Did Nittany Lions learn their lesson at Ohio State?
We interrupt this weeklong post-Ohio State narrative to welcome another storyline today at Michigan State.
If only it were that easy.
What unfolded in Columbus should be forgiven considering the tremendous strides Penn State has made under James Franklin.
But that doesn’t mean it will be forgotten for quite some time, if ever.
You can’t aspire to be what Franklin, his players, the Nittany Nation — everyone, really — want the program to be without taking longer than a week to digest the 39-38 loss to the Buckeyes, for sure one of the toughest in school history.
It’s not quite as brutal as losing 14-7 to Alabama in the 1978 Sugar Bowl for the national championship, when the Lions were twice denied from the 1-yard line.
That will probably always be No. 1 on this list, but make no mistake: Ohio State 2017 is on the list, and as a kind gesture today, I’ll spare you the list.
Suffice to say the game was tougher to take than losing to USC in the Rose Bowl — another game the Lions led in the fourth quarter before failing to finish off what would have been an amazing victory — simply because it followed losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State was outscored 36-3 in the fourth quarter of those two losses, their only two black marks over the past 18 games.
Franklin has been excellent at addressing negative trends that have developed under his watch. Clearly, not closing out victories has soared to the top of the priority chart.
Many have aimed criticism at Joe Moorhead’s playcalling at Ohio State. We don’t know if he’s less aggressive with leads than he is while building them or if he’s being told by Franklin to scale it back and be safe with the lead.
Either way, that has been the approach.
Franklin touched on it after the game and this week.
He calls it the coaching “book,” and said it directs the four-minute offense, with a lead, to “eat the clock up (by running) and make them (opponent) use their timeouts.”
The Lions have tried to do that, without success, in losses to the Buckeyes, Trojans and going all the way back to a 20-19 loss to Maryland in Franklin’s first year (2014).
Penn State needed a first down late in that game to put the Terps away and couldn’t get it. It tried three runs by Akeel Lynch and punted.
Maryland took over and drove for the game-winning field goal.
I bring this up not to pile on. The Lions were still recovering from the sanctions, and Moorhead wasn’t even the offensive coordinator. John Donovan was.
But the strategy is linked by the fact that Franklin was the head coach, and after the game, he talked about “the book,” just like he did this week.
“The book says you go four-minute, you try to run the ball and take as much time off the clock as you possibly can, and you go from there,” he said that day.
Franklin appears to have learned a lesson — “painful” he called it Tuesday — this time. He now says a team can’t change its identity in the four-minute game.
Of course, with the frustrating struggles of Penn State’s offensive line, there’s no assurance the Lions would have protected Trace McSorley well enough in the late going at the Horseshoe, but at least they would have stayed with who they are.
Because they cannot sustain the run — maddening since they have the nation’s top back — let’s see how Franklin and Moorhead handle a lead late if they’re fortunate to have one not only today but also moving forward.
And for sure the next time they’ve got a big-time opponent on the ropes and need to deliver a knockout punch.