MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- James Franklin’s voice was almost completely gone by the time he took the podium following Penn State’s 31-26 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.
He was measured, and unlike following a loss to Ohio State a year ago, there was no emotional speech about going from good to elite, no preaching or proclamations. A quick glance across the box score was all he needed, and he didn’t even really need that.
“We started poorly,” Franklin said bluntly. “In the first half we had interceptions, we had blown coverages, we had missed tackles. We didn’t not play well in the first half. We did not. And then we did enough in the second half to have a chance to win the game, but weren't able to finish it in the red zone.”
There is a lot that could be said about Saturday’s game. You could point to a handful of penalty calls made or not made. Daniel George’s offensive pass interference in the final minutes was the difference in 23 precious yards of field position, and the difference between six feet to victory and a Minnesota country mile.
“I don’t want to be one of these guys that comes into press conferences and questions calls,’’ Franklin said. “Those guys (have) got tough jobs to do. You really hope that that call late in the game, I hope it’s clear as day. … You just hope in critical times like that, it better be clear to make that call.’’
Ultimately those kinds of things make for easier talking points than the larger and less controversial reality: Penn State beat itself as much as Minnesota did.
The Nittany Lions had drops, an old adversary returning at the wrong moment. And while they were called for just four penalties all day, they found themselves on the wrong end of untimely ones. A pass interference call against John Reid moved the chains for Minnesota as Penn State lean against the ropes and the call on George, fair or not, a self-explanatory miscue as Journey Brown was tackled six feet from six.
There were red zone chances squandered. Penn State came up empty from inside the 15 twice, and failed to convert a two-point conversion. These struggles were compounded by a lack of efficiency running the ball in the red zone and two corner fades to KJ Hamler that pitted one of Penn State’s smallest targets against taller cover men trying to defend an already difficult throw to make. The odds were never in Hamler’s favor as the ball sailed through the air.
Turnovers did little to help Penn State’s cause, Clifford short on an early throw to Justin Shorter and later lofted a ball into coverage that would set up a Minnesota touchdown.
Penn State’s defense struggled in the first half and to a certain extent the entire game. Huge chunk plays ate up soft spots in the Nittany Lions’ coverage as quick RPO strikes left little room for quarterback pressure, especially against the heavy-set Gopher offensive line.
“They would go with the RPO,” Franklin said after the game. “They were able to throw the slant of the skinny post off the back side. That’s what they do and they do a great job at it. We had to commit so much to stopping the run that you’re one-on-one...they very rarely threw the ball in a traditional throwing game. They weren’t dropping back and throwing the ball...I bet you out of the throws, that 75 percent of them were RPOS, one-man read, ball coming out. You don’t get sacks on them.”
Yet in spite of all these things Penn State stood on its own 28 with 2:40 on the clock and a chance to win. It was improbable and unlikely, an ending fitting the scene as fans continued to roar, the press box shaking.
Of course Penn State did not win, Clifford’s third and final interception of the day was intended for Jahan Dotson, sailing high, landing short of Hamler but in the arms of Gopher defender Jordan Howden.
The loss was many things. In a practical sense it sets up a more difficult path to the College Football Playoff and Indianapolis that still requires a victory against Ohio State. It’s a prospect that appears unlikely, although that may have been true even if the Nittany Lions had won Saturday.
What to make of the loss in the broader sense is in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand the Nittany Lions were never supposed to be in the playoff hunt this year - or at the very least it was never the obvious objective. Equally true, Penn State had yet to face an offense as consistent and confident as Minnesota’s. Iowa was methodical but plagued by its own personality, Michigan was at the time undefined and Michigan State was simply a soggy shell of its former self. Even at 8-0 there were issues masked by victory.
So Minnesota was a different kind of litmus test, one that would help determine if this Penn State was as good as its own billing. And again the answer is up to observer. On the one hand the Nittany Lions played poorly against a good (and now 9-0 team) and still made just enough plays to come within yards of winning. Penn State’s struggles shouldn’t entirely overshadow the competence required to turn a dreadful first half into a near comeback victory.
Equally true, in the season’s biggest moment to date the Nittany Lions came out and started flat, looking uncharacteristically lost on defense and once again not consistent enough on offense to hold serve out of the gate.
All of this brings Penn State to the larger lesson to be learned, that the details can beat you as much as the chunk plays. The Nittany Lions have been a team that rarely beats itself and because of that they have been able to win even when they aren’t at their best.
Penn State's loss was a cautionary tale about how much those little things matter. A questionable play call or two, bad penalties, a missed coverage or a blown assignment can turn games. For talented teams the ability to overcome those mistakes is a mark of strength as much as making those mistakes is a sign of weakness.
From 40,000 feet the Nittany Lions are no longer a young team, but they are also not far along on the path that will span the next 12 to 24 months. A loss to Minnesota is not a sign of systematic failures or institutional weaknesses.
It was however a testament to the sliver of air between great teams and elite ones. It’s a space where the details reside and a place where consistency calls home.
Penn State visits that place often, more than most teams do, and that’s why the Nittany Lions win far more than they lose.
But Saturday was a reminder that visiting consistency and living there for good are two very different things and can yield two very different results.