STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – No. 7 Penn State was hanging on for dear life against 16th-ranked Michigan Saturday night after taking a 21-0 lead, and the Beaver Stadium “White Out” crowd of 110,669 was gasping for air praying that their seventh-ranked Nittany Lions could hold on.
Somehow they did. Their offense generated a 53-yard touchdown pass from Sean Clifford to KJ Hamler early in the fourth quarter, and the Lions defense mounted a goal line stand that left the Wolverines 3 yards short of the tying touchdown to secure a 28-21 victory.
“I think that stop was obviously critical and guys made plays when we needed to,” head coach James Franklin said after the Nittany Lions improved to 7-0, 4-0 in the Big Ten, and looked to rise again in the polls after previously undefeated No. 6 Wisconsin was upset at Illinois.
“We made some adjustments, they made some adjustments. It was a chess match all night long. But at the end of the day our guys were able to step up and make critical plays at critical moments, and at the end of the game obviously the goal line stand was a huge part of it.
Clifford threw three touchdown passes – two to Hamler – and ran for a fourth while completing 14 of 25 throws for 182 yards. Hamler had a big game with six catches for 108 yards, and gained 4 yards on a third-down rush that earned the Lions a first down and allowed them to run out the clock.
The 175-pound Hamler took on 218-pound Michigan safety Josh Metellus off left tackle and made it with a yard to spare.
“I was telling everybody on the offense, ‘This is how legends are made. We’ve got to something legendary right now,’” Hamler said. “I know last year we lost the ‘White Out’ so I just wasn’t going back home with a loss under my belt. Us as a team, we stuck it out. We ride together, we die together.
“I haven’t played running back since Little League, so that was something new for me. But I got up and I think I’m a tough guy. It was a hard hit but I had to do what I had to do for the team.”
Clifford hit Pat Freiermuth for a 17-yard touchdown and ran in himself from 2 yards out to give Penn State an early 14-0 lead, and found Hamler for 25 yards midway through the second quarter for a 21-0 lead. But the Wolverines (5-2, 3-2) came back on a pair of 12-yard runs by freshman Zach Charbonnet to close the gap to 21-14 entering the fourth quarter.
The Lions regained a two-touchdown advantage on Clifford’s 53-yard bomb to Hamler less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, but Michigan got it back to within seven on a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Shea Patterson on fourth down with 8 minutes, 48 seconds to play.
After Penn State went three and out, the Wolverines took over at the Lions 47. Patterson hit Nico Collins on fourth down to keep the drive alive and move the ball to the Penn State 21. A 10-yard pass from Patterson to Erick All gave Michigan a first-and-goal at the 7.
The Wolverines got to the 3, from where Patterson threw incomplete on third down. On fourth down, Patterson was rushed by Yetur Gross-Matos, and threw low in the end zone to Ronnie Bell, a pass that was broken up by Lions safety Lamont Wade.
“I knew they weren’t going to run what they usually do,” Wade said. “They usually do 7-cuts in the end zone. So I put my money on a slant playing inside leverage. I was there, I stuck to him and was able to get (the ball) out.”
The Nittany Lions got on the scoreboard first, thanks to two perfectly thrown passes by Clifford. First the redshirt sophomore found Jahan Dotson down the left sideline for 37 yards to the Wolverines 17. On the next play, Clifford went to the right side to Freiermuth in the end zone for the touchdown.
On Penn State’s next possession, a 44-yard run by Ricky Slade touched off a 64-yard drive. Clifford ran for 10 yards on a third-and-8 to get the ball to the 8, and two offside penalties against Michigan moved the ball to the 2. Clifford took it in from there.
An interception by Tariq Castro-Fields put the Lions back in business at their own 49, and the Clifford-to-Hamler connection worked twice – once for 18 yards to the Michigan 32, and later on a 25-yard pass to the speedy sophomore in the left portion of the end zone.
That made the score 21-0 with 7:22 left in the first half, but the Wolverines answered with a 75-yard drive for their first points of the night. Patterson found Collins for 30 yards to get them into Penn State territory.
An apparent touchdown was called back because of an ineligible-man-downfield penalty, but a pass-interference penalty against Penn State gave Michigan the ball at the 12, and Charbonnet went over the right side for the touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-7.
The Lions stalled offensively after going up 21-0, gaining 29 yards and making one first down on their next five possessions, all of them ending with punts.