ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The start was good. The early effort was promising. The end result was the same for the second game straight for Penn State’s football team.
An inability to mount a meaningful drive late coupled with the constant bushwhacking of quarterback Christian Hackenberg — who was sacked six more times — doomed the Nittany Lions in an 18-13 loss to the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas, we really do,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We knew we were going to have some challenges up front but there’s been enough talking about that. We’ve got to start getting better and we’ve got to get it fixed, fast.”
A hopeful first half wherein Penn State’s offensive line helped clear the way for 55 rushing yards — the team had 50 through four quarters in its last game — helped Penn State to a halftime advantage.
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Sam Ficken finished off Penn State’s opening drive with a 35-yard field goal, then added a 32-yarder in the second quarter. Receiver DaeSean Hamilton hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to give Penn State a 13-10 lead at the break.
But that momentum was halted by Michigan’s defense as soon as the third quarter began. Penn State did nothing with seven second-half possessions.
The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) punted four times, turned the ball over on downs on a poorly executed fake punt and Hackenberg was intercepted on Penn State’s third drive of the second half, a turnover Michigan turned into the tying field goal. While the Nittany Lions failed to approach the red zone each time they got the ball back, Michigan continued to chip away at Penn State’s lead.
Hackenberg was pressured and threw back across the field where Jourdan Lewis intercepted his pass and set Michigan up at Penn State’s 28-yard line. Penn State’s defense only gave up three yards and Matt Wile kicked a 42-yard field goal that tied the game. Hackenberg’s seventh interception this season was a result of him being under almost constant duress, Franklin said.
“We start falling into some bad habits because he’s getting hit too much,” Franklin said. “He’s getting sacked too much. He’s getting too many pressures in his face. Obviously, we’ve either got to take the sack or throw it away. We’ve got to reserve the right to punt.”
But Penn State couldn’t do that right, either.
The Nittany Lions went backward on their next possession and punter Chris Gulla booted the ball just 26 yards to set Michigan’s offense up at Penn State’s 46. Luckily for Penn State, quarterback Devin Gardner had to exit the game for Michigan’s next possession and third-string quarterback Russell Bellomy entered and ran a conservative game plan that got the Wolverines just one yard on three plays.
A run to the line of scrimmage started Penn State’s next drive and Hackenberg was flung to the ground by Michigan’s 277-pound Frank Clark on the next play. Gulla entered again a play later and managed a 29-yard punt to give Michigan possession at midfield again.
Gardner came back in and led a six-play, 29-yard drive that ended in a Wile field goal from 37 yards out. It gave the Wolverines the lead for good with 11:24 left.
Penn State’s offensive futility continued. The Nittany Lions’ final drive featured a second-and-seven play in which Hackenberg flung the ball away under heavy pressure from a blitzing Jake Ryan. Hackenberg was called for intentional grounding and was sacked hard by Clark again at Penn State’s three-yard line. With 1:43 left, Penn State was forced to take a safety by snapping the ball out of the back of the end zone to try and set up an onsides kick.
It appeared Mike Hull recovered it for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions were called offsides and forced to kick again. Michigan recovered.
Penn State capitalized early on a turnover when defensive tackle and Michigan native Anthony Zettel intercepted a Gardner screen pass. Penn State turned it into Hamilton’s touchdown. Hull nearly had an interception of his own in the second half but wasn’t able to haul in a short throw from Gardner.
Afterward, Franklin credited his team’s defense for keeping Penn State in the game. Michigan’s offense finished with 256 yards on 57 plays to Penn State’s 214 on 68.
“I think the defense has been playing really well,” Hull said. “Zettel made a really big play for us. I think we need to keep making more big plays if we want to get to where we want to get. Good isn’t good enough anymore. We need to start creating turnovers on defense.”
The win snapped a three-game skid for the Wolverines (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten).
“We’re going to enjoy this,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.