The Incontrovertible Truths About Penn State’s Losses to Ohio State & Michigan State
EAST LANSING, MICH. — Taken in tandem, Penn State’s losses against Ohio State and Michigan State over the past eight days likely don’t have a whole lot to do with Twitter.
Or any Heisman hype. Or sneaking a peak at the CFP rankings.
Or even James Franklin’s appearance early in the morning on Mike & Mike.
Or, as Franklin said after the Nittany Lions (7-2) lost 27-24 to Michigan State (7-2) in a storm-delayed game that started at 12:05 p.m. and ended at 7:03 p.m., because “we didn’t win the field position battle, we didn’t win the turnover battle, and that to me is the story of the game.”
But not the story of the past eight days and two defeats. At least when taken as two parts of a whole.
Yes, Penn State’s Trace McSorley threw three picks vs. Sparty, while his teammates had just one interception. But McSorley did throw for three TDs vs. Michigan State. And he had zero interceptions vs. Ohio State.
Ohio State and Michigan State were a quinella, a 1-2 bet, both played on the road, where the Nittany Lions led in both games.
But then, for a number of similar reasons — maybe even call them incontrovertible truths — they lost them both.
Those reasons include:
Challenging road situations…
…and the ultimate inability of coaches and players to overcome them.
There was the Blackout of #109k-plus at night on national television against Urban Meyer in October after a bye week, which is just about as tough as it gets in college football.
Then again, a 203-minute delay spent in the bowels of an opposing stadium — that is both Spartan and spartan — is tough to manage in the way that can’t be prepared for.
Not excuses, but teams that are ranked No. 2 and No. 7 often come up with ways to overcome those, and other, challenges.
Great coaching is not always about X’s and O’s. And, as Franklin himself said, Michigan State “had to deal with the same problems today…they played in the same conditions."
…by passers in the pocket and otherwise.
Over the past two weeks, two very disparate quarterbacks with distinct skill sets who are savvy runners in different manners in two divergent offenses had their way with the Nittany Lions. Together, counting their rushing totals, they pounded Penn State for darn near close to 1,000 yards.
On Saturday, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke completed 33 of 56 passes for 400 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception. A sophomore, it was just his career start No. 11.
Last week, Ohio State’s fifth-year starter, the runner/passer J.T. Barrett, was 33 of 39 for 328 yards, with four TDs and no picks.
Combined, they lit up Penn State for 828 yards passing and six TDs, and counting rushing yards (Barrett for 95, Lewerke for 25), they accounted for 948 yards. Barrett completed his final 16 passes against Penn State; Lewerke had a 10 of 16 string in the final quarter.
That’s on Penn State’s veteran secondary, which starts four true seniors, and Penn State’s undermanned defensive line, which managed just four sacks on 94 drop-backs over the past two weeks.
…when leading heading into the final quarter.
Against Michigan State, Penn State led 24-21 on a 70-yard bomb from McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins to end the third quarter. Against Ohio State, Penn State led Ohio State 35-20 at the end of the third quarter.
Twice, Penn State grabbed defeat from the jaws of defeat.
“We didn’t finish,” said defensive end Kevin Givens.
“We need to finish games,” said center Connor McGovern.
“I just think that Ohio State and Michigan State made more plays at the end,” linebacker Koa Farmer said. “Then, in both games, costly penalties. Field position. Too many little things in different ways that we can’t give up. We always talk about finishing. We’re not finishing. I don’t know what it is. The other teams are making more plays than us.”
“The biggest thing,” said Saquon Barkley, when comparing Penn State’s two losses, “is that we didn’t finish. These last two weeks we lost by a combined four points. We didn’t finish. We need to find a way to make plays, starting with me.”
Saquon can’t run…
…or least not for consistent gainers. At least these days.
His carries and yards against Ohio State, on a crisp and dry night: -4, 3, 36, 2, 4,, 4, 2, -3, 2, 4, 4, -1, -5, 8, -4, -7, 6, -3, -7, -2 and 5.
His carries and yards against Michigan State, in wet conditions in a game interrupted for over three hours: -1, 1, 1, 0, -4, 3, 3, 36, 7, 1, 3, 4, 4 and 5.
So, in total over the past two weeks, Barkley carried the ball 35 times for 107 yards. Take away his 36-yarder against Ohio State and take away his 36-yarder against Michigan State, he rushed 33 times for 35 yards. That’s 1.06 yards per carry.
“Saquon didn’t struggle,” Franklin said. “We struggled.”
This is no secret. And it’s not an anomaly. Barkley, in some ways, may be the best back in the country. But the numbers don’t lie: Over his past 90 carries over the past 21 quarters, he’s rushed for 360 yards — that a 4.0 yards per carry average. Which is average.
It’s no longer a trend. For Penn State, it’s a way of life.
“Our offense,” said Franklin, “needs to get a running game going.”