No. 8 Michigan dials up late score to edge No. 23 Penn State to keep CFP hopes alive

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The scoring drives were beginning to feel like aberrations in a season that threatened to become a mirage.

For so long during Saturday’s game in Happy Valley — the kind of game against a quality road opponent that Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is prone to losing — the offense appeared stuck in neutral. The first-half numbers for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ group included a 43% conversion rate on third down, an anemic average of 2.7 yards per carry and a pair of false start penalties on drives that ended with punts.

And yet, the Wolverines led, inching in front of Penn State early in the second quarter and staying there until the game’s waning moments, when a trio of fourth-down conversions followed from the Nittany Lions produced a touchdown and two-point conversion that finally knotted the game. The defense had carried Michigan for the better part of four quarters behind seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and impressive coverage of star receiver Jahan Dotson. But with 5:55 remaining and the score tied, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s group needed the offense to pull its weight.

Facing second-and-9 just a few yards across midfield, quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All orchestrated the type of play that will be talked about for years in Ann Arbor, where hopes of a College Football Playoff berth remain. A bullet from McNamara on a crossing pattern connected with All, who raced 47 yards down the sideline for what proved to be the winning score in a thrilling game.

The offense answered the call with its season on the line and conjured a moment of magic: Michigan 21, Penn State 17.

Michigan Wolverines tight end Erick All scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Michigan Wolverines tight end Erick All scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions.

So much of Saturday’s game belonged to the defense. Aside from inquiries about Michigan’s injury situation, the primary topic of discussion was how Macdonald would defend Dotson, who racked up 242 yards and three touchdowns last week against Maryland. Macdonald had resurrected a defense short on confidence following a shoddy season in 2020 capped by the dismissal of former coordinator Don Brown and several assistants.

What Macdonald hadn’t done prior to Saturday was design a game plan to smother one of the nation’s best wideouts, expected to be taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. The last elite skill player the Wolverines faced was Michigan State tailback Kenneth Walker III, who embarrassed Macdonald’s group to the tune of 197 yards and five touchdowns.

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A domination of Indiana’s overmatched freshman quarterback replenished U-M's confidence ahead of the trip to Happy Valley. Edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the top pass-rushing duo in the nation, obliterated the Penn State offensive line from the game’s opening drive, hounding and harassing quarterback Sean Clifford. Each edge rusher notched a sack within the first six plays from scrimmage, and the momentum Clifford generated on scrambles was halted when inside linebacker Junior Colson blasted up the middle for a third sack that forced a field goal.

Hutchinson’s frustration with the substitution issues against Michigan State spilled into a postgame radio interview in East Lansing when he said players spent too much time staring at the sideline for signals rather than lining up and “being ballplayers.” He bailed his teammates out again in State College by exploding off the line of scrimmage on a pivotal third down to sling Clifford to the ground while several members of the defense were unset and out of position.

By the time Clifford threw incomplete on another third down during Penn State’s opening drive of the second half — a drive stunted by Hutchinson’s third sack of the day — he pounded his chest and pointed at the video board while jogging off the field.

Sprinkled between Hutchinson’s eruptions were two more sacks for Ojabo, who has thrust himself into the NFL draft conversation with a remarkable season. His unblocked sack of Clifford in the first quarter was bested by a second-quarter speed rush on third-and-10 that produced his fifth forced fumble of the year and, more critically, saddled the Nittany Lions with another field goal to keep Michigan in front.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan beats Penn State to keep College Football Playoff hopes alive