Penn State finally got its first win of 2020, and it came at Michigan’s expense.
This was the first time Penn State and Michigan squared off when they both had a losing record. It showed. There were untimely penalties, missed tackles, lackluster passing attacks, a muffed punt and questionable play-calling.
In essence, it was a game between two bad teams, but it was Penn State that emerged with a 27-17 victory on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Neither offense was explosive, and Penn State did most of its damage on the ground with freshman Keyvone Lee and junior quarterback Sean Clifford. Lee entered the game with 19 career carries but Penn State played the game without its top three running backs. Lee filled in admirably, finishing the game with 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
Clifford was back in the starting lineup after getting benched for Will Levis earlier in the season and had only 163 passing yards, but he avoided costly turnovers that have plagued him, rushed for 73 yards and a score and made some timely third-down throws to Jahan Dotson on a fourth-quarter scoring drive that gave the Nittany Lions a two-score lead.
Parker Washington, another true freshman, also had a big game for PSU with nine catches for 93 yards. He was featured early and helped Penn State take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
On the Michigan side, Saturday’s game marked the first career start for Cade McNamara, who came in off the bench and played hero in last week’s triple-overtime win over Rutgers.
Against Penn State, McNamara really struggled. He left the game early with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, but eventually returned to the ballgame. When he did, he was wholly ineffective. He completed just 12 of his 25 pass attempts for 91 yards.
Michigan was able to run the ball behind Hassan Haskins. Haskins put up 101 yards and two scores, including a two-yarder that cut Penn State’s lead to 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. But Penn State immediately responded with a touchdown of its own to increase its lead back to 10 points.
With Michigan completely incapable of throwing the ball, any attempt at a comeback went nowhere. And when 6-foot-5, 243-pound QB Joe Milton was stuffed on a QB sneak on fourth down, that pretty much sealed the victory for Penn State, who then took over on offense and ran out the clock without much resistance.
What does this mean for Michigan?
Michigan dropped to 2-4 with the loss, including an ugly 0-3 mark at home.
It was another ugly performance for Jim Harbaugh’s team as the questions surrounding Harbaugh’s future with the program will further come into question. Michigan didn’t even muster 300 yards offensively in this one against a Penn State team that had allowed at least 30 points in all five of its games en route to an unexpected 0-5 start.
But Penn State was the better team on Saturday. The Nittany Lions have been plagued by turnovers, but Michigan’s defense never came close to forcing even one. Worse than that, Michigan allowed a freshman fourth-string running back to run the ball down their throats. Lee was an acclaimed recruit, but the way he slipped through the arm tackles of Michigan defenders is a further indictment against the once-heralded Don Brown defense.
Dating back to 1883, Michigan has never gone winless at home in its history, and will now need to beat Maryland next week to avoid that infamy. And after the Maryland game will be Michigan’s next chance to play rival Ohio State. Michigan has never defeated the Buckeyes under Harbaugh. It’s one of the things he was hired to do, but it’s looking less likely than ever this year with the way UM has been playing.
What does this mean for Penn State?
Penn State opened the season ranked in the top 10, but started 0-5 for the first time in program history. James Franklin’s team easily could have folded, but managed to play a competent game on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
This clearly isn’t the most talented group Franklin has had during his time at PSU, but there are at least some young players fans can feel good about through the rest of this season and into 2021. Better yet, the rest of the schedule — Rutgers and Michigan State — is very manageable.
A strong finish to the season could be something for PSU to hang its hat on going into the offseason after starting the 2020 campaign in miserable fashion. PSU is a program expected to compete for Big Ten titles, but now it’s after moral victories as 2020 comes to a close.
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