This game, moved from week 7 to week 4, was an opportunity for a statement on both teams on the field. On one side, you had the number four team in the country, the coach projected to take his team to the College Football Playoff on his second season with the team. On the other, you had a coach looking to silence the critics, with an opportunity to score a win against a top five team for the first time in his career, and for the first time since the team he took over had done the task in 1994. What you saw on the field today was pretty much what everyone expected.
Penn State found itself out of middle linebackers halfway into the first half, after backup Brandon Smith was ejected for targeting (yes, it was a bad call, no, I’m not going into detail), and third-stringer Jan Johnson went out with injury. The Nittany Lions were out of linebackers before the first half came to an end. Unsurprisingly, they also found themselves down 28 - 0 come halftime.
The defense, shorthanded as it was, needed everything it could get from the offense. That side of the ball, however, couldn’t do anything against a Michigan defense that suffocated Penn State’s offensive line all day, leaving little room to run and getting to Trace McSorley early and often.
The defense did some work in the second half. The offense, however, was reminiscent of those 2014 and 2015 offenses that just couldn’t get anything done regardless of what they tried. After a promising drive that ended in three points, the entire team looked dejected, ready to go home. The decision to kick a field goal on that drive was the admission that this game was over, and Franklin was simply trying to avoid the shutout.
There’s something to be said about the progress we saw on offense against the first three opponents, not to mention what we saw from Colorado against this same Michigan defense last week. Jourdan Lewis shouldn’t make this much of a difference against a team that was giving up chunk plays through the air. Most of us thought we had a blueprint on what to do this week to keep the Michigan defense on their heels, but things didn’t work out the way they planned. The pace was still slow. The blocking schemes still worked in Michigan’s favor. The receivers couldn’t get open. Barkley was is only one player.
On the other side of the ball, Harbaugh showed the relentlessness of a coach who knows what he has. Harbaugh elected to go for it on 4th down many times throughout the game, whether it was up 21, up 28, first quarter, third quarter, nothing stopped the Boogey man from putting his offense in the best position to succeed. And I don’t blame him. If I were in his position, looking to establish myself as a big dog in the Big Ten East, I would do the same.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this game, it’s that Penn State really needs help on defense. If the Lions don’t get some of the injured guys back pronto, this season goes from holding at 7-5 (with a potential upset to make it 8-4), to not making a bowl real quick. There’s nothing else you can gain from this outside of being dominated from a much better team on the road.
The silver lining is that Penn State didn’t turn the ball over until the game was well out of hand. Against a team not ranked fourth in the nation, maybe that will make a difference. For now, they can just go back home and lick their wounds.
Penn State faces Minnesota next week in a game that suddenly looks like it’s going to be a battle. Kickoff is set for 3:30 at a to be determined network.