With one more 4th quarter collapse in the 2018 edition of the Penn State-Michigan State series, it seems the entire outlook of the Nittany Lions’ season has changed. What many had written off as a meltdown against a good Ohio State team is now looked at as a part of familiar, uncomfortable trend over the team’s last five losses (dating back to the USC Rose Bowl). The Lions looked poised to possibly back into the CFP as a one-loss team without a conference title. Now, it appears the team is headed for an Outback Bowl bid amidst a crowd of mediocre teams in the middle of the conference standings. They’ve lost 2 home games in a row, after not losing in Beaver Stadium since 2015. Penn State has now lost 5 of the last 6 against MSU, as well. Below are the grades for the disappointing result against the Spartans.
In the season preview, I predicted that the Spartans offense couldn’t score enough points to win this game. To this point in the season, that was still the case, as the offense carried the team to very nearly an undefeated record. The defense played well against a Michigan State offense that hasn’t played as well as expected, holding underachieving Spartan QB Brian Lewerke to a paltry QBR of 22.7 and not allowing a 100-yard rusher. But Penn State’s defense failed to make critical, game-sealing plays when they needed to. Dropped interceptions by CB Amani Oruwariye and S Garrett Taylor would have clinched the game despite a sluggish Lion offense, but this was a game of failed execution (same as last year). Oruwariye, typically the best defender in the secondary, had an especially rough game, as he was burned for the winning touchdown from Lewerke to Felton Davis in the game’s final minute.
Defensive Game Ball: S Garrett Taylor
Taylor was able to squeeze one interception in the first half (returned for 37 yards to flip the field), led the team in tackles and broke up the fake field goal that nearly put the Spartans in position for a go-ahead TD earlier in the 4th quarter.
This grade is mostly for K Jake Pinegar, now a definitive liability. He missed a makeable field goal and barely made an extra-point-length one in the fourth. He’s 3 for 7 on the year, and the coaches have to have lost confidence in giving him a shot with the game on the line after a regression as the season has progressed. The return game didn’t yield much, and P Blake Gillikin, in a game where field position could really have helped an off game by the offense, failed to pin Michigan State inside its 20.
Special Teams Game Ball: KR KJ Hamler
Hamler had a 24-yard kick return and fielded a punt.
Right or wrong, the team only goes as far as its QB takes it. Trace McSorley has had a great season to this point, but has his worst game as a Nittany Lion against the Michigan State. 19-32 for 196 yards, a lost fumble, and a QBR of 20.9 are numbers that describe the primary reason the Lions came up short against the Spartans. He also went out of bounds on a third-down run on Penn State’s last real possession, saving Michigan State a timeout while failing to get the first down. He has to know better than that in that situation. RB Miles Sanders had a good game, with a 78-yard run and an incredible 45-yard TD run to pace the Nittany Lion offense. WR KJ Hamler led the team with 66 yards and a TD, but perhaps the biggest reason McSorley struggled was the play of WR Juwan Johnson. With the offense raided by the NFL draft last April, Johnson needed to step up this year to fill the void. He simply hasn’t done it, with a smattering of nice catches woven into an inconsistent and underachieving season. Dropped passes have forced McSorley to question how reliable an option he is, and Hamler (while having a breakout year) does not afford McSorley the jump-ball option Godwin and Gesicki did the past two years.
Offensive Game Ball: RB Miles Sanders
Without his two long runs, the offensive production would be downright alarming.
The team was not as up for this game as Michigan State was, and lost the chess match of halftime adjustments [again] to a superior coach, with only 3 second-half points. The loss was more a function of execution, with dropped interceptions and misfired throws throughout the game. James Franklin is becoming known for an inability to win close games against good teams, with only [still] the 2016 win against Ohio State standing alone in a sea in oh-what-could-have-been 4th quarter collapses. It feels like Franklin is getting nervous about the continued pattern of late-game failures, and worse it doesn’t appear the coaching staff knows what to do about it.
But while the players on this year’s team are young, the coaches too are finding their way against the elite minds of the game. With each passing year, the Lions will have a higher percentage of blue-chip recruits on their roster, and the coaches will need to continue to study, work, and plan how to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of the current team’s players. It is important to remember that the standard to which they are held is impossibly high, and they are way ahead of schedule. Perhaps before Penn State is able to reload each and every year, we as fans will have to settle for the occasional 3- or 4- loss Outback Bowl year. The team can only afford to lose 1 more game before a New Year’s Day game comes into question, so the players executing the plays has become even more important.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn