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Penn State’s Bryant Johnson reeled in five catches for 104 yards in the losing effort and Zack Mills was once again a bright spot, throwing to nine different Lions for 244 yards. Miscues, penalties, and dropped balls, however, continued to plague the Lions.
“We can’t make plays and then when we do we make the dumbest mistakes,” said Paterno after the contest. “It is hard to be critical of the physical effort, because they are playing hard.”
Michigan totaled 410 yards of total offense, led by B.J. Askew with 27 carries for 126 yards and Wolverine quarterback John Navarre who completed 17 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State finished the day with an uncharacteristic 25 rushing yards on 26 attempts and the Lions were only 4-of-15 on third down conversions.
Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr magnanimously said he was happy to get the win. “It’s a good win for us,” Carr said. “This is a tough place to play and it was a hard fought football game.”
Michigan began the day with good field position on their own 47-yard line after Penn State went three-and-out on their initial drive and the Wolverines’ Anthony Jordan blocked David Royer’s first punt of the day. Navarre completed a nifty screen pass to Askew on 3rd-and-16, and then used Askew’s running and Marquise Walker’s possession receiving (9 catches, 85 yards) to drive to the Penn State two-yard line. Penn State’s defense came up big though, forcing a 4th-and-2 situation. Lloyd Carr surprised the 107,879 fans in Beaver Stadium with a fake field goal, but not the Lions, who stuffed the fake and Penn State took over on downs.
Navarre picked up where he left off on the Wolverines’ very next possession. Michigan drove 60 yards in 13 plays, and capped the scoring drive with a Hayden Epstein field goal from 28 yards out. The kick gave Michigan a 3-0 lead with just under three minutes to play in the first quarter.
Epstein hit his second field goal of the day, a 41-yarder, to give Michigan a 6-0 lead with 13:34 remaining in the second period. Minutes later, the Wolverines would again put their kicker in position to score, but Epstein’s 48-yard attempt went wide right.
Penn State’s offense seemed to come alive momentarily after the missed field goal. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Mills connected with Bryant Johnson for 30 yards and then hit Paul Jefferson on a sideline route for another five yards. However, Michigan linebacker Victor Hobson snuffed out any Penn State momentum when he dropped Mills for a six-yard loss on third down and the Lions were forced to punt. For the game, 10 of Penn State’s 15 possessions ended in Royer punts. Four other drives ended in miscues – one fumble, one missed field goal, and two interceptions – and one ended at the halftime intermission.
“We couldn’t handle their linebackers,” said Paterno, “Number 17 made a lot of plays.”
Penn State’s fifth punt of the day turned out to be a source of good fortune for the Lions as the ball bounced off the chest of return man Ron Bellamy, and was caught in the air by a diving Rich Gardner. Penn State was able to move the ball to the Michigan 13-yard line before being faced with 4th-and-1. Paterno decided to go for it, but an illegal motion penalty ended the play before it even started. Facing 4th-and-6, a frustrated Paterno sent in the field goal team. Things went from bad to worse, as freshman kicker Robbie Gould couldn’t convert the 35-yard attempt, missing the top of the right upright by the narrowest of margins.
Heading into the half down only 6 – 3 would have been a victory for Penn State, and 6 – 0 would still have left them in good position for the second half. And that is how it appeared things would end up when Michigan got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with only 67 seconds remaining in the half. Appearances can be deceiving. Askew gained 20 yards on first down, and from there, Navarre went to work. The quarterback connected with Walker five times for 58 yards on the drive, including a 16-yard touchdown pass over the middle. On the touchdown, Walker made a beautifully timed, leaping catch between two Penn State defenders, giving Michigan a 13-0 lead going into the half.
Paterno did not think the score before the half was fatal. “It was very important, but it shouldn’t have been the end of the game.” Paterno said. “The drive in the third quarter was the backbreaker.”
That backbreaker occurred just four plays into the half when Navarre tossed a 53-yard bomb to Ron Bellamy. Bellamy caught the pass in stride, and raced into the endzone for the touchdown, making the score 20-0.
Michigan’s defense, which sacked Mills four times for 29 yards, and intercepted him twice, held on to record the rare Happy Valley shutout. Mills also endured several big hits during the game, which drew the admiration of Wolverine linebacker Larry Foote. “I know he’s a tough kid now,” Foote said. “He kept getting up.”
Penn State will have to get back up as a team, and will have a week off to make some decisions. The Lion’s continue to search for answers, and for a way to build confidence. This was the third time in four games that Penn State failed to score in the first two quarters. For the season, the Lions have been outscored 76-5 in the first half.
Michigan has beaten Penn State five straight times, outscoring the Nittany Lions 145-46. Penn State, now 0-3 in Big Ten conference play, next travels to play No. 14 Northwestern on October 20th. Michigan will host the Purdue Boilermakers in Ann Arbor next Saturday.