UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They announced the attendance for Saturday’s game as 110,856, the second largest crowd in the history of Beaver Stadium. No surprise. Everyone wants to see an execution.
And that’s what critics were hoping for, wasn’t it? Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan football coach, had already been lopped off, forced to sit and watch from a nearby hotel. All that remained was decapitating the Wolverines’ perfect 9-0 record, their No. 3 ranking in the College Football Playoff standings, and their run for a national championship. Then everyone who hates U-M could be happy.
Penn State was salivating to take all that away. You could feel it in the roaring crowd just before kickoff. And given the atmosphere during this strangest of college football weeks, it felt like the rest of the Big Ten was roaring with them.
Sorry to disappoint, but the Wolverines still have their noggins attached to their padded shoulders this morning, and it feels like they’re standing a bit taller, after a 24-15 victory that will rank as one of the more impressive ugly games you’ll ever see.
Whatever you may think of perceived advantages from other teams’ signals (more on that later) you must nod in admiration at what these kids accomplished Saturday, on a chilly afternoon of smashmouth football. How the young players, the assistant coaches, and the entire staff adjusted to a sudden, 11th-hour suspension of their head coach, less than 24 hours before kickoff.
“Sucks,” Blake Corum would later say, when asked how it all felt. Considering the Wolverines, according to Sports Illustrated, didn’t even learn of Harbaugh’s suspension until they got here Friday afternoon, a half hour after the news had broken on ESPN, “sucks” sounds about right. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that a late injunction attempt failed, and Harbaugh’s absence was inevitable.
But faced with their season — and their legacy — on the line, this Michigan team did what Michigan teams before them have historically done best. They ran.
They ran again.
And then, to mix things up, they ran some more.
They hung 227 ground yards on Penn State. Forty-six times, a Michigan player held the ball and rushed with it. Forty-six times?
Yes. They actually called 32 straight running plays. Meanwhile, do you know how many passes Heisman Trophy hopeful J.J. McCarthy threw all day? Eight.
You know how many in the second half? Zero.
Those who tuned it to see the shaggy haired wunderkind whipping the ball across the field? Well. Once again.
Sorry to disappoint.
Born to run
“Absolutely not,” McCarthy said, when asked whether such a lopsided run-pass ratio was the game plan coming in. “I think one of our strengths is to be able to adapt to what the defense is giving us.”
They weren’t giving much early on. This, after all, was the second-ranked defense in the country, behind only — who else? — Michigan. The PSU pass rush was ferocious in the first quarter, and McCarthy was sacked and harassed on a couple of drive-ending third downs. Penn State had him targeted. He was like the chum they throw to whales at Sea World.
But apparently under offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who was rushed into the head coach’s role after the Harbaugh news, if it’s broke, don’t fix it, just ignore it. Moore switched to rush, rush, rush and more rush. It shortened the game, ate the clock, and had just enough breakout plays to justify all the time it swallowed.
Here was Corum, bleeding from the bridge of his nose, grinding one run after another, until breaking free with a 44-yard scamper in the first half. Here was McCarthy, taking off with his legs and scooping up 13 yards and a first down. Here was Donovan Edwards, cutting back and sprinting toward the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
The game was cleats, cleats, and more cleats. It went back and forth in the second half. And before you knew it, we were ushering in the fourth quarter with a tight, 17-9 slugfest.
And then things fell apart for Penn State, as sure as they came together for Michigan. The Nittany Lions went three-and-out, three-and-out and four-and-out. They blew a flea-flicker call and drew an intentional grounding flag. Their quarterback, Drew Allar, should have taken a page from Michigan’s playbook and kept it on the ground. His throws were mostly misfires, thanks in large part to the relentless U-M defense.
One play after Penn State inexplicably went for it on fourth-and-6 from their own 30 — drawing boos from their fans — Corum finally broke another one, cut down the sideline and raced into the end zone. The fans booed louder. The bloodlust would have to wait for another day. Michigan was going to stay undefeated, and nobody could claim it wasn’t an earned win.
Apparently, they don’t need to know the other guys’ plays.
“I want to thank the Lord,” Moore said, when interviewed by Fox just after the game ended, “I want to thank Coach Harbaugh.” He choked up. He wiped back tears. Then he apparently forgot they don’t have bleeps on live TV.
“I love you man. I love the (expletive) out of you. This is for you, for the university, the president, our AD, we got the best players. … These (expletive) guys, these guys right there, these guys did it … “
He ran off, leaving the interviewer wondering just how much profanity made it to the air.
Sorry to disappoint.
Not quite justice for all
OK. Let’s talk about the elephant not in the room. Harbaugh had to watch this game on TV thanks to the Big Ten’s idea of swift justice. The “crime” was sign-stealing by now-former U-M staff analyst Connor Stallions, something the Big Ten says it has confirmed.
While there is no disputing that sending someone to advance scout a team’s signals is against the current rules — even though you can steal them during a game — those who felt Harbaugh’s head was the only punishment are missing something.
First of all, no one yet has linked this directly to Harbaugh. That matters. The crime may be indisputable to the Big Ten, but the punishment is arbitrary. Tony Petitti, the commissioner, could have issued a fine, or said he’ll wait until the NCAA report, reserving judgment to add more serious consequences. He had numerous options that didn’t include banishing Harbaugh immediately from the sidelines.
He chose that one, apparently, to mollify screaming rival coaches (a bad idea for any commissioner) and to make up for the competitive advantage U-M supposedly had in earlier games (a bad idea, period.)
Is there any proof that sign-stealing was behind Michigan’s 31-7, 45-7, 52-10, 52-7 or 49-0 Big Ten blowouts this year (over Rutgers, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan State respectively)? Does anyone believe, given the talent gaps, that U-M wouldn’t have won those games no matter what?
So how does removing Harbaugh from the three biggest games on Michigan’s schedule “balance” that? It certainly doesn’t help the “injured” teams.
But it definitely helps the ones still to come.
Meanwhile, robbing the U-M players of their coach hours before their biggest game of the year didn’t feel like justice. It felt vindictive. Something that would make James Franklin or Ryan Day happy, maybe. But that’s not the commissioner’s job.
Petitti, who comes from the baseball world, doesn’t look big here. He looks thin and pliable. He also hurts his brand, which, like it or not, is the biggest mandate of his job. Now he has one of his premiere schools suing him and reportedly threatening to leave the conference. And you can rest assured that no matter what the NCAA does, allegations of “cheaters” will attach to Harbaugh AND his team now for a very long time, like a string of cans behind a newlywed’s car.
That kind of noise isn’t good for anyone.
Saturday, there was another kind of noise — at least for the U-M players. The sound of the Penn State crowd wafting away, heading for the exits, realizing that no guillotines would drop today. The Wolverines may not finish the season perfectly. They may not have their head coach for the remaining two huge games against Maryland and Ohio State.
But they have something this morning they didn’t have yesterday. They have the feeling of looking their would-be executioners in the eye and, as Corum puts it, ”standing on all 10.”
“What we’ve been going through,” he said, “it’s only brought us closer.”
That should actually scare their remaining opponents.
Sorry to disappoint.