Normally there would not be a reason to give excuses when a team projected to finish outside of the top 25 loses on the road to a team projected to play in the College Football Playoff. During Penn State’s 49-10 loss on Saturday many fans of the Lions were searching for answers. Those answers could be deemed excuses, or a deflection from what is the real problem for the current Penn State football team. Or they could be considered logical explanations.
Let’s look at some of the popular excuses some will give to explain away this Penn State loss.
Depth At Linebacker
By the second half of the game Penn State was without five linebackers that had played for the team this season. With Nyeem Wartman-White out for the year with a knee injury, Brandon Bell out and Jason Cabinda also sidelined, the team was without its three starting linebackers before the first snap of the game. Soon into the game middle linebacker substitute Brandon Smith was ejected after a very controversial targeting penalty. Soon after his replacement Jan Johnson was injured and is now out for the season.
The Lions faced the toughest opponent of the season with its second and third tier linebackers. True freshman Cameron Brown played for the first time on defense and showed the speed and range that he will bring to the table in the future. He was the first true freshman to see the field on defense this year for the Lions. While his skill is admirable, it was not a good spot to make his collegiate debut. True sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper held down the fort for most of the game alongside Brown. It was a tough go for the team.
The NCAA Sanctions
Sanctions were the NCAA’s equivalent of a criminal sentence for the Penn State football team. Regardless to whether the actions taken against Penn State, limiting the number of scholarships it could offer, were justified or not the intentions were to hamper the football program for years. The sanctions have done that very effectively. The intent of the penalties was to put the Lions at a competitive disadvantage. That is why it is unreasonable to compare this Penn State team, and the teams in the recent past, to any program that is not at a severe NCAA-sanctioned disadvantage.
In year one, 2012, the team lost a few talented players such as Justin Brown, Khairi Fortt, Silas Redd, and Anthony Fera to transfer. Still on that team there remained a great deal of talent, including seasoned senior leadership. It was as though the program had been released on bail pending their sentencing. By 2013-2015 the program was effectively incarcerated by the results of the transfers and scholarship limits due to the sanctions. And while the sanctions ended prior to this season the program still feels the effects of limited scholarships. This season is as though the team is playing while being released with probation. The residual effects of the past penalties weigh on the program like an ankle monitor.
The results of the sanctions are that the team’s depth is still very young. In some cases players are playing prior to their being truly ready to take the field. This is influencing not just the fan’s experience and the joy that we get from winning a football game. It also hinders the team. It changes the players path and their trajectories, as they are rushed into playing and forced into a four-year schedule instead of the five-year plan. There will still be signs of the devastation that the NCAA sanctions created next season but hopefully it will not alter the play on the field. This year it is not fair to fully dismiss the effects that the NCAA sanctions have had on the program.
Youth On The Field
As a result of the restricted number of recruits that the team was allowed to bring in the recent past, Penn State has a lopsided roster. With only three seniors in the starting lineup on Saturday, the Big House was a baptism by fire for many young Lion players. Penn State has been able to bring in three consecutive recruiting classes with a full compliment of players. The 2014 recruiting class included 25 players and many of the names are on the field with regularity. Nationally the 2014 recruiting class was rated 25 by Rivals.com. In 2015 coach Franklin was able to haul in the a recruiting class that was rated the 15th best in the country and again we see many of those players on the field as well. The class of 2016 was rated 23 overall and to date four true freshman have seen the field for Penn State.
Some have high expectations for the Lions and point to Ohio State as an example of another team that features many underclassmen and still remains at the highest level. It should be noted that Ohio State won the national championship in 2014 and as a result was able to haul in the third best recruiting class as rated by Rivals. The following two classes rated 9 and 3 overall. There is a healthy sprinkling of seniors at critical positions on the Buckeyes that allows the young players to blend in seamlessly. Penn State has no such luxury. It is borderline comical to compare a team that has lost just four games over the past five years to this Penn State team that is just now getting back to a full compliment of players.
Penn State’s youth are on the field but many of the players have been rushed ahead of schedule and are making mistakes during critical moments of the game, not on the practice field. While this is hurting the team now, it will allow the younger players to gain experience that should benefit they and the team in the coming years.
Coach Franklin sprinted down the sideline to call a timeout just before Penn State kicked a chip-shot field goal for the first three points it scored. The play clock was winding down and a delay of game penalty would have resulted. Still it was unnecessary for Franklin to call a timeout in that situation. The kick would have been arguably easier from five yards back, the ball was spotted at the Michigan 2 yard-line and on the right hash mark, so the penalty was not worth a timeout. That was a clear coaching mistake. We can speculate about how such a decision could cost the team a win in a hypothetical future game but one thing is for certain, no coaching decision cost Penn State the win versus Michigan.
Eight minutes into the game and already down a pair of touchdowns, Penn State went for it on fourth down. A screen pass to DeAndre Thompkins was snuffed out for a loss of four yards. The play call was a bit baffling, it would be fair to call it a mistake, with the benefit of hindsight.
After the third Michigan touchdown of the first half the Lions were able to get their first defensive stop of the game. On the ensuing offensive possession, needing to hold the ball away from the Wolverine offense, Penn State faced 3rd and 1 at midfield. With Michigan stacked in the box waiting for a hand-off to Saquon Barkley, coach Moorhead obliged. The play went for a loss of three yards and Penn State was forced to punt. Michigan tacked on another touchdown on the following drive to take the lead to an insurmountable 28 points. Penn State is not at the point that it can run the ball up the middle against a team such as Michigan when that team knows the play is coming. In retrospect that play call probably wasn’t the best. It should be acknowledged that through four games all of the questionable offensive play calls can be counted on one hand. In previous seasons there were typically more than that per game.
There’s no sense in sugar-coating specific coaching decisions that did not pan out. Coaches make mistakes just as players and referees do as well. There were a few mistakes made by the Penn State coaching staff but none of them caused the team to lose the football game.
This Loss Is On Michigan
Whether Penn State lost due to playing a better team, being out-coached, having inferior recruiting, depth, sanctions, or any of the other normal excuses, it is important to put this one behind us. Since this is the game that the team was least likely to win heading into the season, let’s put all the excuses aside and save the blame game for another week. Sure it would have been nice had the team kept the game close into the second half. As a fan I would have been entertained more by a close loss. A close loss would result in the same record on the season, 2-2.
We can blame the offensive line if the team loses to Minnesota or Maryland. It will probably be coach Franklin’s fault should the team lose to Rutgers or Purdue. If the team doesn’t go at least 1-3 versus Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State, then it would be fair to blame the sanctions.
A loss on the road to a team that is hoping to play for a national championship should not be blamed on the normal suspects. The real reason the Lions lost on Saturday is because the Michigan Wolverines are a very good football team. Jim Harbaugh’s squad did what a top-ranked team does to a visiting program that is rated somewhere in the 40-50 range nationally. It dominated. It made a statement. That’s what the best teams in the country do to teams that are not at that level.
Blame this one on Michigan. It’s their fault that Penn State lost. It would have been the first time since 1994 that the Lions were able to defeat a top-5 ranked team on the road. The Lions were favored to win that game in 1994 and went undefeated that season with arguably the best Penn State team ever assembled.
Special Teams- Coming into the game all eyes were on Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, one of the most dynamic return specialists in the country. It didn’t take long for Peppers to have an impact on the game. Following the Lion’s first possession, true freshman punter Blake Gillikin was forced to punt from 9 yards deep in the end zone. The ball was spotted inside the one yard-line, leaving Gillikin fewer yards than normal to get the punt off. Amazingly, Gillikin booted the ball 61 yards from the original line of scrimmage, 70 yards in the air total. Peppers was able to get back in time to get a hand on the ball, slowing it down as he knocked it to the ground. Many players in the country would not have been able to get back to the punt, and had Peppers not gotten a hand on it, the ball could have easily traveled 80 yards with a normal end-over-end roll that such a deep punt would take. Peppers picked the ball up and ran 53 yards back into Penn State territory. Gillikin made the touchdown-saving tackle.
Pepper’s run was the only significant return for the Wolverines on the day. Five additional punts by Gillikin afforded Peppers only one more return yard, a ball that he caught while forced to run out of bounds. All of this came with Gillikin averaging 45 yards per punt. It was an amazing display, at one of the most imposing venues in college football, facing a player that has hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Penn State’s kicking game was solid as well. Tyler Davis once again succeeded in his two attempts, one field goal and one extra point. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius allowed just nine yards per return in three kickoffs while keeping the ball inside the 20 for the average starting position for the Wolverines. In addition, Julius once again made national news with a monster hit on Jourdan Lewis. In a game with so little to cheer about for the Lions, the kicking game was a bright spot.
Ball Security- Penn State’s final two possessions ended with an interception by Trace McSorley and a fumble by Miles Sanders. Each turnover happened with fewer than three minutes remaining in the game and with Michigan in full control. For the first time this season Trace McSorley did not bobble or fumble a snap or have trouble with the read-option hand-off. One low snap was casually picked up off the ground by McSorley and handed to Barkley and the play was not interrupted. This is a great sign moving forward for the team. The two late-game turnovers, while unfortunate, should serve as lessons learned by the two underclassmen Sanders and McSorley.
Two Critical Games Ahead For Penn State- While some in Penn State’s fan base may have considered this Michigan game to be a ‘must win’, it was not. Others were hoping for James Franklin to win and have a ‘signature game’ on his resume. Penn State would have needed Harry Houdini’s signature to pull this game out. Franklin is no magician nor is he an illusionist that can turn an out-matched team into a bunny rabbit with a reach into his hat and a wiggle of his wand.
Next week’s game versus Minnesota and the following week versus Maryland are as close to must-win games as there are remaining on the schedule. The team should be favored to win each game, at home, and will need to win in order to maintain realistic hopes at finishing with a winning record this season. Five games remain on the schedule, Maryland, Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana and Purdue, that should have the Lions favored to win entering the game. If Penn State can hold serve versus these teams it will play in a bowl game and all will not be lost. Add a win versus Iowa, Michigan State, or Ohio State to what would be a 7 win season and the year will be looked at as a success. There is plenty of football to be played. While it would be nice to have Penn State’s most critical games coming against the top teams that it faces, the next couple of weeks may prove to be very intense for Penn State football fans.