ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Some things never change. Penn State comes to the Big House and loses to Michigan, then whines all the way home about how it was shafted by the officials. Maybe it was true to some extent in 2005 when two seconds mysteriously were added to the clock in the final minute and in '02 when a good catch by wide receiver Tony Johnson was ruled out of bounds late in regulation. But it clearly wasn't true yesterday. Penn State lost, 14-9, for the best of reasons: Michigan was the better team in every way.
That didn't stop the Penn State people from grumbling. Big shocker there, right? They didn't think running back Austin Scott fumbled at the Michigan 9 in the third quarter. They didn't think cornerback Lydell Sargeant was guilty of pass interference on a critical third-down play in the fourth quarter. They didn't think Michigan running back Mike Hart got across the goal line to score the winning touchdown two plays after the call against Sargeant. A couple of assistant coaches reminded the officials of their incompetence on the way to their locker room after the game.
It all was a bunch of nonsense.
If the Penn State folks want to blame someone for this loss, they should start with coach Joe Paterno, who, as he typically does against Michigan, played not to lose instead of to win. They should continue with a couple of their seniors -- quarterback Anthony Morelli, who just isn't good enough to play for a big-time winner, and Scott, who can't hang on to the ball. And they should finish with their vaunted defense, which met its match in freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett, making just his second start.
Make no mistake:
Penn State earned every bit of this defeat.
It's no wonder Paterno has lost nine in a row to Michigan. He's never at his best against Michigan. Yesterday, he insisted on playing the field-position game late in the first quarter, punting from the Michigan 31 instead of having Kevin Kelly attempt a 48-yard field goal. Even worse, after Penn State had a first down at the Michigan 9 late in the third quarter, Paterno's coaches called four consecutive plays, not one a shot in the end zone. The Nittany Lions settled for a Kelly field goal.
That's not how you beat Michigan at Michigan.
"I go out and run the plays the coaches call. You have to ask them," Morelli said.
If Penn State's offensive gurus, Galen Hall and Jay Paterno, were honest, they probably would tell you they don't have a lot of faith in Morelli. They would not be without reason. In the '05 game, Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson led the Nittany Lions on a long, late scoring drive, practically willing them down the field and putting them in position to win if not for those extra two seconds. You never sensed Morelli was going to do that at any point yesterday. His offense managed no touchdowns against a Michigan defense that gave up 34 points to Appalachian State and 39 to Oregon.
Morelli had wide receiver Deon Butler open on a slant near the goal line early in the second quarter only to throw high and wide. But that wasn't the worst part of his day. That came early in the game when he was sacked by defensive end Brandon Graham and lost a fumble at the Penn State 10, setting up Michigan's first touchdown. His ball protection there was just horrible.
"The guy made a great play," Morelli said. "There are some great players on the other side of the ball, too."
That sounded pretty weak, but, to his credit, Morelli said later when asked to evaluate his performance, "Not good enough to get the win."
That was much more accurate.
Morelli's fumble was a killer because this was a game Penn State needed to get an early lead to maybe take the great Hart out of the game a bit and put more pressure on Mallett. As it was, Michigan kept running Hart to the tune of 153 yards on 44 carries, all of it against a Penn State defense that had been allowing a Division I-A-best 17.7 rushing yards per game. And, when Mallett needed to make a play, he was up to the challenge. After Penn State closed to 7-6 late in the third quarter, he led a 15-play touchdown drive, converting three third downs. Then, after Penn State pulled to 14-9 with 6:04 left, he completed passes of 12 yards on third-and-11 and 5 yards on third-and-3 to keep the Michigan drive going and leaving Penn State with precious little time at the end.
"We were out there for a ton of plays," Penn State linebacker Dan Connor said.
Actually, for 86 plays as Michigan held nearly a 10-minute edge in possession time.
"[Hart] is a really tough back, and they have a huge offensive line," Connor said. "It's tough ... It definitely felt like a heavyweight fight out there."
Continuing with that theme, we're ready to announce the decision:
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .