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Penn State Football: Small Room For Error Negates Positives In Loss To Michigan

by on October 12, 2014 12:30 AM

You can argue that Penn State should be better.

You can argue that Penn State is sanctioned and that maybe sanctions are the kind of thing that are supposed to make teams bad. Especially ones that knock teams down a few dozen pegs.

But what you can't argue is that Penn State's margin of error is anything but microscopic. So small in fact that a single mistake can cost you the game.

And that's what happened on Saturday night as Penn State fell 18-13 to Michigan.

"I think the margin for error is small." Penn State coach James Franklin said after the game in a room equally as small. "That when you have 62 recruited scholarship players, the margin of error is small. But the margin for error is small for a lot of teams in college football. We have to find a way to get it done."

That margin of error can negate a lot of good things. And when you subtract injured players, redshirt players and players who actually see the field, Penn State is playing with around 45-50 scholarship athletes. Having numbers doesn't mean you have players, and Penn State is struggling to find both.

Despite what it may seem, Penn State did a lot of good things on Saturday night.

Big Drives.

Penn State opened the game impressively, a 10-play, 57 yard drive that lasted 5:32 and set up an eventual field goal. The Nittany Lions ran the ball well. Three carries by Bill Belton totaled 40 yards. A drive minutes later would go for 60 yards in 11 plays and would also end with a field goal. While far from perfect in both instances, Penn State looked like a team that was going to be able to move the ball against Michigan. If nothing else, there was a reason for Penn State fans to be optimistic about a team that had looked so lifeless only two weeks earlier.

Big Plays.

Penn State's lone TD on the night - and lone touchdown by a Penn State receiver in the United States this season - would give the Nittany Lions a lead they would hold for nearly the rest of the game. An interception by Anthony Zettel on the Michigan 28 would give Penn State great field position to start the drive with. It was a game that would be determined by which team would make fewer mistakes and the Wolverines flinched first.

Big Mistakes.

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For all the good Penn State was able to do; keep Michigan to under 20 points; start the game with three straight scoring drives; hold Michigan to 256 yards of offense; and simply hold a lead in the fourth quarter, two simple, preventable, and unforced mistakes would prove costly.

A long pass by Gardner on Michigan's first drive should have been intercepted. Safety Ryan Keiser drifted under the ball with his hands in the air. But Keiser never made a play on the ball. He stood in what must have felt like a slow motion moment, waiting for the ball to get there. Instead Michigan receiver Devin Funchess would make the play, leaping up and plucking the ball from Keiser's hands. At worst it should have been an incompletion for Penn State, at best an interception. Funchess would take a few short steps into the end zone and it was 7-3.

With 7:56 to play in the third quarter, Christian Hackenberg would pass across his body and across the field while trying to escape rushing defenders. That pass would be intercepted on Penn State's own 32. With Michigan down to its third string quarterback and an already struggling offense, the Wolverines started in field position and down by a field goal.

Two mistakes, 10 points, in a game where 18 would be the winning score.

Fans will point to a lot of things. The offensive line, the decision to go for it on 4th-and-11, wildcat plays in the red zone. All of those things played into Penn State's struggles, but two mistakes played a tangible, results-in-your-face role in Penn State's loss.

And that's the reality Penn State faces. Maybe the Nittany Lions could be better despite sanctions, maybe they're 4-2 by the grace of the football Gods.

However Penn State got here, the Nittany Lions understand that things are just simply harder and that the mistakes are just that much more costly and that opportunities to do something positive become that much more important.

"A little bit," Linebacker Mike Hull said when asked if the room for error is smaller this year. "Ultimately we're a team and the offense is going to pick us up at one point or another and we'll have to count on them later in the season but right now we do feel like we've got to shoulder the load until those guys come along, especially on the offensive front. And I think we've been playing good but we need to step up our game."

"Whatever situation we're put in we've got to be dead-on every time," Running back Bill Belton said. "That's the way we look at things. We don't have room for error, or mistakes. Every year we go into it like that, in order for us to get going we all have to be right on all the time."

Penn State will get another bye week to work on things before hosting Ohio State. There is clearly plenty of work left to be done. The Nittany Lions are a team that could win any game or lose all of them. It's all part of an ever changing formula that is impacted by mistakes, injuries, simple execution and a fair amount of luck.

"The bye week is coming at a good time," Franklin said of the second bye in three weeks. "We've got a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas, we really do. We knew we were going to have some challenges up front but it's enough ... there's been enough talking about that, we've got to start getting better and get this fixed ..."

" ... Fast."

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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Penn State/Michigan Live Blog: Final: Michigan Wins 18-13
October 11, 2014 5:30 PM
by Ben Jones
Penn State/Michigan Live Blog: Final: Michigan Wins 18-13
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