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Penn State Nips Michigan: Was it Luck…or the Residue of Design?

by on October 20, 2019 1:30 AM

Sometimes, you gotta be a little lucky.

Even when you jump out to a 21-0 lead and are clearly the better team.

Luck helps, though.

Like when Michigan is just seven yards away from a potential tying TD in the final minutes, nearly erasing a 21-point deficit in the process. 

But they gain just four yards. In four plays.

Like when Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell initially grabs a pass in the end zone that would have pulled the Wolverines to within an extra point of a 28-28 tie with 121 seconds left in regulation. 

But he dropped it. After Lamont Wade tried to punch it out.

Like when your offense goes into Whiteout hibernation and your quarterback goes through a 1-for-8 spurt and you have five consecutive drives for all of 45 yards and you only gain 16 total yards in the third quarter.

And you hold onto your lead.

Like when the visitors make a bunch of self-inflicted U-Mistakes — like getting rattled before running the first play from scrimmage (calling timeout), getting penalized eight times, throwing a pick in muddled mess of a screen and trying a 58-yard field goal. 

Or like when Michigan ran off 82 plays (to just 54 for Penn State) and held a massive 15-and-a-half minute advantage in time of possession — 37 minutes and 45 seconds to just 22:15 for Penn State. 

But the Wolverines scored just 21 points, compared to 28 for Penn State.


Or, maybe, it wasn’t luck at all.

Maybe, it was by James Franklin’s design. Isn't luck, as they say, the residue of design?

Maybe Penn State won for the seventh time this season following basically the same template:

1. Strong defense, especially when it counted.

A strong Penn State defense gave up three long drives on Michgan’s final three possessions. The Wolverines went 65 yards in eight plays and 3:10 to pull within 21-14 on a 12-yard run by Zach Charbonnet in the third quarter. They then went 75 yards in nine plays in 4:26 and scored on quarterback Shea Patterson’s 1-yard run to pull within 28-21 midway through the fourth quarter.

But when final push came to last shove, Michigan took 12 plays and 4:53 to cover 44 yards —   when they needed to go 47 yards.

“That stop was huge,” said Franklin, throwing a nod to Michigan O-coordinator Josh Gattis, a former long-time CJF assistant at Vanderbilt and PSU: “I thought they had a good plan. And they’re talented, there’s no doubt about it. That stop at the end was obviously crucial. Guys made plays when they needed to…Our guys were able to step up and made critical plays at critical times.”

Just like earlier in the season, when a Nittany Lion goal line stand in the fourth quarter held off Pitt.

2. Unleashing K.J. Hamler.

In an appearance on GameDay Saturday morning, Franklin said his goal was to get Hamler “10-12 touches” a game. Against Michigan, Hamler finished with 13. And Penn State needed every one of them.

Hamler caught touchdown passes of 25 and 53 yards from Sean Clifford, finishing with six receptions for 108 yards. He ran twice for six yards, gaining four crucial yards on a third-and-3 in the final minute for a game-clinching first down. Hamler also had kickoff returns of 40 and 25 yards, and he returned three punts for seven yards. In total, that’s 13 touches for 186 yards. 

“The one thing that probably surprised me the most tonight is him turning into a power back at the end of the game there lowering the shoulder and hammering that thing in there,” Franklin said. “I didn’t expect that all 137 pounds of him — or whatever he is.” 

3. Scoring big on explosive plays.

In addition to Hamler’s two TD catches, tight end Pat Freiermuth caught a 17-yard TD from Clifford in the first quarter.

And while Jahan Dotson’s 37-yard grab wasn’t for a score, it did set up the Freiermuth TD. Same goes for a a 44-yard burst by Ricky Slade — remember him? — in the first quarter; it led to a two-yard scoring run by Clifford and a 14-0 lead.

“It really came down to hitting explosive plays against that defense,” Franklin said.  

4. “We were able to win the field position battle,” Franklin said. “We were able to win the turnover battle. We were able to win the penalty battle. And we won the explosive play battle by a very small margin.”

Field position: Michigan started its average drive from its own 23, while Penn State’s average drive began at its 27. Michigan, however started more drives pinned inside its own 20 (five: at its own 6, 10, 10, 14 and 15), while Penn State started inside its on 20 just twice, one of them on its final possession of the game, after the Nittany D stuffed the Wolverines. 

Turnovers: Penn State did not turn over the ball for the second time in 2019, while Michigan threw one interception (a pick by PSU’s Tariq Castro-Fields), which led to Penn State’s third TD and a 21-0 lead. Penn State is plus-4 on the season.

Penalties: Michigan committed eight penalties for 48 yards, while Penn State had five for 58 yards. 


Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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