Penn State’s offense rolls over Michigan

STATE COLLEGE — The first time an unbeaten Penn State beat Michigan in October, maybe a couple thousand students broke into Beaver Stadium that evening for an impromptu on-field celebration that spilled into the stands.

The school arranged a quick pep rally in the aftermath outside the stadium, a move that helped break things up, near where the new Bryce Jordan Center was being built. Longtime radio announcer Fran Fisher, fresh off the plane, greeted he throng of over-served and overexcited students by saying, “A Nittany Lion eats Wolvernine meat!”

That was 1994, when Penn State returned from a 31-24 win in its first-ever trip to the Big House.

Saturday night had a similar feel, albeit multiplied in front of a record 110,823 Beaver Stadium crowd. Penn State’s offense mostly did what it wanted and where it wanted, chewing up the Michigan defense and actually leaving a a few scoring chances on the field, in a 42-13 victory.

The Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) have climbed to No. 2 in the polls, but didn’t have a chance to impress as a legitimate playoff contender until Saturday, when they outgained the Wolverines, 506-269, and Saquon Barkley reasserted himself as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner with two gif-worthy scores in his third 100-yard rushing game of the season.

“We’re playing good enough to win right now in all three phases, offense, defense and special teams,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “I’m really pleased with how we’re playing now.”

Michigan hadn’t allowed 21 points in a game all season, and Penn State hit that in the first half. Opponents had averaged 376 against the Wolverines, and Penn State cleared that by far.

Barkley also opened the game with a 69-yard touchdown cutback run out of the wildcat formation, more rushing yardage than Michigan had allowed in three of its six games to date.

He finished with 15 carries for 108 yards, and also caught 3 passes for 53 yards and a score. His night wasn’t over until he bobbled and then corralled a 42-yard touchdown catch for a 35-13 lead in the fourth quarter.

Trace McSorley overcame a first-half interception that gave Michigan momentum for two straight scores after spotting the Nittany Lions a 14-0 lead. He ran in three scores and hit 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards, a 16.6 yards per completion rate more in line with his big plays from 2016.

The long throws countered a Michigan defense bent on blitzing and playing man coverage. But Penn State’s fared better, keeping the Wolverines scoreless on their last six drives.

“All week long, everyone was talking about their defense,” said Franklin. “We’ve got a pretty good defense, too.”

The win showed how far Penn State came since the 49-10 loss last year at Michigan. The Lions have lost just once since, in the shootout at the Rose Bowl.

Franklin’s future had started to look a little shaky after last year’s Michigan game, but looked as bright as ever after this year’s.

How bright? Last year at this time no one thought Penn State belonged on the same field as No. 1 Alabama.

Now? That record crowd started chanting “We want Bama!” late in the fourth quarter, a dream to play against the team that’s either won or played for five of the past eight national titles.

That’s also a long ways off from late in the 1994 season, when an unbeaten Crimson Tide was stuck at No. 3 behind the Nittany Lions and Nebraska before dropping the SEC title game.

Penn State never got its shot at No. 1 that year. But if the rest of 2017 unfolds like Saturday, that won’t be a problem now.

Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at bbrigandi@sungazette.com.

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