STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – With Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford taking a frightful beating from Michigan’s ferocious pass rush, the points were hard to come by for the Nittany Lions for what seemed like the longest time.
But it was the three points that the Lions didn’t get, a miserable failed fake field goal try in the first quarter, that came back to eventually bite the home team, and the Wolverines came up with a clutch 47-yard touchdown pass from Cade McNamara to Erick All with 3 minutes, 29 seconds left in a 21-17 victory at Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) didn’t score its first – and only – touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter on Clifford’s 2-yard pass to backup tight end Tyler Warren on a fourth-and-goal, and a two-point conversion pass from Clifford to Jahan Dotson tying the game at 14 with 7:35 to play.
The Lions got the ball back when defensive end Arnold Ebiketie forced a fumble on his sack of McNamara and tackle Derrick Tangelo recovered at the Michigan 16, leading to Jordan Stout’s 31-yard field goal with 5:55 left that made it 17-14.
But the Wolverines (9-1, 6-1) came right back with a six-play drive. From the Penn State 47, McNamara found All by himself as Lions defenders Daequan Hardy and Kalen King collided. The 245-pound tight end dashed down the sideline for the TD.
Needing a touchdown to take the lead instead of a field goal, the Nittany Lions’ last possession went nowhere, gaining eight yards to their own 33, but a fourth-down pass from Clifford went incomplete and the Wolverines ran out the clock, sending Penn State down to its fourth loss in their last five games.
McNamara threw three touchdown passes on the day and completed 19 of 29 for 217 yards. Clifford went 23 of 43 for 205 yards and the one score to Warren.
Clifford’s bruising day
Penn State’s fifth-year senior was sacked seven times and leveled at least that many on other occasions. Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and defensive end/linebacker David Ojabo, who entered the game with 15 combined sacks, added five more Saturday. Clifford was sacked three times alone on the Lions’ opening drive of the game, an indication of how things were going to go.
Clifford hung in long enough to lead a clutch fourth-quarter drive to the tying points with the help of three fourth-down conversions. The final one resulted in a 2-yard TD pass to Warren. Clifford followed with a pretty back-shoulder throw to Dotson near the right sideline of the end zone, and the score was tied at 14.
But the entire game was like an uphill battle for Clifford, who had nine designed runs or scrambles in addition to the seven sacks, netting a total of 16 yards. However, he showed his gritty nature time and again amid the pass rush.
“We knew their defensive ends were going to be a problem,” head coach James Franklin said. “I thought for the most part we battled, but obviously Sean got hit too many times. But those two defensive ends, you can make the argument maybe the best combination of two defensive ends in the country.”
Faking it up
Franklin went with two fake attempts in the kicking game in the first quarter, to opposite results. The second, a fake field goal attempt from the Michigan 2 when Stout came on to apparently try a chip-shot 20-yard field goal, was a colossal failure.
Holder Rafael Checa rose after taking the snap and threw a backwards pass to Stout, whose running style didn’t remind anyone of Saquon Barkley. The Wolverines had Stout bottled up and as he tried to reverse his field, he fumbled and Michigan’s Daxton Hill recovered at the 29. The loss was 18 yards, and Penn State did not have three points that could have helped them later on.
Franklin said the pass was to Stout’s back hip and he was not able to catch it in stride.
“The margin of error is really small,” he said. “I’d make the call again but obviously, it wasn’t successful. We were going to call the game today in an aggressive way to give us the best chance to win the game. We got to find ways to execute, and we got to do a better job coaching.”
On their first possession, the Lions had fourth-and-six at the Michigan 39, and went for a fake punt in which Stout threw a floating pass that linebacker Curtis Jacobs somehow caught for an 18-yard gain, setting up a field goal by Stout.
Stout kicked field goals of 42, 52 and 31 yards, but his 43-yard attempt in the third quarter clanged off the right upright and fell to the ground, no good.
Many plays, few points
Penn State’s first two possessions of the game covered 13 and 14 plays but all that activity resulted in just three points. The first drive was stymied by three sacks of Clifford but the Nittany Lions did manage to convert third down plays of 24 yards on a Clifford to Parker Washington pass, and 13 yards on a draw play by the quarterback. Clifford threw a 19-yard pass to Theo Johnson and ran on an 18-yard scramble, resulting in a first and goal at the 10. Clifford and Johnson connected again on a third-down completion of seven yards to the 2, from where the fake field goal high-jinks were carried out.
In the meantime, Michigan’s first two drives going with the wind resulted in a pair of three-and-outs.