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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Better At Close Games Than You Might Think, Now It Comes Down To Avoiding Them

by on October 11, 2018 3:30 PM

At their core Penn State's four losses over the past three seasons are all the same. They're close games.

Of course the implications of those games are huge, the value of winning versus the setbacks of defeat are separated by a wide gulf not to be overlooked. But for a moment lets forget all of the narratives and all of the big picture implications and simply focus on the frequency that these games -close games- are happening in the first place.

It's something I've wondered a lot about myself in the two weeks following Penn State loss to Ohio State. Aside from all of the practical things that make the Buckeyes good, it seems like they never lose those close games. Sooner or later they find a way to win. For all of the skill that makes Ohio State elite, it might be that ability to win close games that makes that program so good.

So it made me wonder something else; who is the best in the Big Ten at winning those close games over the past four seasons?

It should be said from the outset I only considered five teams: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin in this exercise. There is an argument to made to include Iowa, but ultimately the Hawkeyes have been good but not great, the same could be said for Nebraska. So in general I stuck with the Big Ten East and the Badgers.

Now it's matter of defining what a close game actually is.

For this I decided on two parameters the would allow to net in the most data without including games that may have been close in the final score but otherwise would have required a more than unlikely sequence of events for the outcome to change.

  • One score games entering the fourth quarter
  • Games where a fourth quarter lead greater than seven points was cut to a single score with a fair and reasonable amount of time for the losing to still win. Generally I excluded all games that included a very late onside kick. You could argue for those games, but in general this was about the run of play on average not outlier occurrences. This also means a few games are included on here that the final score and the score entering the fourth quarter are vastly different. For example, Penn State's game at Illinois fits the metric for a "close" game prior to Penn State scoring 35 fourth quarter points.

As a result the games that were counted were generally all the same: Theoretically undecided headed into the fourth quarter.

When it comes to Penn State it's a long list, especially in the early years of the James Franklin era. Not a huge shock when you consider the state of the program in 2014.


  2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Penn State UCF (W) Temple (L) Pitt (L) Iowa (W) App State (W)
  Rutgers (W) Buffalo (W) Temple (W) Ohio State (L) Illinois (W)
  Northwestern (L) SDSU (W) Minnesota (W) Michigan State (L) Ohio State (L)
  Michigan (L) Army (W) Ohio State (W) Washington (W)  
  Ohio State (L) Maryland (W) Indiana (W)    
  Maryland (L) Northwestern (L) Wisconsin (W)    
  Indiana (W) Georgia (L) USC (L)    
  Boston College (W)    

Counted out for you, Penn State has gone 40-18 under James Franklin, playing in 29 close games with a record of 17-12 in those contests. Since, and including 2016, Penn State is 9-5 in those same games going 3-5 against ranked opponents in "close" games. Overall they have accounted for 42% of Penn State's wins.

In the case of Penn State the 2014 and 2015 seasons will always have a bit of a "sanctions era" caveat when it comes to depth and skill and many other impacted aspects, but on the whole, Penn State has increasingly avoided close games all together as the quality of the program has improved. Much like Ohio State farther down the list, the close games are only really happening against Big Ten teams and usually ones that are ranked.

Then again, that only answers part of the question. What about everyone else? (ranked opponents are bolded, 2014-18 left to right.)



Michigan State Oregon (L) Oregon (W) Notre Dame (W) Iowa (W) Utah State (W)
  Nebraska (W) Central Michigan (W) Indiana (L) Michigan (W) ASU (L)
  Purdue (W) Purdue (W) BYU (L) Indiana (W) Northwestern (L)
  Baylor (W) Rutgers (W) Maryland (L) Northwestern (L)  
    Michigan (W) Illinois (L) Penn State (W)  
    Indiana (W) Ohio State (L)    
    Nebraska (L)      
    Ohio State (W)      
    Iowa (W)      

Michigan State really might be the best of the bunch in this department, not surprising for a program that has a long history of being a thorn in highly ranked teams' sides. The Spartans have played in 27 close contests and are 17-10 in them overall and despite being 6-8 in them since 2016, Michigan State is 9-2 in close games against ranked teams. That's 43% of the 39 wins but meaningful ones to say the least.



Ohio State 

Army (W)

Indiana (W) Wisconsin (W) Oklahoma (L) TCU (W)
  Virginia Tech (L) Michigan State (L) Penn State (L) Penn State (W) Penn State (W)
  Penn State (W)   Northwestern (W) Michigan (W)  
  Indiana (W)   Michigan State (W) Wisconsin (W)  
  Michigan (W)   Michigan (W)    
  Alabama (W)        
  Oregon (W)    

Ohio State is, as expected, good at these close games and good at avoiding them too. Since 2014 the Buckeyes have played in 20 close games going 9-2 in those contests since 2016 and 6-3 against ranked opponents in close contests. The catch, it's just 17% of the 52 wins the Buckeyes have put up over the past few years going 52-6 over that span.


Wisconsin  LSU (L) Iowa (L) LSU (W) Nebraska (W) BYU (L)
  Northwestern (L) Nebraska (W) Georgia State (W) Purdue (W) Iowa (W)
  Iowa (W) Illinoins (W) Michigan (L) Miami (W)  
  Minnesota (W) Maryland (W) Ohio State (L)    
  Auburn (W) Northwestern (W) Iowa (W)    
    USC (W) Nebraska (W)    
      Northwestern (W)    
      Minnesota (W)    
      WMU (W)

The Badgers doing well in close games isn't a huge shock given that the 49-11 mark since 2014 is the second best of the five groups behind Ohio State. Wisconsin just chugs along in the Big Ten West but that doesn't mean it's always easy. The 2016 season for example was almost entirely close games by the above standards. There were 23 in total over the this span but Wisconsin has gone 18-5 in them while going 11-3 since 2016 and 6-3 in close games against ranked teams.


Michigan  Rutgers (L) Utah (L) Wisconsin (W) Air Force (W) Northwestern (W)
  Penn State (W) Michigan State (L) Iowa (L) Purdue (W)  
  Northwestern (W) Minnesota (W) Ohio State (L) Michigan State (L)  
  Maryland (L) Indiana (W) FSU (L) Indiana (W)  
  Ohio State (L)     Ohio State (L)  
        South Carolina (L)  

Michigan is really the tale of two teams. For one the Wolverines have been in the Big Ten East hunt under Jim Harbaugh, but have also been pretty poor in close game scenarios. To Michigan's credit just 20 close games is the fewest of the five teams, but a 9-11 record in them is the only losing record of the bunch. Add in a 1-5 mark against ranked teams in close games and a 5-6 mark since 2016 and the Wolverines are either winning big, getting blown out, or struggling to win those close games.

Overall it looks like this:

  • Penn State: 29 close games, 17-12 record overall, 9-5 since 2016 and 3-5 in close games against ranked teams.
  • Michigan State: 27 close games, 17-10 record overall, 6-8 since 2016 and 9-2 in close games against ranked teams.
  • Wisconsin: 23 close games, 18-5 record overall, 11-3 since 2016 and 6-3 in close games against ranked teams.
  • Ohio State: 20 close games, 16-4 record overall, 9-2 since 2016 and 7-2 in close games against ranked teams.
  • Michigan: 20 close games, 9-11 record overall, 5-6 since 2016 and 1-5 in close games against ranked teams.


For Penn State the lesson in two-fold. In all likelihood games against ranked teams are generally going to be close more often than not, and in that area the Nittany Lions are lagging behind three of the other four teams on this list. Conversely, Penn State is tied for the second most wins these contests, meaning that in the very least the Nittany Lions are winning a decent number of those close games.

The challenge now, avoiding them all together. Ohio State has no close games out of conference against an unranked team since 2016 while Penn State has three. It's a small difference, but there is something to be said for a program that never gets caught in a tight game when it shouldn't be in one.

Penn State has come a long way in that department since 2014, but now the road gets even tougher as the program looks to find a way to flip around that 3-5 record against ranked teams in close games.

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