There has been a lot of talk lately about coach James Franklin and his need to secure a notable victory. Some call it a signature win. An overtime victory, one gained after trailing by ten points in the second half to a solid Minnesota team, should qualify as a big win. While some may be underwhelmed with a win versus Minnesota, taking the ‘hey, Penn State is supposed to beat the Gophers, that’s what we expect to happen’ mentality, others will see this as a giant leap forward for the young team.
What is a signature win, really? Does every coach have one, or just the great coaches? Is it just one single win that the coach can remind all the naysayers about each time the fanbase comes to the internet with their pitchforks, looking to exact a pound of flesh for their lack of satisfaction? It would be nice for a coach to have several signature wins, but then, doesn’t that sort of blow up the whole ‘signature’ idea if there are more than one of them? One win will not make or break a coach or football team. The day after any win or loss, the game has to be put behind the team as it moves on to the next challenge.
This was a huge win for the Penn State football program, the fans; and yes, it was a much-needed victory for James Franklin. Whether his seat was hot prior to the game, or after the first half with his team having played an uninspired 30 minutes of football, it’s safe to say that for the time being, Coach Franklin’s job is not in jeopardy. It’s doubtful that it ever was or would have been, had the team not stormed back for the victory in overtime.
This win had James Franklin’s fingerprints all over it, if not his signature. His heralded recruiting classes were on display throughout the game as younger players stepped in due to injuries and also their being the best option on the team as underclassmen. The young players brought in by Franklin helped grab this game from the jaws of defeat.
The Lions faced a 3rd and 11 on their own 19 with ten minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter, trailing by ten points. The team had gone 0-8 on third down conversions up to that point in the game. Trace McSorley stepped up in the pocket, so far that he almost crossed the line of scrimmage, and found Irvin Charles for an 80-yard touchdown reception. The play was the start of the Lions’ awakening.
Penn State held Minnesota on the next possession and following a kick catch interference when John Reid was underneath a punt, the ball was spotted on the 42 yard line on Minnesota’s side of the field. Not waiting to take a shot, McSorley found Chris Godwin with a pass, who took the ball down to the 6 yard line on the first play of the possession. Penn State was forced to settle for a field goal, tying the game at 13 apiece with 7:28 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
On a roll and facing a 2nd and 10 on the next possession from their own 15 yard line, the Lions once again looked to the 6’4, 220-pound behemoth Charles with a throw downfield. The pass fell to the ground incomplete but the play garnered Penn State some breathing room to run the offense as Antonio Shenault was forced to take a pass interference to break up what would have been a 40 yard gain. Two plays later, McSorley found emerging superstar tight end Mike Gesicki for a 53-yard gain down to the Gopher 6 yard line. After attempting to pass the ball into the end-zone to Chris Godwin, McSorley took it upon himself to finish the drive with his feet, beating the Minnesota pursuit to the left pylon to give the Lions the first lead of the game 20-13.
Minnesota was not deterred as the team took the ball on the next possession and capped a methodical 87 yard drive with a tying touchdown. Penn State went three and out on the following possession and freshman Blake Gillikin kicked the worst punt of his young Penn State career, a 25 yarder that went out of bounds at the Minnesota 31. The Gophers took the ball and continued their momentum, driving deep into Penn State territory in what appeared to be a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. On third and 9 from the Penn State 12 yard line, well within range for a field goal that would give Minnesota the lead, Mitch Leidner threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Jordan Smith. The game remained tied for the moment.
Following a Penn State punt on the next possession, Minnesota drove down the field and kicked a field goal with just 52 seconds left on the game clock. The Gophers not only drove the ball 58 yards on 11 plays to get into position, but were also able to drain the clock and all of Franklin’s time outs. Penn State got the ball back needing to drive the length of the field with no time outs, in a drizzly rain, to gain Tyler Davis a chance to tie the game with his right foot.
Penn State did just that. Facing a critical 3rd and 10 on their own side of the field with just 35 seconds remaining in the game, Trace McSorley made an outstanding play to get the ball to Chris Godwin, who dove to secure a 20-yard pass down the middle of the field. On the play McSorley was under heavy pressure and gained time with his feet to get the ball off to Godwin. On 3rd and 3 with no timeouts, at midfield, with 35 seconds on the game clock, a lane opened up for Trace McSorley and the sophomore quarterback used his quickness to scamper 26 yards down the field and out of bounds. It was a heady play by the young Penn State offensive leader but he wasn’t done yet. With the team safely in range for a Tyler Davis 40-yard field goal attempt, McSorley took one shot to the end zone for a chance to end the game in regulation. It was the right play to make but it took a great deal of courage and intelligence to execute the pass to Godwin in the corner of the end zone without doing anything to jeopardize Penn State’s chance at a tying field goal. The pass was inches short of success and fell to the ground.
There were many people in the stands, on the sidelines, and at home who were unable to cast their eyes toward Tyler Davis as he attempted the 40-yard tying field goal. Would the comeback fall short? Would Davis miss for the first time in his career in this critical situation? The air inside Beaver Stadium seemed thin for the moment and some looked above them hoping for an oxygen mask to drop from above. With a successful snap under a great deal of pressure from Tyler Yazujian, a composed hold by Chris Gulla, the ball set on the 30 yard line waiting for the toe of Davis to send it forward. With the confidence of a veteran, Davis put the ball through the uprights and Penn State fans exhaled in unison with a great deal of relief.
In overtime the Penn State defense stood solid. On the first play from scrimmage, Rodney Smith gained just one yard as the Penn State front held steady. On second down the Gopher’s hopes of scoring a touchdown were all but ended when Evan Schwan made a timely sack of Leidner. Two plays later Emmit Carpenter kicked a 46-yard field goal and Minnesota took a 26-23 lead after the first overtime possession.
Throughout the game, it seemed that Minnesota was intent on stopping Saquon Barkley given the fact that first down handoffs to Barkley went for negative yardage up to that point in the game. What would offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead call in this critical spot? He put the ball in his best player’s hands. McSorley turned and handed the ball off to Barkley on first down and 25 yards later, the Lions had a come-from-behind overtime victory at home.
After a tough contest that saw the Lions rush for just 85 yards on the first 26 attempts of the game, the final two runs went for 26 yards from McSorley and 25 yards from Barkley. When the outcome of the game hung in the balance, the offensive line provided space for the team to work.
Youth Movement in Full Effect
Penn State did this with a patchwork defense that featured a true-freshman linebacker. While skilled and destined to be a great player at PSU, Cam Brown turned 18 years old exactly six months prior to the game on Saturday. Brown was headed for a redshirt season before the rash of injuries at linebacker hit Penn State. A year or two in the weight room would have made Brown’s transition from high school to college football more seamless, but this is not a luxury that he and many other young Penn State players are able to afford.
Manny Bowen is a prototypical outside linebacker. The sophomore was forced to play middle linebacker for the first time in a Penn State uniform. While unfamiliar with the territory, Bowen steadied the defense after Brandon Smith was sidelined with what appeared to be a concussion. Technically Bowen should be considered the fifth-string middle linebacker for the Lions, behind Jason Cabinda, Nyeem Wartman-White, Smith, and Jan Johnson.
It’s uncertain whether injured linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell will be available for the game versus Maryland this Saturday, but with the bye week following the match-up with the Terps, we can all hope that the pair will find a way to buckle up their chin straps on October 22 when Ohio State comes to Happy Valley.
The talented freshmen guards that Penn State featured during the game are learning on the fly. Connor McGovern took a penalty when he went downfield on a Trace McSorley scramble but otherwise played a good game. Ryan Bates played a solid game as well, and it’s becoming easy to forget that he is just a redshirt freshman. The two players are the first of a wave of talented offensive lineman that will be on the field in the near future. There were times that the offensive line did not allow run plays to have a chance at success. There were a few breakdowns in pass protection. Overall though, the unit allowed Trace McSorley sufficient time to run the offense. Working with what the offensive line afforded him, McSorley threw several balls to the ground to avoid a negative-yardage play. This looks bad on the scorecard for McSorley, much like a failed pass, when it really is a situation where the young quarterback is picking up the slack for the developing offensive line. There were many peaks and valleys during this game, but the offensive line played the best it has all season.
McSorley Showing His Leadership
Trace McSorley passed for 335 yards and a touchdown. While his 19 completions on 41 passing attempts looks like a failure, there were a couple of drops on well-timed passes and a half-dozen instances where an incomplete pass was the best-case scenario during a broken play. The sophomore quarterback was steady when the margin of error was zero late in the game. He added 73 yards rushing on the day, including a run to get the team in field goal position to tie at the end of regulation. After a shaky start to the season with ball-control issues, McSorley did not bobble a single snap and there were no turnovers or sacks on the day. One bad snap was recovered and quickly thrown away by McSorley, which was a great play to keep the team from a loss of ten yards. Otherwise ball security, on a rainy day, was perfect for Penn State.
Coming Into His Own
Mike Gesicki is transforming into the player we knew he could be. He may soon be able to break the initial tackle on the backside drag plays that the team has been using in critical spots. Those are patterns are an easy read for the quarterback, useful as a secondary-read after taking a look at something more lucrative downfield. Now that Gesicki is getting more comfortable catching the ball, how soon will it be before we see him stiff-arm the lone defender near him when he catches it and turn athletically up-field for a big gain? It can’t be too far in the future.
Penn State is thin at tight end on the depth chart just as it is at linebacker. We should thank our lucky stars that Gesicki has taken a step forward to become the player that the team and fans hoped he would become. We should also acknowledge that to this point he has had the stamina and health to stay on the field for nearly every offensive snap. He is second on the team to only Chris Godwin with 251 yards receiving through five games played.
Defense Bent But Did Not Break
While the Penn State defense was not what we expected it to look like at the start of the season, it turns out that this group of ugly ducklings has its own beauty. A once-acclaimed recruit out of Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pa. made the final big play of the game for the Lion defense. Graduate-senior Evan Schwan made a critical sack on third down to force the Gophers into a field goal attempt in the first overtime possession. That play was the Schwan Song for Minnesota. Two plays later, Beaver Stadium erupted with joy as Saquon Barkley hopped across the goal line for the Penn State victory.
On the day, the unit allowed 228 yards rushing and 241 yards through the air. On paper, it does not look like a solid outcome for the team. When considering the rash of injuries at linebacker, this was a good performance for the Penn State defense. The yards allowed may overshadow the fact that Minnesota was only able to score two touchdowns on the day, a feat that kept the Lions in the game.
Signature Wins and Other Over-Used Terms
It has been hard for coach Franklin to please many of the Nittany Lion faithful. At times, it has been as though the coach has been asked to do the impossible and has been held accountable for results that aren’t fairly placed on his shoulders. One such instance is the continued drum beat by some in the media for him to gain a ‘signature win’. Such a mythical idea eludes a clear definition and it is no wonder why Franklin, in some people’s opinion, has been unable to capture the one win that will finally get his detractors to relax for a day or two. Maybe some day, Franklin will jump onto his unicorn and gallop right up beside this signature win, grabbing it around the neck and wrestling it into submission. Then maybe we in Penn State football circles can go a few days without talking about a coaching change. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Another over-used term that has me scratching my head is the ‘50/50’ ball. A pass that is thrown to a receiver that is single-covered downfield usually gets this moniker. But is this accurate to describe the play? Does each player truly have the same chance of coming down with the ball? If so why would the offense try such a play? A completion percentage of 50% is not desirable nor is the idea of throwing an interception half the time. It’s likely that if all of the declared ‘50/50’ balls were charted that there’s more than a fifty percent chance that the ball will fall to the ground incomplete. Much less than half of the time, the offensive player might catch the ball and less than 5% of the time, the defender makes a play on the ball. Maybe we need to get John Urschel on the case, because the numbers don’t seem to agree with the description of the play.