ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The pre-game knock on Penn State was that while the Nittany Lions had strutted their way to a gaudy 5-0 record with the nation's top offense, they had done so at the expense of a bunch of weaklings with names like Rutgers, Iowa and Temple.
Third-ranked Penn State answered the doubters in the sweetest way with a 31-24 win over fifth-ranked Michigan yesterday. The Lions walked into huge, hostile Michigan Stadium, silenced the crowd of 106,832 with a stellar first-half performance, then took everything the Wolverines could throw at them, which was plenty.
After seeing their 16-3 halftime lead evaporate in little more than four minutes, the Lions convinced the naysayers and themselves of how good they are. First, they regained their lost momentum with an 86-yard drive to take a 24-17 lead. Then, after Michigan dug in for a game-tying touchdown drive, Penn State responded with its first crunch-time victory of the season.
Quarterback Kerry Collins hit wide receiver Bobby Engram with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 2:53 left to lift Penn State over the Wolverines, sending most of the third-largest crowd in Michigan history home in frustration.
This time, though, the fans didn't feel cheated by a fluke. Not like last month, when Michigan (4-2, 2-1) lost on a Hail Mary pass against visiting Colorado. This time, the Wolverines, who awoke from an offensive sleepwalk to pile up 437 yards, lost to a team they could not stop when it counted the most.
Penn State (6-0, 3-0) took over sole possession of the Big Ten lead, opened the door to a Rose Bowl berth and may have cleared the way to its third national championship. The last year the Nittany Lions started 6-0 was 1986, when they won their last national title. And, with top-ranked Florida having been beaten yesterday, Penn State may vault over Nebraska to the No. 1 spot.
"We knew we had the talent," Penn State tight end Kyle Brady said. "What we needed to see was if we had the mental toughness to win in the fourth quarter."
The Nittany Lions gave a national TV audience an up-close look at their toughness through some scintillating performances.
On the game-winning drive, Penn State took over at its 45 with 4:46 remaining. On first down, Engram snared a 14-yard completion, barely keeping one foot in bounds. Tailback Ki-Jana Carter then rambled through the Michigan defense for 26 yards to the Wolverines' 15. Three plays later, Engram ran a slant-in and easily got behind safety Clarence Thompson for the touchdown.
Collins proved that his No. 1 ranking among the nation's passers is well-deserved. In the face of a resolute pass rush and numerous blitzes, he completed 20 of 32 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns, without throwing an interception. He connected with seven receivers, three of whom -- Engram, tight end Keith Olsommer and fullback Jon Witman -- caught a touchdown pass apiece.
Carter, playing with a protective splint on his surgically repaired right thumb -- he dislocated it two weeks ago -- saw his Heisman Trophy stock rise considerably. He rushed 26 times for 170 yards, accounting for big chunks of yardage on every scoring drive.
In all, Penn State accumulated 444 yards, scored on its first four possessions, then persevered through a sluggish second half to produce two crucial touchdowns.
And the defense, led by linebackers Brian Gelzheiser (seven tackles), Phil Yeboah-Kodie (nine) and Willie Smith (eight tackles, two sacks), bent under the weight of great second-half shows by Michigan quarterback Todd Collins (14-for-24, 221 yards) and tailback Tyrone Wheatley (133 of his 144 yards in the second half), but didn't break in the clutch.
The victory ultimately came down to the defense.
On Michigan's final possession, Wheatley broke several tackles on a 30-yard run that moved the ball to midfield. But on third-and-inches at the Penn State 40, Yeboah-Kodie and Smith dropped tailback Tim Biakabutuka for a 2-yard loss and cornerback Brian Miller intercepted Collins on the next play.
"You get 60 minutes to go out and play ball, and we didn't do that today," said Michigan coach Gary Moeller, who saw his team fall out of the national title picture. "I don't think we tackled [well]. But make no mistake about it. That [Penn State] is one great offensive football team. With all the points they've scored, I can understand why. But I didn't expect them to do that to our defense."
Penn State's offense was the picture of efficiency in the first half, as the Lions scored on their first four possessions to quiet the home crowd.
By the time Penn State had rolled to a 16-3 halftime lead, Freddie Scott and Engram, who each entered the game averaging 100 receiving yards, had handled the ball only twice between them. But Collins, freezing the Michigan defense with play fakes, still had completed 11 of 16 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, with swing passes to his backs and connections to his tight ends.
Even kicker Brett Conway, who had made only three field goals in four tries in the first five games, booted field goals from 24, 28 and 29 yards in the first half. The Wolverines avoided a first-half shutout when Remy Hamilton hit from 33 yards on the final play.
The Nittany Lions, who had punted only once in the first half, seemed in control.
"I knew Michigan wasn't dead. There was no doubt about that," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.
Wheatley, who managed only 11 yards rushing in the first half, promptly justified Paterno's concern. On the second play of the third quarter, he bolted through the right side and went 67 yards untouched for the Wolverines' first touchdown, cutting the lead to 16-10.
When Penn State stalled on its next possession and gave Michigan the ball at midfield after a 16-yard punt, the Wolverines quickly grabbed their first lead of the day. Collins found wide-out Amani Toomer (seven catches, 157 yards) for a 30-yard gain, which set up Wheatley's 21-yard touchdown run.
Then, in a critical sequence, Penn State silenced the roaring crowd with a 10-play, 86-yard drive, capped by Witman's 9-yard touchdown reception.
Michigan tied the score on its first fourth-quarter possession, a 59-yard march. The drive ended with a fourth-down, 2-yard run by Biakabutuka.
But Collins, Engram and Carter had some final heroics left.