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  • On White Out night in State College, Penn State passed the first test of its season-defining Big Ten stretch with flying colors.
By Andy Staples
October 21, 2017

Sports Illustrated is celebrating Penn State’s last quarter-century of Big Ten play with a special issue, honoring the school’s greatest players and games from the era. You can get your copy at newsstands now, or order it online here.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A Beaver Stadium-record crowd of 110,823—clad almost completely in white—watched the next step in Penn State’s evolution as the Nittany Lions rolled to a 42–13 win against Michigan. Here are three thoughts from a game that made the Big Ten title race a little bit clearer:

1. Penn State passed the first of the three-part test that will determine whether the Nittany Lions are Big Ten and/or national title contenders. In the process, tailback Saquon Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley and the rest of the offense showed they can score plenty against an elite defense. The Nittany Lions will have to do that again next week—and their defense will have to contain a much more potent offense—when they face Ohio State in Columbus. After that, they must face Michigan State in East Lansing.

Michigan entered Saturday ranked second in the nation in yards per play allowed (3.7). Penn State averaged 8.3 yards a play and controlled the game from the opening possession. Barkley kept himself at the front of Heisman voters’ minds with 108 rushing yards on 15 carries and two rushing touchdowns. He also became the first player in Penn State history to gain 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards. McSorley, who wasn’t as sharp as he could have been, still completed 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense sacked Michigan quarterback John O’Korn nine times and kept him on the run most of the night. This was a far cry from Penn State’s last game against Michigan, when the Wolverines ripped through a defense gutted by injuries for a 49–10 win on Sept. 24, 2016. Back then, Penn State fans wondered whether James Franklin was the correct coach to lead the Nittany Lions. Now, they’re wondering if he can lead them to a second consecutive Big Ten title and possibly more.

Michigan’s offense looked better than it did in a 14–10 home loss to Michigan State on Oct. 7, but the Wolverines couldn’t keep pace with with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses as it stressed Michigan’s defense in ways it hadn’t been stressed all season. The last time the Wolverines had two Big Ten losses this early in the season was in Brady Hoke’s final season as coach.

2. At first, it appeared the Nittany Lions would hand the Wolverines a truly embarrassing loss. On Penn State’s second play from scrimmage, Barkley lined up in the Wildcat. He took the snap and faked a handoff to McSorley before cutting left and outrunning Michigan’s defense for a 69-yard touchdown. After Penn State forced a three-and-out on Michigan’s first possession, McSorley followed a 23-yard run with a 35-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki. That set up a 15-yard Barkley touchdown run.

But after another three-and-out for Michigan’s offense, McSorley missed on a throw to a wide-open Barkley. The Nittany Lions still drove down the field, but the drive ended with a David Long interception of McSorley that would have been a Michigan touchdown had McSorley not made the tackle.

As Penn State’s offense began to falter, Michigan’s came to life. The Wolverines turned that interception into a Karan Higdon touchdown early in the second quarter. Ty Isaac then scored on a scored six-yard run with 1:45 remaining. But Penn State didn’t opt to run out the clock. McSorley completed three of four passes for 65 yards on the drive and capped it with a three-yard touchdown run on a read option. The Nittany Lions went into the locker room up 21–13. The most any team had scored against Michigan in an entire game this season prior to Saturday was 20 points (Indiana last week).

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3. Unless something truly crazy happens in the coming weeks, Saturday’s loss effectively eliminated the Wolverines from the race for the Big Ten East title. It also exposed the weaknesses of the one group that seemed capable of keeping the Wolverines in every game they played.

As Michigan defenders chased Barkley in vain on the game’s first drive or flailed as Gesicki soared to catch 50-50 balls, it became clear that while Michigan has a loaded defense, it isn’t always going to be athletically superior to the better offenses on the schedule. That doesn’t bode well for a visit to Ohio State in November. A week before The Game, Michigan must face likely Big Ten West champ Wisconsin in Madison. A four-loss regular season is on the table. That shouldn’t be surprising given how many quality contributors Michigan had to replace after last season, but the play of the defense through the first half of the season offered hope that a less experienced team might still have a special season.

Michigan’s Big Ten Title drought will almost certainly stretch to 13 years, and the Wolverines will have to hope that Year Four of Jim Harbaugh’s regime will be the one that finally brings them the title they crave.

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