The goal line was … right … there.
The game, too.
Too far away, as it turned out.
Penn State was stopped short, literally, of a defining victory over a ranked opponent, its repeated red-zone failures resulting in a 28-16 defeat to No. 13/14 Michigan on Saturday.
As coach James Franklin said, “We have to score touchdowns in the red zone.”
Easier said than done.
The stat of the day was this: The Nittany Lions snapped the ball nine times inside the Michigan 9. And gained exactly four yards.
And that made all the difference.
The die was cast right away. On the day’s second snap freshman tailback Saquon Barkley took a handoff and was suddenly running free in the secondary, as he seemingly has been all season.
He wasn’t tackled until he sped 56 yards, to the Michigan 9.
Three plays later, Tyler Davis kicked a field goal.
That turn of events was as deflating as any could have been — a sellout crowd on Senior Day, all wearing white (save the knot of maize-and-blue-clad Michigan supporters, seated in the upper reaches of Beaver Stadium), and jacked up.
And at the next moment grumbling.
There were other failures, certainly. PSU’s special teams set the table for two Michigan touchdowns — once when DeAndre Thompkins fumbled a punt at the Penn State 9 in the third quarter, the other time when the Lions became conscientious objectors on a kickoff return by Jourdan Lewis late in the game, refusing to tackle him until he had gone 55 yards, to the Penn State 40.
And altogether the Lions (7-4) gained a mere 207 yards, 74 in the second half. They netted just 14 on the ground after Barkley’s big run.
Michigan (9-2) played well enough, certainly. Quarterback Jake Rudock went 25-for-38 for 256 yards and two touchdowns, and Sione Houma and De’Veon Smith each scored on one-yard runs. But the Wolverines were slapped with 13 penalties for 117 yards, and turned it over twice — on an interception and strip-sack/recovery by linebacker Brandon Bell.
And it didn’t matter, because the Lions couldn’t capitalize.
Here is the breakdown of those nine plays inside the 9: Barkley ran it four times for minus-one yard, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg, 13-for-31 for 137 yards in all, missed on all four of his passes down deep.
The other play was a jet sweep by wide receiver Brandon Polk for a gain of five, on which safety Jarrod Wilson made a superb one-on-one tackle in the open field.
Other than that, nothing. Nine plays. Four yards.
The problem comes down to the fact that Penn State continues to operate with a substandard offensive line — one that was beaten at the point of attack all day, but especially inside the 10.
“We were not able to run the ball consistently today,” Franklin said, “whether it was traditional runs or Wildcat. By the time the ball-carrier got the ball, there was someone in his face.”
They tried adding some new wrinkles, he added. Didn’t matter.
“We weren’t able to be consistent enough in the run game and it showed in the red zone,” he said. “We had too many field goals.”
As tight end Brent Wilkerson said, “It’s on the players. The players have got to step up on the field, so we’ve got to make those plays.”
Michigan, he said, didn’t do anything differently inside the 10. The Wolverines, shaky on defense the previous two weeks but brilliant on that side of the ball most of the year, simply rose to the occasion.
“You have to be physical,” Wilkerson said. “We know they’re going to stack the box, and on the outside we have to get off the press (coverage) and make plays. We just have to be more physical out there.”
The Lions tried to run the ball three times after Barkley’s long run at the beginning of the game. On the first, Barkley lined up in the Wildcat and attempted to skirt right end, only to be stopped for a gain of one. The next two, Franklin said, were “check-with-mes” — i.e., plays on which Hackenberg was given the option to audible from a pass to a run if the Wolverines were playing coverage, as opposed to stacking the box.
And both times the QB made that choice, resulting in Barkley being thrown for a one-yard loss when he again tried the right side, then being stopped after picking up two on a third-down draw play. Davis, as a result, kicked a 23-yard field goal.
Michigan responded with a seven-play, 89-yard drive, with Rudock finding tight end Jake Butt for a 26-yard TD. But Hackenberg hit wideout Saeed Blacknall for a 25-yard score with 2:01 left in the first half, putting the Lions back on top, 10-7.
It appeared they might have a chance to force a punt and add to their lead before halftime, but Rudock fired to Amara Darboh for a gain of 26 on third-and-10, a play on which the senior wide receiver made a brilliant sideline grab. That led to another connection between the two, this one resulting in an 11-yard score, 51 seconds before the break.
So instead of trailing, Michigan was up 14-10. The Wolverines made it 21-10 when they transformed Thompkins’ gift into Houma’s TD run midway through the third quarter.
The final play of that period saw the Lions convert a fourth-and-nine, on a 38-yard pass from Hackenberg to Chris Godwin.
First-and-goal at the 3, to start the fourth quarter: Hackenberg overthrows Geno Lewis on a fade route.
Second down: Linebacker Ben Gedeon invades the backfield and stops Barkley for a loss of three.
Third down: Hackenberg fires well over the head of tight end Kyle Carter, apparently in search of a pass-interference flag, as Carter was tangled up with safety Dymonte Thomas in the end zone.
Nothing doing. Field goal — 21-13.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and again the Lions mounted a drive, with the key play Hackenberg’s 17-yard scramble on third-and-14, followed by a 14-yard pass to a wide-open Barkley.
First-and-goal at the 6: Incomplete to Polk, on a play that had PSU fans screaming for interference on safety Jabrill Peppers.
Second down: Polk stopped just inside the 2 by Wilson.
Third down: Hackenberg overthrows DaeSean Hamilton.
Decision time, with over eight minutes left: Try to punch it in and go for two in hopes of tying it, or kick the field goal in anticipation of another opportunity?
“At that point we had a hard time in the red zone and punching it in,” Franklin said, “so we thought kicking the field goal was the best decision.”
Davis’ 19-yard attempt was partially blocked but squirted through the uprights, cutting the deficit to 21-16.
It all became academic when Lewis followed with his long kickoff return, leading to Smith’s TD with 5:12 to play.
“It was tough, seeing everything unfold the way it did,” said Hackenberg, a junior who very well might have played his final home game. “But we’ve got two more left, so we’ve got a great chance to go out and do what we need to do to get the job done.”
Two more — at Michigan State next week, and then a bowl game.
Though they were stopped short of taking a big one Saturday.