STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Here sat Michigan’s 2019 football season. The ball rested three yards from the end zone. It was fourth-and-goal with less than three minutes left, and the Wolverines trailed by a touchdown. Before them stood the nation’s fourth-best defense along with a deafening sheet of white—the Penn State student section (this, after all, was a White Out).
This was it. This was the season. For a team already strapped with one loss, Michigan could not possibly afford another. What happened next was indicative of a year lost: Receiver Ronnie Bell dropped a touchdown pass. That white wall erupted. Things flew out of the stands. Pompoms dazzled. Music blared. More than 110,000 white-wearing Pennsylvanians here at Beaver Stadium stomped and screamed. This was the sound of a season, for all intents and purposes, ending. Coffin meet nail. Door hit hinge. Penn State 28, Michigan 21.
Just seven weeks into the most ballyhooed season of coach Jim Harbaugh’s five years in Ann Arbor—the Wolverines, remember, were ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll—Michigan’s title hopes came crashing down. Poof, they went, into the chilly Pennsylvania air. It’s not like we didn’t see this coming after what happened earlier this year at Wisconsin—a three-touchdown loss in which this team at one point trailed 35–0. On Saturday night in State College, the Wolverines fell behind 21–0 in the first half, used a staunch defensive effort to rally in the second and, in fitting fashion, missed their shot at tying the game in the final seconds. Bell, two yards deep in the end zone, dropped the pass. It squirted out as he hit the turf and with it went those 2019 championship hopes and dreams. “Ronnie is a fierce competitor. He’s taking it pretty hard right now,” Shea Patterson said afterward, his jersey smeared in green grass stains and his face cloaked in disappointment. And then Patterson pointed the finger at himself. “Maybe,” he said, “I could have run it in.”
This is what the end of a season looks like, it’s what it feels like, what it sounds like—a crammed visiting locker room with cinder block walls closing in, a quarterback barely audible, a coach deriding officiating calls for a full minute of his news conference. “It will be interesting to compare those,” says Harbaugh of the referees’ decisions—not his own. He attempted a 58-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the first half. He punted in Penn State territory with less than a yard to go. He ran the ball on third-and-4 from midfield. It’s easy to question coaches after losses. Michigan didn’t necessarily lose because of three head-scratching decisions, but it did lose, and here it is at 5–2 overall and 3–2 in the Big Ten, with top-10 Notre Dame on deck and top-five Ohio State at the end. Players spoke afterward about a “light at the end of the tunnel,” but all we can see is a Scarlet and Grey bus barreling toward a Maize and Blue scooter.
And that brings us to this: Who in the Big Ten can beat the Buckeyes? We were all revving up for a top-10 battle next week in Columbus between unbeaten teams Ohio State and Wisconsin—and then the Badgers went out Saturday and lost at Illinois. Minnesota remains undefeated, but do the Gophers really have the stuff to knock off Ryan Day’s group? Penn State might be the biggest challenger, and it nearly gave away the game Saturday night to Michigan. The Nittany Lions (7–0) punted on five consecutive drives, they were out-gained 417–283 and they converted just four third downs. They lean on one man: the electric KJ Hamler, who in no real surprise caused the Wolverines trouble. He had six catches for 108 yards, including what was the eventual winning touchdown, a 53-yard grab in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Penn State, the Buckeyes seem to have about four KJ Hamlers. No one’s come inside of 24 points of them. Have you seen the Buckeyes play? I don’t mean on television; I mean in person. I, for one, haven’t—at least not yet—but I hear horror stories. Linemen as big as mountains, receivers as fast as deer, a quarterback like a cougar. Already, they’re a team of legend, penciled into the playoff, the best shot the nation’s got at a national title winner not named Alabama or Clemson. Before the season, we circled that Nov. 30 game against Michigan in the Big House as the Buckeyes’ biggest potential stumbling block. Maybe it should be the week before—a home game against these Lions.
Or maybe there are no circles at all. Maybe Ohio State will just rumble to an easy 12–0. Saturday night in Happy Valley gave us confidence that could very well happen—right up to Michigan’s last gasp. Harbaugh thought about taking a timeout before the fourth-and-goal call. The play was designed for a stop fade in the corner of the end zone, only it was covered. Patterson then danced free of pressure in the pocket and found Bell across the middle for what appeared to be six. The sophomore wideout fell to the turf, a defender on his back and the ball in his belly. The stadium fell into silence—white noise, if you will. A touchdown! Oh my! Michigan had made the big comeback!
Then from between Bell’s legs the ball came bounding out. Beaver Stadium roared. It was the sound that ended Michigan’s season.