A Good Day (Michigan 21, Penn State 17)

Proof that sometimes, we can have nice things.

Photo: MGoBlue.com

Be honest...when it was 17-14 Penn State with just over 5:55 remaining, you thought it was over. It felt over. The way my reptilian sports brain works I thought it was over when I saw Dan Orlovsky had replaced Todd Blackledge in the booth. Orlovsky subbing in is never a good sign.

Up 14-6 after a touchdown on their first drive of the second half, Michigan's offense sort of sputtered for a bit. Three straight punts kept this a one-score game, and kept Penn State's hopes alive. Another touchdown probably would've put it out of reach. But Michigan just couldn't deliver that killer blow...a familiar feeling from East Lansing two weeks prior.

Eventually, Penn State strung together a 15-play, 53 yard drive, scored, went for two and got it because of course they did. On the ensuing drive, Cade McNamara got sacked, fumbled, which was recovered by Penn State at the Michigan 16 yardline. Thankfully, Michigan's defense held Penn State to just 3 points. In a close game like this, points off turnovers, especially late can be killers. The overall feel of the game was trending in a very familiar direction before that 11-point surge...and when Penn State had finally gone ahead, it was that same feeling of dread all over again.

Cue the TV graphic showing Harbaugh's record vs top-10 or ranked teams on the road. Fire up twitter and watch your mentions fill up with Ohio State or Michigan State fans proclaim the same old "Harbaugh can't win a big game" mantra. Rinse and repeat from two weeks ago and beyond.

But that's the funny thing about sports...sometimes you get shocked. Michigan fans have been shocked a lot over the years, and not in a good way, especially in big games. But this...this was a good day.

It didn't start out that way. The first quarter was, let's just say, sub-optimal.

In terms of scope, it was the largest discrepancy between offensive plays in a quarter (33 to 6) in all of FBS football this season. Penn State tallied 145 yards and 10 first downs to Michigan's 15 yards and 0 first downs through the first 15 minutes. But on the scoreboard, which is the only stat that really matters, it was just 3-0. Thanks in large part to Michigan's defense stiffening when they had to and James Franklin calling an ill-fated fake field goal at the Michigan 2-yardline after his offense had drove 48 yards on 14 plays. 

The story of the game for me was the play of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. We all know Aidan is a great defensive end, one of the best in the country for sure...but Ojabo has emerged as an equally dangerous threat from the opposite side. The two combined for 11 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and 1 forced fumble each. In game as close as this one, that kind of output will get you noticed. 

For my biased money, Aidan Hutchinson is a clear All-American, the nation's top defensive lineman, and warrants at least some consideration for the Heisman. Now look, I know, a defensive lineman will probably never win the Heisman...and probably never should. But Aidan is the best player on one of the top teams in the country. I think that puts him in the conversation of being a top-10 player nationally.

"But his stats aren't that great"

Look, defensive stats are not the same as offense. First of all, offensive coordinators gameplan around guys like Aidan Hutchinson, just like they would around guys like Charles Woodson. The difference is Aidan is not going to line up on offense, so he won't really move the needle in terms of national attention. Secondly, on most opposing pass plays, Aidan either gets held, or he's in the backfield either sacking the quarterback, or at the very least causing general havoc. 

A perfect example came at the end of the 3rd quarter, Penn State had driven to the Michigan 43 and faced a 3rd and 7. Clifford dropped back and connected with Brenton Strange for 7 yards and a first down at the Michigan 36. Odds are, that drive probably would've ended with at least 3 points. But the right tackle Wallace was flagged for holding against Hutchinson...he basically tackled him. Now it's 3rd and 17. Clifford throws to Lee for 3 yards. 4th down, Penn State has to punt.

That was a potential game-changing play that Aidan made that didn't show up on the stat sheet.

Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators have to account for him on every play. I really don't care about the Heisman...I think it's a pretty overblown award that gets far too much hype...but I am for stud Michigan players getting the recognition that deserve. Aidan is one of those guys.

Another guy worthy of high praise is Cade McNamara.

We didn't see JJ McCarthy in this game. And I'll have to check my notes, but I don't think anyone missed him. This has more to do with how Cade has emerged as not only the obvious better QB option, but a team leader that knows how to run this offense more efficiently. His 3 touchdown passes, especially the first two to Roman Wilson were absolutely clutch throws. 

Hassan Haskins, held to just 8 yards rushing in the first quarter, ended the game with 156 yards on 31 carries, shoulding the bulk of the load while Blake Corum was out with an injury. His longest run of the game came at just the right time...a 17-yard run up the middle to start Michigan's game-winning drive.

McNamara's touchdown throw to Erick All really wasn't all that special. All ran a simple crossing route at the line of scrimmage...a brilliant call as it turned out because all 3 Michigan receivers bunched on the wide side took every Penn State pass defender with them going the opposite direction, leaving the right side of the field wide open. 47 yards later, it was 21-17 Michigan, and all felt right in the world.

It was a shocking feeling for Michigan fans. And one we're not quite sure what to do with. It can be conflicting to enjoy games like this because the alternative is far more familiar. And also surely because Michigan still has to play Ohio State in two weeks. We'll have plenty to say on that front as we get closer. But for now, enjoy this win for what it is – a kind of win that is feels unique to this year's Michigan team. 

With two games left and everything still on the table, it feels like it's at least possible that Michigan can run the table and make the Big Ten championship game. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I didn't think we'd win in Madison or Happy Valley after last season either. This team is all about exceeding expectations, and right now the expectation is to beat Maryland and lose to Ohio State. I'm not going to predict anything, but after seeing how Michigan responded last weekend being down late in the game, I guess the only thing you can really do at this point is...prepare for anything.

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