Michigan football shows progress at Penn State, but not in time to save season
21-point comeback falls short at goal line
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football might be a classic case of "too little, too late" this season.
When the Wolverines fell behind 21-0 in Happy Valley, the game looked like it could become a carbon copy of their blowout loss to Wisconsin.
But Michigan battled. The offense showed life. The defense dug in. It was the most fight a Jim Harbaugh-coached Michigan team has shown after facing adversity.
In the end, Penn State came out on top. Now any progress the Wolverines have made will be toward new goals, because the lofty expectations set at the beginning of the 2019 season are now out of reach.
Comeback falls short
A night whiteout game against Penn State with "College Gameday" in attendance will certainly be the most intimidating atmosphere Michigan faces all season. No other Big Ten team can match that environment.
That's why Michigan looked doomed when the Nittany Lions went up 21-0 in the second quarter. Recent Michigan teams -- heck, even this Michigan team -- have shown a tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity.
Well, there were plenty of signs of adversity this weekend. Michigan not only spotted Penn State three touchdowns, it also threw a interception, gave up massive plays through the air, failed to convert a fourth down and missed a field goal.
Every momentum play went against Michigan early in the game. But it still found a way to fight back.
After stemming the tide with a touchdown late in the second quarter, Michigan controlled the entire second half. Zach Charbonnet scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to bring Michigan within a score, and even after Penn State answered with a touchdown, Michigan answered on the ensuing drive.
Michigan had never shown this type of fight in adverse situations. Not only did it claw back to pull within seven points -- it also got the ball back and drove all the way to the 3-yard line.
If not for a dropped pass by the normally reliable Ronnie Bell, Michigan would have tied the score. And there was every indication that the Wolverines would have gone on to win after that.
But Michigan couldn't punch it into the end zone and Penn State sealed the game with a first down run.
Michigan outgained Penn State by 134 yards and held the ball for nearly 38 minutes. It was a one-sided affair in favor of Michigan for the final 35 minutes, but the early hole proved too deep to escape.
There should be some feeling of positivity following Michigan's performance. The team took a long-awaited step in the right direction, particularly against a top 10 team on the road.
But in terms of the 2019 season, that means little. Michigan has two losses in the Big Ten, and that means no chance to make the College Football Playoff or Big Ten championship game.
At the beginning of the season, Michigan was expected to compete for a conference title, with a returning starting quarterback, an array of offensive weapons, a reloaded defense and a new head coach taking over in Columbus.
But that dream has already evaporated before the end of October, as Michigan is already two games behind Ohio State and Penn State in the standings. No team has ever made the playoff with two losses, and it would take a miracle for Michigan to reach Indianapolis.
Theoretically, would it still be a good season if Michigan beat Notre Dame, Michigan State and a loaded Ohio State team to finish the year 10-2? Yes, but that would be moving the goal posts from the preseason expectations.
If Michigan is really turning a corner, it can salvage the 2019 season with wins against its rivals. That doesn't necessarily make the season a success, but it would show progress that's been absent for much of the Harbaugh era.
Anything can happen in rivalry games, so Michigan needs to continue to improve to have a chance in the season finale against Ohio State. For now, the goal should be to maintain the progress shown against Penn State by avenging last season's loss to Notre Dame under the lights at the Big House.
Michigan will no longer achieve its preseason goals, but there's still plenty to play for -- and if the second half against Penn State was real, Michigan has what it takes to finish strong.
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