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For Penn State, regular season of great expectations ends with another disappointing loss

CRAIG MEYER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State coach James Franklin watches during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 30-27. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was an eventful week for the Penn State and Michigan State football programs or, more specifically, their coaches.

On Tuesday, Penn State announced a new 10-year contract for coach James Franklin that will pay him $7.5 million annually. Within 48 hours, Michigan State's Mel Tucker agreed to an even more lucrative deal, an extension that pays him $95 million over 10 years.

With the Nittany Lions and Spartans facing off Saturday, one side was inevitably going to walk away from the matchup disappointed, not just over the result, but with the worry, short-sighted as it may be, that so much money was just committed to a coach who comes out and immediately loses.

Unfortunately for Penn State, it was left to deal with that less-desirable outcome.

Under constant snow flurries that made yardage lines hard to see and made Penn State players wearing white pants and white jerseys even harder to pick out, the Nittany Lions were unable to consistently contain what has been an occasionally one-dimensional Michigan State offense this season in a 30-27 loss Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

It marked the fifth loss in the final seven games for the Nittany Lions, who started the season 5-0 and ranked in the top five of the national polls. Four of those losses have come by a combined 12 points, with the fifth, a road defeat against Ohio State, coming by nine. A team that was a few plays away from being 10-2 or even 11-1 instead wrapped up its regular season at 7-5.

"It's a bummer, for sure," quarterback Sean Clifford said. "I think our team is way better than our record is. But we didn't win. It doesn't really matter. All that really matters are the wins and losses. I'm just proud of this team and how we battled back from last year. I thought that last year was obviously really tough for all of us, myself included. Coming back and winning five games at the beginning of the season, being a top-five team in the country. Some things didn't go our way. Some things didn't go my way. But that's life."

With the loss, Penn State finishes the season 4-5 in the Big Ten, placing it fourth in the conference's east division. It marks the first time the Nittany Lions have had a losing Big Ten record in back-to-back seasons since 2003 and 2004.

The Spartans got off to a fast start, scoring touchdowns on each of their first two drives, the second of which went 99 yards in just nine plays and 4:01. On those two possessions, they averaged 10.2 yards per play, seemingly having their way against what was the fourth-best scoring defense among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

"We definitely came out with a slow start," safety Ji'Ayir Brown said. "We paid for it. We couldn't bring it back. We gave them 14 free points we feel like they didn't earn. It haunted us today."

The Nittany Lions responded, scoring two touchdowns in a span of seven minutes, both of which were receptions from star wideout Jahan Dotson, who finished the game with eight catches for 137 yards and the two scores.

For much of the second half, neither team was able to create much separation. In the final seven minutes, however, Penn State came apart.

Facing a third-and-one at his team's 49, running back Keyvone Lee was stopped short of the first down and had the ball poked out of his grasp, with Michigan State recovering. The Spartans marched to the Penn State 20, where they were faced with a 4th-and-15. With their kicker injured, they went for it, a decision that paid off as quarterback Payton Thorne tossed up a high-arcing pass to Jayden Reed, who outmuscled Penn State's Johnny Dixon and came down with the ball for a touchdown with 5:10 remaining. It got even worse for the Nittany Lions after that, as John Lovett fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Penn State 29, where it was recovered by Michigan State.

The Nittany Lions got a late touchdown catch from Parker Washington with 43 seconds remaining, but they were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick.

Big-time plays in big-time moments: When evaluating key stats from Penn State's loss, few were more consequential than the Spartans' ability to convert on third and fourth down, even in long-yardage situations.

Michigan State successfully converted on nine of its 18 third downs and three of its four fourth downs. Each of those fourth-down conversions ultimately led to points — a field goal on one drive, a touchdown on another and Thorne's touchdown heave on the final one. The Spartans converted on six third downs in which they needed at least eight yards. On a seventh, a third-and-14, they got 11 yards, giving them a manageable fourth down that they ended up converting.

"We've just got to execute better as a team," cornerback Daequan Hardy, a Penn Hills graduate, said. "As a whole, we've got to do better on those plays. We've got to get off the field, give our offense the ball and give them a chance."

Bad day for Stout: A week after Jordan Stout's punting prowess helped his flu-ridden team secure a 28-0 victory against Rutgers — and days after he was named a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the top punter in college football — the senior's special-teams shortcomings proved to be decisive.

With one minute remaining in the first half, and with a chance to tie the score, Stout pushed a 27-yard field goal wide right. It was his second miss from 20-29 yards on seven attempts this season. Later, after Hardy's 17-yard interception return for a touchdown, Stout's extra-point attempt clanged off the right upright, only his second misfire on 36 attempts to that point. On Penn State's final extra point attempt, it turned to senior Jake Pinegar, who made it.

On a day his team lost by three, Stout's miscues ultimately loomed large.

"Points were at a premium," Franklin said. "Obviously, it impacts whether you're going to go for it more on fourth down in those situations."

Odds and ends: Clifford threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns on 34 attempts. It was the senior's third game this season with at least 300 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III, the third-leading rusher in FBS entering the day, ran for 138 yards and a touchdown while averaging 4.6 yards per carry, almost two yards per carry below his season average.

With the loss, Franklin's record against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State during his eight-year tenure at Penn State fell to 7-17.

Penn State finished the regular season without any of its running backs having a 100-yard game. Lee led the Nittany Lions Saturday with 15 carries for 79 yards, a good chunk of which came on a 33-yard scamper in the second quarter.

Up next: After 12 games in the past 13 weeks, the Nittany Lions' regular season is now complete. They'll await their bowl destination, which will be revealed next weekend following the conclusion of conference championship games and a handful of other contests. In the past several weeks, Penn State has been most frequently tied to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City, the Music City Bowl in Nashville and the Las Vegas Bowl in, you guessed it, Las Vegas.