EAST LANSING, Mich. — Penn State head coach James Franklin stood at the makeshift podium in the Spartan Stadium concourse with his arms folded the entire time. He did not offer any opening statement about the game or the major statistical areas he focuses on, as he has all season. He spoke for less than four minutes as the same snow that fell during the entire game continued to cascade down in front of him.
He had a look of exasperation, like he had seen this all before.
In truth, he had.
Penn State (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) fell 30-27 to Michigan State (10-2, 7-2) in a performance nearly indistinguishable from any of the other four losses for the NIttany Lions this season. Just like the first four, it was a single-digit loss. Just like three of the other four, the final margin was within four points. The same problems Franklin’s team has had all season running the football and establishing an offensive identity persisted.
“It’s the Big Ten,” quarterback Sean Clifford said. “It’s hard to win games in the Big Ten. We came up on the short end a bunch of times this year; it’s a bummer, but it’s how it is.”
The failure of this Penn State season is not just in how often it came out on the short end, but in the uniformity of it. Saturday was just a snowier version of the same movie Penn State fans have watched all season, and addressing that has to be priority No. 1 for Franklin and his staff heading into the bowl game and 2022.
Against Iowa, the Hawkeyes scored the game-winning touchdown on a 44-yard touchdown pass with 6:26 to go. Against Michigan, the Nittany Lions lost their 17-14 lead on a 47-yard touchdown pass with 3:29 left.
On Saturday, the dagger was another huge pass late.
Payton Thorne completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed with 5:10 remaining on fourth-and-15, turning a potential opportunity to get the ball back trailing by a field goal into a back-breaking moment.
“They just took a shot down the field,” Penn State cornerback Daequan Hardy, who had an interception return in the third quarter, said about the fourth down. “It was a one-on-one, 50-50 ball and their player came up with the ball.”
Even with arguably the nation’s best running back in Kenneth Walker III and a blizzard swirling, Michigan State found success through the air all day. Thorne finished 19-for-30 with 268 passing yards, and drew a crucial pass interference penalty on Joey Porter Jr. on a third quarter incompletion that set up a touchdown two plays later.
Short Yardage Disasters
In the October loss to Illinois, Penn State repeatedly failed to convert in short yardage situations. The Nittany Lions had seven two-point conversion attempts in overtime against the Illini, and only managed to pick up the necessary two yards on one out of seven occasions.
In East Lansing, a fourth-and-1 failure and a third-and-1 fumble derailed two of Penn State’s final three possessions.
“Obviously not being able to convert on fourth-and-1 and giving up fourth-and-15 against this type of opponent on the road is going to make it difficult to win and be successful,” Franklin said.
Not only did it make it difficult; it made it essentially impossible to extend drives on a day where the weather made attempting field goals an untenable option.
Penn State moved the ball inside the red zone on its first possession of the fourth quarter, still trailing 23-20. Franklin elected to punt on fourth-and-1 situations twice in the first half, but from the Michigan State 16 he decided to go for it instead of attempting a 33-yard game-tying field goal.
His lack of faith in the running game from the first half was justified.
Keyvone Lee was stopped at the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs, and it only got worse from there. Four minutes later the offense got the ball back and picked up nine yards on first down. It then failed to convert on second-and-1, and fumbled on third-and-1. By the time they got another crack at it, the deficit was 10 points.
“It’s frustrating,” Lee said. “Especially as a running back because that’s what I pride myself on, but we can get it right. We’re going to fix it.”
Michigan State entered Saturday dead last of all 130 FBS teams in passing yards allowed, surrendering 339.9 yards per game. That mark was over 33 yards per game worse than the next closest team, 2-10 New Mexico State. Despite this, Penn State finished with 34 passes to 26 rushes, and 11 of those passes were on the final possession.
“We tried to mix in the run game all day long,” Franklin said. “But obviously we weren’t able to run the ball consistently enough when we needed to.”
Franklin stressed the importance of balance during his Monday press conference, stating, “Your game plan should be impacted by that [Michigan State’s pass defense] a little bit, but you just don’t want to be skewed by that too far in one direction.”
On a day where Clifford threw for 313 yards and standout receiver Jahan Dotson reeled in eight catches for 137 yards against a porous secondary, Penn State’s offense may have been too balanced for its own good.
The Whole Picture
No matter how you slice it, this season was a huge letdown for Penn State’s program. For a team that started 5-0 and peaked at No. 4 in the AP Poll, a 7-5 regular season finish can be classified as a collapse. Even with five losses by a total of 21 points, the thin margins are cold comfort for the inflated loss column.
“We definitely know we’re better than our record,” safety Ji’Ayir Brown said. “There’s no doubt about that. Like I said earlier, we’ve got to win these close games, we’ve got to execute more than the other team to pull these close games out.”
There is a straight line connecting Penn State defeat in 2021. The deep passes late in games, an inability to extend drives in short yardage, the questionable playcalling under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yircich.
Even if this team is better than its record as Brown says, it is not difficult to see how it ended up with this record.
At Spartan Stadium, all of those issues were packaged into one final crushing regular season result.