We can start the latest in what is becoming a long line of somber postmortems following yet another Penn State loss in so many ways.
We can offer the same, tired analogies. We can follow up with the over analysis of key plays that look so much like the same key plays from weeks and months and seasons earlier, we can throw the old definition of insanity out there and we can certainly wrap it all up with a predictable warning that it better change soon, or the season is going to spiral away like Dorothy and Toto in the twister, full of regret for the past and fear of what is to come.
It can’t be enough for Penn State now. It just can’t. Not for the coaches, who have done an unquestionably amazing job lifting this program from the ashes of scandal. Not for the players, who came to Happy Valley to take the blue and white to a different level. It shouldn’t be for the fans, either, who were handed promissory notes back in 2016 on a team riding high and going higher, asked to buy in to a program and sell out stadiums and travel en masse and kick big dollars toward coveted seats to get in on the ground floor of a champion. That can’t take the shape, now, of being nothing more than a bill of goods.
For the second straight time after a second straight devastating loss at Beaver Stadium, James Franklin delivered his second straight missive about finishing and knowing roles and doing what it takes to be elite, this time on an afternoon when merely being great might have been good enough.
But No. 8 Penn State, a more than two-touchdown favorite against a Michigan State team that buckled against Northwestern last week, did its typical fourth-quarter face plant.
Key failures: With one of the best quarterbacks in college football on the Nittany Lions’ side and a slew of veteran wide receivers nobody seemed all that concerned about in the preseason, they couldn’t find a way to consistently gain yards against a team that entered the game not just as the Big Ten’s worst pass defense, but the second-worst in major-conference football.
With a talented defensive backfield led by a cornerback who earned All-Big Ten honors last season standing between the Spartans and the end zone, the Nittany Lions dropped two interceptions that likely would have ended the game, then watched as quarterback Brian Lewerke completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Felton Davis III to take the lead with less than 20 seconds to go.
The end result: Another close game against another Big Ten blueblood, and another loss, 21-17. Another night and another week and maybe another season of wouldas, couldas and shouldas.
“We had a chance to put away a proud program, a good program with a very good football coach ... several times, on offense, on defense and on special teams,” Franklin said, again. “And, we didn’t do it.”
A tired story: It’s a tired story, and make no mistake, there’s nobody more sick of telling it than Franklin. To his eternal credit, he’s not making excuses for the same thing happening over and over and over again.
Tight game against a good team, with a lead to protect. A big play needed to seal the deal. A big play just missed. Lo and behold, a loss.
Happened against USC in the Rose Bowl.
Happened against Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back games on the road in 2017.
Happened against Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back games at home in 2018.
Happens because the defense gets pushed around when the opponent wants to push it around. Happens because the offense can’t be physical and time-consuming when it needs to be — or isn’t designed to be physical and time-consuming when it needs to be, depending on your view. Happened because the kicking game isn’t able to be relied on, and the coverage teams continue to get tricked by teams taking advantage of their aggression or their inexperience or their unwillingness to stick to the simplest of details.
Focus problem: Perhaps the most damning statement from Franklin about his team’s overall sloppiness came from the admission that the coaching staff is seeing things during games from players that they just don’t see during the week of practice leading up to the games. That’s not a talent problem, or an inexperience program, on its face. That’s a focus problem.
“We’re just making stupid mistakes that we can easily fix,” defensive tackle Kevin Givens said.
Well, good teams — never mind great teams and elite teams — eliminate “stupid mistakes” easily enough. Penn State doesn’t seem to be getting it, though, even when they’ll be so easy to spot on film.
Case in point: Michigan State’s first touchdown. The Spartans have a first-and-goal from the Penn State 1 and get stuffed three consecutive plays. After Lewerke is turned away on the third-down rush, defensive tackle C.J. Thorpe is called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Spartans get another chance, and La’Darius Jefferson scores from one yard out.
“We just gave it to them,” Franklin said.
Offense can't close deal: Penn State keeps giving good team chances in close games.
Twice in the fourth quarter, the defense held a Michigan State drive without points, preserving a 17-14 lead. Both times, the offense followed that with monumental collapses in the four-minute offense.
With 5:19 to go, Penn State got a first down on a 15-yard throw from quarterback Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson, then didn’t get a yard on their next three plays and punted. With 1:46 to go, they gained two yards on three rushing plays, Michigan State called two timeouts, McSorley ran out of bounds to do the Spartans the courtesy of stopping the clock on the third down run, and the Nittany Lions punted again.
Two drives. Seven offensive plays. Just 17 yards.
A whopping 1:37 taken off the clock.
Dropped interceptions: So, when cornerback Amani Oruwariye and safety Garrett Taylor both dropped potential interceptions on Michigan State’s game-winning drive — and both should have been caught — that stood as an example of the sloppiness. But this game should have been over long before that.
It wasn’t, because the entire team failed when it mattered most.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to win,” McSorley said. “Mistakes. Self-inflicted wounds. Just not executing. They’re probably the keys where, if I’m just looking at the big, general commonalities of what happened in all these games, that’s what I’m looking at. If you’re not doing those things in any game, you’re not going to win.”
Nobody has shown that, when it matters most, quite like Penn State.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.