UNIVERSITY PARK — John Butler was still in sideline mode when he entered the Beaver Stadium media room on Saturday night.
His defense, which had been much maligned after a loss to Indiana, had just put on its most memorable performance of the season and an unforgettable game — a 43-40 Penn State win over Michigan in four overtimes — was the result.
Butler was shouting. Sweat was still visible dripping off his forehead. And the Penn State defensive coordinator’s eyes were wide as he read from the box score.
“They had four overtime drives. They kicked two field goals. They missed two. We gave up two (explosive) plays when we were blitzing and other than that I think we controlled the football game,” Butler said. “We knew they were going to try to come in and run the football and they weren’t able to do that, other than (quarterback Devin) Gardner’s runs.”
Penn State consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage against the Wolverines. The Nittany Lions continuously bottled up Michigan’s Fitzgerald Toussaint who was held to just 27 yards on 27 carries. Meanwhile, quarterback Devin Gardner racked up 121 yards on 24 carries but gained 52 of those on scrambles.
Toussaint and Gardner had previously combined to average 143 rushing yards per game. Penn State’s use of five-man defensive fronts was the key to forcing Gardner and Toussaint to run horizontally rather than vertically for much of the game.
“They’re bringing big people in so we bring big people in,” Butler said.
Specifically, the Nittany Lions used regulars C.J. Olaniyan, DaQuan Jones, Kyle Baublitz, Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes and Austin Johnson. But Carl Nassib, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey also got involved along the defensive line.
Penn State got consistent penetration from its beefy look while the alignment allowed a few players — Jones and Olaniyan specifically — to shift from end to tackle routinely. Olaniyan led the team with 2 1/2 sacks while Jones notched two tackles for losses. Johnson and Barnes added tackles for losses.
“They come to our house and they wanted to run the ball against Penn State,” Zettel said. “We have a tradition here. We stop the run. We knew that all the guys were fired up and everybody worked together tonight to stop the run.”
Penn State finally got off to a quick, tone-setting start.
Save for a busted coverage in the first quarter that resulted in Michigan’s lone first-half touchdown, the Nittany Lions forced four 3-and-outs, intercepted two Gardner passes and forced a fumble. Penn State’s offense turned two of Michigan’s turnovers into 14 points.
Meanwhile, Penn State played a relatively clean first half. The Nittany Lions were ticketed for just one penalty. Michigan possessed the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than Penn State but had just 144 offensive yards to show for it.
Penn State let its big halftime lead slip away in the third quarter. The downward spiral began immediately. Zach Zwinak fumbled on Penn State’s first play from scrimmage and Frank Clark scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown to give the Wolverines life.
Hackenberg nearly threw an interception to Clark on the first play of Penn State’s next drive and was intercepted by Raymon Taylor on the next Penn State possession. The Wolverines scored 10 points off Penn State turnovers in the third quarter and outscored the Nittany Lions 17-3 in that span. After giving up a 37-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess, Penn State finally answered again with a field goal from Sam Ficken.
When Gardner hit Funchess for the 37-yard score hundreds of Penn State fans glanced at the scoreboard — Michigan 34, Penn State 24 — and decided they’d seen enough.
They made their way to the exits with 10:28 still to play. Needless to say, they missed a historic comeback. It was one of those, “You remember where you were when it happened,” kind of games. These folks could’ve said, “I was there.” Instead they’ll be saying, “I decided to leave to try to beat traffic.”
Day To Remember
Brandon Felder was in and out of the training room on campus twice a day every day this past week. Receiving treatment for his sprained ankle, the Penn State wideout was determined to return for the showdown with Michigan.
He did so in a big way.
Felder’s impact was felt right away. He caught the first pass for his team, a 10-yard gain on second-and-2 and followed that up with a touchdown grab surrounded by Michigan defenders to begin the scoring. Felder wasn’t done. He finished off Penn State’s third scoring play of the first half with a leaping grab over the helmet of Michigan cornerback Courtney Avery.
Felder finished with six catches for 97 yards.
“He means a lot,” Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a veteran receiver that’s played a lot of football for us and made a lot of big catches.”
The biggest catch came in crunch time.
On Penn State’s final drive of regulation, Hackenberg stepped up in the pocket and threw downfield toward Felder who was running through a crowd of Michigan players. He leapt and hauled in the ball over the outstretched arms of Michigan’s Channing Stribling for a highlight-reel grab that moved the chains, stopped the clock and set Penn State up at the Michigan 37-yard line.
Day To Forget
Zwinak’s third-quarter fumble was his seventh in the last 12 games and sixth one recovered by the opposing team. He also had a critical fumble in a 34-31 loss to Central Florida earlier this season.
Zwinak was not used afterward and remained on the sideline as Belton handled all running back duties.
Key Play You Already Forgot
Michigan was well within kicker Brendan Gibbons’ range with just under two minutes to go and facing third-and-9 from Penn State’s 27-yard line. It would’ve been a 44-yard kick that could’ve effectively ended the game, making it a two-possession game with less than 1:30 to play. And it could’ve been a shorter kick had the Wolverines picked up yards on the play.
But the snap never came despite Gardner getting the offense set with 12 seconds to go on the play clock.
Instead, the play clock ticked away and Michigan took a delay of game penalty that moved the offense back to the 32. Mike Hull and Brian Gaia blew up Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of 3 yards and Brady Hoke opted to punt the ball away to Penn State with 57 seconds left rather than let Gibbons try what had suddenly become a 52-yarder.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @ bytravisjohnson.