In the end, Penn State got what it deserved: a loss.
Its coaching staff should get what it deserves as well: some criticism, even from those rightly who have been patient with them as they took over a program recovering from sanctions that didn't exactly put Penn State on a level playing field.
They deserve that patience, and they deserve that time, and they deserve a chance to develop the talent they've brought in — which has shown at times this season, and especially on Saturday, that it is still raw. But this was not a game where James Franklin and his staff routinely put Penn State in the best position to win, in a game it really needed. In a game, quite frankly, where it was the more talented team.
"We weren't able to play winning football at the end," Franklin said.
Part of the reason is, they weren't able to coach it, either.
For a while down the stretch, mostly because of some tough running from freshman running back Saquon Barkley, Penn State had a chance to overcome a slew of mistakes and avoid a 23-21 loss to a solid, but hardly spectacular, Northwestern team. Some of those mistakes made by players. Some made by the people who shouldn't make such errors.
From questionable play calls to a downright strange use of timeouts in the closing minute, the staff didn't help a young team that still hasn't been able to get over the hump against ranked opponents.
First key play: There's 7:20 left in the game.
The Nittany Lions lead, 21-20. They're driving, but it's third-and-13 at Northwestern's 33. A field goal would force Northwestern to drive the field at least once in order to win, something it had not done since the 6:00 mark of the second quarter. Conventional wisdom indicates they'd run a conservative play, maybe even hand it off to Barkley, who was gaining yards in chunks in the second half. If he got a big gain, maybe Penn State could have thought about letting Tyler Davis take a crack at a field goal. Or, Penn State could have attempted to make a shorter conversion on fourth down.
Certainly, that's what they were hoping to do when quarterback Christian Hackenberg dropped back and fired a pass across the field, in the direction of receiver Chris Godwin, who attempted to run a five-yard in cut. But as hard has Hackenberg throws, he had no chance to get that ball past Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose, who didn't even get a great break on it before picking it off.
Bad play call by offensive coordinator John Donovan.
Sure, the point is to be aggressive. But ultimately, you can't go that far into your opponent's territory, late in a one-point game you are leading, and not at the very least walk away with great field position.
Second key play: There's 2:28 left.
Penn State's defense recovered from the play-calling gaffe on the interception, and it's 3rd-and-1 from its 14. Barkley is lining up in the wildcat formation, which is fine, because everybody inside Ryan Field knows Barkley is getting the ball. If he gets two yards, Penn State can run the clock out. Getting the direct snap will allow him to go aggressively toward the line, quickly, which is a play Penn State has scored two touchdowns on in the game.
Yet, this time, Barkley fakes a hand off. Why? Who knows. Certainly, the thought was to give the defense a second option to think about. But the Wildcats defense had been so poorly handling the first option, it made no sense. In the end, the fake handoff delayed Barkley a split second, and by the time he made his move, he was surrounded. He had no chance and lost a yard.
Third key play: There's 50 seconds left.
Northwestern is moving the ball now. It has just connected on a semi-miraculous play, converting a third-and-15 with a 23-yard pass from backup quarterback Zack Oliver to Austin Carr, who ran a corner route while defender Grant Haley seemed certain he'd be running a post pattern. That play got Northwestern to the Nittany Lions' 36, and the clocked ticked. Which, it should have at that point, because Northwestern still sat far outside kicker Jack Mitchell's safe field goal range.
But as the clock struck :50, running back Justin Jackson had just ripped off a 7-yard run on third-and-5. It moved the ball to the Penn State 21, within the range of kicks Mitchell has hit this season. At that point, Franklin had a choice to make.
Call the first of the three timeouts he had at his disposal, which could have resulted in Penn State getting the ball back with the maximum amount of time possible to make a comeback should Mitchell drill a kick.
Or, do nothing. At all. Northwestern had two timeouts, and it didn't call one. Not even after Jackson ran for two yards on the ensuing play. A field goal of more than 40 yards is no gimmie in college football, and Northwestern seemed OK with having a shot to win it from somewhere in that distance, with a kicker who had already missed from 47 and 39 yards in the game.
"I should've burned the timeout there, right away," Franklin lamented. "That was my missed opportunity."
Franklin still had option No. 2, though. Instead, called timeout with 22 seconds left, an inexplicable decision, because it helped Northwestern run an extra play before they moved the ball to the middle of the field. On that one, Jackson gained three yards.
Those last two plays were really the difference between a 40-yard field goal and a much more makable one. Mitchell, of course, drilled the 35-yard attempt.
The Lions got the ball with just seven seconds left to drive the field. Not calling timeouts after the :50 mark cost Penn State :28 seconds to try to come back.
"I usually have an idea of what I want to do, then I run it by the people on the headset," Franklin said of the timeouts. "That was my responsibility. But, that was one of 12 different things we had, where we had opportunities to win that game and didn't do it."
Have to admire Franklin's willingness to stand up there and admit he screwed up. The coaching staff didn't make Hackenberg throw that interception, and certainly, nobody coached Haley to turn his back on Carr with the game on the line. But Hackenberg is a strong-armed, confident quarterback who needs to be protected from himself sometimes. And Haley is a talented young player still learning the game. When the coaching staff has chances to bail their players out, they have to do it.
Saturday, they didn't.
They made it worse.
The result was a team badly in need of a big win on the road, to build momentum, to show the world it is back on the right track, a more talented outfit against an offense being run by a backup quarterback, gagging away a game it should never have lost.