COLLINS: Penn State must get more physical if it hopes to fix its short-yardage problems

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State escaped with a 21-19 victory over Iowa on Saturday night.
  • Penn State needed last-second TD pass to win the game, despite outgaining Iowa, 579-273.
  • An inability to convert short-yardage situations in the red zone constantly hurt Penn State.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Talk all you want about miracle finishes, about Trace McSorley’s guts, or Juwan Johnson’s hands, or Saquon Barkley’s greatness. And it’s fair to call it greatness now.

Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson, left, is congratulated by teammate Jonathan Holland after catching a touchdown pass as time expired to defeat Iowa in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Here are some facts that really matter, though:

Penn State’s defense stifled Iowa for all but three plays Saturday. No other way to describe it.

Akrum Wadley, the star Iowa tailback who dismantled the opposition during the nonconference schedule, couldn’t escape Penn State’s linebackers. Nathan Stanley, the Hawkeyes’ surging young quarterback, felt constant pressure from the Penn State defensive line. Penn State held Iowa to 273 total yards, 46 percent of which came on the three Iowa touchdown plays.

Likewise, Penn State’s special teams stymied Iowa. The Hawkeyes couldn’t muster a decent return, never mind a big one, and punter Blake Gillikin pinned them inside their own 10 three times. The Hawkeyes spent most of the early part of Saturday night’s game at Kinnick Stadium simply trying to escape the shadow of their own end zone. Then, with a chance to get within a touchdown of the lead in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Troy Apke blocked kicker Miguel Recinos’ 36-yard field goal attempt.

But this hasn’t been, and will never be, about dominant defense, or how strong the special teams can be, and to get where Penn State wants to go, it can’t be about what Penn State truly wants to be — an offensive juggernaut ripping off big play after big play.

Because this time, the Nittany Lions ripped off 13 chunk plays, runs of 12 yards or more and pass plays of better than 15. That’s the statistic head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead value most, outside of points. And they barely had enough points.

Inability to finish: Its national title hopes are still alive after the comeback at Kinnick, a 21-19, last-second triumph that stunned the Big Ten and showed Penn State has as much guts as any program in college football. But Penn State is going to have to face this reality at some point: The worries about whether they are physical enough up front, worries that Franklin has expressed at times in the last few weeks, showed themselves to be legitimate on another Saturday struggle in Kinnick.

The Nittany Lions probably should have won this game by many more points than they did. This probably shouldn’t have been as sweaty a situation in the fourth quarter as it turned out to be.

Because on the occasions when Penn State needed a yard or two to get a first down, or better yet a touchdown, it couldn’t get it.

Penn State ran five plays inside Iowa’s 3-yard line on two different drives on which Penn State wound up settling for field goals.

Saquon Barkley, who dominated the game, touched the ball once on those five plays.

“We had a lot of yards,” Franklin said. “We just didn’t finish drives.”

Dominated the statistics: Those are situations where you have to score touchdowns most of the time. If Penn State punches the ball over the goal line in those spots, you’re talking about a 10-point game in the closing five minutes instead of a two-point lead. Moral of the story: When you outgain a team 579 yards to 273, you better not be fighting for your lives with 7 seconds to play.

The way the offense is designed, those short-yardage situations that would have turned this game from a relatively comfortable win to the win Penn State got are not ever going to be a sure thing.

It’s almost a joke now how much Franklin gets asked about why he doesn’t use a fullback, and Moorhead seems almost offended whenever anyone asks why the Nittany Lions’ offense never asks its quarterback to line up under center. But those short-yardage situations that are so crucial in a close game are tougher for an offense like Penn State’s to get when the ball goes six yards backward before it can go forward.

Drastic changes unlikely and unneeded: Nobody is suggesting Penn State should start employing a fullback, and of course, Moorhead’s offense is predicated on the quarterback making his reads out of the shotgun. Nobody’s asking him to change that, either.

But, Penn State got out of Iowa City by the skin of its teeth, barely, because it proved more adept at getting 15 yards than getting just one.

“I wouldn’t say we struggle in the red zone. I think we’ve been really good in the red zone,” Franklin insisted. “I don’t think we played great tonight in the red zone, but I wouldn’t paint it with that broad of a brush. I think it comes back to, you have to be able to run the ball between the tackles.

“I think that’s when you can be really good. Be explosive when you can be explosive. But be patient when you have to be. You have to be able to do both.”

The offense doesn’t have to change dramatically to be both, but it can’t be this stubborn. Not when there’s a chance to end the game early. As gritty as Penn State has proven to be, that’s exactly the type of issue that ultimately catches up to even the most explosive offenses.

And, ultimately, it will prove to be Penn State’s undoing if it isn’t fixed.