ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The word was out before Penn State even arrived Saturday at the Big House. To have any chance against fifth-ranked Michigan, the Nittany Lions would have to eradicate turnovers, limit other mistakes and take advantage of opportunities.
By the time the 42-7 rout by the Wolverines concluded before a delighted crowd of 111,747, the No. 14 Lions could look back and say they failed in all three of those areas. Sure, they were playing with a quarterback in Trace McSorley who was less than 100 percent on a bum right knee he injured last week, but there were errors aplenty.
In addition, the Michigan defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation in total yards allowed, was pretty darn good. The unit held the Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) to a season-low 186 yards, forced three turnovers including a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown by Brandon Watson, and shut them out for the first 58 minutes of the game.
The Wolverines (8-1, 6-0) remained the only unbeaten team in conference play.
The loss was the third-worst of the James Franklin era, topped only by a pair of 39-point defeats, including 49-10 against Michigan two years ago at this same venue. An 8-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Tommy Stevens with 1 minute, 59 seconds to play helped Penn State avert its first shutout since a 20-0 loss to the Wolverines on Oct. 6, 2001.
"I don't know if it was necessarily as much about Trace's knee as it was about how good they are on defense," Franklin said. "Obviously, with Trace at 100 percent, yeah, I think helps us, there's no doubt about it. But we've got to give them credit. They're the No. 1 defense in the country for a reason. That was the bigger difference tonight."
McSorley had one of his worst days, going without a touchdown rushing or passing for the first time in 36 games. He was 5 of 13 for 83 yards with one interception and a fumbled handoff to Miles Sanders – their second in as many weeks – that Michigan recovered. He netted minus-6 yards on 12 carries including four of the five sacks posted by the Wolverines.
He also made a brief visit to the injury tent on the Penn State sideline at the end of the third quarter after a 3-yard run, but returned to the field. He declined to talk about his injury after the game, but he was candid about his day.
"We played sloppy," he said. "The few opportunities we had we missed, and at times when we needed a tough play we didn't make it. We compounded it and made it worse. I didn't play near to the standard that we needed to."
McSorley was particularly frustrated when, late in the second quarter with Michigan leading, 14-0, he overthrew a wide-open DeAndre Thompkins at the 10.
"I had DeAndre wide open down the sideline that we missed," he said. "We had a fumble between me and Miles. There's a lot of stuff that we missed. Against a defense as good as they are, you just flat-out can't do that and that's going to get you beat, 42-7."
For Michigan, Shea Patterson threw two touchdown passes and ran for one. Karan Higdon rushed for 132 yards in 20 carries and a score. The Wolverines held the ball for more than 38 minutes, converted eight of 14 third-down chances, and ran 69 plays to the Lions' 47, a third straight week that the Penn State defense got worn down.
"We weren't getting those three-and-outs that we needed," linebacker Jan Johnson said. "It's little things on third down. So it's our fault we were on the field that long. It may have worn us down a little bit, but, at the end of the day, you've got to get a stop."
Safety Garrett Taylor returned a blocked field goal 65 yards for an apparent touchdown in the second quarter, but it was called back because of a illegal block penalty.
The Lions were behind by only 14-0 at the half and with 1 minute left in the third quarter, but the Wolverines then exploded for four touchdowns in an 8:12 span that included a pick-6 and a short field after an interception of McSorley that was returned to the Penn State 12.