Harbaugh’s five-season Michigan tenure, so loud at the beginning but so strangely muffled by now, looked primed for a shot at the jewel it has lacked: a storybook win to offset the storybook losses. Then Shea Patterson’s pass found its way to Ronnie Bell’s gut as a defender menaced just behind and Harbaugh’s arms went upward in celebration. Then it found its way out of Bell’s gut and onto the end zone floor as Harbaugh’s whole being sagged.
Then a good football player, Bell, had a good football cry on the sideline as No. 16 Michigan lost, 28-21, to No. 7 Penn State, to push Harbaugh to 1-10 at Michigan against top-10 opponents. That’s even after the Wolverines outgained the Nittany Lions 417-283 and clambered back from a 21-0 deficit, and did all that even before 110,669 on a night of the Penn State clothing tradition “White Out,” college football’s most notable homage to an antiquated office product.
“Ronnie’s a fierce competitor,” Patterson said. “He’s being pretty hard on himself right now” and, Patterson added, he “made a lot of great plays that got us into that situation.”
Michigan (5-2) reached that situation even after Penn State (7-0) came out of the tunnel looking like it had regenerated itself dazzlingly after its Saquon Barkley-Trace McSorley days, looking like a multifaceted dream on drives of 66, 64 and 49 yards. Michigan reached that final pass because the Penn State offense slowed after halftime, its yards-per-play fading from a gaudy seven to a right around a somber two, save for one play.
That play, quarterback Sean Clifford’s post-pattern pass of 53 lollipop yards to star KJ Hamler, who got awfully lonesome out on the prairie with 13:14 left to supply Penn State a 28-14 lead once Clifford’s throw reached Hamler’s gut. That play happened because, Hamler said, “That was just coverage recognition, basically, just me reading the coverage and picking the right route.” It happened because, Harbaugh said, “We didn’t have the right defense and the players didn’t get the call. We didn’t have a post safety.”
It happened while, the budding sophomore Clifford said, “I’m not going to lie, the ball hung up there for a very long time. You’re just looking at it and going, ‘Fall, fall, fall, fall fall.’ ” And it happened to epitomize what Penn State Coach James Franklin said about his tete-a-tete against that old chum Don Brown, Michigan’s defensive coordinator with whom Franklin coached at Maryland late last decade: “It really comes down to explosive plays with his defense. You’ve got to hit explosive plays.”
Because it happened, and just after the crowd sang “Sweet Caroline,” Penn State could withstand Michigan’s nine-play, 75-yard drive that followed and ended with Patterson’s sneak touchdown from the 1 on fourth down.
Another fourth down near that goal line would come, of course.
It would come at the curtain of a game in which Michigan, still straining for a tier of the sport it feels it can attain, wound up with 26 first downs to Penn State’s 14.
It out-possessed Penn State around 38 minutes to 22. It played with what Harbaugh kept extolling as “great character.” It got a more-than-competent show from Patterson, the second-year starter after his transfer from Ole Miss, the picture of battle afterward with eye black streaking across his chin, up his cheeks and onto his temples.
“We just kept pushing,” linebacker Khaleke Hudson said.
Yet it also would come after a night in which, Franklin stressed, Penn State won “the field-position battle, the turnover battle (by 0-1), the penalty battle (by 5-8).” It would come as the receiver from Michigan, Hamler, caught two touchdown passes and four others for 108 yards, and as first-year starting quarterback from Cincinnati, Clifford, threw three touchdowns and ran for another. As Franklin’s program extended to 38-9 over the last four seasons and 36-7 over its last 43 games, he said, “We played really good complementary football. We made big plays when it was needed,” including, of course: “That stop at the end was obviously critical.”
Long, long before that, the “White Out” crowd bamboozled Michigan at the get-go, actually helping force that rare football timeout before the first offensive play, with 15:00 remaining in the first quarter. Soon, on Penn State’s second possession, Clifford threw an artwork of a ball up the left sideline to Jahan Dotson for 37-yards, then a 17-yard floater beneath which tight end Pat Freiermuth materialized in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Michigan stalled on a fourth down at the Penn State 36-yard line, Penn State’s offensive line presented a hole large enough for a small herd of cattle to pass, and running back Ricky Slade tore through it for 44 yards, to arrange for two crafty Clifford runs, the latter a two-yard touchdown. Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields intercepted Patterson’s dud of a dying middle screen at the Michigan 37-yard line, and Penn State reached 21-0 on two top-notch passes to Hamler, the second covering 25 yards and landing in Hamler’s arms in the end zone.
Coverage-wise, the big plays owed to “eye violations,” Michigan linebacker Hudson said, citing defenders’ eyes which strayed from proper places. Yet from 21-0, Michigan started reinventing itself, constructing drives of 75 yards in the second quarter, 65 in the third and 75 in the fourth, until it all distilled to the 44-yard trip that wrapped up three yards shy of something long-sought.
That’s the latest ending that caused Harbaugh to state the need to “put steel in your spine,” and keep going, right after the game he loves so dearly gave him yet another diabolical boot.