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Five observations from Penn State’s thrilling 28-21 victory over Michigan

With the Penn State offense struggling for much of the game, the defense had to stay on the field and appeared to be wearing out before coming up with a late goal-line stand.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford walks with wide receiver KJ Hamler to celebrate with fans after their team defeated Michigan, 28-21, at Penn State's Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford walks with wide receiver KJ Hamler to celebrate with fans after their team defeated Michigan, 28-21, at Penn State's Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – After three years of blowouts by the home team, No. 7 Penn State and No. 16 Michigan finally conjured up a thriller Saturday night amid the Beaver Stadium “White Out,” with the Nittany Lions’ late goal-line stand being the difference in a 28-21 victory that kept them undefeated.

Here are five observations from the game:

The defense was overworked

Head coach James Franklin is proud of the depth on the Penn State defense, that a constant rotation of players keeps the unit fresh for the fourth quarter. But that defense, which was on the field Saturday night for almost 38 minutes, looked as if it was dragging on Michigan’s last three possessions, a total of 29 plays. Two of the marches ended in touchdowns, but the third and final one was stopped at the Lions 3 with just over 2 minutes to play. Tied for second in the nation in sacks coming in, the defense was unable to get to quarterback Shea Patterson (one sack), and that had a lot to do with the Wolverines’ sustaining drives. But the Lions rose up and kept the potential tying touchdown off the board, and although Michigan’s Ronnie Bell dropped the fourth-down pass in the end zone, the Lions gladly will take the break.

Those maddening offensive lulls

The Nittany Lions looked as if they were going to have an easy time of it with three touchdowns on their first five possessions and a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. But the next five possessions, a stretch that continued through most of the third quarter, produced these numbers: zero points, one first down, 16 plays, 30 total yards, 7 passing yards by quarterback Sean Clifford on 1-for-8 passing, and five punts, as Michigan climbed back into it. The same kind of lull happened two weeks earlier against Purdue although the Lions weren’t really in danger after opening that game with a 28-0 lead. “I put it on myself a little bit because on third downs I thought that I missed a couple of balls that I could easily hit,” Clifford said Saturday night, adding that the team has “yet to come close to having a complete game.”

K.J. finds a way

There wasn’t much that K.J. Hamler didn’t do Saturday night, even electrifying the crowd when it didn’t count – a 100-yard return of the second-half kickoff for a touchdown that was called back by two holding penalties. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Hamler caught two touchdown passes, including a 53-yarder early in the fourth quarter that gave Penn State some breathing room, and took a hit from 218-pound Michigan safety Brad Hawkins for a first down that enabled the Lions to run out the clock. He said afterward that his favorite moment of the game was the previous play – an 8-yard slant that he caught from Clifford on a third-and-5 – another example of his value to this team.

Ugh, those rugby-style punts

It was another strong game for Penn State punter Blake Gillikin – a 44.0-yard average on eight punts, four of them inside Michigan’s 20-yard line. But the coaching staff had him attempt at least three punts “rugby style,” moving Gillikin and the three-man wall in front of him to the right to try to avoid the rush. The Wolverines seemed to have a better chance of blocking the rugby-style punts, and Gillikin apparently did not strike any of them cleanly. Franklin said there was a need to “change the pocket up and give them different looks so they just can’t tee off on your protectors and tee off on your personnel.” So evidently that style of punting will continue.

And then there were three

There hasn’t been much talk of the Nittany Lions’ moving up the ladder of contenders for the College Football Playoff, but the excitement level got a little higher after Wisconsin’s stunning loss at Illinois. The Lions are one of 10 unbeatens in FBS and one of three in the Big Ten. The Lions will visit the other two, Minnesota and Ohio State, next month, but they must take care of business before then.