COLUMBUS, Ohio — They complimented a tough, physical, athletic and determined defensive line that effectively wrecked their undefeated record.
They praised a veteran quarterback who got time in the pocket and knew what to do with it, picking apart their defense during a masterpiece of a fourth quarter.
They lamented their own mistakes late in the game — a blocked punt that cost them field position, and a failure to find the end zone from inside the Ohio State 10 when a touchdown probably makes any kind of comeback attempt futile.
At the end of a long, difficult night at Ohio Stadium, though, Penn State knew this much: It had a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter and several chances to put the game on ice. And, it wound up losing, 39-38, to an Ohio State team that now has a hammer lock on the Big Ten East Division.
“Four-minute offense,” head coach James Franklin said, shaking his head, “is something that hurt us last year. And, it hurt us again.”
"Four-minute offense," explained: What is a four-minute offense, you ask?
Well, it’s what has separated Penn State from teams like Ohio State on Saturday and USC in the Rose Bowl in January. Both games, they held commanding leads in the fourth quarter — 14 against the Trojans, 15 against the Buckeyes. Both games, they wound up losing.
The two-minute offense, in which a team wants to move down the field quickly for a chance to score, is a much better-known attack than the four-minute offense. But the four-minute offense is much more important in a game in which a team tries to defend a lead.
In essence, the keys to a successful four-minute offense are plays being run and time being seeped off the game clock to protect the lead. To do well in it, an offensive line needs to control the line of scrimmage, quarterbacks and running backs need to avoid big losses, receivers need to make catches on high-percentage pass plays and stay in bounds.
It relies on a team being tougher up front, a running back moving the ball between the tackles and a quarterback making responsible throws. If it doesn’t lead to a score, it depends on a team being able to pin the opponent deep enough in its own territory to force it to traverse a challenging chunk of the field with little time left.
Key drive failed miserably: The Nittany Lions had one drive in particular in which it had a chance to ruin Ohio State’s chances to win with a solid four-minute offense, leading 38-33 with 4:14 left in the game.
First down: Running back Saquon Barkley got dropped for a 7-yard loss by Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard.
Second down: Barkley lost two more yards.
Third down: Barkley gained five, but Ohio State used its timeouts to stop the clock without really being penalized for having to do so.
Fourth down: A 57-yard Blake Gillikin punt sent the Buckeyes only to their 32-yard line.
Just 1:07 came off the clock.
“We didn’t close out the game very well,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We didn’t execute (the four-minute offense) very well today. We go out there and get a few first downs, the game is over. We weren’t able to do that.”
Similar problems in Rose Bowl: In the Rose Bowl, Penn State held a seven-point lead when it ran the four-minute offense for the first time. It ran just five plays, took 1:57 off the clock and USC took over at its own 20 against a similarly spent Penn State defense.
The Trojans would go 80 yards in 39 seconds.
So, it hasn’t all been on the offense in these situations, but Franklin’s point is clear: Penn State has to develop a more measured approach and physical mentality with a chance to snuff a game out than it has against top-flight opponents.
“It’s a little mental. It’s a little (physical),” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “You know the other team, at that moment, is in an attack mode. They’re pinning their ears back. They’re going to do what ever it takes: Scratch, claw, rip at the ball, throw you down. For them, it’s get a stop at all costs.
“But as an offense, you need to have the mentality that no matter what happens, no matter what you see, you have to get the job done. Then you have to execute, with that mentality.”