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49 Random Thoughts on Michigan

Thoughts on a very fine weekend against the Wolverines

Heather Weikel

Last Saturday, the Penn State Nittany Lions hosted the Michigan Wolverines under the lights of Beaver Stadium. With the nation (and College GameDay) looking on, the Lions emerged victorious, 28-21. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:

  1. I know Ohio State has been the standard bearer for the Big Ten for nearly 20 years, and I know that they’re typically been the biggest game on the schedule. But I’d be lying if I told you I got as much enjoyment out of beating the Buckeyes as I get from beating That Team Up North.
  2. This past week was especially sweet for me. On Saturday, a close friend of mine from law school got married to a wonderful woman in Newport, Rhode Island. On its face, the only flaw is the conflict between game time and party time.
  3. Unfortunately for me, the groom (and his entire family) is from Michigan. He also went to Michigan.
  4. Needless to say, the Michigan contingent around me was sizable on Saturday evening.
  5. Fortunately for us, there was a decent Penn State crowd at the wedding, too. Not as big, but solid.
  6. I have to say, there’s little better than winning in hostile territory. Thankfully, my dude was a good sport about it. Of course, it was the best day of his life, so he made out pretty well in the deal either way.
  7. Congratulations, Woog and Emily! We’re looking forward to watching many more years of uncomfortable games together!
  8. Maybe where and how I viewed this game colored my perception of it in a positive light.
  9. My experience with Michigan since I started my freshman year probably also has something to do with it. In 2002, I watched us get hosed by the Referines. In 2005, from the 8th row in the corner, I watched Chad Henne end our dreams of an undefeated season. In 2007, I watched a team that lost to Appalachian State in the season opener win 14-9 against a solid, if unspectacular Nittany Lion team that played it conservatively.
  10. 9 straight wins, several heartbreaks. Say what you want about Ohio State, but it’s really Michigan that I’d like to beat every single year.
  11. Honestly, given that history, I was happy to escape with any semblance of a win with the crowd around me.
  12. But the broad reaction to this game surprised me. I don’t really understand it.
  13. This year, Michigan is a perfectly acceptable football team that was overrated at the start of the year because of the reputation of its coach.
  14. As a team, the Wolverines are fine. Realistically, they look a lot like some old Penn State team from the mid-aughts - a team that has a fair amount of talent that looks ready to click at any moment, but instead shoots themselves in the foot in multiple ways.
  15. Beating the Wolverines by 20+ was in play, as was evidenced by the initial 21-0 lead and Michigan’s earlier loss to Wisconsin. But that wasn’t likely. Blowouts shouldn’t be expected in games like these, recent history notwithstanding.
  16. Yes, there were several different ways that Michigan could have won this game. They could have made certain plays on offense. They could have prevented big plays on defense.
  17. But they didn’t. There’s a reason for that.
  18. They don’t make those plays. They haven’t all year, and they didn’t on Saturday.
  19. They did show some intestinal fortitude, and Shea Patterson tried to drag that team across the finish line in the 4th quarter. Tip of the cap to him, as he performed admirably after struggling through a tough first half.
  20. That said, Michigan ultimately didn’t show the skill needed to execute down the stretch against a comparably talented team.
  21. That’s not surprising, particularly when the game plan demanded that we take advantage of their flaws.
  22. Don Brown and his defense demand that you make big plays to beat them. “Chunk” plays. “Explosive” plays. He puts a premium on stopping the run and requires you to beat his secondary in one-on-one match-ups.
  23. Sean Clifford and his offense did that on multiple occasions. Because that’s how you beat Don Brown.
  24. Penn State started hot and sprinted out to an early lead. The offense lulled in the third quarter, then got back on track in the fourth.
  25. As far as I can tell, the Wolverines are getting far too much credit from Penn Staters, who extrapolated a single quarter of poor football into existential questions about the state of the program and whether this team is good enough to beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe.
  26. Spoiler alert: it’s probably not. No shame in that - most teams aren’t, just like most teams aren’t good enough to beat Penn State in Beaver Stadium.
  27. It’s odd, though. Penn State fans appear very concerned that Penn State’s struggles to close were reemerging in this contest. I understand the concern while the game is going on. On the other hand, I don’t really get the concern that Penn State couldn’t close overtaking the fact that they did, in fact, close this game out.
  28. To hear the “very concerned” crowd tell it, you’d think Penn State struggled and managed to fall backwards into a win.
  29. The actual game, though, tells a very different story. It was 21-7 at the half and they had a rough 3rd quarter. At the beginning of the 4th, it was 21-14, with momentum squarely on the Michigan side of the ball.
  30. So, of course, Sean Clifford leads a 7 play drive that ends in a 53 yard touchdown strike to KJ Hamler.
  31. Michigan manages to get back into it with another lengthy drive, but Penn State’s defense comes through on the goal line (we’ll get back to that in a minute).
  32. Penn State needs a single first down to salt the game away. They hand it to Noah Cain twice, getting 7 yards. Then on 3rd and 3, KJ Hamler lowers his head and shoulders and runs for 4 yards, locking down three kneel downs and a win.
  33. Possessions like that during virtually any loss during the last few years would have put us in the College Football Playoff. But maybe we’re having football’s version of Stockholm Syndrome. We closed the game out. Just be happy.
  34. Otherwise, much of the consternation appears to center on the use of two specific players - Noah Cain and Justin Shorter.
  35. Cain is a classic case study in patience. I know that everyone and their mother wants to see him get 30 carries. I think he’s excellent in the “four minute offense,” and we probably could have used him at some point in the third quarter to chew some clock and get the offense moving. But Penn State does have several good backs, each of which performs relatively well in certain situations. They should all play.
  36. Shorter is a particularly interesting case. I recognize that he was the number 1 receiver in his recruiting class and that much is expected from him. But before the critique, we should take a look at a good comparator - Chris Godwin.
  37. As a freshman, Godwin, now starring for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, caught 26 passes.
  38. Of note, 7 of those came in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, for 140 yards.
  39. Otherwise, Godwin caught 19 passes totaling 198 yards. Through the season’s first 7 games, he had 13 catches for just 112 yards.
  40. Shorter’s caught 8 balls this year. He’s looked very good during his time on the field. He plays hard, seems to run good routes, and is a good teammate.
  41. Penn State should target him more, unquestionably. But Clifford is still learning on the job himself and making better decisions week by week. Shorter is in his first year as a starter seeing substantial playing time. It takes time to build a rapport.
  42. Meanwhile, KJ Hamler has turned himself into one of the best receivers and most dynamic scoring threats in the country. Everyone complained about him not getting enough targets last year, but now we want to take the ball out of his hands?
  43. KJ Hamler isn’t the fullback traditionalists wanted, but he’s the one they deserve.
  44. God bless the White Out. That time out taken on the first play is a perfect example of why your home crowd matters so much.
  45. I’ll let Jim Harbaugh castigate the officials. Because obviously it’s Penn State who gets all the calls from these guys.
  46. #eyeroll
  47. In sum, life is good. 7-0 is 7-0.
  48. Now let’s not screw it up against Sparty.
  49. We Are...