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Not to Be Picky, But Penn State Was More Than Two Yards Short

by on November 09, 2019 7:00 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Not to be picky, but Penn State came within two yards of beating Minnesota.

And within two yards of much, much more.

Really, though, it came down to three picks.

In addition to a Penn State defense that gave up a season-high 31 points — a staggering 24 in the first half — and a stunning 19 yards per completion.

And a few questionable decisions.

It started coming down under clear skies and 40ish temperatures when Penn State, ranked No. 4 in last week’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, admittedly came out of the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium lacking what head coach James Franklin said was “a sense of urgency.”

In the end, though, it came down to Journey Brown going down on the 2-yard line.

That’s where Brown landed after grabbing an eight-yard pass from Sean Clifford with just over two minutes to play. Although Minnesota led 31-26, the reception would have given Penn State a third-and-1 from the 2 and, essentially, six plays to go two yards.

Would have.


But Penn State wide receiver Daniel George, wearing No. 11, was whistled for offensive pass interference — he was pushing his way through two Gophers five yards away from the play, in most cases a non-call.

Not here, not now.

“I was just hoping the play would stay,” said Brown. “I saw the penalty flag on the ground, so I sprinted back to where they placed the ball and got ready for the next play.”

Just as Irv Charles — wearing No. 11 — and his accidental TD catch against Minnesota in 2016 spurred Penn State to a victory and a nine-game run that led them to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl, the call against Penn State’s No. 11 against Minnesota before an SRO crowd on Saturday had the opposite effect.

11 giveth and 11 taketh away.

Franklin’s response: “You just hope that in critical times like that it better be clear to make that call at that point in the game.”

The penalty on George negated the play, which negated the third-and-2, which negated the potential game-winning touchdown, which negated a victory and a 9-0 record and a likely No. 3 spot in this week’s CFP rankings and a potential trip to the playoffs or, at least, a berth in the Rose Bowl.

Not to be picky.

But, the penalty sent Penn State back to the Minnesota 25 and after an incomplete pass to George, Clifford threw his third pick of the day and that was that.

Gone, gone, gone.

Game, magical run, perfect record.



And, to be picky, picky: Clifford’s two other interceptions — both by Antoine Winfield — set up Minnesota touchdowns.

“It’s one of those where you can’t help but blame yourself, especially after my performance today,” said Clifford, who was 23 of 43 for 340 yards, with a TD to go with those three interceptions. “I thought I could have played a lot better. I say that each week, but this week it actually hurt us.”

Franklin concurred.

“We lost the turnover battle,” Franklin said. “Three turnovers on the road is not who we’ve been. You turn the ball over three times against a good opponent, a Top 10 opponent, and it makes it very challenging to win.”

The final game-sealing interception was the fourth red zone fail for the Nittany Lions. They made it to the 15-yard line in the first quarter and to the 3-yard line in the second quarter, but had to settle for field goals (from 33 and 21 yards) both times.

To be picky, that last field goal was the last play of the first half and came with the Nittany Lions on the 3-yard line. It was one play short because Clifford spiked the ball instead of calling a time out after a 20-yard completion to Pat Freiermuth that got Penn State to the Minnesota 7-yard line, with a first-and-goal.

That gave the Nittany Lions just two plays to get into the end zone, before Franklin would have to decide to go for the TD or the field goal. (He opted for the latter.)

“Coach (Ricky) Rahne wanted to save clock, Coach Franklin wanted to save clock, so I was in agreement with them,” Clifford said. Rahne, the offensive play-caller was in the press box, Franklin was on the sidelines.

“I got the call from the sidelines,” Clifford continued. “Our big thing is 1-0, execution on each play. So, I’m backing them no matter what. They saw that we should save clock and trusted that we could get in in two plays, and obviously, I didn’t execute it to the standard.”


To be picky (again), Franklin’s call for a two-point conversion — a bubble screen to Ricky Slade that ultimately failed — in the third quarter kept Minnesota ahead 24-19 and later put the Nittany Lions in a bad spot:

Trailing 31-19 with 11 minutes left in game, Penn State had to go for it on a fourth-and-goal from the Minnesota 5. A field goal would have made the score 31-22, with a nine-point gap that would have required a touchdown and a field goal, likely too big of a hurdle the way the game was going.

The fourth-down call failed and Minnesota held the lead. For good.

“Obviously, we have the two-point chart like everybody does,” Franklin explained. “We consulted the two-point chart and it made sense to go for it. We talked to the offensive coaches and the defensive coaches, checked the chart, and felt like it was the right call in that situation. To be honest with you, again, the way the game played out that wouldn’t have mattered.”

Either way, Penn State, now 8-1, was two yards short. And a whole lot more.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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