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Penn State Falls 39-38 To Ohio State As Same Issues Roar Loudly

on October 28, 2017 9:20 PM

As Trace McSorley rolled to his left he heaved a pass skyward hoping that it would find Juwan Johnson. It was a prayer, one of many he had thrown Saturday, and with so many answered it seemed not entirely impossible that Johnson would pull that one down too.

But the ball sailed high, and Penn State fell to No.6 Ohio State in a game for the ages. A game that for so long seemed destined to validate the Nittany Lions' standing on the national stage. A win would have given Penn State a clear path to the postseason and in turn, establish that the Nittany Lions are in fact as good as advertised.

And by the time Ohio State knelt for the final time the game had served at least part of its purpose. It was hard to watch Penn State put together its best performance in Columbus --maybe ever-- and come away feeling like the Nittany Lions were overrated. It's hard to see a single point being the difference between being considered a good or bad team. Validation or fraud. It was a loss, and that's about it.

But it was also a reminder that Penn State is plagued with two very related and two very crippling issues.

The Nittany Lions are unable to run the ball.

And they lack a firm identity when playing with the lead late in games against equally talented teams. 

It really isn't any more complicated than this. Penn State scored 38 points against Ohio State on the road. That is an outcome that trumps nearly all previous offensive outputs against the Buckeyes. But given a handful of chances to finish the game, the Nittany Lions' weaknesses roared loudly. On three of Penn State's final four drives the Nittany Lions "gained" a total of 10 yards.

Penn State's only redeeming drive, a 64-yard march that ended with three straight and painfully predictable runs up the middle just nine feet from the endzone. A touchdown and a victory three yards away. A field goal would be one point too few when it was all said and done.

"I think for us, we're not able to consistently run the ball at the end of games to finish the game with a four minute mentality," James Franklin said following the game. "And obviously we're playing really good teams with really good talent and really good coaches, so we just have to keep chipping away to close the gap on these types of opponents in every single area."

"But I don't think there is any doubt, that if you can run the ball consistently and especially in four minute situations where you have a lead and are trying to run the clock out. Or, don't even think like that and stay with your mentality. But again, it's hard to say that when tonight we weren't able to connect or consistently run the ball down the stretch."

If two data points count as a trend then Penn State's loss in the Rose Bowl certainly started it. Up by two scores in the fourth quarter the Nittany Lions finished the game with three drives that gained no more than two yards. A fourth drive gained just 10. In the fourth quarter of both games Penn State has managed just three points while giving up 36.

The overarching issue is one that Franklin addressed above. Running the ball to kill the clock is football 101. It's how you win a game before it's over. But Penn State can't run the ball, if it could it would have won the Rose Bowl and would have won again tonight. Aside from his 36 yard touchdown that had more to do with him than anything else, Saquon Barkley was held to eight yards on 20 carries. In critical situations both USC and Ohio State were happy to load the box and implode Penn State's offensive line. In both cases it worked.

Simply put, the Nittany Lions have the best running back in the nation and he loses yards almost more often than he gains them.

So what's the answer? Does Penn State get aggressive and go against conventional football? Do the Nittany Lions decide that going out swinging and live with the results?

And right now Penn State doesn't have an answer to that question or an identity to lean on.

"We talk about it all the time," Trace McSorley said after the game. "That’s something where we feel we should just stick with our identity and do what we do. Obviously, the coaches felt we could give the ball to Saquon, who we feel is the best player in the country, and be able to make play and get a couple of first downs and milk the clock away. Obviously, they kind of had a game plan and were able to get a big stop and a big loss of yards on the first play. Then from that point, they were able to just pin their ears back and attack. They got us there. We’ll have to go back and look at the four-minute."

"That’s something that over the years has been a struggle for us — whether to treat it like any other situation or treat it like two-minute; we’ve been solid in two-minute, and go down and run our offense. Or maybe we need a little more work in four-minute situations in practice, so we can get used to playing against the mentality of our backs to the wall and the defense’s back to the wall. It’s a matter of us having to keep on pushing and pushing. That’s where you really have to grind out yards. So, I think there are a couple of different ways to look at it. We’ll get back in there tomorrow and talk about it and formulate a plan for it."

The issue for Penn State now is that whatever happens the rest of this season will matter little for the future of the program. Saquon Barkley is almost certainly going pro, and Joe Moorhead and his skill set seems in the next to exit stage right, be it this year or next.

Which makes Saturday night's loss a potentially painful defeat for fans. There is no real evidence to suggest Penn State's offensive line issues will be fixed anytime soon, and far less evidence that the Nittany Lions would succeed running the ball without the otherworldly talents of Barkley. They have a hard enough time even with him.

In essence there is no guarantee that this season's flight to the No.2 ranking is anything more than the peak of an era rather than the arrival to a new standard.

That isn't to say Penn State will struggle under Franklin in the future. The Nittany Lions --for all of their faults-- have the firepower and scheme to beat most of the Big Ten and probably everyone left on the schedule. That likely won't change.

But Saturday night was a reminder that the biggest wins come down to the smallest details. And right now the Nittany Lions don't have an answer to two glaring issues.

And until they do, it's not hard to see nights like Saturday ending the same way more often than not.

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October 27, 2017 2:00 PM
Penn State Football: Previewing The Opponent: Ohio State
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