STATE COLLEGE, Penn. — Just as Baylor was finishing off its win over Oklahoma on the plains of Texas, virtually all but knocking the Sooners from the College Football Playoff picture, another upset was brewing among the mountains of Pennsylvania.
In front of more than 100,000 here at Happy Valley, amid freezing temperatures, 30 miles per hour wind gusts and light flurries of snow, another CFP candidate found itself on the verge of elimination. Less than four minutes from playoff extinction, Michigan, down 17–14 and with already one loss this season, appeared toast.
After all, in years past, Jim Harbaugh’s squads normally folded in this scenario—on the road against a ranked team in a tight game. The Wolverines had already coughed up a fourth-quarter lead, gone four consecutive second-half possessions without points and seemed simply buried.
We’d all seen this movie before, right? It has had Michigan fans crawling into a hole for years, a nightmarish rendition played out year after season after season.
Not this time. Not this year.
Here on Saturday, these Wolverines burst out of their shell of mediocrity (for now) and claimed victory: Michigan 21, Penn State 17.
The attention will focus on quarterback Cade McNamara’s 47-yard game-winning touchdown pass to hobbled tight end Erick All in the final minutes. But don’t be fooled. The Wolverines won with a defensive front that simply pulverized the Nittany Lions. More than a dozen quarterback pressures. Seven sacks. Twelve tackles for loss.
And so here it is, a Michigan team still alive halfway through November for that elusive Big Ten championship. Sure, the Wolverines, 9–1 and 6–1 in conference, don’t control their own destiny. But they might after next weekend. All it will take is a Michigan State loss at Ohio State and a Wolverines’ win at Maryland. And then all the attention in the college football world will be aimed at Ann Arbor for the 117th playing of The Game.
Michigan has won it once in the past 16 years (2011). Harbaugh has never won it in his seven years. Already, it’s a talking point, because of course it is.
“That game is going to be so big for us. When the moment comes, we will be ready,” said Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan’s prowling sack monster (he had three on Saturday).
But let us, for a few seconds, forget about The Game and focus on this game—the one Michigan usually loses, the one where the Wolverines fold late. Harbaugh entered the game with a record of 3–9 in such affairs (on the road against an AP top-25 team).
This team, though, is different, they say. It was a theme afterward during Michigan’s 30-minute news conference. The mentality is different. The effort is different. Harbaugh is even physically different, after losing a bunch of weight this offseason.
The coach repeatedly called this version of the Wolverines a “ball team,” an endearing description from an old-school football man. The word “flinch” arose from several Michigan players and their coach. These guys don’t do it. No flinching here. Nor batting of eyes, says Harbaugh.
This team has all of the “championship qualities” needed, he said. “They were born for this, for these kinds of days.”
Clichés aside, Hutchinson realized this team’s different makeup before the start of the season. Winter workouts were different. So was spring practice. The summer was spectacular. Preseason camp amazing.
This team, unlike those in the past, has something any great championship squad has: player leadership. “It’s something I hadn’t seen since I’ve been here,” the defensive end said.
They are writing quite a story, these Wolverines. Hutchinson and several others bypassed entering the NFL draft to chase a championship. Harbaugh even agreed to a significant paycut to remain in Ann Arbor.
It has produced a more old-school, classic football team of yesteryear. It's got a fierce defense (sixth-best nationally), a nasty running game (Hassan Haskins ran for 156 against PSU) and a passing game that, while sometimes anemic, sprung to life at just the right time on Saturday.
Michigan trailed 17–14 with about three minutes, 40 seconds left when McNamara’s strike came. On a second-and-9, he rifled a pass to All on a simple five-yard crossing route. The tight end turned up the field to see a wide swath of open ground. He out-raced a handful of Penn State defenders some 40 yards—bum ankle and all.
“When I caught it and cut up, my ankle kind of squeaked,” All said. “I was worried about being fast enough to get there.”
All only just got healthy enough to even play. In fact, he estimates the ankle is only about 85% there. Penn State players knew about his injury, he said. During the game, they told him about it.
“We know. We know,” one said to him. “We’ve been scouting you. You ain’t going nowhere.”
Except, of course, to the house for the game-securing score. “They forgot about Erick All,” a smiling Harbaugh said.
This team does feel different. More loose. More fun. In fact, Hutchinson ended his news conference by rising from his chair, pointing to McNamara and bellowing, “THAT’S MY QUARTERBACK! LET’S GOOO!”
Later on, Harbaugh praised his team’s red-zone scoring, his voice rising, “How about those Wolverines!? If that’s not grit, what is?!”
Michigan players aren’t oblivious to the program’s reputation under Harbaugh—the one that folds late in a tough game, collapses under the competition, stumbles on the road.
Not this one.
“We’ve understood that’s been the case for a long time,” McNamara said, “but I think we've proven again that we are different.”
They can really prove it in two weeks.
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