STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — One brave team finally called the Michigan football team’s number.
To this point in the season, the Wolverines had avoided a series of near upsets and notched some unconvincing wins to put themselves among the nation’s undefeated teams.
But in the wake of a 43-40, four-overtime loss Saturday at Penn State, Michigan junior Frank Clark said it best: The Wolverines couldn’t close out a convincing win. Not in overtime, and certainly not in regulation.
“We couldn’t finish,” the Wolverine defensive end said. “We had a lot of opportunities to win the game. The offense, they did as much as they could. The special teams did their job. But the defense, we should have ended the game. We missed tackles. We missed a lot of opportunities.”
The No. 18 Wolverines (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) couldn’t stop Penn State’s final drive in the fourth quarter, as Christian Hackenberg’s one-yard touchdown run helped the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-1) force overtime.
In the third overtime, Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons missed a 33-yard field goal attempt that would have otherwise wrapped up a win.
Then with Penn State at Michigan’s 11 on third-and-8 in the fourth overtime, the Wolverines committed a crucial mistake. Officials called pass interference on safety Jarrod Wilson, as he attempted to defend Penn State receiver Allen Robinson in the end zone, which put the Nittany Lions within striking distance.
On first-and-goal from the 2, running back Bill Belton took the handoff from Hackenberg, Penn State’s freshman quarterback, and scooted around the left side at the goal line to score the final touchdown.
Belton ended the game and knocked Michigan from the ranks of the undefeated. And it exposed a flaw that’s faced Michigan in its most scrutinized contests this season — the rap that they can’t close out games.
“It hurts,” said Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who finished 15 of 28 passing for 240 yards and three TDs. “But I’m so proud of my teammates. A lot of adversity happened during this game and we fought back, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Despite the return of Jake Ryan to linebacking corps, and despite rallying from an 11-point deficit at halftime, the Wolverines squandered a chance to close out what could have been a resounding win.
Michigan plodded through a first half in which it took a 10-7 lead with 49 seconds left in the first quarter on Gibbons’ 47-yard field goal, but Penn State answered on a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes by Hackenberg (23-44-2 passing, 305 yards, three touchdown passes) — Jesse James’ 20-yard catch and Brandon Felder’s 24-yard catch — to take a 21-10 lead at halftime.
“That first half was pretty frustrating,” said Gardner, whose two interceptions set up two of Penn State’s first-half touchdowns. “A few balls didn’t bounce my way. We weren’t going to let this turn into the UConn game. We came out in the second half and wanted to perform.”
Clark cut Penn State’s lead to 21-17 10 seconds into the second half when he returned a fumble for a touchdown, and after Raymon Taylor intercepted Hackenberg, Gibbons’ second field goal cut Penn State’s lead to 21-20 with 8:50 left in the third.
Sam Ficken’s 45-yard field goal stretched Penn State’s lead back to 24-20 but with 28 seconds left in the third, Gardner’s 16-yard touchdown throw to Jeremy Gallon gave Michigan a 27-24 lead. With less than 11 minutes left in the game, Gardner found Funchess’ second touchdown gave Michigan a 34-24 lead.
After Penn State cut the lead to seven on Ficken’s second field goal with 6:35 left in the fourth, the Wolverines chewed more than five minutes off the clock on their final drive of regulation, a 10-play, 31-yard drive that ended with Matt Wile punting the ball out of the end zone, which placed Penn State at its own 20.
Hackenberg completed three passes on the next four plays, including a 36-yard pass to Allen Robinson that put the Nittany Lions at the Wolverines 1 with less than 30 seconds left in regulation, and Hackenberg’s touchdown helped send the teams to overtime.
“We didn’t get to the ball, and our pass rush failed,” Clark said of defending Penn State’s final drive.
Ficken and Gibbons traded field goals in the second overtime to tie the game at 37-37, and after missing what would have been the game-ending field goal, Gibbons opened the fourth overtime with a 40-yard kick that gave Michigan a 40-37 lead.
“We had to keep fighting,” Gardner said of the field goal that Gibbons missed in the third overtime. “It wasn’t miss-or-make. We had to keep fighting. It doesn’t matter. If we’d have made it, we would have went home. Since he missed it, we kept playing.”
Even in overtime, Wolverines didn’t rest their hopes on a potential win.
“I don’t feel like it’s won until they say Michigan wins,” Clark said.
That never happened. Instead, Belton wrapped up the win for Penn State.