On Saturday evening, several hours after Jake Mitchell had booted through the game winning field goal in Evanston, I was sitting at Gino's East in downtown Chicago, waiting for some delicious deep dish pizza with a couple friends. For better or worse, we were out of sight of any televisions showing the late games, so we missed whatever it was that happened to Sparty and Alabama dismembering LSU. Without live sports to distract us, naturally the discussion turned to the game earlier that day. As friends are known to do, we have a friendly debate, smiled, took a sip of beer, and eventually started eating pizza.
In a lot of ways, those sorts of dinner table debates are what makes following sports so enjoyable. It is also what has become so rare, relatively speaking. In our age of embracing debate and firing off the most fire takes in 140 characters or less, the nuance of the gray area has been lost. Either James Franklin, John Donovan, and the rest of the football coaching staff should be handed their walking papers before boarding the team bus after a loss, or they are doing a bang up job and all that is required is patience. The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle.
Close losses – the one score, late field goal to lose type – seem to bring out the worst of these extremes. There are ultimately dozens of plays, both those made and not made as well as countless coaching decisions, that conceivably change the outcome of the game. After three and four score losses earlier this year, Saturday's 23-21 game against Northwestern was the first of these this season to not go PSU's way. Against Army West Point and again at Maryland, the Lions made enough of those crucial plays. On Saturday, they did not.
Against Army, Penn State recovered three of the seven fumbles the Black Knights put on the ground. Against Northwestern, the Cats lost the ball four times, but recovered every time. Fumble luck giveth, fumble luck taketh. Against Maryland, the Lions receivers took advantage of 1-on-1 coverage and made plays. Against the Wildcats, they were breaking up near interceptions. Catches in other games were drops and missed tackles were shoestring plays. If you look hard enough, Penn State had plenty of chances to make game changing plays on Saturday, and for one reason or another, they were not made.
At the same time, Franklin made the baffling decision to wait, by my count, 22 seconds before calling a timeout late in the game, leaving practically no time for the Lions to mount a desperation game-winning drive. On third-and-1, the offensive staff drew up a doomed direct snap to Saquon Barkley that was blown up before it could get started (although, remember the success had out of the same look earlier in the game, including the go-ahead score). We do not know the answer as of yet, but it is conceivable DeAndre Thompkins was instructed to not field what was a very catchable punt at the 20 yard line instead letting it roll dead at the six. Bob Shoop brought six on the blitz on that fateful third down call that allowed Austin Carr to run wide open for 23 yards. All of these add up to failed coaching decisions, some more significant than others, where plays were not made.
Finding out the truth in all of this is as complicated as finding out which singular play or decision was the costly one on Saturday. But instead of embracing the nuance, we've embraced torches and pitchforks or sunshine and rainbows. Even walking out of Ryan Field on Saturday, there were as many "James Franklin needs to go" whispers, as there were "we played hard and lost to a better team."
Why can we not accept that the crux of Penn State's problems are not 100 percent at the feet of James Franklin, while at the same time, admitting that the Lions' second year head coach and his staff have made costly errors? Yes, the players are the ones that ultimately make plays, but there have been plenty of situations where PSU's players were not put in spots to do that. The extra 20-30 seconds of clock time likely would not have lead to a win on Saturday, but would it not have been nice to see?
Yes, Penn State is improving, as shown by a two point loss to a top-20 Northwestern team on the road. A year after falling by 23 at home says as much. But the case can certainly be made there is more there for this team. Those asking for more from this team, for better performances, are not off base, just as those pushing patience have a legitimate point. Put down the pitchforks and look past that rainbow, and lets try to have a reasonable discussion.