.
The winless Nittany Lions were prohibitive underdogs against Michigan, even though the game was being played at Beaver Stadium in front of over 100,000 Penn State supporters. Most observers expected the seemingly hapless Lions to get run over by Michigan, which entered the game ranked No. 15 and looked to have a far superior team.
But, as the first half wound down, Penn State was in an unimaginable spot it was only trailing mighty Michigan 6-0.
Despite a freshman quarterback, a nonexistent running game and butter-fingered receivers, Penn State hung around with the Wolverines and looked poised to go into the lockerroom with a chance to pull a huge upset.
But, right when it looked like the Nittany Lions were in good shape, the roof caved in on Michigan”s final drive of the first half.
After taking over the ball on their own 20-yard line, the Wolverines used their patented two-minute offense to drive 80 yards in 9 plays in just 55 seconds. Michigan cashed in on its opportunity when quarterback John Navarre fired a 16-yard pass to Marquise Walker, who made a spectacular leaping catch in the end zone with just 12 seconds left in the half.
Just like that, the Wolverines were up 13-0, and the wind was gone from Penn State”s sail. When Michigan scored on its first possession of the second half, the Wolverines had a 20-0 lead, and the game was all but over.
“It should not have been the end of the game,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “We should have been able to get back in it.”
Even though it came into the game with lots of doubters and little confidence, Penn State played inspired football throughout most of the first half, especially on defense. Before scoring a touchdown, Michigan drove inside Penn State”s 20-yard line on four possessions and only came away with two field goals.
Despite a total lack of offense thanks in no small part to numerous dropped passes Penn State was very much in the game when Michigan got the ball with 1:07 left in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions” pass rush had gotten to Navarre on a few occasions, and the Beaver Stadium crowd was starting to get excited about a potentially huge upset.
Just 55 seconds later, the silence in Happy Valley was deafening.
“It was a huge momentum swing in the game,” Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes said. “Personally, I was a little disappointed. We kept coming after Navarre, but he kept releasing the ball too quickly. It”s frustrating, because there”s nothing much you can do.”
For a team with such a fragile psyche, the score just before halftime was devastating. Michigan got the ball to open the second half, and when Navarre hit Ron Bellamy in stride with a 53-yard touchdown strike, the fight went out of the tenacious, but overmatched, Nittany Lions.
“We had been stopping them earlier in the game, “Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Adams said. “We held them to only two field goals and then gave up that last score.
“I didn”t give up hope after that, but it”s really rough.”