As poorly as Michigan has played for the last month or so, there was still a sense that the Wolverines had the makings of a solid defensive team.
Saturday night against Penn State, that defense finally reaped a significant reward for its efforts.
"It felt good to finally finish the game," defensive end Frank Clark said. "We've been through a lot of scrutiny as a team, these last three weeks."
That scrutiny isn't going away, but Michigan's 18-13 victory over Penn State on Saturday was a small step in the right direction, and the Wolverines will have a chance to enjoy the win for a little while, since they have next weekend off. Michigan had lost 10 of its previous 14 games — and seven of nine in Big Ten play — before beating the Nittany Lions.
Michigan (3-4, 1-2) trailed 13-10 before holding Penn State (4-2, 1-2) to 65 yards in the second half.
"I think our kids had a will, and they willed themselves to keep going, and it was pressure on the quarterback with four-man, three-man rush that really worked out pretty well and maximum coverage," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "We got off the field in third downs, which in the first half we really didn't as much."
The impressive defensive effort obscured another tepid performance by Michigan's offense. The Wolverines managed only 64 yards rushing, and their one touchdown could have easily been an interception instead.
Devin Gardner's 43-yard pass to Devin Funchess in the first quarter put Michigan ahead 7-3. Funchess lunged in front of safety Ryan Keiser to make the catch just in front of the goal line. Keiser seemed to be in good position for an interception, but he appeared to wait a bit too long for the ball to arrive.
"They threw a post play into coverage which you are not supposed to do," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "We waited on the ball instead of attacking and they took it away. That was a big play, that gave them confidence."
Gardner had to be helped off in the third quarter with an apparent left leg injury, and with Michigan still down 13-10, it looked as if backup Russell Bellomy would need to lead at least one significant drive for the Wolverines to catch up. But Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw an interception, giving Michigan the ball at the Penn State 32, and Matt Wile connected for a tying 42-yard field goal.
Gardner came back early in the fourth, and his 24-yard pass to Dennis Norfleet set up Wile's 37-yard kick that put the Wolverines up 16-13.
Michigan's defense has allowed only two teams to rush for 100 yards this season, and Penn State's porous offensive line did not present much resistance. After the Wolverines took the lead in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions drove to midfield, but they had to punt when that drive stalled.
On Penn State's next possession, Hackenberg was called for intentional grounding, and a sack by Frank Clark left the Nittany Lions facing fourth-and-32 from the 3. Penn State took an intentional safety with 1:41 remaining, and then tried an onside kick. The Nittany Lions actually recovered, but an offsides penalty forced them to try again, and Michigan recovered the second one.
That's what the Wolverines are hoping for now — a second chance to salvage something positive out of this season.
"I'm just so excited for those kids. I mean they're the ones who are doing the work. They're the ones out there playing," Hoke said. "They're the ones who come to Schembechler Hall every day with an attitude to play for each other. It would be real easy not to be that way."