Penn State vs. U-M game was one for the ages

Michigan was living on the edge, always a dangerous place to be. It was bound to tip over at some point and catch up to the Wolverines. And, it finally did on one insane night in State College, Pa.

The Wolverines fell, 43-40, in four overtimes in a wild, stupendous; absolutely crazy (fill-in-your-favorite-adjective) game in State College, Pa., that dispatched the Wolverines from the ranks of the unbeaten.

For Penn State, this was yet another program-validating triumph, as the Nittany Lions showed more of the toughness and grit that they are becoming known for under Bill O’Brien. Penn State can’t go to a bowl this season because of NCAA sanctions. But, in some ways, this was like a bowl game.

“Nothing should amaze you,” O’Brien said to reporters afterward. “There’s going to be twists and turns. These are tough kids. They love Penn State. They love playing for each other. The locker room is such a great scene right now because these kids really believe in each other.”

And what makes Penn State’s gutty victory even more impressive is it came on the heels of a horrid 44-24 loss at Indiana in which the Nittany Lions had 70 yards rushing, allowed 486 yards and generally looked like a lost cause in falling for the first time ever to IU.

And earlier this season, Penn State lost at home to UCF, 34-31, which first caused some to think the program was headed for a fall after surprising many with an 8-4 mark in O’Brien’s debut in 2012.

But, all the ugliness of the UCF and Indiana games were wiped away in the heart-stopping glory of this win for Penn State.

For a while, it looked like Michigan was going to pull off another “great escape” like it did earlier this season vs. Akron and at UConn. In both of those games, the Wolverines really didn’t deserve to win. But, they found a way to make just enough plays in each game. A win is a win is a win, right? But red flags and eyebrows were raised while Michigan built a 5-0 start. Concerns about the offensive line persisted. And many questioned the decision-making abilities of quarterback Devin Gardner.

In the victory over Minnesota last week, Gardner played a turnover-free game. It was the first time in nine career starts that Gardner had not committed a turnover. In the previous two games, Gardner had seven turnovers. The turnover bug stuck again today, however, as Gardner had two interceptions and a lost fumble. Still, he played a great game in hitting 15-of-28 passes for 240 yards with three touchdowns and running 24 times for 121 yards. Spectacular—but not enough.

As for the o-line, Michigan made a big deal about tweaking the unit during a bye week prior to the Minnesota game. Sophomore Graham Glasgow moved from guard to center, and sophomore Chris Bryant stepped in at Glasgow’s former spot at guard. Gardner proceeded to hit 13-of-17 passes for 235 yards with a touchdown vs. the Gophers, and the Wolverines ran for 113 yards.

But the line struggled today. Michigan ran 54 times for 149 yards (2.8 ypc) vs. a Penn State defense that allowed 486 total yards and 150 yards rushing last week in the loss at Indiana.

Fitz Toussaint has not gotten on track. On this night, he ran 27 times for 27 yards. He has just one 100-yard rushing game this season (120 at UConn). He didn’t have any 100-yard games in 2012. Toussaint had five 100-yard rushing games in 2011.

Michigan’s ground game was limited to Gardner runs, which is exactly what Penn State wanted to do. Let Gardner run; have make decisions in the passing game. And, for the most part, it worked.

It was a heart attack-inducing end in regulation. Penn State trailed, 34-27, and had the ball at their own 20-yard line with 50 seconds left. It looked bleak. But true freshman Christian Hackenberg looked like a senior in hitting the biggest pass of his young career, a 36-yard desperation heave that Allen Robinson hauled in to set up a 1-yard scoring plunge by Hackenberg that forced overtime.

“He’s just a fun guy to coach,” O’Brien said.

Then in overtime, both kickers took turns generally looking inept in missing easy kicks before Penn State ended things with a Bill Belton touchdown run from two yards out in the fourth overtime. Earlier in the drive, Penn State gambled on a fourh–and-1, with Belton converting to set up his subsequent TD run.

The loss muddles the Legends Division race, with Michigan State and Nebraska the lone teams unbeaten in conference play. Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa all have one league loss. Minnesota has two.

This exciting Legends race will be decided in a huge November, when all the top teams play each other in what essentially will be a division tournament.

The Wolverines play host to a dangerous Indiana team next week, and then are off Oct. 26, allowing them to catch their breath for the aforementioned huge November—at Michigan State; Nebraska, at Northwestern; at Iowa; Ohio State.

Penn State (4-2, 1-1) can build off this victory. It’s proof to fans and recruits that the program can still succeed despite the harsh NCAA sanctions. Tough, tough times may not necessarily be ahead, especially with news last month that the NCAA was lightening its scholarship sanctions.

Just like last season, Penn State will have a say in determining the Big Ten race. The Nittany Lions are off next week and then play at Ohio State on Oct. 26. A Nittany Lions win would hurt Ohio State’s Leaders Division hopes. Still, the Buckeyes essentially have a two-game lead on Wisconsin thanks to their head-to-head win vs. the Badgers earlier this season.

Penn State also could have a big impact on the Legends Division race when Nebraska comes to State College, Pa., on Nov. 23.

This is a dangerous Penn State team because it’s well-coached, has talent and has absolutely nothing to lose. It’s also an extremely exhausted—and excited—team on this night in a game that will be difficult to top from an excitement standpoint the rest of the season.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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5 Comments

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Ted on 10/13/2013 @ 8:29am EDT Said:

If you mean one for the ages because of two inept place kickers then you are right. Those over times happened because of choking, not good play. Something the big ten should be used to.

Doug on 10/13/2013 @ 9:05am EDT Said:

Wisconsin is in the Leaders, no the Legends…

reality check on 10/13/2013 @ 9:16am EDT Said:

cant type well
NO MAS

JoeW on 10/13/2013 @ 3:05pm EDT Said:

Not sure that a game of one mistake after another deserves a “One for the Ages” headline. While the game was certainly dramatic, there was a lot of bad football and questionable coaching late in regulation and the OT’s. I heard a lot of “unbelievable” and “do either of these teams want to win?” comments made where I was watching the game. I guess the good football seen in Madison and East Lansing does not provide as much drama to write about.

Doug on 10/13/2013 @ 7:10pm EDT Said:

Mark, wishing you a speedy recovery