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October 12, 2013If there's numbness beyond pain, Michigan's football players and coaches might have been feeling it as night crept over a valley that shouldn't have been happy, but wound up delirious. Penn State's improbable, unthinkable, at times ridiculous ramble to a 43-40 quadruple-overtime win was one for Nittany Lions fans to remember.
And one everyone else will try desperately to forget.
When Penn State's Bill Belton swept around left end for the final two yards of the game - and the only touchdown in overtime - the valley exploded. So did Michigan's undefeated record, the Wolverines (5-1) getting bounced from the unbeaten in the most unbelievable fashion.
"We had opportunities throughout the game," U-M head coach Brady Hoke acknowledged. "We had opportunities, we missed tackles. We had opportunities to make a play on the ball. We had opportunities to hit a hole a little better. We had opportunities to finish blocks. There's no doubt."
They saw opportunities collapse in a three-turnover first half when they dug a 21-10 hole. They missed opportunities to put the game away after they'd roared back to a 34-24 lead. And they still had a chance to cash in opportunities at the end, but placekicker Brendan Gibbons went just 2-for-4 in overtime on field goals, with one blocked.
Gibbons will have plenty of company, though, in wondering about the failure to finish.
"I don't think the game is won until they say Michigan wins," noted junior defensive end Frank Clark. "Unfortunately, we failed."
Clark appeared to have set the Wolverines up for a win in the third overtime, diving on an Allen Robinson fumble on an end around. That meant Michigan needed just a field goal to head home victorious.
But Gibbons shoved a 33-yard attempt wide left, extending the game. He cashed in from 40 yards out in the fourth overtime, but Penn State didn't settle for a field goal. Running behind Belton (27 carries, 85 yards) and getting a key end zone pass interference call against sophomore safety Jerrod Wilson, the Nittany Lions finished U-M off.
"Both teams kept sticking around," Hoke said. "So it's a tough one every time you go into overtime, but we've got to move forward."
Penn State kicker Sam Ficken opened the door in the very first overtime, missing a 40-yard attempt. But Penn State's Kyle Baublitz blocked Gibbon's 40-yard chance to win it. Both kickers connected in the second overtime, Gibbons from 25 and Ficken from 36.
Most reviewing the tape will wonder how it ever came to that - perhaps both ways.
U-M desperately needed a jumpstart, coming into the second half down 21-10, and the Nittany Lions fumbled over instant electricity. On the opening play of the half, sophomore linebacker James Ross III poked the football away from PSU running back Zach Zwinak.
Clark scooped it up, cut past a flailing would-be tackler, and dashed 24 yards for a touchdown. Ten seconds into the second half, moribund Michigan sprung to life.
"I was just in the right position at the right time," Clark said. "My teammates did their job and forced the fumble, and I was in the right place at the right time doing my job, and I took it in."
Moments later, Michigan's defense took over again. Junior cornerback Raymon Taylor slashed in front of a sideline route, picking off a Christian Hackenberg throw and returning it four yards to the Penn State 26. After redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner's 18-yard scramble to the 8, the Wolverines were staring at a defense-generated lead.
But on a crucial first-and-goal, Gardner's helmet popped off on a two-yard gain. His mandatory play out of the lineup resulted in a two-yard loss, and Gardner's third-down throw tumbled off sophomore tight end Devin Funchess' hands in the end zone.
Michigan settled for Gibbons' 23-yard field goal, pulling the Wolverines within one, 21-20. Ficken answered that with a 45-yarder of his own.
Gardner then directed a 10-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, finding fifth-year senior wideout Jeremy Gallon (seven catches, 95 yards, one TD) for a 16-yard touchdown toss with just 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter. A crucial pass interference call on PSU's Adrian Amos defending Gallon moved the chains early, and Gardner kept them moving, cover 22 yards on the ground himself before gunning to an open No. 21.
Ficken missed a 47-yard field goal that would have tied it with 13:09 remaining. When Gardner (15-for-28, 240 yards, three touchdowns) saw his next big opportunity, he didn't miss.
Driving the Wolverines from their own 30 to the Penn State 37, Gardner got time to throw, stepped up and fired a strike down the middle to Funchess (four catches, 112 yards, two touchdowns).
Michigan's blast back carried it to a 34-24 edge with 10:28 remaining.
Ficken nailed a 43-yard field goal with 6:35 left, giving the Nittany Lions an apparent last glimmer of life. As it turns out, they had far more than a glimmer.
U-M appeared well on its way to running out the clock on a final drive, but bogged down, turning it back over the Penn State at its 20 with 50 seconds remaining in regulation. Hackenberg (23-for-44, 305 yards, three touchdowns) used those seconds to utterly stun everyone watching.
He fired a 29-yard bomb to Brandon Felder, off the hands of leaping freshman cornerback Channing Stribling, who appeared set to pick it off. Hackenberg then unleashed a 33-yard rainbow to Robinson, who caught it at the apex of his leap at the U-M 1. Hackenberg then crashed across from one yard out, shockingly tying the game with 27 seconds left.
That final, 52-yard field goal attempt by Gibbons fell short, setting up a surreal series of overtimes.
The Wolverines experienced an agonizing flashback to earlier misery. Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas jumped a sideline route by Gallon, picking the ball off and setting the Nittany Lions up on the U-M 14.
Three plays later, Hackenberg fired a 12-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Felder. Less than six minutes into the game, the Wolverines were clawing out of an unhappy hole in Happy Valley.
Gardner answered by bombing one down the middle to a wide-open Funchess. The 59-yarder made it 7-7 at the 8:19 mark, and Michigan announced its belated arrival.
Gibbons' 47-yard field goal made it 10-7 with 49 seconds left in the first quarter. Moments later, another ugly giveaway struck.
Gardner floated a pass that Penn State defensive end Anthony Zettel gladly accepted, setting his team up at the Michigan 20. Hackenberg didn't hesitate, immediately gunning a touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James for the go-ahead score.
The Nittany Lions didn't have to rob this stagecoach. The Wolverines were tossing the gold overboard, and knew they needed to stop.
Penn State's offense didn't stop, proving it could score on its own. Hackenberg directed a 10-play, 61-yard drive, capped by a 24-yard touchdown pass to Felder, putting the Nittany Lions up, 21-10, with 7:06 remaining in the first half.
A third Gardner turnover - forced by a blindside sack from defensive end C.J. Olaniyan and recovered by defensive tackle DaQuan Jones - ended a U-M foray to the Penn State 20, and the Wolverines went to halftime locker room searching for some way out of an avalanche of miscues.
They found it, and looked ready to win, perhaps comfortably. Then it all fell apart down the stretch.
"I don't think we finished well," a clearly pained Gardner offered.
The understatement, as striking as the Wolverines' fall, said it all.