Lions savor victory over Michigan
By Philip Cmor
UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin met with the media and uttered a phrase similar to one he’s said after every game as Penn State football coach, albeit a little later in the evening because of the late kickoff.
He asked for the time. It was 11:23 p.m.
“So we’ve got 37 minutes to enjoy this win. I’m not talking about the next opponent and enjoy the heck out of this win for 37 minutes,” Franklin said.
You get the feeling Franklin and his Lions were going to savor that 37 minutes. It seemed they’d waited a year for it.
Michigan embarrassed the Lions last year in Ann Arbor, winning by 39 points. Now, the shoe was on the other foot, and Penn State was laser-focused in Saturday night’s 42-13 rout of the visiting Wolverines in the return match at Beaver Stadium.
“I think we definitely played with a chip on our shoulder, being the result of last year,” said linebacker Jason Cabinda, who made 13 tackles and forced a fumble.
You could see it in Cabinda’s demeanor in the closing minutes, as he watched the second and third team defense try to thwart Michigan’s final drive with the same kind of intensity he might have in the second quarter of a tie game, not one with the teams separated by 29 points.
Or you could see it in Saquon Barkley’s visage. Usually jovial on the sideline when the winner has been determined, he didn’t crack a smile until partway into the on-field interview after the game.
And there was Trace McSorley, fighting and pushing his way the final 2 yards to complete a 9-yard touchdown run that set the final with a little less than half a quarter to play.
“We definitely came in focused and determined to play our best game,” defensive tackle Kevin Givens said. “Last year, we felt that that wasn’t our best game, going up to Michigan. We wanted to show everybody that that wasn’t what Penn State was.”
Penn State didn’t try to run it up, but they didn’t exactly let up on the pedal either, snapping the ball for one last attempt to add another touchdown with 3 seconds on the clock.
Had the Nittany Lions scored there, it would have been the most lopsided defeat Michigan has sustained since Jim Harbaugh became coach — the Wolverines lost to Ohio State by an identical 42-13 count in 2015.
“During the week, not so much, but we said it a couple of times tonight, getting juices flowing. That’s a quick way of getting guys going,” McSorley said of using the 2016 loss as motivation. “Towards the end of the game, we brought it up. It wasn’t necessarily, ‘let’s put it on them.’ It was more ‘let’s keep working, let’s keep doing what we’re doing, let’s not let up.'”
Since the Buckeyes squashed Michigan that day, the Wolverines had lost four times by a total of nine points. This one really wasn’t going to be in doubt, though, after Penn State shrugged off Michigan’s second-quarter comeback attempt and pushed the lead back to 28-13 in the third quarter.
The Lions carved up Michigan’s vaunted defense, scoring more points in a half than the Wolverines had allowed in any game this season. Penn State more than doubled Michigan’s yards-against average coming in.
Senior guard Brendan Mahon said this was an opportunity to leave a receipt that the Lions weren’t about to let slip away.
“One hundred percent,” Mahon said. “They were coming into our house. Seven-thirty game. We don’t want to disappoint all these fans. We filled the place with 110,000 crazy Penn State fans. It’s a hard environment to play in for Michigan’s offense. The fans helped.”
Penn State was at a big disadvantage the last time the teams met, with six defensive starters out. Then Brandon Smith got thrown out for targeting and walk-on Jan Johnson was injured.
This time, it was Michigan playing on the road with a plethora of new starters. There was no Jabrill Peppers out there for the Wolverines this time. The star power and experience were on Penn State’s side, as were the memories.
“I think (last year’s game) made a huge impact,” defensive lineman Ryan Buchholz said. “The starters and the guys who played a lot, it was pretty hard on them. After that, we were pretty determined to make a comeback.”
The Lions have done that and more. That was Penn State’s last regular-season loss, winning 15 straight after the debacle in Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions have risen from the ashes and now are the second-ranked team in the country heading into a showdown with Ohio State in Columbus next week.
The rout at Michigan might very well have been the spark that triggered the rebirth of Penn State football as a national power.
“That game was rock bottom,” McSorely said. “Everyone was embarrassed. We thought we had been working hard then entire time. To have it end like that was tough to swallow. We had to swallow our pride and realize we weren’t working to the standard we needed to be. We wanted to compete at the highest level in the Big Ten, which, at that time, was where Michigan was.
“You can’t just turn it on on Saturdays. It has to start on Sundays and Mondays. Since then, we really embraced that.”
And, on Saturday, that embrace settled an old score showing the wounds have healed in a positive way.