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42 Random Thoughts on Michigan

Random last words on...whatever that was

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions traveled to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines in a contest of American football. After a long slog, the Wolverines secured a substantial victory, 42-7. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below.

  1. It’s Wednesday, November 7th. Let these (and the comments below) be the final words written about this Michigan fiasco until October 13, 2019.
  2. And honestly, the less said about this game, the better.
  3. Repeat after me: this is a 9-3 team.
  4. “This is a 9-3 team.”
  5. “This is a 9-3 team.”
  6. (I mean, I’d like for them to prove me right this coming weekend by beating Wisconsin, but I’m holding steady on this for now)
  7. The optimism that came from the Iowa win two weeks ago was palpable, like a weight was lifted from the chest of this squad and the fanbase as a whole. That optimism seemed to carry over to Michigan predictions, where Penn Staters seemed to believe there was a legitimate opportunity to go on the road and secure a victory against a top 10 opponent.
  8. Even I got caught up in it to some extent - I didn’t expect to win, but I thought a good showing was certainly possible.
  9. Saturday showed that optimism to be......somewhat premature.
  10. Not that this game wasn’t competitive in stretches - it was. But the end result was lopsided and ugly.
  11. The story of this game was told in the first three drives of the game - two for Penn State, one for the Wolverines. After popping a big play to freshman star Pat Freiermuth to open things up, Michigan’s front seven completely disrupted the Nittany Lions offense. After Miles Sanders found no room to run on first down, the Nittany Lions proceeded to lose 24 yards on consecutive sacks by Chase Winovich (cut your hair) and Josh Uche before Blake Gillikin booted the ball to Michigan on the opposite side of the field.
  12. Michigan came back and did exactly what we all thought they would do - target our underperforming linebacker corps. They went right into the teeth of the defense with an 8-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in which they didn’t bother to throw a single pass.
  13. Ruh-oh.
  14. As an aside, if you actually take a look at that drive, Penn State did a fair amount right absent some specific breakdowns - one of the 50-yard run by Karan Higdon and one on Shea Patterson’s read option that ended in a touchdown. In both cases, Linebacker U’s linebackers were....uh....absent. That was enough to make you pull out your hair.
  15. So fine, Michigan’s up 7-0. It’s not like Penn State hasn’t seen teams have early success on the ground in the first quarter - see Pitt, Illinois, and Indiana, for starters. But it’s not like the Nittany Lions, led by superstar quarterback Trace McSorley, just weren’t going to score points of their own. Right?
  16. Right?
  17. Oh.
  18. The next drive was an encapsulation of all of the Nittany Lions’ problems this year on offense - mistakes, drops, and some bad luck on top of it. A false start by the line pushes Penn State back 5 yards. Brandon Polk “drops” a pass that comically ricocheted off him for a near-pick six, and McSorley appears to run for a first down, but slid a bit early and a bad spot led to Penn State’s first 3-and-out of the day.
  19. (How is it possible that in 2018, football still relies on officials to guess-spot the ball. McSorley got the first down on that drive, replay appeared to confirm, and instead he was spotted several feet short. The tech exists, can we use it? Please?)
  20. And so it went for the vast majority of the game, which saw Michigan run the ball and give Shea Patterson precious little to do except “manage the game,” and Penn State shoot itself in the foot.
  21. Do you know how many 3-and-outs Penn State had on the day? 5, plus two 4-play drives. Note that these numbers do not include those drives that ended in damaging turnovers, several of which were single- or two-play drives.
  22. Watching this game was one of the stranger experiences I’ve had as a college football fan. For the last two years, even when Penn State wasn’t scoring at will (which is has been doing often), the team was able to score on explosive plays. That’s even been true this year, through the magic of KJ Hamler and Miles Sanders. But Saturday’s game included minimal opportunities to do so, and Penn State failed to capitalize on those limited chances anyway.
  23. After seeing a squad that looks great on offense for years, this was a game that was meant to be played in 2006 or 2011 - Penn State has playmakers, but just can’t put together the right series to put points on the board.
  24. You have to give lots of credit to Michigan’s defense - they got to McSorley and made timely plays to prevent Penn State from moving the ball. This is a good team that did what they were supposed to do. Hats to to them.
  25. But still - there’s little excuse for a Penn State team this talented to score exactly nothing in the first half.
  26. 14-0 at the end of the half was actually not terrible and the game remained in striking distance. I got the feeling that one big play could change momentum. Unfortunately, that big play never came.
  27. Garrett Taylor continues to play head’s up ball. Smart play on the blocked field goal. That score doesn’t get called back and suddenly it’s 7-7 and Penn State is in business.
  28. Who doesn’t like seeing Quinn Nordin struggle against Penn State? Enjoy your sleepover.
  29. Trace McSorley missing DeAndre Thompkins on a long touchdown was a rarity, and another in a series of frustrations. When you play a defense this strong, you have to capitalize. Penn State didn’t do that.
  30. Lots of speculation that Trace is still hurt and incapable of running the offense as required. Trace has plenty of guts - he’s double tough and the kind of guy who will always give you everything he’s got. But if he’s actually hurt and can’t run the offense well, he needs to sit until he feels healthy.
  31. That said, it’s hard to tell how much of the underperformance by the offense is on McSorley’s possible injury versus Michigan’s stifling defense. I suspect we’ll know more this weekend, although I wish we didn’t have to wait to find out.
  32. Coming out of the half, the defense was impressive. Excellent stands. For everyone who keeps claiming that Michigan was running the football and stretching out drives as their ultimate game plan, keep in mind that Penn State’s defense forced three 3-and-outs and held Michigan to 31 yards on an eight play drive in the first half. This defense played well. The next step is for them to make splash plays that supplement the consistent solid play.
  33. Midway through the third quarter, 14-0 felt insurmountable, much as it might’ve in 2006 or 2011. When Michigan scored to go up 21-0, the game was functionally over but there was still an opportunity to make it look respectable.
  34. Then the Tommy Stevens pick happened.
  35. This isn’t an indictment of Tommy, or even of the coaching staff. I understand looking for a spark, and Tommy’s got the physicality and personality to provide that. But the interception turned touchdown on the road was a backbreaker. The rout was on, and it was inevitable that the final score would look something like 42-7, rather than something more “respectable,” like 31-17.
  36. That’s the perfect example of how energy, momentum, and personality can change a game. Michigan was well on its way to a boring double digit win in which Penn State might have scored some in garbage time. Instead, that interception changed the game’s entire dynamic.
  37. It’s a good reminder that these are still 18-22 year olds who aren’t necessarily mature enough to handle that kind of momentum swing like a professional would have.
  38. By and large, I found this fanbase handled this game well. Plenty of that has to do with having already lost 2 games and recognizing this as the “rebuilding year” it has always been. But seriously, could you imagine the meltdown if Penn State was 8-0, ranked second or third in the country, and lost 42-7? There’s a part of me that’s glad we didn’t see that.
  39. Michigan bothers me more than Ohio State. Agreed?
  40. Like I said earlier, the less said about this game the better. It was disappointing, but time to move on.
  41. On to Wisconsin.
  42. We are...