STATE COLLEGE — It was late in the first half of Michigan’s game against No. 3 Penn State when redshirt junior Andre Criswell took the field as part of the Wolverines’ punt coverage team.
Michigan was leading 17-7 and was about to punt after going three-and-out for its third straight possession. Criswell ran down the field in coverage, but after the play he was called for a personal foul for a late hit on senior wide receiver Derrick Williams, who never even had the ball.
“I’m not really sure,” Criswell said when asked after the game if he thought his penalty turned the tables.
The infraction seemed innocuous enough, but it was the first costly mistake in a series of mishaps that eventually led to a 46-17 loss to the Nittany Lions, extending Michigan’s losing streak to three games, the program’s longest in-season streak since 1979. It was also Penn State’s first win over Michigan in the last 10 meetings, a drought dating back to 1997.
Michigan didn’t tackle well for most of the afternoon and the offense lost its rhythm early in the second quarter, but the team’s meltdown started with Criswell’s penalty.
Instead of taking over possession with two minutes left at its own 26-yard line, Penn State (4-0 Big Ten, 8-0 overall) started at its own 41. Quarterback Daryll Clark then orchestrated Penn State’s second touchdown drive of the game with just 23 seconds remaining in the half.
Michigan still went into halftime with a three-point lead, but the image of Clark leading his blue and white armada downfield became all too familiar as the game wore on. Penn State’s 46 points, coupled with a 45-20 loss to Illinois two weeks ago, makes this year’s Michigan squad the first in school history to allow 40 points or more twice in a season.
“We gave them our best shot for three quarters,” senior safety Brandon Harrison said. “Things just started to fall apart in that fourth quarter, we hung with them. We’ve just got to put everything together.”
But it would be a stretch to say Michigan (1-2 Big Ten, 2-5 overall) was really in the game going into the fourth quarter. Though Penn State led by just nine points after the third, it had so completely dominated after halftime that a Michigan comeback seemed entirely out of the question.
The Nittany Lions had eight first downs in the third quarter to Michigan’s two. The Wolverine offense, which had looked inept since the middle of the second quarter, suffered another setback when redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet re-aggravated an elbow injury and had to come out of the game.
With the score tied just halfway through the third quarter, backup Nick Sheridan came in to replace Threet. But he didn’t right the offense. Instead, things only worsened for Michigan. Starting at his own eight-yard line, Sheridan was sacked twice in a row, putting the ball at the five. On third down, he dropped back into the endzone and was sacked again for a safety. For the first time, Penn State had the lead, and the snowball just kept growing.
The blowout loss stung even more for Michigan because the afternoon started so surprisingly well, with the Wolverines jumping out to a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter. But when adjustments needed to be made, Penn State responded and Michigan didn’t.
“We had a few things planned for Penn State, they were working,” redshirt junior offensive lineman David Moosman said. “It felt great. Then it went awry. The best laid plans of mice and men…”
One of the reasons Michigan started the game so strongly was the performance of junior running back Brandon Minor. Minor, starting for the first time this season, scored two touchdowns in the first half and finished the game with 117 yards on 23 carries.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Minor got the start because he was close to 100 percent healthy for the first time all season and had practiced well all week leading up to the game.
But Minor’s early surge fell off by the fourth quarter. As much as Penn State dominated the third quarter, the final frame was even worse for Michigan. Penn State held the ball for nearly 10 minutes and outscored the Wolverines 20-0.
It was an ugly game in what’s quickly become an ugly season for Michigan. Some time in the future, this game may be a lesson in not letting the little mistakes snowball.
For now, it’s just another loss. The third in a row.