ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Any thought earlier in the week about eliminating 20th-ranked Michigan from contention for at least a piece of the Big Ten championship may have been premature.
There's no doubt the Wolverines are serious players in the Big Ten championship race after disposing of Penn State, 33-11, yesterday before 110,803 at Michigan Stadium.
The Wolverines improved to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten, which puts them in a tie for first place with Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern.
A victory over Ohio State in Columbus will guarantee Michigan at least a share of the Big Ten championship.
“Basically we just flew around and had fun out there,” Michigan strong safety DeWayne Patmon said of the Wolverines' strategy for success against Penn State (4-7, 3-4). “Good things usually happen when that happens.”
After falling behind 3-0 early to Penn State, Michigan rolled off 27 unanswered points to put the game out of reach. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr credited the team's defense, which produced four interceptions and a fumble recovery while also holding Penn State scoreless in the second and third quarters.
“The defense played with a lot of intensity,” Carr said. “Coming off a game like a week ago, there's a challenge of getting over feeling sorry for yourself or losing confidence.
“I was proud that they competed as hard as they did.”
Michigan running back Anthony Thomas didn't show any lingering effects from a fumble that ultimately led to the Purdue loss a week earlier. Thomas pounded his way to 171 yards against Penn State on 35 carries, including a seven-yard touchdown scamper that put the Wolverines in front 7-3 early in the second quarter.
Thomas, who has lost only seven fumbles in 872 career carries at Michigan, said he put the fumble against Purdue behind him days before the Penn State game.
“I know what I can do, my coaches know what I can do, and the players know what I can do,” Thomas said. “I knew I just had to help my team get a win.”
The Wolverines spotted the Nittany Lions a 3-0 lead through one quarter before turning the game completely in their favor in the second quarter.
Michigan, which punted away its four possessions in the first quarter, put together three scoring drives in the second quarter to take a 17-3 lead into halftime. The Wolverines' first two scoring drives followed missed field goals by Penn State place kickers.
UM's first scoring drive started from its 22 after Penn State's Ryan Primanti came up short and wide right on a 39-yard field-goal try with just over 14 minutes left in the second quarter.
Michigan quarterback Drew Henson, who opened the game 0-for-7 passing in the first quarter, directed the Wolverines on a 11-play, 78-yard scoring drive on their first possession of the second quarter. Henson completed 5-of-5 passes for 54 yards on the drive capped by Thomas scooting around the Penn State defense for a seven-yard touchdown run.
Michigan's next scoring drive came right after Penn State place kicker David Kimball replaced Primanti and missed on a 38-yard field-goal try with just under five minutes remaining in the half. The Wolverines took over possession and marched 79 yards in eight plays with Henson connecting with tight end Bill Seymour for a 15-yard touchdown completion to go up 14-3 with 1:32 left in the half.
Michigan defensive back James Whitley set up the Wolverines' final score of the quarter when he intercepted a Rashard Casey pass that bounced off a would-be receiver's hands and fluttered in the air. A couple of plays later, Michigan's Hayden Epstein nailed a 33-yard field goal to give the Wolverines a 17-3 cushion heading into halftime.
“Our defense played very well today,” Whitley said. “We made a lot of good stops. Their offense made some big plays but our offense had more.”
Penn State coach Joe Paterno expressed a similar thought about the difference in the outcome.
“They played better than we did,” Paterno said. “We didn't make plays. We make a couple of first downs, kick a couple of field goals and it's a different ball game.”
Penn State's kicking game struggled all afternoon. The Nittany Lions made only 1 of 4 field-goal tries in the first half. A field-goal attempt by Kimball midway through the third quarter was blocked by Whitley, one of 14 Michigan seniors playing for the last time at the Big House.
THOMAS RUNS TO A TIE: Michigan running back Anthony Thomas tied a school rushing record when he surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark against the Nittany Lions before halftime, giving him 21 games in which he's rushed for at least 100 yards. The feat equals the mark previously established by former Wolverine running back Tim Biakabutuka. He needs 165 yards against Ohio State to reach the school's all-time rushing record of 4,393 established by Jamie Morris (1984-87).
HENSON PASSING STREAK ENDS: Penn State defenders Justin Kurpeikis, Jimmy Kennedy and Titus Pettigrew all did something no one else had done all season against Michigan with Drew Henson behind center. Henson hadn't thrown an interception all season until Kurpeikis picked off a pass in the first half, ending a string of 193 pass attempts by Henson without an interception dating to last season. Kennedy and Pettigrew recorded interceptions in the second half.