ANN ARBOR, October 15—A three-quarter sleeper turned into a fourth quarter thriller as the #8 Nittany Lions (6-1, 3-1 Big 10) lost to the unranked Michigan Wolverines (4-3, 2-2) in the final second, 27-25. In the first three quarters, both teams squandered opportunities to score, and as the fourth quarter opened, the score was 10-3 in Michigan’s favor. Penn State had been held scoreless in the first half, and could only muster a field goal in the third quarter. Then, all hell broke loose in the fourth quarter. And in the end, it was not the offense, but the vaunted defense that let us down.
Michael Robinson could have been the goat, due to the return of turnoveritis. Robinson had one fumble and had one ill-advised pass intercepted. However, Robinson was more hero than goat, gutting out two touchdowns and running for several third and fourth down conversions. So no, don’t pin this loss on Robinson. Despite some erratic passing and the turnovers. Michael did his job.
The turnovers were expected by this Turkey. Since friend RD was not able to make it to the usual viewing drunkfest, the break in tradition caused a return to the beginning of the season turnover spree. Call it the Thrush Effect. (If you can’t explain something with logic, employ metaphysical bullshit, I always say. But this one was predicted by The Turkey.)
Special team play was a big letdown that could have cost us the game. The luck of the Irish was with neither Notre Dame (which lost to USC in the final seconds) nor with pint-sized, freshman kicker Kevin Kelly on this day. Had he made one of the two missed first half field goals, this column would have been a happy one. But even the best kickers miss field goals. I’ll give Kelly a break because he is a freshman, playing for the first time at a hostile stadium filled with 111,249 people. Other special team screw-ups and special team coaching were not as easy to explain.
Why, for example, did Calvin Lowry call for a fair catch of a second quarter Michigan punt at the 20 yard-line, then get out of the way so the ball could dribble down to the 5 and be downed? The ensuing drive went 67 yards and ended with one of Kelly’s missed field goals. Had the drive started at the 20, the results might have been different.
Moreover, special teams kickoff return coverage—or lack of same—might have cost Penn State the game on Michigan’s final series. What kind of coaching directs that a kickoff should go straight to one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous kick returners, Steve Breaston, at such a crucial time? Whose decision was this game of Russian Roulette, this display of in-yo-face machismo with a group of weary defenders. Alas, the bullet was in the breech this time. Breaston returned the kickoff 40 yards to near midfield to give Michigan prime field position for what would be their game winning drive.
The defense had its moments, but it let us down in the final second. In that fateful, final play our “cover corner,” Alan Zemaitis, couldn’t cover a cutting freshman receiver, Mario Manningham. Our four man rush was effectively blocked by the Michigan offensive line, which has been decimated by injuries. We did not blitz. Henne saw the defense he wanted and he did what good quarterbacks do—he threw to an open spot and let his receiver make the play. Our ace, senior cornerback wound up being Manningham-handled by a freshman.
However, Zemaitis was also responsible for one of the high points of the game. Early in the fourth quarter, at the end of a 7-yard Henne run, Zemaitis stripped the ball—literally taking it out of Henne’s hands while he was on the way down—and ran it 35 yards for a touchdown. The excitement continued in the execution of the extra point. In what started out as a routine PAT play, the snap was botched and Kelly had to pick up the ball and run. The little leprechaun sprinted left and appeared to be looking for an opportunity to pass when he bolted for the end zone. He made it in barely touched. For a brief moment, the luck of the Irish was with Kelly.
The touchdown and two-pointer put Penn State ahead 18-10, which made this Turkey feel quite comfortable. After all, the great Nittany Lions defense always comes through and it was not without significant struggle that the Wolverines had put their 10 points on the scoreboard. However, that comfort level was to be short lived. Kelly kicked off—once again, directly to Breaston, who returned it 13 yards to the Michigan 28. That was the beginning of a five-play touchdown drive that took less than two minutes and culminated in a 33-yard pass play from Henne to Manningham. This time, Manningham beat freshman cornerback/receiver Justin King.
Our defense let us down once again on the ensuing two-point try, looking disarrayed and unprepared as they lined up. Was this not the most obvious situation for a two-point conversion in the recorded history of football? Why were they not ready? Were they so spooked by the 33 yard touchdown reception that they couldn’t get out there to defend the conversion attempt? I think everybody in the stadium knew that a) Michigan would go for two, and b) the ball would go to Mike Hart. Everybody but the Penn State defense, apparently. The two-pointer succeeded with Hart running it right up the gut. Score tied 18-18.
On the next series, the Nittany Lions were unsuccessful and the ensuing Kapinos punt was returned 23 yards by—you guessed it—Breaston. The Michigan drive resulted in a field goal and they took the lead 21-18.
This was followed by Robinson’s second down interception, which didn’t have to be. The outlet man, Tony Hunt, was open up the middle for what would have been an easy toss for a first down. Instead, either Robinson didn’t see him or his coaches wanted the long ball—whatever it was, the ball was intercepted.
Michigan’s drive stalled at the Penn State 34. Garrett Rivas, the Wolverines’ erratic kicker, lined up to kick a field goal, but took a direct snap and punted instead, giving the Nittany Lions the ball at their own 20 with fewer than three minutes on the clock.
What followed was what should have been a brilliant, 81-yard, game winning touchdown drive. After Robinson ran the ball into the end zone and Kelly kicked the extra point, Penn State led by four with 37 seconds left in the game. Penn State 25, Michigan 21.
You know what happened from that point. The kickoff to Breaston, the drive, the score. Final score, Michigan 27, Penn State 25.
Against my better judgment (who ever said I had such a thing?) I will include some commentary about officiating. After all, grousing about bad calls never won a game for anybody. Usually, bad calls come down fairly evenly, with both teams equally affected. However, partisan fans being partisan fans, they don’t see the questionable calls that benefit their team—only the ones that go against them. Those are the ones they talk about. I am as guilty as anybody else. Nevertheless, I thought that there were several calls that went completely Michigan’s way. The first was a non-call, in which Tony Hunt’s face mask was clearly grabbed by a tackler. Then, there were some screwy spots—why did it seem like Michigan got the benefit of the doubt on their close third down plays with the ball being spotted past the first down marker while Penn State’s spots in similar situations seemed to be just short? As it turned out, the biggest call of all was the referee’s decision to add two seconds to the clock after being lobbied by Michigan coach Lloyd Carr with 28 seconds left. Without them, the clock would have run out before the Wolverines had the chance to make their final score. All right. That’s enough bitching about officiating. I just added it because it was on my mind, but it’s not going to change anything. It will be interesting to see whether Paterno has anything to say about it in his Tuesday press conference.
What a pity! Penn State fans, after a severe drought, were looking forward to great things after a 6-0 start. Many—against this Turkey’s strong advice—had already made travel plans to Pasadena. Sports Illustrated had just picked Penn State to be in the Fiesta Bowl. (They, too, did not listen to this Turkey, who said that a BCS bowl would be a serious stretch this year.) A couple of the computer rankings that comprise the BCS—which has been described by Paterno as a “joke”—listed Penn State as #1. One fantasy scenario that entered more than a few minds was a post-season chance to get even with equally resurgent Alabama for what they did to the Lions in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Many thought that one more perfect, national championship contending season would be what JoePa needed to go out in style. Well, not this year.
The Nittany Lions seemed like a lock for the Big Ten championship after the Ohio State game. Now the Big Ten picture is muddled. Penn State, Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa now all have one conference loss. The Badgers are giving outgoing coaching legend Barry Alvarez a respectable season as a going-away present. How big is that PSU-Wisconsin game on November 5 now? But let me not get caught up in constructing scenarios for Penn State to win the Big Ten championship. The Big Ten is a mess and nobody in their right mind—not that the Turkey fits that description—could even begin to have an idea of what might happen the rest of the season.
The deflation of the Penn State fans’ bubble will be confirmed when the polls come out today. PSU will no doubt sink to the mid-teens, a more comfortable place.
This was a great game. Both teams played their asses off. It’s too bad that the outcome had to go the other way.
Now, the Lions must guard against the inevitable letdown as they travel to Champaign for a battle with the hapless Fighting Illini (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten), whose only two victories were early season, non-conference wins against Rutgers and San Jose State. After being run out of the State of Florida, Ron Zook does not seem to be doing very well in Illinois. For the Nittany Lions, however, this is not a game to be overlooked. They will be bruised and battle scarred from the Michigan game, whereas the Illini are coming off a bye week. This Turkey fervently hopes that the Lions can get back to their winning ways next Saturday night in Champaign.
Well, that’s it for this week. In the words of ABC announcer Brad Nessler, “It’s a shame that somebody has to win a game like this.”