Just as it seemed the Nittany Lions had figured out how to close a game, they seemed to forget how to start one. In an inflection point game eerily similar to the 1997 matchup, when both teams entered the game with a chance for a big win, but at two very different trajectories. Michigan is playing as well as anyone in college football (except Alabama, who just doesn’t count anymore), and Penn State has come crashing down to Earth after two explainable (at best) losses to the division’s upper-tier teams. As we said in the season preview, this is indeed a rebuilding year, and Saturday’s result was the most painful reminder of it. Just like Batman in the Dark Knight, below are the grades Penn State deserves, but not the ones it needs right now.
The defense really played well for the relevant part of the game, and was the hard luck group of the game. But you can’t lose 42-7 and expect credit for playing good defense. Michigan was really the first team to fully exploit what I had dubbed the team’s most glaring weakness: run defense. From a matchup standpoint, it played right into Michigan’s strength. RB Karan Higdon had 132 yards rushing, starting with a 50-yard sprint in the first quarter to get things rolling. The DBs lost track of WR Donovan Peoples-Jones on the second Wolverine touchdown. The biggest defensive issue, though, seemed to be the lack of account for QB Shea Patterson running the football. Penn State repeatedly had Michigan in 3rd-and-manageble situations, only to lose track of Patterson running for a first down.
Defensive Game Ball: DE Yetur Gross-Matos.
He had the defense’s only sack, and though he didn’t lead the team in tackles for a change, Gross-Matos played an inspired game and was disruptive throughout.
In a game where field position could have really helped a struggling offense with good field position, the return game added nothing substantial. The effort by P Blake Gillikin, punting 8 times including a mammoth 74-yard bomb, were the lone bright spot for this unit.
Special Teams Game Ball: P Blake Gillikin
After some uneven play earlier in the year, it’s great to see Gillikin get back on track.
We’ve known all year that as QB Trace McSorley goes, so go the Nittany Lions. McSorley had a QBR of 3.5, edging out the 10.0 QBR game in the 49-10 in 2016 loss in Ann Arbor as the worst game of his career. He was clearly hurt, and it affected his mechanics as he couldn’t plant and deliver the ball accurately – AT ALL. Missing a wide-open WR DeAndre Thompkins for a touchdown that would have cut the lead to one score in the 2nd quarter, routinely throwing uncatchable balls to sort-of open receivers, and fumbling yet another exchange on a read option to RB Miles Sanders were the lowlights (how is this still happening?). Sanders was again a non-factor, the line gave up 5 sacks, and even backup QB Tommy Stevens threw a horrific pick-six on his first pass, in what could only be described as the worst decision I’ve ever seen. I hope news breaks that he was paid, only because of how awful the location of the throw was. Only a garbage time TD prevented a shutout. A completely forgettable game by this unit leaves many more questions than answers about OC Ricky Rahne’s group.
Offensive Game Ball: Absolutely not, this game ball stays in the bag.
A second “F” for the coaches. Michigan did exactly what everyone in the country knew they would do, and while I acknowledge it would have been hard for this Penn State team to stop them on any day, the scheme did not look to do anything to disrupt the game plan Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh devised. To me, it is inexcusable to have glaring undisciplined, unfocused errors (fumbled snaps, wild inaccuracies, indecision as to which QB to play) this late in the year. McSorley was too hurt to play. It’s the player’s job to fight to play, and [in this case] the coach’s job to make the hard decision to play the backup. Rahne and his staff aren’t good enough, and the playcalling and position preparation are severely lacking.
The past two years have been more the benefit of elite talent and less the triumphant return of Penn State to perennial greatness. 2016-17 produced two 11-win seasons, a conference title, two NY6 bowl appearances and one win. Still, the years were marked by an inability to close out close games in which the Lions had a lead in the 4th quarter. The similarities in the Big Ten losses were that the losses were to more experienced and historically successful (read BETTER) coaches than James Franklin. Even Jim Harbaugh thumped Penn State during their conference title year. So, it’s not that the sky is falling, Franklin has all of a sudden become horrible, everyone needs fired, or any of that. It’s only that the team continues to rebuild, and has the opportunity to win 10 games, only one worse than a year ago. All in all, it’s hard to argue that the team isn’t in deed right on schedule, as Coach Franklin has said. Let’s put this one away, burn the tape, and focus on beating a similarly-reeling Wisconsin team that only beat Rutgers by 14.
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