By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
A freshman quarterback that played like a savvy veteran and refused to lose when it mattered most.
That was the difference in Penn State’s 43-40 comeback win over Michigan in quadruple overtime.
With 50 seconds left in regulation, true freshman Christian Hackenberg led the Nittany Lions down the field with precision and poise, throwing for 79 yards on three pass attempts. A 36-yard highlight-reel toss to junior Allen Robinson set up a quarterback sneak, where Hackenberg rushed for a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 34-34.
“I figured I’d give him (Robinson) a shot,” Hackenberg said. “We went full verticals, I figured I’d give the guy with a 38-inch vertical a shot and he went up and got it.”
“I think Christian is, obviously, a very mature quarterback for being 18-years-old,” Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s fun guy to coach. Some of that was training too and that paid off.”
Hackenberg finished 23-of 44 passing with 305 yards and three touchdowns. His rushing touchdown was the first Michigan allowed all season.
In his sixth career start, Hackenberg’s fourth quarter heroics lifted Penn State for a career-defining win. He threw for 141 of his 305 yards in the fourth quarter to lead the Nittany Lions to their fourth win of the season.
After blowing a 10 point fourth quarter lead and failing to execute on three would-be game winning field goals, the longest game in Big Ten history will sting the Wolverines for quite some time.
“It hurts, but I’m so proud of my teammates,” redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner said. “There was a lot of adversity during the game and we fell back, but it wasn’t enough.”
“We started it off but we couldn’t finish it,” junior defensive end Frank Clark added. “We had a to of opportunities to win the game. The offense was good, the special teams did their jobs, but the defense should have been there. We missed tackles and we missed a lot of good opportunities.”
Coming off their first turnover-free game in two years, the Wolverines season-long struggles continued Saturday night. Penn State was able to capitalize twice on Michigan turnovers in the first half.
Hackenberg connected with senior Brandon Felder for a 12-yard touchdown after Jordan Lucas intercepted Gardner deep in Michigan’s zone.
One quarter later, Hackenberg tossed a 20-yard touchdown to sophomore Jesse James following Gardner’s second interception of the game.
Hackenberg continued to shred Michigan’s weak passing defense. Just over four minutes after his second touchdown, he found Felder for a 12-yard score to give Penn State a 21-7 halftime lead.
The Devin-to-Devin duo continued to fuel the Wolverines offensively. Gardner connected with sophomore Devin Funchess on a 59-yard passing touchdown for the team’s first score of the game.
Gardner connected with the newly-minted receiver for a final time early in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard touchdown pass.
Funchess finished with four receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns, but wasn’t targeted after his final score.
Gardner went 15-of-28 passing for 240 yards and three touchdowns. His season-long struggles with turnovers returned after throwing two interceptions.
After failing to complete only three of their third down opportunities against Minnesota, another season-long struggle returned in Happy Valley.
Michigan converted 4-of-18 third down chances against Penn State. They now have a 47.06 conversion percentage, good for 33 amongst FBS teams.
Gardner led both teams with 121 rushing yards on 24 carries. He out-rushed teammate Fitzgerald Toussaint by 94 yards. Toussaint, a fifth-year senior, finished with 27 yards on 27 carries, an average of one yard per rush.
The Wolverines offensive line wasn’t able to provide the team with running lanes. Things worsened when fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan left the game late in the second quarter. But Gardner didn’t notice a difference.
“I played like, ‘This is Michigan,’” Gardner said. “If a guy goes down, whether it be Taylor or whoever, the next guy has to step in and perform, and I felt like they did that. They did the best they could and I’m really happy and proud of the guys who stepped in and got the opportunity to play.
Adversity had been something the Wolverines dealt with all season. Led defensively by Clark, the team was able to overcome their first-half hardships on the first play of the third quarter.
Clark recovered the first of his two fumbles and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown, bringing the Wolverines within four points and silencing the rowdy Beaver Stadium crowd. His second fumble came in the third overtime, but the Wolverines’ offense was unable to capitalize.
“I was just in the right position at the right time,” Clark said. “My teammates did their job and forced the fumble, so I was in the right place doing my job, and I took it in.”
Brendan Gibbons and Sam Ficken traded field goals in a span of four minutes and 29 seconds. But Michigan was able to retake the lead after Gardner found fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon for a 16-yard touchdown.
After trailing 21-10 points at halftime, Michigan outscored Penn State 17-3 in the third quarter. The Wolverines had a 10 point fourth quarter lead after Gardner’s third passing touchdown of the game.
Penn State was down, but they weren’t out for the count.
The Nittany Lions chipped away at Michigan’s lead with a 45-yard field goal by Ficken. Hackenberg’s improbable play ending with his lone rushing touchdown on the night completed a 10-0 run by Penn State.
“We practice two-minute situations every day, that one that we had at the end of the game, we practiced that just the other day,” O’Brien said. “We knew there were specific plays we wanted to run there and we just needed the line to block well and they did. We were able to come up with some big plays.”
Michigan was forced to make one last heave with 27 seconds remaining in regulation after failing to run out the clock on their previous drive. The Wolverines chipped away on field position through the passing game. But Gibbons 52-yard field goal was just short, sending the game into overtime.
Ficken and Gibbons both attempted 40 yard field goals in the first overtime. Ficken’s missed his, while Gibbons’ was blocked. Both kicker’s field goals in the second overtime were between the uprights, making it a 37-37 tie.
The score would stand until the fourth overtime. Clark’s fumble recovery on the opening play of the third overtime appeared to doom Penn State. But Gibbons was unable to hit a 33-yard field goal to win the game after making a season-long 47 yarder in the first quarter.
After two consecutive incompletions and a delay of game penalty, Michigan faced a third-and-15 situation. As they did the entire game, the Wolverines rushing game struggled behind a young offensive line.
Gardner rushed for seven yards to set Gibbons up with a 40-yard field goal which he would convert.
Michigan’s defense stopped Penn State to bring up a fourth-and-one situation. With yet another defensive stop, the Wolverines would win the marathon game and survive the upset.
But that wasn’t the case.
With the game hanging in the balance, O’Brien took the risk and decided to go for the win. Junior Bill Belton gave the Nittany Lions new life after converting the gutsy call with a three-yard rush.
“I thought at that point and time, it was the fourth overtime and i felt like it was time for someone to win the game,” O’Brien said. “We could sit here and keep trading field goals back and forth, but eventually it was time for someone to win the game and i had the opportunity to do it.
Three plays after his fourth-down heroics, Belton would end the game and send Beaver Stadium into a frenzy. A quick cut to the left was enough for him to find the end zone for a two-yard, game-winning touchdown.
Though the Wolverines faltered towards the end of their quadruple overtime marathon, they continued to battle back after trailing by 11 points at halftime.
“I was happy with them, I was happy how they kept fighting,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. “You can keep fighting, but you can fight a little better. You gotta make the punches count a little more.”
Michigan had a legitimate shot in the fourth quarter and each overtime to seal their victory. But the team ultimately fell short every time, allowing Penn State to take advantage and complete the comeback.
“We fought, but sometimes you lose and we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had,” redshirt junior Jake Ryan said. “We just need to keep our heads up and move onto next week, which is Indiana.”