COLLINS: Penn State got desperately needed football victory, but should've wanted more
Penn State spent the last two weeks making enough mistakes to help their opponents win, perhaps it was about time somebody returned the favor.
Maybe it’s because the receivers continued their struggles when it came to doing what receivers should do best, catching the football. Maybe it’s because the special teams units continued to display their boom-or-bust tendencies. Maybe its because they had another 12-point lead with under five minutes to go and a golden opportunity to finally show they could put the game away on offense, and the Nittany Lions couldn’t so much as gain another first down.
Maybe, none of that’s fair.
Because they did win, and that was most important. Because they did make a handful of plays, especially on defense at the end, to ensure that happened. Because even as they might have lost the game because of their special teams, they couldn’t have won it without them. Because the same could be said for that offense that sputtered with a chance to choke Indiana out.
But even as the No. 18 Nittany Lions celebrated a 33-28 win over Indiana at Memorial Stadium, it’s fair to wonder if this is the type of performance they can build on with a difficult second half looming and still plenty on the line.
“I will tell you this: The last two times we’ve been here, they’ve been battles. It’s hard to describe that any differently, when the last two times we’ve come here, we were losing at the half and were able to storm back in the second half and swing momentum,” head coach James Franklin said, when asked after the game if he believed his team improved against Indiana on Saturday.
“Just watching (last week’s Michigan State) game, I felt like each week we had gotten better. Last week, I didn’t feel like we did that, and this week, it’s hard to say based on the way the game played out. But I’d like to watch the film first before giving you that answer.”
Not a resounding success: That’s obviously fair, and there’s a likelihood Franklin and his staff will find some things to rave about when they watch that film today.
But, it says something that, off the feeling from being on the sideline, he wasn’t ready in the moment to dub that victory a resounding success.
Young as they were, inexperienced as they are in reality, the Nittany Lions made things look so easy in the first four weeks of the season. It’s difficult for blaming anyone who bought into it all.
The lofty ranking.
The talk of the playoffs.
The luster of a program on the rise.
Then the last two weeks hit, and Penn State’s identity came to a schism. Fair or not, again, fans were looking to Saturday to determine whether this was a team that just didn’t play well against two pretty good teams, or whether it was one too young, too inexperienced, too scattered to expect it to be able to easily rebound.
Pretty clearly, they’re the latter.
Major concerns: This is a team that has some major concerns it needs to alleviate in the second half of the season.
Start on offense, where they’ve been so consistently terrible eating up clock, that it’s now safe to assume they can’t do it at all.
In the fourth quarter, with a 12-point lead, the offense on the field and 8:18 left — almost exactly the situation they were in Sept. 29 at Beaver Stadium against Ohio State — Penn State netted nearly the same results that doomed them that day.
They had two series. They ran eight offensive plays. They threw the ball on all but one of them, and on that play — a 27-yard scramble by quarterback Trace McSorley — they wanted to throw. Worse yet, they were continually snapping the ball with the clock running long before the play clock reached 10, never mind 0, which is where you’d like to see plays beginning if you’re trying to milk the clock.
Miles Sanders, the junior running back who was strong inside the tackles again in a game where he ran for 72 yards on 15 carries, touched the ball only once — on a swing pass, when Indiana dropped him for no gain.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting first downs,” said Franklin, whose team got one first down with that dedication to the pass. “A few weeks before (against Ohio State) in the four-minute offense, we ran the ball multiple times and didn’t get a first down. We wanted to take a little bit of time off the clock, so we wanted to be aggressive right there.
“Obviously, this situation didn’t work, either.”
Offense fails down stretch: In the final 8:18 of the game, Penn State gained one first down — again, when a play offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne called broke down — and wound up taking just 2:19 off the clock. The 19 seconds came off the clock on the subsequent Nittany Lions drive, when they threw three consecutive incomplete passes.
Bottom line is, the defense has been criticized all season, and rightfully so in some cases. Think about this, though: Indiana ran 100 plays Saturday and 26 of them came in the final 6:18. That group actually held up really well, all things considered. A winded defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who had two sacks in the game, said he was exhausted by the game’s final snaps.
This team’s strength was its offense. They were going to make mistakes on special teams and on defense, because they were so young there. While Penn State should expect those mistakes to be dissipating a bit more than they are as the season goes on, the reality is the much more experienced offense was supposed to be the equalizer.
For three straight games now, it hasn’t been.
A lot left to play for: Penn State has plenty to play for the rest of the way. If it wins out, a New Year’s Six bowl is not out of the question. There is momentum to be gained for next season, and there are lessons to be taught. But until Penn State can figure out how to do what Penn State has always done — get the lead, then figure out a way to close out the game — it’s difficult to see the Nittany Lions beating Iowa or Michigan or Wisconsin.
None of whom, quite frankly, will be as charitable as Indiana.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.