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Midweek Musings - Penn State Needs to Learn How to Go for the Throat

A little ruthlessness can go a long way

Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a common euphemism - really good competitors know how to go for the throat when an opponent is weak. There is a reason that teams like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State routinely find themselves on the winning side of close, competitive games, beyond just having stellar recruiting - when playing a team, and they have the chance to slam the door, they do.

In its last four losses, Penn State lost to four ranked teams.

In its last four losses, Penn State held the lead in the fourth quarter.

In its last four losses, Penn State has lost by a combined eight points.

No one game in that stretch of four games is worth Penn State hanging its head over. They played tough, and came up just short in each of them. But four times? That’s puzzling at best, and concerning at worst.

So what is it, then? Is it a lack of roster talent? Perhaps. In 2016, Penn State was still feeling the effects of the sanctions. Making the Rose Bowl was almost definitely ahead of schedule for James Franklin and his squad. But you could argue that in 2017, and certainly in 2018, that the roster has been restored to pre-sanctions numbers, and with better talent.

Is it coaching? Maybe, as some of the “little things” that James Franklin alluded to in his post game press conference seem to pop up. Things like dropped balls, or untimely penalties, or settling for a field goal instead of getting just one more yard to extend a drive. But in general, the offensive and defense schemes have been effective, and have gotten Penn State to a point that it held the lead in each of the games in question.

For me, it’s that Penn State just doesn’t quite have a killer’s mentality yet. In any one of those games, a single third down conversion - or third down stop - could have swung the game back in favor of the good guys. But there’s one situation in particular that stuck out to me from the most recent loss.

With 4:45 left in the game, up 26-21, Penn State failed to convert a third-and-six attempt at the Ohio State 37 yard line. From that point, there were three options available:

  1. Try a 53-yard field goal, when your true freshman kicker already missed from a shorter distance earlier in the day, but putting you up by 8 points.
  2. Punt the ball, and try to pin OSU deep in their end of the field, needing a touchdown to go ahead.
  3. Go for it, letting your record-setting quarterback try to will the team to the win, or pull a fake punt out of the bag of tricks to move the chains.

James Franklin opted to for number two, and punted it. And in a vacuum, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong call. There was no way Jake Pinegar was going to be trusted to make such a long field goal, and the punt was downed at the 4 yard line. Hardly a bad result overall.

But nothing in a football game is done in a vacuum. On their previous possession, Ohio State marched down the field and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to just five points. Couple with the big stop on third down, and the Buckeyes had all the momentum. Sure enough, they scored to take the final lead of the game not long thereafter.

Consider a similar situation earlier in the game, wherein OSU faced fourth-and-inches at the Penn State 47. Unarguably worse field position, though clearly fewer yards to go - and Meyer made the call to go for it. Penn State got the stop, and would proceed to score on the ensuing drive. But Meyer had the chutzpah to go for it.

We all know how the game turned out, and again, in a vacuum the punt seemed like the right call. But given the way the game was going, Penn State needed a first down. It absolutely had to continue to bleed the clock. To slam the door on Ohio State. To go for the throat.

Franklin took the conservative way out, and it bit him in the butt. Maybe “uncomfortable” James Franklin will opt to go for it next time, and attempt to put the nail in the coffin.

Something needs to change in these close games against ranked opponents. There’s no way that the Nittany Lions should come up winless with so many opportunities to bury the dagger.

Penn State needs to learn how to go for the throat.