Even Penn State’s defense is human at this time of the year.
Year 3 of the NCAA sanctions has been quite the journey for all of the Nittany Lions.
Their game against Michigan State in Beaver Stadium on Saturday is the final stop of a regular-season campaign full of fits, starts, ups, downs, close wins and even more close defeats.
The 13-week tally thus far reads 11 opponents, seven conference games, five states and two nations, nine freshmen playing in their first game, and season-ending injuries to a 2,000-yard rusher and a two-year veteran starter at safety.
Add to that the subtraction of scholarships and, until the lifting of the final round of sanctions in September, the threat losing even more grants-in-aid. As it is, Penn State is playing with a roster featuring only 63 players who were recruited and are scholarship.
Of that group no more than 46 or so will see the playing field in 2014 now that the season is nearly complete – the shortfall from the 63 created by true scholarship freshmen who will grab a redshirt.
TOUGH ROW TO HOE
All that has certainly taken its toll.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that at this time of the year, the way our roster is, we’re getting worn out,” said James Franklin, nearing the end of his first season as Penn State’s head coach. “Especially our defense.
“Where we’re at numbers-wise, this late in the season, getting banged-up, losing guys, not being able to have the consistency we need across the board…”
Franklin’s voice trailed off and he shrugged his shoulders. He was speaking to about 30 reporters, squeezed into a space no bigger than an East Halls dorm room minutes after his team lost to Illinois last Saturday in Champaign. He was not exactly bubbly.
The Nittany Lions fell in a dreary road contest that kicked off at 11 a.m. before a stadium at 40% capacity, in a game that saw Penn State grind to a 14-10 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter. But Illinois – which entered the game with just two victories in its previous 22 Big Ten Conference games – made two of three fourth-quarter field goal attempts to win, 16-14.
Close encounters of the fourth-quarter kind are what Penn State is all about in 2014. Seven of its 11 games have been decided by a touchdown or less -- including five of its past six games. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they’ve lost four of those last five, by 5, 7, 1 and 2 points.
It’s reached the point where Penn State’s defense doesn’t bend, doesn’t bend and then it finally breaks. It’s quite possible that the Lion defenders -- one of just two units nationally to be ranked in the Top 20 in five major categories -- have no gas left in its tank. OK, very probable.
In its final seven possessions against Penn State last week, Illinois made three field goals, scored a touchdown and also missed a field goal. Yielding touchdowns and field goals attempts at a 71% clip in crunch time while clinging to a lead against a very-bottom tier team is not what the Nittany Lions’ defense has been all about.
RUNNING THE FADE ROUTE
But, fatigue does not-so-funny things.
In its last six Big Ten games – not counting Temple, a non-conference opponent – the Nittany Lions’ defense has broken down over the final 20 minutes or so. Figure that’s about five drives per game. So, over the final five drives of those six games (30 in all), Penn State has yielded 12 scores and two missed field goals (14 of 30). Throw in the last seven possessions of the game by the Illini defense, and it’s a flip-a-coin 16 for 32 on late-game scores or field goal attempts (both made and missed).
Broken down, that’s Northwestern (3 of 5), Michigan (2 of 5), Ohio State (2 of 5), Maryland (3 of 5), Indiana (1 of 5; missed FG) and Illinois (3 of 5, 5 of 7; 1 missed FG). All but Indiana ended up as losses.
Penn State’s much-maligned offense and its coordinator John Donovan will be interested in this: In the fourth quarter of four of those losses, Penn State actually led or tied: Michigan (13-13, 4Q); Ohio State (17-17, regulation; 24-17 OT); Maryland (19-17, 4Q); and Illinois (14-10, 4Q).
Look, we know the Nittany Lion defense is young (see: Allen, Marcus; Apke, Troy; Cabinda, Jason; Campbell, Christian; and Haley, Grant).
And we know that by the final quarter they’re not rested, having carried the offense and usually special teams to keep Penn State in the game. And they’re not the healthiest, either, with season-ending injuries to Ryan Keiser and Ben Kline (remember him?) and the recent injury that sidelined linebacker Brandon Bell, a heady veteran these days despite his sophomore status, against Illinois.
So hey, it’s not always the Penn State offense’s fault. Sometimes, they really can Hack it – more often, perhaps, than they get credit for.
Franklin, who came to Penn State after an impressive 24-15 three-year, three-bowl record at formally dead and dormant Vanderbilt, has been down this road before.
“Looking at what our staff has done historically, this is very similar in a lot of ways,” Franklin said after practice on Wednesday. “…It helps that this whole staff went through a very similar process before and we stuck to our guns and stuck to our plans.”
VANDY DANDY IN CLOSE SHAVES
Franklin’s first-year experience at Penn State mirrors his initial season at Vandy in a number of ways, markedly by close games. Vanderbilt was coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons when Franklin arrived in 2011. In nearly half of his games that first year the Commodores played in contests decided by a touchdown or less. In those six games, they went 1-5. The win was by three points and the losses by 5, 3, 5, 6 and 7 points.
The next season at Vanderbilt and the one after that, close shaves were a Vandy specialty – beyond the head coach’s noggin. And they came against a pretty heady group of opponents. Under Franklin, here are the Vanderbilt games that were decided by a TD or less in:
2012 -- Victories at Missouri (19-15), Auburn (17-13) and at Ole Miss (27-26); a loss at No. 9 South Carolina (17-13).
2013 -- Victories at No. 15 Georgia (31-27), at Tennessee (14-10) and Wake Forest (23-21); a loss against Ole Miss (39-35).
Heading into his team’s game against Michigan State on Saturday, Franklin would have to be ecstatic if it came down to a touchdown or less. The Spartans are 9-2 and ranked 10th in the country. And they have won by wild margins this season -- 28, 59, 42, 5, 14, 29, 24, 18 and 42 points. (That’s an average victory of 29 points per game.)
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sparty is a 13-point favorite. That’s interesting, since Penn State hasn’t scored more than 14 points in four of its last seven games.
My math’s probably not right, but it sounds like there’s room for a one-point margin in there somewhere. Which, given the way the 2014 season has gone, sounds just about right.
Where’s John Urschel when you need him?