With their backs up against the wall, facing a fourth straight loss and a likely losing season, Michigan put together a spirited effort in front of 113,000 strong and knocked off Penn State 18-13. Despite the glam of the lights, the game was far from pretty — for either team — but Michigan gutted out a much needed win.
Penn State’s offense came out buzzing in the first quarter, but not on the big arm of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Instead, it was with the legs of running back Bill Belton, who rushed for 51 yards in the first quarter after coming into the game with just 189 yards through the first five games. But Penn State managed just two Sam Ficken field goals on its first two possessions, from 35 yards and 32 yards out.
Michigan wasted no time putting points on the board, taking its first possession of the game 75 yards in six plays for a touchdown. On the drive, Michigan converted a 3rd-and-3 with a 14-yard pass to Amara Darboh, and three plays later, Gardner lofted up a deep ball for Devin Funchess. While it was in the air, it appeared to be an easy interception for the Penn State defensive back, but Funchess raced in front of him at the last minute, grabbed the ball and scored.
Michigan’s second possession, however, wasn’t as fortunate. After Penn State kicked its second field goal to pull within 7-6, Michigan started on its own 29. On 3rd-and-13, Gardner found Darboh again, this time for 21 yards. A Kyle Kalis holding penalty on the next play pushed Michigan back 10 yards, and two plays later, on 2nd-and-20, Gardner tried to lob a screen pass over the defender’s head. Instead, Penn State’s Anthony Zettel picked it off and returned it five yards to the Michigan 28. Penn State punched it in on 3rd-and-goal from the 10 when Hackenberg fired a laser to DaeSean Hamilton across the middle to take a 13-7 lead.
Michigan then put together an 11-play drive that included yet another Gardner-to-Darboh third down conversion, this time a 20-yarder on 3rd-and-11. But the drive stalled at the Penn State 28 and Michigan was forced to kick a field goal, which Matt Wile made from 45 yards out. Neither team was able to do anything the rest of the half, and Penn State took a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter was a display of poor offense from both teams as Michigan mustered just 53 total yards and Penn State just 41 in the quarter. But Michigan created the break it needed when, on 3rd-and-4 from the Penn State 32, Jourdan Lewis intercepted Hackenberg. Michigan’s offense was unable to pick up a first down with Russell Bellomy taking the snaps after Gardner left the game with an injured foot on the previous series. Wile converted a 42-yard field goal to tie the game at 13.
Michigan started the fourth quarter with possession at the Penn State 49 after forcing a 26-yard punt. On the second play, Gardner, who returned to the game with a considerable limp, connected with Dennis Norfleet along the left sideline for 24 yards. Yet again, the drive stalled, but Wile booted a 37-yard field goal to give Michigan a 16-13 lead.
The Michigan defense held strong after Penn State crossed midfield. Penn State punted it back to Michigan with 7:04 remaining. The Wolverines took to the ground to eat up the clock. Justice Hayes rushed for five yards and then four. On 3rd-and-1, De’Veon Smith moved the chains with a seven-yard run. After two more runs by Hayes and an incomplete pass on third down, Michigan was forced to punt, but it had eaten up half of the remaining time.
Penn State was called for an illegal block on the punt return, which gave the Nittany Lions possession on their own 8-yard line, needing to drive 92 yards with 3:44 remaining. Hackenberg completed a 17-yard pass on the first play, but was sacked by Jake Ryan two plays later and was called for intentional grounding. On 3rd-and-19 from the 16, Frank Clark sacked Hackenberg at the three, forcing 4th-and-32 with less than two minutes to play. Penn State head coach James Franklin elected to snap the punt out of the end zone for a safety rather than kick it back to Michigan or try to make an impossible conversion. That made the score 18-13 Michigan.
Penn State lined up for an onside kick and converted it, but Jesse Della Valle was flagged for offside on the kick and the Nittany Lions had to retry. This time, Blake Countess covered it up and Michigan was able to run out the clock.
Michigan’s defense held Penn State to a season-low 214 total yards and Hackenberg to a season-low 160 passing yards. Hackenberg completed 21-of-32 passes for one touchdown and one interception. Michigan’s defense also recorded six sacks, the most since the first game of 2008. With sack yardage included, Penn State managed just 54 yards rushing.
Offensively, Michigan totaled just 256 yards and only 64 on the ground, but Gardner was an efficient 16-of-24 for 192 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Bellomy threw just two passes and neither was completed. Funchess caught a team-high seven passes for 69 yards and a score, while Darboh caught four for 66. Smith led the way on the ground with 24 yards on 12 carries. Jake Ryan led the defense with 10 total tackles, three for loss, and one sack. Brennen Beyer recorded two sacks, while Clark and Ben Gedeon each had one, and Mario Ojemudia and Chris Wormley had a half a sack each.
Michigan is now 3-0 in night games at Michigan Stadium. Tonight’s win was the first home night game against a Big Ten foe. At 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, Michigan has a much-needed week off before traveling to East Lansing to face rival Michigan State (5-1, 2-0).