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Penn State Football: Fourth Down Call Not One Soon To Be Forgotten On A Growing List Of High Profile Losses

by on September 30, 2018 2:00 AM

It's not hard to imagine that if Penn State had simply lost on Saturday night as a result of nearly any other play that Beaver Stadium might have seemed disappointed, but not in mourning as nearly 111,000 fans filed out, stumbling back to their cars in shock.

A blown lead against the nation's No.4 ranked team would have stung, but the Buckeyes looked the part in the second half and Penn State is no stranger to second half comebacks, ripping the hearts out of opposing teams.

But a 4th-and-5 call, one that will not likely leave the minds of fans anytime soon, was among the most baffling of a handful of head-scratching decisions made on Saturday. A list that includes the inclusion of Tommy Stevens sporadically on early and promising drives in a trick, two-quarterback package that yields more hype than results.

As far the fateful play, the entire saga seemed doomed to begin with, Penn State calling a timeout with 1:22 to play after a nine-yard run by Trace McSorley on third-down. 

And then Ohio State called a timeout.

And then Penn State called a second timeout.

All of this for 15 feet.

"We got out there, we lined up the first time, they called a timeout after they saw the formation we came out in," McSorley said after the game.

"We came out, tried to get them to jump a little bit, see if we could get them to move. And then we just, we weren't able to make the play. "4th-and-5, I know exactly what Coach Rahne saw. I saw the same thing. The play was there to be made. We just didn't make the play. They did a good job, they ran a twist and were able to get in the backfield quickly. We weren't able to pick up that twist and they were able to hit Miles right when he got the handoff and get him down. I know that's a play that's the deciding factor in the game. Coach Rahne is going to look at it, and I know exactly what he saw. It's coach's decision, and I agree with what he saw. We just didn't make the play."

Whatever potentially sound football reasoning might have been behind the call it seemed doomed to fail after 58 minutes of collecting data. Up to that point Miles Sanders had carried the ball 15 times and on 11 of those occasions he had rushed for fewer than five yards. In the biggest moment of the game, Sanders and by extension the offensive line, were asked to do something they hadn't been unable to do all night.

The ball was snapped, and it was all over nearly as fast.

After the game James Franklin's long and winding opening statement included an admission that a different play should have been called. If that statement was made given the benefit of hindsight or said to hopefully appeal to fans who agreed with that sentiment is unknown, but it's hard to argue that it didn't even come close to working.

If nothing else the most astonishing aspect of the entire sequence was Penn State taking the ball out of McSorley's after four quarters of carrying -almost quite literally- the entire load. He was a bystander on the game's biggest play on a night where he was the only one consistently making them.

The result is a loss that will be hard for Franklin and his program to recover from in more ways than one. It is a loss that sticks high atop a list of the bad moments during his tenure. It is goodwill lost with fans and critics looking to speak up, loyalty that will have to be earned again both on and off campus. Penn State's three previous losses have come by a total of seven points, all against ranked teams, all in marquee moments, all with the Nittany Lions ahead in the fourth quarter.

Those are truths that are hard to ignore, a trend that goes beyond one fourth down call. Penn State has reached a point where getting into the big games is a given, the program now seems unsure how to -or simply unable- to win them.

So the smart "football" thing or not, a decision that McSorley agreed with or not, it won't soon be forgotten and by many not soon forgiven. And until Penn State finally closes out one of these games that truly matter, those four losses might loom larger than a Big Ten trophy won not too long ago. The 1-0 mantra has gotten Franklin this far, but it's going to take something else to get the rest of the way.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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