Offense, special teams spell doom for Lions
By Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK – It takes a total team effort – playing well in every facet – to beat the No. 12 team in the country.
It usually can’t be done by with a bad red zone offense.
It usually can’t be done with lousy special teams play.
Those are the two biggest reasons Penn State couldn’t pull off the upset Saturday against a Michigan team that kept shooting itself in the foot and was ripe for the picking.
The Wolverines escaped Beaver Stadium and held onto their hopes of a Big Ten East title with a 28-16 win over the Nittany Lions. A crowd of 107,418 watched the PSU seniors play the final home game of their careers, plus most likely the final home game of quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s career.
And for the umpteenth time in recent years, the fans had to witness excruciatingly disappointing efforts on special teams and in the red zone in a game that was very much winnable.
“The biggest mistake was not capitalizing on the red zone,” tight end Brent Wilkerson said. “We took field goals instead of touchdowns, and we didn’t score a touchdown in the red zone.”
The Lions’ special teams also botched two big plays that led directly to 14 points for the Wolverines. A fumbled punt deep in PSU territory led to a first-half touchdown, and poor coverage on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter helped set up a Michigan TD that sealed the victory.
“It was a great win,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said after his first game as a coach at Beaver Stadium. “The amount of players that we had contribute to this win was very high, maybe the highest of the season.”
“That’s a good football team,” PSU coach James Franklin said of Michigan. “They made fewer mistakes than we did today.?Barely.
The Wolverines committed 13 penalties for 117 yards, including a handful of antsy offsides miscues and several mistakes in the secondary. Every time it seemed like the visitors were ready to pull away, they made another mistake that helped the Lions hang around.
Penn State just wasn’t good enough to make Michigan pay.
“We’ve got to score TDs in the red zone,” Franklin said. “We were not able to run the ball in the red zone consistently today.”
That started from the outset, after Saquon Barkley broke free for 56 yards on the second play from scrimmage to set up first-and-goal at the 9. Hackenberg checked into a run play at the line of scrimmage on that play, and it worked, but he tried to do it three more times inside the 10, and Barkley was stuffed.
Tyler Davis kicked a 23-yard field goal, but that was a big missed opportunity. The Lions found themselves trailing when Michigan answered with an 89-yard TD drive.
Penn State’s offense struggled for the rest of the first half, until Von Walker came up with a big special teams play with a blocked a punt. The Lions (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) took over at the Michigan 42, and on third-and-6 from the 25, Hackenberg hit Saeed Blacknall in the end zone for a 10-7 lead with 2:01 left in the half.
Once again, Michigan (9-2, 6-1) answered as it drove 70 yards for a score in a little more than a minute. Jake Rudock hit Amara Darboh on an 11-yard score for a 14-10 halftime lead.
One key play on that drive came on third-and-10 from the Michigan 30. Penn State burned a questionable timeout on defense with 1:48 left, giving the Wolverines a chance to regroup on offense. They converted a few seconds later when Darboh made a superb catch down the left sideline for a 26-yard pickup to the PSU 44.
Franklin was not asked after the game why the timeout was called there.
Another key play in the first half came when Hackenberg took a 10-yard sack instead of throwing the ball out of bounds when PSU had first down at the Michigan 25. The sack pushed the Lions out of field-goal range, costing them three points.
Michigan pushed its lead to 21-10 early in the third quarter thanks to a huge special teams blunder by the Lions. DeAndre Thompkins fumbled a punt, the Wolverines recovered at the 9 and scored three plays later.
Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell forced and recovered a fumble late in the third quarter, and the Lions took possession at the Michigan 42. They got a 38-yard pass from Hackenberg to Chris Godwin down to the 3, but once again the red zone problem resurfaced.
Two incompletions and a 3-yard loss by Barkley forced PSU to kick a 24-yard field goal to pull within 21-13 with 14:02 left.
The Lions put together a nice drive on their next possession, only to come up just short of the end zone again. They had first-and-goal at the 6 but stalled at the 1, and instead of going for it, Franklin decided to kick an 18-yard field goal to make it 21-16 with 8:05 to go.
Penn State had a lot of momentum at that point. And it vanished a few seconds later.
Jourdan Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards to the PSU 40, taking advantage of yet another special teams lapse by the Lions.
Franklin said there are a lot of issues that have to get cleaned up with the special teams. But it’s too late in the season to think it will happen this year.
“Very inconsistent in a lot of things,” Franklin said.
Michigan took advantage of its good field position and drove for a touchdown that made it 28-16 with 5:12 remaining. De’Veon Smith jumped over the top from a yard out to seal it for the Wolverines.
Quarterback Jake Rudock was 25-of-38 for 256 yards with two TDs and one interception for Michigan, which has only lost to Utah and Michigan State this season.
“You just find a way,” Rudock said of the win. “Our defense found a way to step up and make their stops. Offensively found a way to get enough points on the board. And that’s all it is, just finding a way.”
Or, in the Lions’ case, finding a way to lose on a day when they had every chance to win.