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And Don't Splash The Pot: Penn State Against Top 10 Teams Since 2006

[A note for the weary: some videos may be modestly NSFW.]


Success in big games will always be the holy grail of program status, and they're also an easy talking point during the flame out that follows hapless big stage losses in every corner of the internet.  And true to form, it's what we have here when Penn State loses yet another game against a highly ranked team, this time in particularly frustrating fashion.

But before we talk about our feelings, it's worthwhile to actually see what this house is built out of.

The perception: Penn State shows up to big games timid, with a decidedly zero-chances game plan, with the intentions of performing with perfect execution -- a rare event that often leads to uninteresting semi-blow outs.

The reality: Penn State's results against Top 10 teams since 2006, judged by final score as well as offensive, non-garbage time production (all rankings are year end finals, notes on garbage time after the jump):



And against all ranked teams -- plus a very talented 2010 Iowa that curiously crumbled well after their date with PSU for good measure:


A note on judgement calls: I normally make sure to lean all assumptions about data in the opposite direction of the point I'm trying to make -- it's just good practice and eliminates any potential distracting points, but frankly PSU doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt here and so they're not getting it. I loved watching Clark play and I'm not discounting the effort and cultural impact on the program when he never said die, but I'm not buying for a second that USC cared more about the final seven minutes of a Rose Bowl they openly said they didn't want to play in than, say, orcestrated dancing or broing it out in a totally mature way at the expense of sideline reporters. Michigan State isn't in the same universe, but they weren't playing for style points, needed a rare shared championship, and all most certainly had switched to Ride It Out mode mentally.

Update: It looks like I missed some teams that snuck back into the bottom of the Top 25.  Tennessee finished 25th in 2006, Wisconsin finished 24th in 2007, and Oregon State improved tremendously in 2008, beating USC but struggling to close out the deal -- still a very respectable 18th. The focus of this post is on offense in Top 10 games, but in the spirit of being complete, the Top 25 non-garbage average is actually 12.6 with the addition of those teams. 

The gory details.

Notre Dame 2006 - L 41-17
Quinn played well. Morelli had an early, damning turnover then gave up another one in the third for a touchdown that put the game well out of hand. Weis was 4 for 4 on 4th downs calls, which kept the PSU defense on the field, and the offense was completely absent.

Ohio State 2006 - L 28-6
Here are Penn State's first nine possessions, which are almost too terrible to believe: 3&Punt, Interception, 3&Punt, 3&Punt, 3&Punt, 3&Punt, Field Goal, Field Goal Missed, 3&Punt , 3&Punt. Because the universe is a funny place, Penn State was still somehow within a touchdown with under three minutes to play. They never did score one though, and instead we got The Grand Morelli Collapse.

Michigan 2006 - L 17-10
Penn State was held under 200 yards, had negative rushing yards on 25 attempts and predictably gave up eight sacks after establishing the anti-run. This also gave Michigan blogs the TP Fumble photo - Morelli laying out motionless after absorbing an uncalled helmet-to-helmet shot from a 6' 6", 320 pound future NFLer. Clark took his first real snaps, but the quarterback were interchangeable as the offensive line dramatically limited the playbook.

Wisconsin 2006 - L 13-3
The Paterno injury game, which overshadowed the results but proved that the richer members of the Wisconsin fanbase are not, in fact, too drunk to realize what's going on around them. That was coincidentally a pivotal moment in the game - a dropped interception right after Paterno went down would have been a pick six, instead Scorotto muffed the punt and Wisconsin recovered on the PSU 20 and effectively ended the game.

Penn State's offense averaged just 1.7 ypc and had six drives of five yards or less. End result is 201 yards of offense and the all to familiar, big game median score of 3.

Michigan 2007 - L 14-9
This is probably the most frustrating of all these losses, in large part because Michigan was pretty terrible at the time, was starting a shaky backup named Ryan Mallett, and Penn State apparently (so the legend goes) dialed back a more aggressive gameplan at the 11th hour. Morelli fumbled on the second drive of the game at the Michigan 10 and spotted the Wolverines an early touchdown that should have never been. Then, with a chance to take the lead, Austin Scott gave it away on the Michigan 9.


The gameplan was ruined with such major mistakes, and Michigan found their soon to be patented Hart-behind-Long routine which they ran about 957 times in a row to put the game away.

Ohio State 2007 - L 37-17
This game was over halfway through the second quarter, although Ohio State gained 453 total yards anyway. Penn State managed to average less yards per completed pass than per run and Morelli was the team's second leading rusher -- never a good thing.

OSU 2008 - W 13-6
Simple formula: have zero yards in penalties, zero turnover and bet that the game turns on a colossal mistake by the other team. Otherwise, you lose.


Iowa 2008 - L 24-23
I don't want to talk about it. That wasn't pass interference and Paterno didn't help with the whole space heater thing.

USC 2008 ('09 Bowl) - L 38-24
"Overwhelmed from the start..." PSU had no answer for Sanchez, and I can't even blame them. He played the game of his life on his way to being a very good NFL quarterback. Clark gave a valid effort at the end but some key turnovers and an absolute collapse at the end of the second half - 14 points in the last 1:30 - are way too much to overcome against a defense that sent so many players to the NFL.

Ohio State 2009 - L 24-7
Pryor's "homecoming," and another ho-hum OSU game. Just 201 yards of offense - not the first time we've seen that number - no turnovers from OSU and, after an early, impressive long drive lead by Clark, only one drive of more than six plays and only two of more than 16 yards.

Iowa 2009 - L 21-10
The funny thing about this game is that Iowa was trying to lose this one themselves by not playing any offense, but were able to overcome with playmaking. Penn State was winning this game in the fourth quarter somehow, despite having twice as many drives of negative yards as ones that moved forward.

Then, of course, the blocked punt for a touchdown, followed by Turnoverpalooza (four total) and a game that felt unwinnable early despite the dragged out lead.

Alabama 2010 - L 24-3
Probably Bolden's best game of the year, but he was undone in the redzone and Penn State had a very rare down year on defense. They looked like the Bama JV team trying to tackle downhill runners, so it might not have mattered that PSU had four turnovers and couldn't get Royster going (3.6 ypc).

LSU 2009 ('10 Bowl) - W 19-17
No useful data available, although a rare moment when an offensive player from Penn State showed effective moxie in a big game.


Iowa 2010 - L 24-3
Penn State was outgained 148 to 1 in the first quarter, Stanzi played very well and The Perfect Plan was undone by a true freshman's interception (can't have those with this game plan, not even from 18-year-olds) and an inability to convert on 3rd down. Penn State also left some points on the field when they failed to convert a 4th & Goal on the 1 -- a momentum killer, but probably too little, too late anyway.

Ohio State 2010 - L 38-14
I was at this game and watched the OSU fans boo their team off the field down 14-3 at halftime. Then the ugly side of Moxie showed up, both times in the same corner as my seats, and some old woman Buckeye fan kept putting the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, which was weird.

Pryor needed to throw just 13 passes (much to the delight of Tressel, I'm sure), Herron averaged nine per carry, and the offense went three-and-out five consecutive times to end the game.

Michigan State 2010 - L 28-22
Penn State was unfortunately outmatched in this game, but Michigan State was also more than beatable. A slow offense once again doomed the team, with six punts in a row after the opening drive led to a field goal. The late rally showed character but probably snuck up on MSU more than anything - still, a rare moment of credit is due to McGloin for making it happen, although qualified with the understanding that you need to start games like that and cut your defense some slack rather than turning it on just after the point where such a comeback is largely irrelevant.

Alabama 2011 - L 27-11
We've got you covered here.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

And about that title: Always Check, check, check!!!

The argument here is not that the Perfect Game strategy doesn't work. It does, and Ohio State 2008 is proof. There are problems, though, and most specifically: Penn State rarely plays perfect. They may limit penalties, even in blowouts, but they rarely limit turnovers and almost never get the big play (Pryor fumble, LSU 2-minute drill, elusive special teams touchdown or defensive score).  More importantly, you ensure you have no answer if the other team comes out swinging, taking the game out of your hands as early as the second quarter and boring the crap out of your fans in the process.

Some pretty glaring themes:

  • First, the absolutely unavoidable average figure: just over seven meaningful points -- seven! -- per game against Top 10 teams in the last 5+ years. Of all the information we have, this is the most damning.  Look at past results for conference championships, major bowl games and what it takes to win All The Tostitos and tell me how many times you can get out of town with 7.5 points and a trophy of any consequence. 
  • That number isn't much better when you expand it to the Top 25.
  • While penalty yards are typically pretty low, here's a complete list of games mentioned above in when Penn State had zero turnovers: 2008 OSU, 2009 ('10) LSU.  That's it, out of 17 tries.  We're using a strategy that demands perfect football, and we achieve the first and most significant criteria -- zero turnovers -- two times out of seventeen.
  • We have an unreasonably high level of expected defensive efficiency, and fortunately for us we get what we hope for in the vast majority of non-Top 10 games.  But look at the list of BCS championship games: Penn State's average points allowed is right around 24 points, which the national champion has given up four times.  More telling, the game's loser gave up more than that to the eventual champion nine times in the thirteen games of the platform.  It suggests that PSUs defense is build to hold up under the pressure at the top.  


The hope that lessons are being learned and that things will change is probably a bleak one.  This attitude apparently worked in the ‘80s, and is also largely to blame now because is lead to such success for Paterno for so long. It also worked in Rounders, which was a made up story about beating the odds with a conservative approach, in fantastic fashion, when time is running out -- almost certainly overstated in this metaphor, but also probably not that far off.

Maybe we just haven't seen the vindication scene yet, or maybe beating the odds is such a good story because it by definition happens so rarely, which seems to be the plot so far.