STATE COLLEGE — On Michigan’s first possession of its 41-31 loss to Penn State in Happy Valley on Saturday, the Wolverine offense went three-and-out.
And with the way Michigan’s defense has played this year, that may as well have been the game.
The defense allowed 435 total yards to the Nittany Lions (2-2 Big Ten, 5-3 overall), paving the way for senior running back Evan Royster to run for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Matthew McGloin, Penn State’s third-string quarterback who was playing because of injuries to starting quarterback Robert Bolden and backup Kevin Newsome, passed for 250 yards and a touchdown.
McGloin kept it simple, completing mostly screen passes and short crossing routes that went for big yardage because players in Michigan’s secondary were caught out of position.
“I know they executed well,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said after the game. “It didn’t seem like we did a real good job of getting off blocks, we missed some tackles.”
The coaching staff made some changes in the secondary, including playing freshman Ray Vinopal at safety and moving redshirt freshman Cam Gordon to the spur position.
But the changes didn’t seem to make much difference in the end result. Michigan’s defense was just too young and too inexperienced.
“We’ve got a few upperclassmen that are really trying as hard as they can defensively, and sometimes our youth gets picked on somewhat, but our young guys gotta grow up in a hurry,” Rodriguez said. “You can try to accelerate the maturation process, but when you look out there and there’s five or six first-time starters and three or four true freshmen out there, at some point we’ve got to grow up and be aggressive and roll with it.”
Penn State scored on its first possession, running Royster straight to the end zone for the game’s first touchdown.
Michigan (1-3, 5-3) answered, capping a nine-play drive with a 32-yard touchdown run from sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson looked to be the healthiest he’s been in weeks running the ball, but the coaches said his shoulder was still bothering him a bit.
Near the end of the first quarter, Robinson was knocked out of the game briefly when he hurt his hip getting tackled out-of-bounds. Sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier entered the game for the remainder of the drive, which ended in a pooch punt.
The Nittany Lions made some big plays and Royster finished with a one-yard touchdown run to put Penn State up 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Michigan’s defense forced its first punt in the second quarter and the Wolverines came back with a 37-yard field goal from redshirt freshman Seth Broekhuizen to come within four.
Penn State then widened the gap considerably, scoring 14 unanswered points to end the half. The Wolverines were looking at a 28-10 deficit entering the break.
“I challenged (the defense) at halftime,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to look closely to see what you all do, and they kept playing hard … Again, you’re in a tough environment against a pretty good football team, you’ve got to make some plays.”
After a Penn State field goal to start the second half, Michigan scored on a 60-yard bomb from Robinson to junior tight end Kevin Koger to make the score 31-17 in favor of the Nittany Lions.
“I just ran down the seam, Shoe started to scramble and everyone came up to defend the run,” Koger said. “And he saw me at the last second and gathered himself and threw me a perfect pass.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, despite the offense’s awakening, the defense couldn’t get the key stop they needed to get back in the game. After being helped by a defensive holding penalty on Michigan, the Nittany Lions scored on a five-yard run by sophomore Michael Zordich.
The offense answered once again on a sneak by Robinson after a sustained drive to bring the Wolverines to within two touchdowns.
Rodriguez got in the face of his defense before they went back on the field after Robinson’s score. He knew if the unit got a stop there, the offense had a good chance of making it a one-touchdown game.
“We were at the point where we had a little momentum in the game and needed a key stop,” Rodriguez said. “And I was talking to the guys a little bit.”
Whatever he said, it worked. The defense forced a punt for the first time since the beginning of the second quarter.
Robinson held up his end of the bargain, leading the Wolverine offense on an 11-play drive, culminating in a four-yard touchdown run, the sophomore’s third rushing touchdown of the game.
“That Robinson kid is a heck of a football player,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said after the game.
Robinson’s score brought the game to within a touchdown, the Wolverines’ smallest deficit since the first quarter. But the Nittany Lions took the field on their next drive and kicked a field goal, making it a two-score game once again.
With one last chance to bring it to within a score, Michigan went three-and-out and Penn State ran the clock out to end the game.
The struggles on defense overshadowed another impressive performance from Robinson, who ended the game with 381 total yards and four touchdowns.
The loss leaves Michigan with an uphill battle in the Big Ten and still looking for answers on defense. But with most of the mistakes on defense being attributed to youth, it appears the unit can do little but try to grow up in a hurry.
Either way, Robinson said the loss won’t make the Wolverines panic.
“We’re a team, we’re a family,” Robinson said. “You can’t break a family even though there’s going to be some downs and outs. You don’t break a family.”