With Nebraska off this week, we asked our staff members to do something they don’t get to do very often––be a fan. More specifically, just pick a team and try to live-and-die a game for a week. You can read all of those dispatches here.
It’s been awhile since I have been emotionally invested in a college football game. You know, the kind of investment where you’re sincerely elated or sincerely disappointed in the outcome. The kind of investment that has an effect on your day, your weekend, maybe the entire week ahead.
It’s become increasingly hard for me to care one way or the other about the outcome as I’ve gotten further into my career. I see things from a practical standpoint. How was the coaching? How did the players perform? What does this all mean in the big picture — conference, rankings, you name it? Beyond that, I don’t want a game to ruin my day. I want to just enjoy it for whatever it was, for better or worse.
On Saturday, I threw caution to the wind, put on my Michigan T-shirt and sweatshirt—I collect collegiate apparel, so I’m ready for anything and everything—and made myself a tried-and-true Wolverine fan for no good reason other than the fact that I wanted to yell “Go Blue!” at people. I guess I also saw some parallels between Michigan and Nebraska over the last so many years, but I’ll leave that for another day. I spent time on Michigan football message boards and read all the game previews I could get my hands on.
Let's check in on the Michigan message boards. pic.twitter.com/kH3cEzq0TQ
— Erin Sorensen (@erinsorensen) October 19, 2019
I knew what No. 16 Michigan was up against in No. 7 Penn State. Heading into the matchup with the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions defense ranked second in college football in total points allowered per game with only 8.4. They also led the country in fewest rushing yards allowed per attempt with 1.8. Iowa’s rushing attack couldn’t go anywhere against Penn State the week prior in the Hawkeyes’ 17-12 loss at home. The Nittany Lions held Iowa to just 70 yards on 30 rushing attempts with 2.3 yards per carry.
But I also knew there were some areas for Michigan to take advantage of Penn State on offense. Nittany Lion quarterback Sean Clifford, for example, had completed 64% of his passes and thrown 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions prior to the Iowa matchup. Against the Hawkeyes? He took back-to-back sacks in Iowa’s first possession of the game and was held to under 200 passing yards. He was mostly mistake free—outside of the two sacks, of course—but there was some hope here for Michigan’s defense.
The Wolverines went into the matchup with the nation's 14th-ranked defense. They’re also ranked ninth against the pass, so I felt good about that. Michigan also had 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss over the previous three games ahead of Penn State.
It didn’t take much for me to talk myself into this game. It felt like a must-win for Coach Jim Harbaugh, or at least as close to one as possible. Notre Dame follows Penn State, and Michigan State and Ohio State still loom in November. Harbaugh needs to start winning these big games and the pre-season Big Ten East favorite really should be able to get that win on the road over Penn State.
With all of that in mind, I did something I shouldn’t have: I fell down the message board rabbit holes. And I quickly learned that I hate quarterback Shea Patterson?
But it’s not just fans that don’t like Patterson. Media has criticized him quite a bit too. So, I was all in. If my Blue brethren didn’t think Patterson was the right guy, I agreed. Harbaugh shouldn’t start the guy.
And then Patterson went and had maybe his best game of the season. He went 24-of-41 for 276 yards with only one interception. He also had 12 carries for 34 yards and one touchdown. Things were a little questionable to start, but he settled in, tightened things up and made some important plays.
I—like so many others—like him now. Or at least appreciate his effort.
But the things I felt went beyond the quarterback. So, let’s talk about them.
Penalties: Were the officials just not interested in making some obvious calls against Penn State? There was one moment in the first half where it was so clearly defensive pass interference on the Nittany Lions, and there was no call. There was also one where I was convinced it was defensive pass interference on Penn State and then it was offensive pass interference on Michigan. I was mad. How could this be? What on earth were the officials watching? Even Harbaugh was yelling about it on the sidelines.
The Wolverines had eight penalties for 48 yards. I want to be mad (and I was in the moment) but it’s hard to be mad when you realize two back-to-back penalties on Michigan took Penn State from first-and-goal on the 10 to first-and-goal on the 3. That’s just unacceptable.
I still think the officials missed and made some bad calls though, but sue me. I was cheering for Michigan. Of course I would feel that way.
Drops: I don’t even want to talk about the drops. That final drop from Ronnie Bell that would have won the game? I immediately got up and let my dogs outside. Over it. With that said, I’m confident that people are tweeting bad things at him and so I feel it’s a good time to remind fans not to do that.
Play Calling: Was Harbaugh too conservative at times against Penn State? Maybe. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had some bizarre play calls too. Wide receiver screen plays? Not working, so stop calling them. I want to type a dozen exclamation points here but I’m not going to.
The play calling got better as the game went on, but the first half was disappointing for so many reason.
Timeouts: We are not even going to begin to discuss the timeout before the game even began.
It was fitting in some ways that the names were peeling off the backs of a few Michigan players’ jerseys. It’s about the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Or something like that. Regardless, I couldn’t help but laugh as the names flapped in the wind on the field. It fit how I felt in some ways: barely hanging on by a thread.
I’ll be honest that I lost some interest in everything that was happening at some point in the game. I was tired, I’m a bad fan and Kansas was doing something I couldn’t dare explain to Texas on a channel I don’t get. I found a live stream of the Jayhawks and Longhorns on Twitter of someone filming their TV, and half-watched that while I watched Michigan let Penn State score another touchdown.
So, here’s what I did learn by being a Michigan fan: It’s exhausting to care about a team you’re confident is going to break your heart. I cared more about the outcome of this game than I’ve cared in awhile about any outcome of any college game. I wanted the Wolverines to win. I didn’t think they would, but I hoped they’d prove me wrong. They did exactly what I thought they would do.
And yet, fans still show up week after week despite the outcome. Because maybe this will be the week they don’t let you down. Or maybe not.
Maybe next week will be the week. See you there.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.