Pretend, for a second, this game ended exactly the way Penn State fans wanted it to end.
Imagine there is no offensive pass interference called against receiver Daniel George on that pass Journey Brown took inside the Minnesota 5 with about a minute to go, and that the Nittany Lions pound the ball over the goal line on the next play or the one after that. Imagine KJ Hamler somehow figuring out a way to adjust his route, to do something to catch that Sean Clifford pass Gophers defensive back Jordan Howden picked off in the end zone.
Come to think of it, you can imagine a lot of things that would have changed the result in Penn State’s favor.
If that happened, this column would have been about a talented team finding a way to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, coming up with a few late tricks to get past a team that played better, played with more passion early on and, in the words of their own head coach, more urgency for far too long.
A team begging to be taught a lesson: Maybe, the better team lost. But certainly, the team that played better won. Not to mention, Penn State has been begging to be taught that lesson for a while now.
For weeks, we’ve been talking about wins in spite of mistakes; a team overcoming its own sloppiness and putting itself in position to peak at the right time anyway. On Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, the No. 4 Nittany Lions couldn’t overcome that sloppiness in a 31-26 loss to No. 17 Minnesota. Couldn’t cast their mistakes aside or, more importantly, minimize them to a level where they could put any legitimate pressure at all on a program that hadn’t beaten a top-5-ranked program at home in 42 years.
“We started out poorly,” head coach James Franklin lamented. “In the first half, we had interceptions, blown coverages. We had missed tackles. We just did not play well in the first half. We did not.
“We did enough in the second half to win the game, but weren’t able to finish it in the red zone.”
Lions couldn't get out of their own way: So many of the story lines around the Nittany Lions this season revolved around the offense’s quick-strike ability and the dead periods it always seemed to go through before making the one or two plays it needed to secure the first eight wins. Those stories were always sort of intertwined with two stark realities. One, they also had a defense that allowed them to go through some offensive slumps game to game, and two, there were going to be some shootouts they’d need to win.
There were just as many lulls on defense this time. There were plenty of missed tackles that turned short runs into good ones. There were a Nittany Litany of blown coverages that allowed one Minnesota receiver, Rashod Bateman, to go over 200 yards, while teammate Tyler Johnson went over 100. While the Golden Gophers were building a two-touchdown lead in the first half, there were times Penn State couldn’t seem to get out of its own way, on either side of the ball.
Its vaunted pass rush barely made Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan sweat. He threw just two incompletions. Its offense piled up yard after yard, then failed to push the ball over the goal line against a defense that ranked 125th in the nation in red zone defense. Penn State scored just two touchdowns in six trips inside the Gophers 20.
In their first eight games, opponents scored 13 touchdowns in 18 red zone trips against those same Gophers.
“I’m going to definitely do some thinking today,” said quarterback Sean Clifford, who threw for 340 yards but also three interceptions deep in Minnesota territory. “We haven’t had to deal with this yet. I’m going to take a day to think, really reflect and watch the film. That’s the only thing I really want to do right now. Then, just grow from it. That’s one thing I’ll guarantee: I’ll come in tomorrow with the same mentality I’ve had before, if not hungrier.”
Tale of woe: Most Penn State players, Clifford chief among them, were visibly emotional during postgame interviews. You’d probably expect that. They were telling the traditional story of woe for teams that fall just short.
A play or two here or there changes everything.
Too many missed opportunities.
It’s funny how fine the line is after a game like this. On the Penn State sideline, it’s nothing but grief. Nothing but frustration and a sense that an opportunity to do something no team in program history has ever done may have gone by the wayside. On the other sideline, which was rushed by students and fans, the possibilities are endless, the win so big, a generation of fans have never seen a more important one.
Big picture doesn't change: The crazy thing is, nothing changes for the Nittany Lions in that big picture, despite the loss. Win out, they head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game and the opportunity, perhaps, for even more. They were likely going to have to beat Ohio State to make a College Football Playoff push anyway, even with a convincing win over Minnesota.
What they got was a bit of a comeuppance, a reality check young teams need even when they come into the game unbeaten and getting more national hype than anybody who follows the program could have reasonably expected coming into the season. They’ve very fast and explosive and talented; fast and explosive and talented enough to make adjustments on both sides of the ball and overcome the mistakes that tend to pile up on them. But not fast and explosive and talented enough to beat a team that plays its own game to near perfection.
Penn State lost the turnover battle. It missed too many tackles. It had a few play calls inside the 10 that seemed too conservative for the moment. It dropped too many passes that should have set up scores.
None of that could be said of the Golden Gophers.
One team played like a national championship contender should. The other team was Penn State, which still has so much on the line despite the fresh sting on its cheek from this slap across the face. It can’t merely continue to overcome its deficiencies to stay with the big boys. It has to start improving upon them.