Michigan vs. Penn State: The 10 biggest upsets in rivalry history
Michigan has knocked off a top 10 Penn State team 6 times while it was a lesser-ranked or unranked team. Those count as upsets in our book, though not all of them did in Vegas or other sports books.
The programs seemed to be up or down at the same time through most of Penn State’s 29 Big Ten seasons entering 2022, so a lot of the games had spreads of a field goal or less. A few of the spreads we were able to research even bucked the rankings.
All that said, these 10 Michigan vs. Penn State outcomes proved most upsetting to the losing side, with no greater example than 2005’s matchup.
So let’s get on with it …
1. Michigan 27, No. 8 Penn State 25 (2005)
Penn State entered the game 6-0 and No. 8. Host Michigan sat at 3-3 after losing every other game through 6 weeks.
Had it not gone 4-7 the previous year, Penn State would have been ranked higher than No. 8, especially coming off a win over No. 6 Ohio State the week before.
The Nittany Lions rallied twice from deficits and took the lead in the final minute. But Michigan responded with a kick return to near midfield that set up a 42-second touchdown drive. A 10-yard pass to Mario Manningham on the game’s final play gave UM the victory in the closest of the series’ 25 games through 2021.
Penn State ran the table the rest of the way and finished No. 3. The “what-ifs” from the mid-October loss included 2 missed field goals by Kevin Kelly, one of them from 32 yards.
The Wolverines ended that season 7-5.
2. Michigan 14, No. 10 Penn State 9 (2007)
In a Big Ten battle from the Stone Age, running back Mike Hart chiseled into the Penn State defense 44 times for 153 yards and a touchdown as host Michigan improved to 2-2 and dropped the Lions to 3-1.
This time, Kevin Kelly went 3-for-3 on FGs for PSU, but the Lions couldn’t dent the goal line as UM’s stingy defense held them to 270 total yards.
The Wolverines, who had lost to App State and unranked Oregon to open the season, won their next 6 games and finished 9-4 and No. 18. Penn State also finished 9-4, but unranked.
3. No. 22 Michigan 27, No. 9 Penn State 0 (1998)
The Lions entered at 6-1, their only loss to Ohio State. Michigan was on a 6-game winning streak after losing its first 2 to drop down from an initial No. 5 ranking.
Some dude named Tom Brady threw 2 TD passes as the Wolverines blanked the Lions in front of 110,000+ at Michigan Stadium. Future NFL great LaVar Arrington was on the field for Penn State, but Michigan proved to have the better collective defense.
UM finished the season 10-3 and No. 12. PSU finished 9-3 and No. 17.
4. No. 18 Michigan 21, No. 7 Penn State 13 (1993)
Michigan stuffed Penn State 4 straight times after the Lions had 1st-and-goal from the half-yard line, swinging the momentum for good as PSU lost for the first time as a member of the Big Ten, falling to 5-1.
In the teams’ first meeting after tracking parallel paths for more than 100 years, Michigan made the 4th-down stop on the first play of the fourth quarter, preserving its 14-10 lead. Along with an earlier punt-return touchdown and Todd Collins’ efficient play at quarterback, that was enough to silence what had been a raucous crowd at Beaver Stadium. The Wolverines improved to 4-2 with the win.
Kerry Collins and Ji-Jana Carter, who would lead the Lions to an undefeated season a year later, were both stopped twice on Michigan’s goal line stand.
5. No. 16 Michigan 31, No. 6 Penn State 27 (1999)
Penn State, 8-1 coming off a devastating 1-point loss to Minnesota that dropped it from No. 2 in the AP poll, entered as 6-point favorites at home. Michigan was 7-2 with losses to Michigan State and unranked Illinois that dropped it from No. 3.
In a truly strange back-and-forth game, Michigan scored the game’s first 10 and final 14 points. Tom Brady rallied the Wolverines in the fourth quarter, running for a TD and throwing for another with 1:46 remaining.
Penn State scored punt and interception-return TDs, taking a 27-17 lead despite being held to 7 rushing yards on 30 carries and losing 3 fumbles.
UM finished 10-2 and No. 5, Penn State 9-3 and No. 11.
6. Penn State 43, No. 18 Michigan 40 (2013)
Michigan hit the road unbeaten, but it was a tenuous 5-0. The Wolverines dropped 8 slots in the AP poll following 1-score wins over Akron and UConn. Thus, they were only 1.5-point favorites against 3-2 Penn State and second-year coach Bill O’Brien.
The Lions — who led by as many as 11 but then trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter — prevailed with a walk-off touchdown in the fourth overtime period. Bill Belton’s 2-yard run sent a crowd of almost 108,000 home happy. With a combined 5 missed field goals and 4 interceptions, it was an exciting, sloppy, but ultimately cathartic game for O’Brien and the Nittany Lions.
Brady Hokes’ team proved the doubters right, finishing 7-6. Penn State finished 7-5 in the final year that sanctions kept the program out of a bowl game.
7. No. 19 Penn State 27, No. 12 Michigan 17 (1995)
Penn State went to great lengths to make the field playable after a major snow storm hit central Pennsylvania 3 days prior to the Nov. 18 kickoff. The Lions never trailed and iced the game with a touchdown off a fake punt with less than 3 minutes remaining.
The “Snow Bowl” victory improved PSU to 7-3 and dropped Michigan to 8-3.
8. No. 4 Michigan 34, No. 2 Penn State 8 (1997)
Penn State entered 7-0 and having been ranked No. 1 or 2 all season. Michigan was 8-0 and just a 1.5-point underdog on the road.
The game didn’t live up to the hype, as the Wolverines — led by Brian Griese and Charles Woodson — shut out the Lions until late in the fourth quarter. Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary was held to 68 passing yards and sacked 5 times.
Michigan ascended to No. 1 the next week and finished 12-0 for its first national championship since 1948. Penn State wound up 9-3 and No. 16.
9. Penn State 41, Michigan 31 (2010)
Neither team was ranked, but Michigan had the better record going in (5-2 vs. 4-3) and was a 3-point favorite despite being on the road.
Former walk-on Matt McGloin, in his first start for the Nittany Lions, threw for 250 yards as the Lions racked up 435 yards of offense and held on after building a 21-point second-half lead. UM dual-threat QB Denard Robinson couldn’t score points as fast as his defense was ceding them.
Joe Paterno got his 399th win in 45 years, while embattled 3rd-year UM coach Rich Rodriguez lost a 3rd consecutive game. Rodriguez did finally make a bowl game in his final year at UM, but lost it to finish 7-6 and usher in the Brady Hoke era. Penn State also finished 7-6.
10. Michigan 18, Penn State 13 (2014)
Penn State entered at 4-1 against a soft schedule — and bearing the brunt of the Sandusky scandal sanctions — in James Franklin’s first season. Michigan was 2-4 coming off a loss to Rutgers in Brady Hoke’s final season.
Michigan actually was a 2.5-point favorite at home. But given that Penn State made a bowl game and the Wolverines didn’t, in retrospect we’re calling this a mild upset.
Penn State led 13-7 before the Wolverines rallied with 3 FGs and a safety to improve to 3-0 all-time in night games at Michigan Stadium. What a primetime treat for the 113,085 in attendance and those watching at home! Not. It was that kind of game, and season, for both programs. Jim Harbaugh took over at UM the next year.