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7 encouraging signs from Michigan football's loss to Penn State

Wolverines finally show fight in critical road game

Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines signals to teammates during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan football team suffered another loss as an underdog over the weekend against Penn State, but unlike in recent big games there were a handful of positives from the performance.

The second loss knocked Michigan from Big Ten and playoff contention, but anyone who watched the first half of the season had mostly forfeited those hopes already.

When the end of the season rolls around, Michigan will fall short of its preseason goals. But there's some reason for optimism looking ahead to the final five games of 2019. Here's why:

Fighting back in tough atmosphere

A 7:30 p.m. whiteout game in Happy Valley with "College Gameday" in attendance is about the most intimidating atmosphere possible in college football.

Michigan has a reputation for folding on the road as soon as something doesn't go its way, and it looked like that would be the case again Saturday.

Penn State sprinted out to a 21-0 lead, making the game look a lot like the Wisconsin blowout from earlier in the year.

But in front of a deafening, raucous crowd, Michigan found a way to battle back.

Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions carries the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

It wasn't a fluke that the Wolverines got back in the game. They executed an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive just before halftime. They scratched and clawed through the third quarter before scoring to bring the game within a score.

Even after a backbreaking 53-yard touchdown pass from Penn State, Michigan executed another 75-yard touchdown drive, got a defensive stop and marched within three yards of tying the game.

Other than the 53-yard touchdown pass, the whiteout crowd was mostly quiet for the final 35 minutes of the game. That doesn't usually happen.

Michigan outplayed Penn State for the majority of the game. That sure didn't seem possible after the disastrous start.

Michigan's ability to take on the toughest atmosphere in the Big Ten offers hope for the future, but the Wolverines need to do a better job early in games.

Quarterback play

Perhaps the most positive development of the game was the play of quarterback Shea Patterson, who passed for 276 yards and rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson's 6.7 yards per pass attempt is largely the result of at least six dropped passes from his wide receivers. Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped his first two attempts of the game. Tarik Black and Nico Collins also dropped passes, as did Ronnie Bell and Zach Charbonnet.

If six more passes are complete, Patterson would have finished 30-for-41 with at least one passing touchdown and well over 300 yards.

Patterson threw an interception on a broken screen play, but he was extremely sharp otherwise and showed why Jim Harbaugh has stuck with him as the starting quarterback.

Pass protection

Penn State has made a living out of pressuring the quarterback this season, riding 27 sacks to a 6-0 start and ranking only behind Ohio State in that category heading into the game.

But Michigan's offensive line was more than up to the challenge. Patterson was only sacked once the whole game, and that was a result of him panicking and leaving the pocket too quickly.

The line didn't just keep Patterson off the ground, it gave him plenty of time to survey the field and find open receivers.

Michigan's running game wasn't overly effective against a stout front seven, but Patterson's time in the pocket was the reason the Wolverines had a chance to win.

Zach Charbonnet's consistency

There's a big difference between the rushing defenses of Illinois and Penn State, and that certainly showed as Michigan managed just 3.4 yards per carry in Happy Valley.

But Charbonnet quietly had a solid game, rushing for 81 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.

Zach Charbonnet #24 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 19, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. Penn State defeats Michigan 28-21. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Of his 15 attempts, seven went for at least six yards, including a pair of 12-yard touchdown runs. He didn't break many explosive runs, but Charbonnet was never stuffed for a loss and he averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

On Michigan's second touchdown drive, Charbonnet got the ball on five of eight plays, picking up 45 of the team's 65 yards, including the last 28 yards on three consecutive runs.

If not for a handful of goal-line runs that went for short yardage, Charbonnet's numbers would have looked even better.

Ball security

The most discussed flaw with Michigan's offense over the first six weeks -- other than quarterback play -- was an unbelievable inability to hold onto the football.

Michigan fumbled the ball 17 times the first half of the season, resulting in nine turnovers. A fumble at the goal line at Wisconsin turned what was going to be a tie game into a blowout. Consecutive fumbles at Illinois allowed the Fighting Illini back in the game.

Michigan never fumbled against Penn State, turning the ball over just once on the intercepted screen pass. It's no coincidence the Wolverines put up more than 400 yards of offense and dominated time of possession as soon as they took care of the ball.

As long as the offense doesn't make critical mistakes, Michigan will have a chance to win the next four games.

Cam McGrone

Saturday wasn't the best performance for Michigan's defense, which allowed 28 points and too many big plays despite rarely being on the field.

The Wolverines allowed touchdown passes of 53 and 25 yards, a 44-yard run to the red zone and a 37-yard pass that set the tone on the first drive.

Don Brown's defense allowed a touchdown in the biggest moment of the game when Michigan needed a stop to get the ball back with a chance to tie the game.

Cameron McGrone #44 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a fourth quarter sack against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

But there are a few legitimate stars emerging on the Michigan defense. Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Uche were expected to be elite players and have lived up to that billing. But linebacker Cam McGrone has been the difference-maker for Brown.

Since McGrone took over a starting role after the Wisconsin loss, the defense has looked completely re-energized. A unit that allowed 21 points each to Middle Tennessee State and Army and 35 points to Wisconsin has since shut out Rutgers, stifled Iowa and kept Michigan in every game.

That's largely because McGrone is doing his best Devin Bush impression, covering sideline to sideline and wreaking havoc in the backfield.

He had another massive game against Penn State, making six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Sean Clifford wasn't a factor running the ball because of McGrone's athleticism, and the Nittany Lions ran for just 3.5 yards per carry. They averaged two yards per carry outside the 44-yard run.

McGrone has become the star linebacker Michigan expected when he was recruited in 2018, and his breakout as a redshirt freshman is one of the stories of the season.

Health

Michigan entered the Penn State game with its fewest injuries of the season and seemingly left without any major issues.

Donovan Peoples-Jones appears to be as close to 100% as can be expected at this point in a football season. Lavert Hill an Nico Collins both returned to the field. The offensive line is intact. The secondary had all its weapons.

Injuries have been a factor for Michigan on a game-by-game level, but so far, the Wolverines have been fortunate to avoid any long-term injuries to major contributors.

Josh Ross still hasn't returned to the linebacker core and Sean McKeon is trying to recover from the injury sustained at Wisconsin, but McGrone and Nick Eubanks have been more than capable filling in at middle linebacker and tight end.

Michigan absolutely needs to be healthy to have a chance against Notre Dame, so the pieces appear to be coming together at the right time.


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