If there’s any consolation — and for Penn State there’s most certainly none — it lies in the fact that there can be no excuses.
It’s not the College Football Playoff committee doing Ohio State a favor. It’s not officials. It’s not national perception. It’s not the narrative. It’s not even the weather.
It’s them. It’s the Nittany Lions. It’s the players in blue and white, the men in the mirror.
Michigan State beat them Saturday night on as bizarre a day at Spartan Stadium as this program has ever seen. The Nittany Lions didn't lose because they weren’t good enough to win this biggest of games, which went to the Spartans, 27-24, on a last-second field goal in East Lansing.
The Nittany Lions lost because they didn’t do what was necessary to win. They didn’t play well enough, when it mattered most.
They had this game on their fingertips, and dropped it. They had the chance to win it late, then gave it away. They made more mistakes, mental ones and physical, than the younger, but clearly better-schooled Spartans. And, because of that, the wild dreams of being a national champion they had just two weeks ago looked more like delusions of grandeur on a soggy afternoon when it was all on the line.
“It really comes down, especially in this game, to making plays,” Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “They made more plays than we did, especially late in the game down the stretch. We didn’t execute on drives we should have. We didn’t execute on plays we should have.”
That’s the difference between a team going to the playoff and one staring the Outback Bowl in the face.
Look, nobody debates that Penn State’s program is skyrocketing. There’s no comparison between where it was a few years ago and where it is now. Nothing that happened Saturday was going to change that. At its core, this is still a team that has lost two straight games on the road, against two of the most successful Big Ten programs in recent memory, by one point and by a last-second field goal.
Self-evaluation needed: That said, Penn State had to win this game, and it should have won this game, and because it didn’t, it needs to evaluate itself in a significant way.
For the second straight week, it came up very small in the fourth quarter, when coming up just medium would have been the difference.
After the Spartans tied the game at 24 with 10:56 left, Penn State took two drives into Michigan State territory. The first ended when quarterback Trace McSorley saw receiver Saeed Blacknall breaking deep on a post pattern, and underthrew him badly enough that Michigan State safety David Dowell was able to cut underneath the throw and easily pick it off.
The second ended on a critical fourth-and-3, when McSorley saw receiver DeAndre Thompkins locked in one-on-one coverage with Spartans freshman Josiah Scott. Thompkins ran a slant, beat Scott to the inside, and was wide open by any receiver’s standard. McSorley fired a pass, a bit high, but certainly catchable. And... it wasn’t caught.
“We had a first down,” head coach James Franklin shrugged. “We didn’t finish the play.”
“We just had to execute, individually, with me as a big part,” Thompkins added. “It’s just on me. That’s just me not making the catch. It’s something I’m really upset about. I had to come down with that ball.”
Missed opportunities: When that ball banged through his hands, the game seemed essentially over. Except, it wasn’t. As it always seems to be with this team, there was a way around the problem.
The Spartans had a third-and-4 at the Lions’ 37 on their ensuing drive. The weather conditions weren’t ideal. Nor was the spot on the field. It’s conceivable Spartans coach Mark Dantonio might have opted to punt, to try to pin Penn State inside its 10 and play for overtime at home, if the Nittany Lions could just get off the field.
And, again, it looked like Penn State got off the field. Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke fired a pass to freshman receiver Cody White, but another freshman, Nittany Lions cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, made a brilliant play to bat the ball away.
Except, a flag hit the ground in the backfield. Referee Don Willard signaled that Lewerke was hit late, and boy, was he. Penn State safety Marcus Allen not only drilled him a beat after the throw, but in the knees.
Fourth-and-4 and a huge decision turned into a first down for Michigan State, well within kicker Matt Coghlin’s range. He’d drill a 34-yarder to end it.
Michigan State’s Big Ten championship hopes lived.
Penn State’s died.
Lacking championship mettle: On a day Ohio State lost big. On a day No. 3 Notre Dame and 4 Clemson and No. 5 Oklahoma didn’t exactly look indomitable defensively. On a day when a team that needed chaos had some hope that chaos, over these next few weeks, could happen, Penn State lost track of the most important part of what it had to do to get where it wanted to go. It didn’t take care of its own business.
“They handled some things better than we handled them,” Franklin said. “We didn’t consistently execute the way we should have.”
That’s hardly the trademark of a champion.
That’s the sign of a program not ready to get where it thought it could.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.