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Penn State Football is Elite; Its Finishes in Big Games Are Not

by on October 01, 2018 8:50 PM

Penn State football doesn’t have an elite problem.

If anything, it has a closing-out-a-big game problem.

A problem that can be fixed.

I can tell you, in the minds of the Nittany Lions players, they are equal to or better than any of the four so-called elite teams they have lost to — narrowly lost to — since New Year’s Day 2017.

Better than USC, better than Ohio State, better than Michigan State and now better than Ohio State. Again. It’s a legit POV.

And why not? They lost those four games by a total of eight points, and led each of those contests deep, deep into the fourth quarter.

Two of them, in fact, until the final tick of the clock. That pair — USC in the Rose Bowl and Michigan State in 2017 after a 210-minute weather delay — came via walk-off field goals. In the other two, Ohio State scored winning TDs in the game’s final 108 seconds (2017) and final 123 seconds (2018).

James Franklin, I think, could be selling his players short. Maybe they think that too.


My late dad coached football at five different Pennsylvania high schools for over three decades. I recall the tight fourth-quarter games where he put his hands on his knees, rolled up his sleeves, barked at his assistants and put his arm around the guard who ran in the play, then shoved him onto the field. He loved that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants coaching. It worked; he won several division titles.

Maybe that’s why I subscribe to the old coaching theory espoused by Charlie Dressen, the manager of the legendary “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers that included Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider. Dressen had the right philosophy for a team of great players.

“Keep ’em close boys, and I’ll think of something,” Dressen would famously say about close games including his Dodgers, who were 298-166 in 1951-53, Dressen’s three seasons as the legendary team’s manager.

The theory being, of course, that if the players could grab a lead or enter the final inning or two within a run or two, he’d use his managing wiles to pull out a victory. That’s when he would earn his pay.

I think that’s still true in sports today. Maybe especially now in college football, given all the huge salaries involved and that the players are not paid professionals.

When it comes to crunch time, and all things being equal (and even a little ahead), it’s up to the jockey — the coach — to know how to get his thoroughbreds to the finish line in first place.


In its 32 games played since its 2016 season-opener, Penn State has trailed at some point in the fourth quarter in a total of 10 different games.

And they’ve won six of them.

In 2016, the Nittany Lions won after being down in the final quarter and beat against Minnesota (after trailing 23-20 in the final stanza), Ohio State (down 21-7), Indiana (down 31-28) and Wisconsin (down 31-28).

In 2017, they won after trailing Iowa 19-15 in the fourth quarter. And in 2018, they beat Appalachian State after being down 38-31 in the fourth quarter.

Now, about those four losses, all against Top 10 teams:

THE ROSE BOWL, January 2, 2017 — No. 5 Penn State entered the final quarter against No. 9 USC ahead 49-35. And the Nittany Lions were still ahead 49-42 until there were 80 seconds remaining in one of the greatest Rose Bowls ever, when USC tied it 49-49. The Trojans’ Matt Boermeester won the game, 52-49, at the clock with a 46-yard field goal.

OHIO STATE, October 28, 2017 —No. 2 Penn State jumped out to a 7-0 lead against No. 6 Ohio in The Horseshoe when Saquon Barkley ran the kickoff back for 97 yards for a TD, and they never looked back. Until the fourth quarter, anyway. The Nittany Lions led 35-20 entering the final 15 minutes, but were outscored by the Buckeyes 19-3 in the final 11 minutes and 5 seconds. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett threw a 16-yard TD pass to Marcus Baugh in the final 1:48 to win, 39-38. Those 108 seconds were the only time Ohio State led the entire day.

MICHIGAN STATE, November 4, 2017 —No. 7 Penn State battled back from a 21-14 third-quarter deficit, a three-plus hours weather delay and the lingering disappointment of falling to Ohio State (see above) to lead 24-21 entering the fourth quarter in East Lansing. But No. 24 MSU’s Matt Coghlin hit a 32-yard field goal with 10:56 remaining, then nailed 34-yarder as time expired to knock off the Nittany Lions, 27-24.

OHIO STATE, September 29, 2018 —You know the story, but are likely trying to white it out: No. 9 Penn State trailed No. 4 Ohio State 14-13 entering the fourth quarter, but scored two TDs in 262 seconds to take a 26-21 Penn State lead with 8 minutes left in the game. Ohio State roared back, scoring TDs at the 6:42 and 2:03 marks to take the lead, 27-26, and ultimately win the game by that score.

All told, Penn State was outscored 55-16 in the final quarter of those four games combined, against USC (17-0), Ohio State (19-3), Michigan State (6-0) and Ohio State (13-13 on Saturday), yet trailed for less than 4 minutes of the 60 combined minutes of play.

In the other 28 games — from the 2016 season-opener through last week’s win at Illinois — Penn State outscored the opposition 341-140 in the final quarter and overtime.


The question, of course, is, “What happened in the fourth quarter of those four losses?”

I tend to not blame the players. They got you there; now think of something.

This is where I’ll reintroduce Charlie Dressen.

Even though Dressen had one of baseball’s most celebrated lineups — with Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese, in addition to Robinson and Snider — the manager knew it was on his shoulders when it came to winning the game.

And, in the biggest games, the 5-foot-5 Dressen who also played quarterback for Decatur and Racine in the old NFL, would just miss it. Those Dodgers went to the World Series twice, losing in seven games to the Yankees in 1952 and in six games in 1953.

In 1951, Dressen’s late-game decision-making led to one of baseball’s most memorable moments.

In the final game of a three-game playoff against the hated New York Giants, the Dodgers led 4-2 in the ninth inning, but the Giants had two men on base. Dressen pulled starting pitcher Don Newcombe — who was 20-9 that season — and replaced him with Ralph Branca, opting for him instead of Carl Erskine.

It was the wrong call.

Branca came in and on his second pitch, the Giants’ batter Bobby Thomson hit a three-run homer for a 5-4 Giants win that propelled them to the World Series.

It was the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”

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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