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Penn State Football: No Offense, But in Closing Lions Need to Do Better

by on November 02, 2017 9:30 PM

Warning: This story is not just about Penn State’s offense. Parts may be hazardous to your health.

Offense gets all the attention, but defense wins championships.

For example:

James Franklin admittedly spends a lot more time with his offense than his defense.

“I’m pretty much bouncing back and forth” — between offense and defense — “with most of my time on the offensive side of the ball,” he said on Wednesday.

In the 15 minutes (the duration of a fourth quarter) before that press opportunity, Penn State opened the doors of Holuba Hall and allowed the media horde to watch the tail end of practice.

Of the approximately 42 reporters, camera people and associated media folks on hand, 38 of them headed over to the east end of the indoor practice facility. Where the offense was working.

Four stayed at the west end. With the defense (and a couple of PSU PR types). At least to start.

The day before, at Franklin’s weekly televised press conference in Beaver Stadium, where questions come from beat writers calling from around the Commonwealth as well as from reporters on hand, the Penn State head coach fielded 19 questions.

The final tally, by subject:

Offense — 11

Defense — 5

Land Grant Trophy — 1

Halloween — 1

Team state of mind — 1

My buddy Andy The Sports Stats Prof has this theory about complementary football: “There are certain games where the other team’s offense is so good that the defense has to step and win the game. The way J.T. Barrett was playing, Ohio State was one of those games.”

Penn State fans remember entire back-to-back seasons like that.

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Like in 2003-04, when the Nittany Lions held a now-laughable scoring advantage of 18.55 to 18.25 points. Or, in 2014-15 — Franklin’s first two years at PSU — when they held a 21.9 to 20.2-point scoring edge.

There are good numbers and bad numbers, two sides of a singular coin. For instance: Penn State’s defense has seven senior starters, including all four in a secondary that was lit up in the final quarter against the Buckeyes for three TDs and 170 yards on 13-of-13 passing by Barrett. Of course, that same defense was forced to played the Ohio State game without two of its top three defensive ends — Torrence Brown was sidelined for the season against Georgia State and Ryan Buchholz was injured against Ohio State after playing just one snap.

63 TO 63

In the nine games Penn State has played in 2017 — counting its 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to USC and its 7-1 start to the ’17 regular season — it has played the fourth quarter to a draw. Cumulatively, at least. 63 points to 63 points.

Franklin may be right: Penn State may have one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Just not in the fourth quarter. Not in awhile.

In the last nine Penn State games, the fourth quarter scores have gone like this (PSU is listed first): 0-17, 7-0, 12-8, 7-0, 6-12, 7-0, 7-7, 14-0, 3-19.

In four of those aforementioned nine games, the Nittany Lion held the opposition to 0 points in the final quarter. (Akron, Georgia State, Indiana and Michigan.) In a fifth, Northwestern scored a cheapie TD with 106 seconds remaining. In the sixth, Penn State edged Pitt 12-8.

That leaves USC, Iowa and Ohio State. Combined, in the fourth quarter against Penn State, that’s: FOES 48, PSU 9.

Broken down (a poor choice of words, perhaps), in those three games Penn State was outscored 17-0, 12-6 and 19-3. Of course, those middle 6 points won the Nittany Lions their game against Iowa, 21-19. And, none of the three games were at home in Beaver Stadium. And, two of the three were against ranked opponents (No. 9 USC and No. 6 OSU) riding hot streaks of their own.

Still, entering the fourth quarter of each of those games, Penn State led, with a simple 900 seconds to play. And to their credit, the Nittany Lions certainly did use every one of them to close the deal against the Hawkeyes.

(It’s all in how you use that time, I guess. Richard “The Locust” LeFever ate a 24-inch pizza in 15 minutes back in 2005, according to MajorLeagueEating.com.)

A QUARTER BACK

Entering the fourth quarter of those games, it was:

Penn State 49, USC 35

Penn State 15, Iowa 7

Penn State 35, Ohio State 20

Stuff(ed) of legends. Here’s how the drives in the succeeding fourth quarters played out:

ROSE BOWL — USC: Touchdown, punt, touchdown, field goal. PSU: Punt, punt, punt, interception.

VS. IOWA — Iowa: Touchdown, touchdown. PSU: Punt, missed field goal, touchdown. (The last drive of the third quarter ended in a fumble.)

VS. OHIO STATE — OSU: Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of game. PSU: Punt, punt, field goal, downs.

Penn State did get the W against Iowa, but it just reinforced to a bunch of college students that it is OK to procrastinate and you can still get away with it — never a good thing.

Last Saturday, Penn State’s offense couldn’t stay on the field in the second half against the Buckeyes. Other than a 10-play, 64-yard drive that lasted 5 minutes and 18 seconds and led to a field goal, their other four second-half possessions totaled 15 plays, covered 9 yards and lasted 5:46. Stunning, right?

The Nittany Lion defense spent a lot of time running back onto the field. And was unprepared to do so, says no less than an authority than Franklin himself.

“We have to improve in sudden change on defense,” Franklin said. “Have not been good this year in sudden change. The punt block — tough situation. It was a critical play in the game, obviously, as we know. Your defense needs to go out and swing momentum back to your side, with a three-and-out. Hold them, whatever it may be.”

About that punt block:

A little over three minutes into the fourth quarter, with Penn State (not-so-comfortably) ahead 35-20, Nittany Lion sophomore Blake Gillikin had a punt blocked. It was the first blocked punt credited to him out of 94 punts he has made in 2016-17. Two plays later, Ohio State scored.

A SPARK VS. SPARTY?

That fourth quarter trend is unlikely to continue at Michigan State for at least a pair of reasons:

One: Sparty, though 6-2, is hardly an offensive juggernaut. He’s been outscored 73-57 in the fourth quarter and in overtimes in 2017. Only once in eight games in 2017 has Michigan State scored more than 8 points in the final quarter.

And two: BenchMark JamesPants knows all of these numbers better than we do.

Out of the 5,784 words that the coach uttered at his Tuesday presser, the first 31 out of Franklin’s mouth — succinct and unsolicited, but certainly scripted — were his most insightful.

“We have to develop a finisher’s mentality,” he said. “That’s coaches. That’s players. That’s everybody. We’ve got to learn from these situations.

“Painful lesson to learn for all of us. That’s No. 1.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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