ANN ARBOR - Two teams seeking validation met head-on Saturday in the Big House. One got the exposure it wanted. The other was simply exposed.
Michigan is still a long way from re-joining the elite teams in what may or may not be a particularly elite Big Ten Conference.
The Wolverines hoped to snap a two-game, close-but-no-cigar league losing streak, but there was nothing close about this game and a UM team that opened 4-0 and radiated bright promise is now 5-3 and 1-3 in conference play. Penn State won 35-10 and the game seemed more one-sided than that score.
The Nittany Lions entered ranked No. 13 in the country, despite playing a dreadfully weak schedule and despite having lost at home to Iowa, the only Top 25 team it had played. So, the Lions were looking to prove something, too, and they took a step forward.
The Wolverines went backwards so quickly they tripped over themselves.
Michigan managed just 180 yards of offense after scoring on the opening drive of the game. The Wolverines lost two fumbles, threw two interceptions, and had two of their longest gains called back because of penalties.
"I think we beat ourselves, really," said quarterback Tate Forcier.
True as that may be, it also seems that Forcier and his backup, Denard Robinson, have both slammed head first into a freshman wall.
Forcier was asked several times in several ways if he felt less comfortable or less confident than earlier in the season. He repeatedly answered, "No."
But, surely he must be because he has become far less effective. Granted, he's playing with a dinged up shoulder, but that's not necessarily why they often were slumped as he trotted off the field yesterday.
He did admit to making mental mistakes and shaky reads, but said he wanted Michigan fans "to expect me to play the way I played earlier in the season."
Coach Rich Rodriguez, though, knows that may not be a realistic expectation as those sunny September afternoons have turned into cold, wet, dingy October evenings.
"Sometimes a player has a little bit of success and people think, 'OK, your freshman year is over.' Well, it isn't," Rodriguez said. "He's still a freshman and these are all new experiences. Maybe we should not expect too much too soon."
Rodriguez can't possibly know what to expect of his on-again, off-again quarterback rotation. He twice inserted Robinson into the game looking for a change of pace and what he got instead were changes of possession.
But problems exist everywhere. Kevin Koger, the tight end, dropped a pass one play before Robinson threw an interception. If one doesn't happen, then maybe the other doesn't happen. Later, Robinson fumbled on the second play of the only possession he played in the second half to set up Penn State with a very short field.
"If we lose, we want to get beat at our best," said Brandon Graham, UM's defensive end. "We don't want to beat ourselves and lose like that."
There was one sequence that best illustrated how the Wolverines struggled yesterday.
Starting at its 8 yard line after a Penn State punt, UM lost three yards on a run, had a false start, threw an incompletion, had a delay of game, and then had the ball snapped before Forcier was ready in the shotgun and watched it bounce out of the end zone for a safety.
On the first play after the ensuing free kick, Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless got a step on UM linebacker Obi Ezeh and pulled in a perfect pass from quarterback Daryll Clark for a 60-yard touchdown.
Yes, there was futility for Michigan on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It wasn't all on Forcier and Robinson and dropped balls and turnovers and penalties. The Wolverines' undersized defensive line got pushed around by Penn State's running game and Clark abused the back end of UM's defense for four touchdown passes.
"It was just a bad day," said Graham.
Maybe so, but as the Big Ten gets serious, those days seem to be multiplying.
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