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77 Random Thoughts on Michigan State

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Musings from a rainy disappointment in East Lansing

Penn State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In college football’s longest game of the year, the Penn State Nittany Lions squared off against the Michigan State Spartans. On a rainy day in East Lansing, the Spartans emerged victorious on a last second field goal by the score of 27-24. I have some thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:

  1. Sigh. I can’t believe I have to do this again this week.
  2. Honestly, that’s probably what the Nittany Lions were thinking when they walked back through the tunnel at Spartan Stadium after the game ended and realized that they still had to speak with the assembled media.
  3. There are lots of ways to talk about this game. It seems appropriate to me to start with circumstances, then talk about the narrative.
  4. Last week’s loss to the Buckeyes was a heartbreaker with the kind of ending that makes you want to stay in bed and sleep for a week. That loss, coupled with the dreary weather and noon start time, sounded like the perfect recipe for a slow road start.
  5. That seemed all too predictable, though. Plus, James Franklin’s “1-0 each week” mantra is designed for moments like these, when a team could easily have a let down game after the air was taken out of its sails.
  6. So, of course, Penn State went out and promptly laid an egg. They looked sloppy and uncoordinated, finishing the first possession off with a tipped interception.
  7. Under-discussed this week - the job Sparty did to limit Saquon Barkley on kick returns. Most of their kick offs went for touchbacks, but the two that were returned went for a grand total of 11 yards. Barkley is the most dangerous athlete in America, particularly in the return game where he can set up blockers over a 10 or 20 yard spread. That he got basically nothing should have been indicative of how this game was going to go.
  8. You have to admire Trace McSorley for coming out swinging on the next two offensive series. It’s like a different player was under center from the first possession. He was on fire, completing 9 of 12 attempts for 2 touchdowns.
  9. And then the rain came tumbling down.
  10. Three and a half hours felt like an eternity for me at home. I can’t imagine how unpleasant it must have been for both teams to wait it out that long in the locker room.
  11. I appreciate Franklin’s honest response in the post-game when asked about the delay. He’s a guy who has an answer and a plan for basically everything, and even he couldn’t fake it on the dais - “I didn’t have anything in my head coaching manual about how to handle a 3-hour and 22-minute delay, but I guarantee you I will have one moving forward.”
  12. I don’t think there’s any real plan to prepare guys for the delay and slop. At some point, they have to be able to crank their adrenaline back up, shake off the discomfort, and get out there and play.
  13. It took a bit, but I think they eventually did that. Still, a sloppy game overall.
  14. Can’t make excuses about the weather, since both teams have to play in it. That said, you have to appreciate just how many outrageous plays Michigan State made in touch circumstances. Circus catches abound.
  15. Those were necessary because Penn State stuffed their running game hard. Couldn’t get to Brian Lewerke when needed, but by and large I wasn’t completely offended by Penn State’s defense.
  16. Not completely. I’m a bit baffled by the play of the secondary. To suggest that Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Troy Apke, and Amani Oruwariye were “exposed” the last two weeks would be to suggest that these are guys who actually aren’t quality players and got trounced.
  17. That’s nowhere near true. Every single one of those guys has made important plays in big moments against quality opponents. This is a talented and experienced defensive backfield that leaked like a sieve against Lewerke and crew. I’m not much of an X’s and O’s guy, but it looked like they got beat playing a lot of Tom Bradley-style zone. Bend-but-don’t-bre....oh, broken.
  18. They also got tagged for pass interference on several occasions.
  19. If you couldn’t tell on Twitter, I was unhappy with the officiating. Again. As usual. I just don’t understand how the B1G can make so much money but fail to hire competent personnel. At one point, there was a relatively clean play on a receiver and the flag came in a full 5 seconds after the whistle. If you’re going to call it, just call it already.
  20. Penn State didn’t lose this game because of officiating.
  21. I should say that again so it doesn’t get misinterpreted. PENN STATE DID NOT LOSE THIS GAME BECAUSE OF OFFICIATING. But we all deserve better.
  22. Michigan State is a good team that Penn State should have beaten. It lost because its playmakers didn’t make enough plays. Three picks from your quarterback and an inability to hold blocks for the best player in college football will stifle any offense. One big play from Saquon Barkley probably locks this game down.
  23. Unfortunately, we spent our life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.
  24. Once again, DaeSean Hamilton establishes himself as a solid number 1 option. Terrific game from him, finding open space and making Sparty pay for it. Another excellent job.
  25. I’m pretty convinced DeAndre Thompkins had his man beat on the 70 yard touchdown even if he hadn’t fallen down. Speed kills.
  26. I’m probably sounding like a broken record, but we could have used the Tommy Stevens package a bit this week. Penn State busted out a 20 yard Saquon Barkley pass play, but we can’t find a way to integrate Touchdown Tommy in our game plan against a top 20 team?
  27. Trace McSorley just keeps breaking records. He’s going to hold every single Penn State passing record by the end of next year by an enormous margin. Just keep slingin’, Trace. It works.
  28. Momentum’s a funny thing. Penn State felt like it was starting to roll when the extended delay hit. Then there was a bit of a lull before Michigan State took control.
  29. When the McSorley-Thompkins touchdown came, it felt like a momentum swing hard in the Nittany Lions’ direction. Holding Michigan State to a field goal on the following drive was a good start, and it felt like Penn State was ready to take control.
  30. At the end of the day, the Al Pacino speech from Any Given Sunday still holds up. It really is a game of inches.
  31. Once again, for the second week in a row, Penn State had a chance to ice the game twice. Each time, they fell just a bit short.
  32. The first opportunity came on the possession after the Michigan State field goal to tie the game at 24. With 11 minutes left in the game, Trace McSorley begins methodically moving Penn State down the field in a drive that featured passes of 8, 7, and 6 yards to his most reliable receivers - Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, and Juwan Johnson. Barkley took 4 yards on the ground on one play as well.
  33. With less than 9 minutes left, McSorley drops back to pass and sees Saeed Blacknall over the top. Blacknall has his man beat by a step in the middle of the field with only grass in front of him.
  34. We waited and waited and waited for the dagger...
  35. McSorley lets it rip...
  36. And the ball ends up under thrown by a step. Instead of laying it out in front of Blacknall, who was likely to have crossed the goal line for 6, the ball is just short and into the hands of Michigan State’s David Drowell. Drive over, tie score.
  37. If McSorley and Blacknall connect for their second score of the day, Penn State is up 31-24 with less than 8:30 to play. Penn State would have converted for big play touchdowns on its previous two drives and the entire dynamic of the game now favors the Nittany Lions.
  38. Amani Oruwariye’s impressive tip toe interception on the next series gives the Nittany Lions new life. And once again, Penn State has the opportunity to seal this game.
  39. Starting at their own 11 yard line with just under 7 minutes to play, McSorley leads another methodical drive. Barkley picks up 10 yards on two carries, but this is fundamentally a passing drive. A roughing the passer penalty on the Spartans and an intentional grounding call on McSorley end up canceling each other out, and McSorley looks to Gesicki and Johnson again to move the ball down the field.
  40. With about 4 minutes left on the clock, Penn State faces a 4th and 3 at the Spartan 31. A field goal try from there is 48 yards, field conditions are terrible, and Tyler Davis has been inconsistent. Going for it here is not only aggressive, but unquestionably the right coaching decision.
  41. Trace takes the snap and sees Thompkins on a slant with a step on the defender. He fires the ball, and...
  42. ...it’s a bit high and behind his receiver. Sparty takes over on downs.
  43. It wasn’t a perfect throw. You can argue it should have been caught, but it would have been difficult. Either way, one of McSorley or Thompkins needed to make a play in that situation and it just didn’t happen. And instead of Penn State driving for the game winning field goal (at a makeable distance) or the game winning touchdown, Sparty takes possession and Lewerke closes the door with a 10 play drive that ends with a Matt Coghlin field goal as time expires.
  44. Oddly enough, even after those missed opportunities, Penn State had the opportunity to make a stand. On 3rd and 4 at the Penn State 37, nowhere in field goal range in this weather, Lewerke attempts to convert, but the pass is broken up by freshman Tariq Fields-Castro. It’s the best play of the day for a secondary that had been repeatedly beaten.
  45. But...flag...
  46. Marcus Allen has been Penn State’s hero so many times that it’s almost hard to believe that the Nittany Lions’ championship dreams ended on his watch.
  47. The flag was legitimate. I can’t argue. He drilled Lewerke late. But man, what a backbreaking penalty and a gut wrenching way to lose this game.
  48. So...
  49. You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
  50. Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
  51. Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets
  52. Well now, I ain't no hero, that's understood
  53. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
  54. With a chance to make it good somehow, hey, what else can we do now?
  55. What else indeed?
  56. All of us organize our lives in stories, and we expect our lives to follow the expected narrative.
  57. The story of last year’s time was a story of emergence and victory. For Penn State, based on the way the season had played out, Ohio State beating Michigan at the end of the year and the Nittany Lions ending up in the Big Ten title game felt like fate. It just made sense.
  58. It just made sense that Penn State would beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. In fact, they did it the exact same way as they had won games all year. It just made sense.
  59. Coming into this year, the story was about Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, two Heisman candidates who would lead this team to the promised land. And for the first 7 weeks of the season, everything fell into place. Trouncing Michigan before a record setting home crowd was exactly what was needed and expected. And between the blow out and the first three quarters of the Ohio State game in which Penn State led by 15 points, the narrative of the 2017 season could not have been clearer.
  60. The truth, though, is that while humans use stories to explain their lives, there’s no guarantee that the rest of the narrative will play out as expected.
  61. The last five quarters of Penn State football certainly speak to that.
  62. There was lots of handwringing and second guessing on Saturday night. Lots of concern about the state of Penn State football, about the quality of the coaching, about whether the team was ever “really a contender.”
  63. That exists after every loss, of course, but the dramatic deviation from the story that Penn Staters told themselves this year, the one where the Nittany Lions kept rolling toward an inevitable showdown with Alabama or Clemson for the National Championship, is what made things far, far worse.
  64. Sometimes, things don’t work out quite the way you planned. And in those instances, it’s easy to lose perspective.
  65. This team was unquestionably a national title contender. It has flaws, just like all teams do. But it lost to two very good football teams on the road by a grand total of 4 points. It also beat two ranked teams on the road this year, one by a wide margin, and slammed a historic rival by nearly 30 points at home.
  66. Two losses of this ilk can be soul crushing, make no mistake. But as I mentioned on Twitter, the view from 10 feet is depressing, but the view from 10,000 feet is excellent.
  67. For the first time in decades, Penn State football is firing on all cylinders. Recruiting is excellent, the coordinators are very good, and we have student-athletes who represent our university with dignity and honor each and every week.
  68. Penn State football wins a lot of games, too. Since last year’s Michigan game, its won 16 games and lost just 3 by a total of 7 points. This is the first time since last November that the Nittany Lions have been outside the top 10.
  69. It is unlikely that Penn State wins the B1G East. Conceded.
  70. But...
  71. This season is far from over.
  72. With three games left, Penn State has a great opportunity to hit back-to-back 10+ win seasons for the first time since 2008 and 2009. It’ll only be the second time that has happened since 1993 and 1994.
  73. This time, however, that success looks fairly sustainable. That’s a credit to James Franklin and all of his coaches, and all of the players who have put in countless hours to bring this program back from the dead.
  74. The playoff dream is over. A New Year’s 6 Bowl isn’t a mortal lock. But Penn State still has a chance to make it good somehow.
  75. Hey, what else can it do now?
  76. On to Rutgers.
  77. We are...