UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Ohio State had the ball trailing by 12 points with eight minutes left in the game, it was a déjà vu scenario once again for Penn State.
Since Penn State got thumped 49-10 against Michigan in 2016, they’ve lost a total of five games, all by three points or fewer. It’s not a case they’re losing often, but it’s how they’re losing them.
And they’re losing those games in incredible fashion.
Holding a two-score lead in the fourth quarter and seeing momentum swing the opposite way is something that has been the norm for the Nittany Lions under James Franklin. Saturday night was the third such occurrence in three years and second straight against the Buckeyes.
Teams usually do well leading late like Penn State has been so often in big games, but for one reason or another, the Nittany Lions squander the lead and end up losing in heartbreaking fashion, much like against Ohio State.
Let’s take a trip back to the 2017 Rose Bowl, where Franklin and company were squaring off against USC. Penn State held a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter in Pasadena, and subsequently, the wheels began to fall off.
The Nittany Lions force-fed Saquon Barkley in the running game, and the result was three punts and a total of 11 yards in three drives. On the fourth drive, with the clock under 30 seconds, Trace McSorley lofted an interception into the hands of USC’s Leon McQuay III rather than taking a knee and going for overtime.
Now, let’s revisit the 2017 season, where Penn State lost games in back-to-back weeks by one point and three points, respectively.
Against the Buckeyes, the trend of blowing late leads first showed up when the Nittany Lions had a 15-point lead as the fourth quarter began. Penn State also had momentum after Shareef Miller recovered a J.T. Barrett fumble.
With the ball on the Ohio State 42-yard line, Penn State came out on offense, and it wasn’t pretty. A Barkley 7-yard loss, an incompletion and a Barkley 6-yard run were the results of the next three plays. The Buckeyes then blocked a punt by Blake Gillikin and ultimately scored on their next drive. Penn State came out and drove to get a first-and-goal at the 4 before settling for a field goal after a 64-yard march. Ohio State answered again with a touchdown drive, cutting the lead to 38-33.
The Nittany Lions went three-and-out on their next drive as they went backwards for minus-4 yards on the drive. The Buckeyes responded with the go-ahead touchdown, and Penn State somehow managed to lose 5 yards before turning the ball over on downs, putting an end to the 39-38 loss.
Against Michigan State in 2017, the Nittany Lions battled both the Spartans and Mother Nature, as they encountered a three-plus hour weather delay. It was another back-and-forth game, but when the game was on the line, Penn State just couldn’t do enough to get the job done.
The trend in the close losses? Penn State getting too conservative and moving away from what the Nittany Lions do best, the pass in the run-pass option.
Against Ohio State last year and USC two years ago, Penn State force-fed Barkley to their demise. The conservative running style with the game on the line would’ve been good inside the four-minute mark, but with plenty of time for both teams to have multiple possession, it not only led to more scoring for the opponents but also complete momentum changes.
It was the same against the Buckeyes this past weekend with the game on the line. They went with what wasn’t working and took the ball out of the hands of their biggest play maker, McSorley, when the game was in the balance.
The loss was a another example of how Franklin can’t quite put away elite teams, even when the Nittany Lions have them on the ropes.
There will be other games against elite programs, and in two weeks, Michigan State will return to Happy Valley, but if the game is on the line, don’t be surprised if that déjà vu feeling returns. Until Penn State can close out a game, that sickening, “Here we go, again” feeling will be present for the players and coaches on the field, as well as the fans in the stands.
For the Nittany Lions to get to the elite level they strive, they’ll have to do the same things that got them there in the first place. They need to be themselves offensively and stay within their comfort zone to put teams away, instead of abandoning what got them the lead and force-feeding the running game. Defensively, they must get out of “bend, don’t break” mode and play to win the game rather than not to lose.
The season is far from over for the Nittany Lions, but to be elite, they have to show they can close out elite teams. Can Penn State do that? We’ll have to wait and see.