‘We're too finesse': What Penn State football learned through two agonizing losses
After lamenting the marine layer of "noise" surrounding his once second-ranked program, Penn State coach James Franklin swept the sky to land on the core of his frustration.
"We're going to become more of a hard-nosed team up front on both sides of the ball," Franklin said after his team's 27-24 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. "We're going to be more physical up front. We're not right now. We're too finesse."
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The Nittany Lions have three games remaining against a friendly schedule (Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland) that could lift them to a 10-2 finish and a New Year's Six bowl game.
By itself, that's a phenomenal season. In the context of being the 2016 Big Ten champion and the nation's No. 2 team just 10 days ago, it looks like a spiral.
Thing is, winning Big Ten road games is difficult (ask Ohio State about its 31-point loss at Iowa on Saturday). Winning true road games against ranked teams is even more difficult; Franklin is 0-5 in that attempt at Penn State.
In the past two weeks, Penn State has lost road games to teams with assertive run defenses, cocooned pass protection and quarterbacks who played beyond reason.
The Nittany Lions led one of those games for 58 minutes before falling to a quarterback who completed 16 consecutive passes (and then threw four interceptions against Iowa). They lost the other — derailed by rain and a 3-hour, 22-minute weather delay — on a last-second 34-yard field goal by a kicker who missed a 32-yarder in the fourth quarter of a triple-overtime loss to Northwestern the week prior.
Two games, two losses by a combined four points. Sports are fickle. Penn State spun magic last season. The past two weeks, that magic has withered at the line of scrimmage.
Before Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin made the winning field goal Saturday, his coach gave him a prayer card. That card, coach Mark Dantonio said, included a phrase from Psalm 91: "You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion..."
Which brings us back to Franklin's "finesse" problem. Penn State's offensive-line concerns — its physicality, health, depth, cohesion and just plain orneriness — have been ongoing through Franklin's four seasons.
Penn State schemed around it well enough last year, with coordinator Joe Moorhead's offense getting its playmakers downfield and into favorable situations, leading to space for Saquon Barkley. Opposing defenses are hitting that pitch this year, leaving Barkley to run into walls or block patiently in protection.
Franklin noted his line's weaknesses earlier this season, suggesting it had to play with more of a "nasty streak." The problem, the coach said Saturday, isn't Barkley.
"Saquon didn't struggle today," Franklin said of his back, who rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries. "Our offense struggled at times today. We haven't been running the ball consistently this year. It's not a Saquon issue. It's a team issue."
That issue has extended to the defense, which hasn't been able to handle the physical line play of Ohio State and Michigan State. Penn State lost nearly half its sack production from 2016 to graduation and the NFL draft, then lost two starting defensive ends (Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz) this season to injuries.
The past two weeks, it also has played better offensive fronts. Against them, the Nittany Lions haven't produced the backfield splash plays. Penn State made a combined four sacks against Ohio State and Michigan State quarterbacks who completed 33 passes each.
"That showed up the last couple weeks," Franklin said. "They're getting to us, and getting pressure on our quarterback. We're not. We rush four, we're not getting there. We rush five, we're not getting there. We rush six, we're not getting there. We're not getting to the quarterback consistently enough."
Ohio State and Michigan State won the lines of scrimmage against Penn State. As a result, they won the games.
In several ways, Penn State is better than its 2016 championship counterpart. Two road losses by four points don't disprove that. Still, the Nittany Lions have a foundation to keep building. That continues in the dirt.
Final thoughts from Michigan State's 27-24 win over Penn State.
1. More evidence of Penn State's line-of-scrimmage problems? Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke went 9-for-14 for 156 yards on third-down throws, converting five plays of 3rd-and-10 or longer. The Lions were 4-for-12 on third down.
2. James Franklin said his defense coupled its pass-rush lapses with coverage mistakes, leaving receivers open. Lewerke noticed. "Their defense had a good amount of holes in it," he said.
3. Receiver DeAndre Thompkins made an exceptional catch, in difficult conditions, on his 70-yard touchdown. What he remembered most, though, was his drop on a late fourth-and-three. "I'm the only one to blame for that play," he said.
This article is written by Mark Wogenrich from The Morning Call and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.