ORLANDO, Fla. — In the film “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” the film’s eponymous star got gum stuck in his hair and, as IMDB puts it, more calamities followed.
Speaking of which…
Welcome to Penn State’s 2019 Citrus Bowl.
The initial gum in Penn State’s hair here on Tuesday could have either been the suspension of veteran defensive tackle Rob Windsor, who didn’t play.
Or, it could have come just 45 seconds into the contest, when the Nittany Lions tried a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from their own 33-yard line. And failed, when upback Johnathan Thomas dropped the snap, picked it up, then was promptly trapped in a pile of Kentucky Wildcats.
Five plays later, Kentucky’s Miles Butler made a 28-yard field goal for a 3-0 Wildcat lead.
And more calamities followed. En masse. And en mess.
A missed 40-yard field goal. A blocked 36-yard field goal.
A Penn State punt returned for a Kentucky touchdown.
Dropped passes, overthrown passes, an intercepted pass.
A quarterback in Trace McSorley whose broken foot was announced on Twitter. Just before he went back on the field. To lead three scoring drives in 10 minutes. (Maybe it wasn’t broken. But maybe it was.)
A Penn State offense that allowed six sacks and nine tackles for a loss, and failed to convert all nine of its third downs through three quarters.
A game plan that got the ball to its most explosive player, K.J. Hamler, just two times from the line of scrimmage — a 11-yard run and 41-yard bubble screen, which just underscores the calamity of only a deuce.
A Penn State defense that lost veteran linebacker Cam Brown to a targeting call and suffered a crucial 15-yard personal foul call on rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.
What could go wrong for Penn State did — even to the point where a patented McSorley comeback fell short. But not for the lack of trying as the senior quarterback gamely brought the Nittany Lions back in the fourth quarter from a 27-7 deficit, only to fall short 27-24.
James Franklin decided to not ride the momentum and go for it on fourth-and-7 on the Kentucky 14 with 3:34 remaining — which turned out to be the wrong decision. When Kentucky got the ball back, ahead by three, Bennie Snell ran it eight consecutive times.
Snell’s head coach, Mark Stoops, believed in his star.
“Our confidence level was very high to run out that clock,” the Kentucky coach said. “I’m just proud of our team for doing the things necessary to close it out, and if you don't have a physicality about you like that and you don't have a guy like Benny, it's hard to do because the whole stadium knew he was going to run the ball and grind out a first down or two to ice the game was critical.”
With a few seconds on the clock, the Wildcats finally punted, giving Penn State one last play with one second remaining at its own 17. The Nittany Lions tried a hook and lateral, which ended in a fumble.
Which was, fittingly enough Penn State’s final calamity of the day.
TRUE BLUE AND WHITE
When Stoops accepted the Citrus Bowl trophy after the game, he said, “Don’t anyone question who the real blue and white is.”
In a meaningful way, he was right.
Overall, Kentucky played what was typically vintage blue and white — old-time, traditional Penn State blue and white — football. Good football. You know: Stout defense, ball control (Snell had 144 yards and two TDs on 26 carries), many fewer mistakes (no fumbles lost, no interceptions) and no questionable coaching decisions and big-time gambles and epic fails.
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson noticed.
“Did the number of Penn State’s mistakes surprise you?” I asked Wilson after the game.
“To be honest and not to knock Penn State, but they did,” Wilson said. “I was thinking Penn State was going to come right out in that tempo they were starting to get late in the game. Penn State is a great team, but it did kind of shock me that they didn’t come out harder than they did.”
Franklin admitted that the Nittany Lions’ special teams were far from special, not only here at Camping World Stadium before 59,167 fans on Tuesday, but for the entire season. “We’ll do what we’ve got to do to get better,” Franklin said, “but it was not up to our standards today. Wasn’t up to our standards all year long.”
Kentucky upped its record to 10-3, only the third 10-victory season in its history. Penn State finished up 9-4, while going a very average 5-4 over its final meaningful stretch.
It was the Nittany Lions’ third loss to a Top 25-ranked opponent on the season — Ohio State mad Michigan were the others — against one win against a ranked team (Iowa). It was also Franklin’s second consecutive defeat against a school from the SEC, the conference he coached in while at Vanderbilt before coming to Penn State. The other loss came on Jan. 1, 2016, against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
A TRACE OF REGRET
Penn State lost that bowl game after McSorley came on in relief of Christian Hackenberg, rallying the Nittany Lions with two fourth-quarter TD passes to pull within 24-17, only to fall when McSorley’s last-second Hail Mary pass fell short.
In that game, like this one (and every one, tbh), McSorley gamely fought to the end.
It’s kinda funny, that 40 games and a storied career later, that the game wasn’t decided with the ball in McSorley’s hands one final time. That would have been the case had Franklin rolled the dice and believed in McSorley — truly believed; the Mark Stoops-in-Benny Snell belief — and went for on that fourth-and-7.
That Franklin didn’t is a bit of a calamity, if only in storybook fashion. The book said go for the field goal, but the heart said let McSorley give it a final shot and believe that he’ll find the way.
That Franklin didn’t?
Well, in some ways that was the biggest calamity of them all.
As McSorley himself said after the game, his right foot in a walking boot, “If they had decided to go for it, I have confidence we would have made it.”
Me too, Trace.