STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Michigan will do some some soul-searching in the wake of Saturday night’s 42-13 drubbing at No. 2 Penn State.
Michigan entered Saturday’s game at Penn State with hopes of beating the No. 2 team in the nation and earning a signature win. Instead, the Wolverines leave Happy Valley tied for fourth place in the Big Ten East Division with Rutgers. Michigan has to make a revival. It has to prove it is better than just being a run-of-the-mill Big Ten team.
Michigan has to put itself in the best position simply to earn victories. Wins against Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland — three of the Big Ten’s lesser teams — and then Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The Wolverines squandered a chance against Penn State not only to become bowl-eligible, but to legitimize itself as a Big Ten contender in a year in which the conference is poised to have at least three College Football Playoff contenders.
Michigan has to go back to the cliche of “one game at a time,” because of the loss. The team’s confidence is fragile. It can rectify that against an upstart Rutgers team next weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“You’ve got to learn from today,” linebacker and captain Mike McCray said. “Learn from our mistakes and move on. You’ve got to come together … you’ve got to win out.”
If Penn State shocked Michigan, it wouldn’t say so. But McCray made another admission: “We’re disappointed in ourselves. … Just one of those days. It wasn’t our day.”
A turning point
Penn State exposed Michigan’s shortcomings, especially its defense.
Penn State had 506 yards of offense. Running back Saquon Barkley strengthened his Heisman Trophy bid with 176 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. When Barkley cooled off, Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley ran for three touchdowns and opened Penn State’s passing game against the nation’s No. 2 pass defense, which entered Saturdayallowing 138 yards per game.
“They hit us on quite a few plays that we’ve defensed well this year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Their execution was really good tonight. Right from the beginning.
“I thought they were executing well, and we had our difficulties scoring and moving the ball.”
The Wolverines have lost two key Big Ten East Division games that could zap any of the program’s Big Ten title hopes. That’s an annual goal for the Wolverines, and it’s also an annual shortcoming. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title outright since 1997, and hasn’t won a share of the Big Ten title since 2004.
Instead, the Wolverines now focus on the lessons they have to learn from the losses to Michigan State and Penn State.
“We will endure and be better,” Harbaugh said after his first loss as a coach to Penn State. “We’re going to regroup and come back.
“Nobody else can help us but us. We put our best people on it, our players and our coaches.”
A new order
More than a year ago, Michigan handed Penn State a 49-10 loss that exposed every weakness of the Nittany Lions’ porous offensive line, the erratic decision-making by their quarterback and the holes they couldn’t fill because of injuries.
That loss at Michigan became an opportunity. It forced the Nittany Lions into their own moment of reckoning. Penn State rattled off nine consecutive wins to capture the Big Ten championship and to earn its first Rose Bowl berth since 2009.
Michigan hopes it’s in position that this moment becomes a turning point, much in the same vein as Penn State’s run last season. The Wolverines, however, remain realistic. This team isn’t setting any immediate lofty goals.
“Come together, that’s all we can do,” McCray said. “Learn from mistakes, move on and get ready for next week.”