Melanie Maxwell / The Ann Arbor News
It was a tough afternoon on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium for the Penn State Nittany Lions football team (7-4, 4-3 B1G) as they fell to the #12 Michigan Wolverines (9-2, 6-1 B1G) by the score of 28-16.
Coming off a bye week, there was hope that James Franklin and his staff could notch a signature win and lock up a New Year’s Day bowl invitation, but instead were left with more questions and disappointment heading into the final week of the season.
Penn State drove inside the Michigan 10 on the first possession of the game thanks to a 56-yard rush by freshman RB Saquon Barkley, but were held to just a field goal, setting the tone for the game for Penn State’s offense.
After that big rush, the Wolverines were able to completely shut down Barkley, who ended up finishing the game with just 68 yards on 15 carries.
Michigan responded with an easy 7 play, 89-yard TD drive in the first quarter, capped by a 26-yard TD reception by tight end Jake Butt to take a 7-3 lead.
The game turned into a defensive battle for most of the rest of the first half. Penn State was unable to capitalize on an interception by Brandon Bell which gave them the ball at the Michigan 40, punting after a quick 3-and out.
Penn State’s special teams came up with a big play late in the second quarter, blocking a Michigan punt which again gave the Lions the ball in Wolverine territory. This time, Penn State was able to take advantage, taking a 10-7 lead on a 25-yard pass from Christian Hackenberg to Saeed Blacknail.
The Lions appeared poised to take a lead into the locker room, but Michigan was again able to answer with a quick 7 play, 70-yard drive to take a 14-10 halftime lead that completely changed the momentum and mood in Beaver Stadium.
The team’s traded punts to start the third quarter, but in perhaps the biggest play of the game, Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins inexplicably muffed a punt at his own 9-yard line, and Michigan dove on the ball and quickly scored again to take a 21-10 lead.
Penn State’s defense continued to keep them in the game, and Penn State was able to drive inside the Michigan 10-yard line twice in the fourth quarter, but were only able to come away with field goals each time, cutting the lead to 21-16.
Penn State kicked the ball off down only five points with five minutes left in the game, but a big return by Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis took the ball all the way to the PSU 40-yard line, and five plays later Michigan iced the game with a 1-yard touchdown run by De’Veon Smith that made it 28-16.
Penn State’s offense looked hopeless on its final drive, especially after a clearly rattled Christian Hackenberg was sacked for the fourth time of the afternoon. He began jogging to the sidelines on fourth down, not realizing that the team clearly needed to go for it, down two scores with only a few minutes remaining on the clock. It didn’t help that the Lions were unable to preserve a single timeout in the second half for this key moment in the game.
Despite the final drive, the loss couldn’t be blamed on Hackenberg in what might have been his final game at Beaver Stadium. He was under fierce pressure from the Wolverine defense all afternoon, and was the victim of several untimely drops from his receiving crew. In the end, Hack finished 13/31 for 137 yards, 1 TD, and zero turnovers.
In the end, this game was there for the taking for Penn State. Even though Michigan dominated most statistical categories, better execution in the red zone could have resulted in Penn State stealing a big win. Ultimately though, it was clear that Michigan was the bigger, and more experienced team. Hopefully the players and staff can use this as another learning experience moving forward.
Penn State finishes their regular season in East Lansing next Saturday to take on the #9 Michigan State Spartans. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.