Michigan football runs through Penn State in top-10 domination, 41-17
The crowd roared as the 1997 national championship team lined up shoulder-to-shoulder from pylon to pylon along the north end zone.
They stood in ovation for Lloyd Carr — on the day the tunnel was named after the coach of that team — as he took his cap off in return to acknowledge the fan base. And did the same for Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner and heartbeat of the best Michigan team of the modern era, as he pounded his chest to salute the Wolverines faithful.
On the day the program honored its last national championship team, it felt, at least early on, like the Wolverines were stating their contention for another this year.
Then, adversity struck.
A 62-yard rush by quarterback Sean Clifford on third-and-1 led to one quick Penn State score. Five plays into Michigan's ensuing drive, J.J. McCarthy's pass was tipped and bounded off a helmet before it was picked off for a Nittany Lions pick-six.
The Wolverines suddenly trailed a game they had dominated for 25 minutes. But they didn't waver.
"At halftime, it was two big plays, everybody knew what the deal was," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "A mistake we made on offense resulted in a touchdown for them, and they had a big play on their quarterback read.
"It was just those two plays, so we had 30 more minutes of play and let's just keep doing what we're doing."
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The Wolverines did just that.
Michigan imposed its will against the Nittany Lions' previously No. 5-ranked rushing defense, ripping off two scores of more than 60 yards and tallying 418 yards against a unit that had given up more than 100 just once, in a 41-17 win as it cemented itself as a College Football Playoff contender for the second consecutive season.
"The beauty of our offense is we're multi-dimensional," McCarthy said, "When you're rushing for 400 yards in a game against the No. 10 team in the country, I'll sit back and be a part of that ride every single game.
The Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) are off next week, then host Michigan State on Oct. 29.
Michigan struggles to capitalize early
The disparity in the first half in offensive stats was striking. The Wolverines had more first downs (18-1). They had more yards (274-83). They had more snaps (50-14) and had a massive edge in time of possession, nearly 24 minutes to six.
Still, it remained close, in part because Michigan couldn't quite make timely plays in the red zone early.
"Obviously the first half, we wish it went a little different way scoreboard-wise," McCarthy said. "But I mean they only had one first down and we had 18, so we'll take that any day of the week."
On the Wolverines' first drive, they faced third-and-3 from the Penn State 11. Donovan Edwards motioned from the slot toward the backfield, then as McCarthy called for the snap, ran a swing route back out to the left side. But McCarthy sailed the pass over his head, and Michigan settled for a 29-yard Jake Moody field goal.
The Wolverines then went 77 yards on 13 plays, but the key play came on second-and-goal from the 2. Blake Corum took the handoff left, but Penn State's Ji'Ayir Brown pushed through left tackle Ryan Hayes to blow up the play in the backfield for a loss of 3 yards.
Corum then was tackled on a shovel pass on third down, forcing Michigan to accept another short field goal by Moody from 24 yards.
Michigan capitalized on a long drive on its third possession, going 70 yards on 13 plays as Corum pounded in a 1-yard touchdown for a 13-0 lead. The Wolverines knew they were going to control the line of scrimmage.
"From the jump, from the first drive," McCarthy said. "The way (the line) was moving them off the ball, they weren't showing us anything we hadn't seen before.
"I knew it would be a dogfight in the trenches, and our guys pulled out for sure."
On Michigan's final red zone appearance in the first half, Corum was stuffed on a third-and-1 run up the middle and Moody knocked in the 23-yard kick with two seconds in the half to take a 16-14 lead.
Big plays tell the story
More than 20 minutes into the game, Penn State (5-1, 2-1) was lifeless. The Nittany Lions had been outgained 196-9, Michigan had run 35 plays to Penn State's six and had 13 first downs before Clifford and company had one.
That changed three plays later after a well-executed run-pass option.
On third-and-1, Clifford appeared to hand off to Kaytron Allen and as the Wolverines defense converged, the sixth-year signal caller had nothing but turf in front of him. Clifford scampered from his own 34 to Michigan's 4 for a gain of 62 yards before he was chased down by Gemon Green.
Four plays later, Allen scored from 1 yard out.
The next big play came from the Nittany Lions' defense.
McCarthy rolled right on third-and-2 and tried to find Corum in the flat, but the intended pass was swatted by Chop Robinson, bounced off PJ Mustipher's helmet and landed in the waiting arms of Curtis Jacobs, who ran it back 47 yards for the touchdown to give Penn State a 14-13 lead.
"Our spirits were up," center Olusegun Oluwatimi said. "We knew that we beat ourselves because we put on a pretty good performance in the first half, so we just wanted to come out in the second half and execute and we felt like we did that."
It was the last time the Nittany Lions would have any true momentum, as the big plays in the second half all went Michigan's way.
With 11:12 left in the third quarter, after Michigan forced Penn State to settle for a field goal on its first possession, the Wolverines got their first big play.
Edwards ran right behind a pulling Oluwatimi and Zak Zinter got a block in the second level which allowed Edwards to go untouched and high-step into the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown. A 2-point conversion on a screen pass from McCarthy to Ronnie Bell made it 24-17.
"The offensive guard took the corner, the tackle took the linebacker and the gap was so wide open," Edwards said. "I just hit it, then you're one-on-one with the safety. like, what are you going to do with that, are you going to win or are you going to be tackled?
"Then just took it for however long the touchdown was."
Michigan's next offensive touch was a 61-yard touchdown run, this time by Corum. Oluwatimi and Zinter were in the middle of it again. The center and right guard opened a mammoth hole up the middle, Colson Loveland pulled across the formation and sealed a would-be tackler from the weak side, and Corum outran the defense to the end zone.
Rushing attack too much to handle
The two long touchdown scores were the first time two Michigan ball carriers had scored from 60-plus yards since Nov. 4, 2017 against Minnesota — Karan Higdon (77 yards) and Chris Evans (60 yards) did it en route to 200 yards and 191 yards, respectively — but it was much more than just the two big plays.
Edwards had five rushes that went for at least 10 yards. Corum had four. McCarthy had two. CJ Stokes had one.
Out of 55 total attempts, just six went for zero or negative yards (and two of those came late in the fourth with Michigan running out the clock). The Wolverines ran for 418 yards — an average of 7.6 per attempt — as Edwards led the way on a career day: 16 carries for 173 yards and two scores.
"All praises goes to the lord, I'm tremendously blessed," he said. "I feel like I've been praying for a game like this for a while now, and I just had to sit back and wait my turn and show the world what I'm capable of being able to do."
Corum finished with 28 carries for 166 yards, and McCarthy chipped in seven rushes for 57 yards.
It was the first time the Wolverines ran for at least 400 yards against a Big Ten team since 2016, when U-M dusted Rutgers, 78-0.
"Like coach Harbaugh said in the locker room, it was a butt-kicking in every which way a butt can be kicked," McCarthy said. "This was in our house and we take pride in that and protect our house."