After Penn State fell to Ohio State, 27-26, a familiar feeling began to creep in among the Nittany Lion faithful. Perhaps there's a reason why the team lost to Ohio State in the same manner as its last three losses, games in which the team led late and then wasn't able to get it done down the stretch. This was somewhat ... I don't want to say written off, but there was something motivational and easing about a head football coach seeming angry after a heartbreaking loss, going into his postgame presser saying "we're great, not elite, and I am going to do everything I can to get us to a place where we're winning these games."
And then Michigan State came into Happy Valley and this tweet got posted and I nearly curled up in a ball on the floor.
Penn State has now had the lead inside of five minutes in all of its last five losses. 12 total points.
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) October 13, 2018
Here's the thing: I don't know why this is a recurring thing, why Penn State has blown fourth quarter leads to USC and Ohio State and Michigan State and Ohio State again and Michigan State again to lose five football games by two possessions. You're going to comment that you have the answer, and odds are, you do not, but it's ok that you and I do not know how to fix this problem.
Sure, we have our guesses as to why a team that has won 11 games in back-to-back years and has won the Big Ten in that time cannot close out games. My best guess is that everyone tightens up and gets awfully conservative after 55 minutes of playing their game, because they want opponents to take wins instead of making a mistake that hands it to them, but whatever! I don't know anything. None of us do.
The thing is my paycheck is not dependent on trying to figure out why Penn State keeps losing games in the same manner. Nor is yours. This is on James Franklin — who gave his word after the loss to the Buckeyes a few weeks ago that the program would find a way to take a next step, and I honestly think is willing to shoulder the load and do whatever it takes to make sure the program gets better. His comment was certainly meant to be more broad, a way to assess how the program as a whole can move forward and take the next step to join the sport's elite.
What he might have overestimated was where this Penn State team is right now. It is a young team almost across the board, whether that be in terms of reps or literally being in your first or second year of playing college football. If not for the fact that they have a battle-tested senior quarterback, this had all the makings of a seven or eight-win squad in the midst of a rebuild*.
(*: a funny thing about the post-Paterno era is that "rebuild years" are years in which the Nittany Lions are going to a bowl — perhaps a relatively good bowl in Florida! — and not, like, a three or four win team. I digress. Onward.)
I would posit that next year's team has the potential to be really, really, really good as long as it figures out how to replace Trace McSorley — oh god they're losing Trace please god no he doesn't deserve this — but it's not next year. It's this year. And what we know so far about this year's team is the following:
- It beats up on bad teams and will run up the score when possible.
- When that doesn't happen, they're 1-2 and nearly lost that third game, which was at home against a Group of Five team.
Close games are now becoming a problem. In the last two years, the Nittany Lions are 3-4 in one-possession game. Those three wins came against Iowa (the Nittany Lions were much better, but couldn't finish drives), Washington (a little nerve-inducing, but admittedly did what they need to do, even if the fourth quarter drive chart is rough), and App State (nearly gave that away, too). In six of those seven those games, Penn State either gave away a win or came uncomfortably close to doing so.
For now, the Nittany Lions are not elite. Close games are a problem, but the biggest problem that was on display on Saturday goes back to a fortnight earlier. Franklin sat at the podium and said that Penn State is a great program, and it needs to take a step forward to become elite. The pain that manifested itself this Saturday, however, might stem from the fact that while that might be true of the program from a 10,000 foot view, the loss to the Spartans illustrated that this year's team has to take a step forward — in terms of execution and in terms of not shooting itself in the foot over and over with things like penalties and other little mistakes — to just become great.