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ANN ARBOR - Unlike the last two seasons, there is no embarrassing loss to a team from a lower division or one from a small-time Division I conference, smearing University of Michigan's year.
But Big Ten play remains a bugaboo for the Wolverines, who snatched their third league loss yesterday in a 35-10 setback to No. 13 Penn State at the Big House. This one, unlike near defeats at Michigan State and Iowa, was borderline ugly and marked UM's first home loss in six chances this year.
At 1-3 in the league, UM's chances of winning a title - not as though that was ever an expectation - are all but gone. Four turnovers factored into that. So did the Nittany Lions defense, which suffocated the Big Ten's top scoring offense, allowing a measly 180 total yards after the Wolverines went 70 yards on the game's first series. The Wolverines' 250 total yards were 477 fewer than they amassed in last week's crushing of Delaware State.
Yesterday's foe, though, was just a wee bit more skilled than the Championship Subdivision member Hornets.
"Just a bad day," said Brandon Graham, who individually had a productive day. "They were the better team today. We all came ready to play, and they just took advantage of our mistakes."
From here, UM (5-3 overall) will visit one-win Illinois before finishing the year with Purdue, Wisconsin and then Ohio State. If the Wolverines can find a win in that span, they will achieve bowl eligibility. But even a .500 conference record is in peril.
"It's about the way you finish," Graham said.
The day couldn't have begun more auspiciously for the home team, which drove the field seamlessly on its first drive with a mixture of runs and passes. Martavious Odoms hauled in a screen pass from Tate Forcier and made a few shifty moves for a 20-yard gain to PSU's 2. Two plays later, Brandon Minor put the Wolverines ahead with a one-yard plunge. It was the only first-half touchdown allowed by the Nittany Lions (7-1, 3-1) all season. It was also the only touchdown UM - which averages 37.3 points per game - would score all day as it manufactured just 3.4 yards per play.
"We wanted to start fast," said Greg Mathews, who had 70 yards on seven catches. "It was frustrating for it to end the way it did."
After Minor's run, PSU embarked on a four play, 63-yard drive that culminated in Daryll Clark hitting Graham Zug in the end zone for 10 yards. Linebacker Stevie Brown was beat on coverage.
"A couple of plays they had trouble lining up," Clark said of UM's defense.
Clark and Zug were just beginning. They hooked up for scores of 11 and 17 yards in the third quarter, turning a 19-10 halftime lead into a 32-10 thrashing. Collin Wagner chipped in a field goal from 29 yards in the fourth quarter for the game's final points.
Clark solidified himself as a contender for Big Ten offensive player of the year, completing 16 of 27 passes for 230 yards and matching a career-high with four touchdown passes.
"He played great," said UM's Tate Forcier, who didn't play so great. "I'm excited to see where his career goes."
Forcier threw an interception to end the game and was just 13 of 30 for 140 yards. Denard Robinson who threw an interception in two passing attempts, has now thrown four picks in 21 tries. Robinson also lost a fumble, as did Carlos Brown, whose miscue was especially harmful as it came immediately after Graham blocked a third-quarter punt in PSU territory.
UM has turned the ball over 13 times in conference play, including 11 in three losses.
"Turnovers, that's the biggest thing," Graham said. "We want to get beat at our best."
UM constructed arguably its worst drive of the year in the second quarter and watched a 10-7 deficit become 19-7. Beginning at their own 8, the Wolverines lost two yards, were flagged for holding (declined), flagged for a false start, threw an incompletion, suffered a delay of game penalty, and then snapped the ball out of end zone for a safety. David Moosman, in for David Molk (knee), snapped the ball before Forcier was ready.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Clark found Andrew Quarless open in the middle of the field for a 60-yard touchdown. Obi Ezeh was witnessed trailing Quarless.
UM coach Rich Rodriguez believes the mistakes made by his team are "correctable."
"Obviously we're disappointed, but we're not discouraged," Rodriguez said.
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