By Harry Allison
Penn State’s season started with such promise:
Five straight wins to start 2021, and a No. 4 national ranking.
But then the Nits met their Waterloo, or wherever the Iowa game was played, and QB Sean Clifford got hurt.
So, they have melted down to 6-4 after last Saturday’s winnable game against Michigan, which the Nits lost at Beaver Stadium.
And if you noticed, coach James Franklin looked like a kid who didn’t have his homework.
When push came to shove, he looked confused and more interested in leaving Mt. Nittany for USC or some tother school.
Franklin’s most controversial decision came in the first quarter, choosing to attempt a fake field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2 rather than kick a short field goal or put the offense on the field to go for it.
Penn State had earlier taken a 3-0 lead after moving into position for a field goal with the help of a successful fake punt. Because the Lions and the Wolverines have strong defenses, points were not going to come easily and didn’t all afternoon.
So, having Jordan Stout try a 20-yard field goal would have been sensible. But Franklin said afterwards that he wanted to call the game aggressively.
OK, then put the offense on the field to try to score a touchdown. And if it fails, Michigan likely would have had the ball at its 1 or 2.
However, instead of handing the ball to Keyvone Lee or passing to Jahan Dotson or anything else with the offense, Franklin decided the best chance to score would be for holder Rafael Checa, a kicker by trade, to throw a lateral to Stout and expect Stout to outrun Michigan defenders over 10 yards to the end zone.
It was a preposterous decision, even if it miraculously worked. He pressed his luck with another special-teams fake and lost.
Franklin’s explanation was an indictment of the offense in general and the running game in particular.
“I think you guys know as well as me we have not been great in short-yardage situations,” he said. “So that was our going for it on fourth down. I felt like we had the look that we wanted. … I’d make the call again.”
The decision cost Penn State three to seven points in a tight game. Stout missed a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter and the Lions could only convert a fumble recovery at the Michigan 16 into a field goal and not a touchdown, which cost them another four points.
Those three sequences, of course, had a huge impact on the outcome.
“Obviously you have to score touchdowns against a really good team,” Franklin said. “At home, you have to find a way to score touchdowns, so we have to do a better job of that. We need more work in the red zone.”
Penn State needed work on the offensive line a long time ago.
Michigan sacked quarterback Sean Clifford seven times for 44 yards and knocked him to the ground at least as many times. The poor pass protection prevented Clifford from having time to throw downfield much, a big reason why he had just three completions of at least 20 yards.
He’s been sacked 18 times in the last four games. He took a pounding Saturday and was not available for postgame interviews, probably in order to receive treatment.
The rushing offense was moderately successful for the first time in five games mostly because Lee was finally installed as the No. 1 running back. He had a season-high 20 carries for 88 yards, the most by a Penn State back this season.
Including Clifford’s minus-44 yards on the sacks and Stout’s minus-18 yards on the fake, the Lions finished with 109 rushing yards and are averaging just 106.7 per game, ranked 119th out of 130 FBS teams. They’re on track for the second-worst rushing average in school history behind the 2014 team (101.9), Franklin’s first at Penn State.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball to take pressure off the passing game,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to protect when everybody knows you’re going to throw the ball and we’ve got to be able to run the ball when everybody in the stadium knows you’re going to run the ball.”
Lee has been Penn State’s most productive back and was effective against Michigan. But he didn’t touch the ball on the final two possessions, after they got the turnover and after Michigan scored the go-ahead touchdown on a pass from Cade McNamara to Erick All.
The Lions have lost four games by a total of 18 points, including three in which they led in the fourth quarter or overtime.
At least one Penn State player said the team should be better than 6-4.
“Of course,” safety Jaquan Brisker said. “We’re just a couple plays away. I feel like we can beat any team in the country right now. We’re a very tough team.”
Whose flaws have been exposed.