Look, there’s a ton to unpack after that long, arduous trip to Bloomington for Penn State over the weekend, and we’ll get to a lot of it here. But let’s start with the obvious…
1.) Penn State has absolutely backed itself into a corner.
It’s now really simple for a Nittany Lions team that talked the talk coming into the 2020 season. You either beat Ohio State on Saturday, or your season is an utter disappointment.
I hate talking in superlatives like that, because we’ve seen two-loss teams go on to do great things. Penn State lost twice in 2016 before winning the Big Ten championship — a wild game in which they fell just short against Pitt, and a blowout defeat at Michigan (which might be the same scenario they’re looking at here. So hey, anything is possible.
But remember, that 2016 Penn State team had something going for it that this one does not: The element of surprise; the advantage of having a superstar on the roster and being a really fun story.
I don’t know if this team has that, honestly. I think you can survive that same kind of loss to Indiana if you have, say, a Micah Parsons or even a Journey Brown. Because with them, you can beat anybody.
But Penn State doesn’t have them anymore, and that was painfully obvious on Saturday. There was no Parsons to make the big sack on that final series when Michael Penix Jr. put the Hoosiers on his back to tie at the end of regulation. There was no Journey to give the running game a semblance of a threat big-play threat outside of Sean Clifford.
Penn State wins that game if it has either of those two players, I’m convinced. But the reality here, is what’s left has to be good enough. When you talk about depth being a strength, there’s no excuse for losing when you have to rely on it.
But, in fairness, as poorly as the Nittany Lions played at times, they should have — would have — won the game if not for…
2.) Another egregious replay call going against them.
It’s really difficult to feel badly for a team that turned the ball over three times, that repeatedly shot itself in the foot with penalties (10 for 100 yards is just so difficult to overcome) that honestly had an 8-point lead with just 100 or so seconds left against a team it had dominated defensively throughout, and just…couldn’t…close…the…thing…out.
But at the end of it all, Penix was short of the pylon on that 2-point conversion run.
Very short? No.
Heartbreakingly short? Yep.
There isn’t a replay that showed the ball hitting the pylon before it hit the turf.
Here’s a really great shot of that run by Abby Drey of the Centre Daily Times:
Indiana upsets Penn State in overtime pic.twitter.com/pROzRXaJZ6
— Abby Drey (@ADreyPhotos) October 24, 2020
And you can combine that look of the ball clearly on the chalk out of bounds with this view of the play from the end zone camera…
To me this angle is more conclusive than the one everyone is looking at from the side. pic.twitter.com/XFnKYSeany
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) October 25, 2020
…and determine fairly conclusively that the ball never broke the plane before it went out of bounds.
The game is at Indiana. That’s a huge moment in Indiana football history if he scores. And he’s so so so so so so close.
But this is why conferences use replay as an officiating aide: To help the naked eye see what it missed, to correct a call that was incorrect on the field, no matter how difficult that call was. There are no degrees of truth; with replay, there is just truth. And the truth is, Penn State stopped Penix one inch shy of the end zone on a 2-point conversion attempt and should, today, be 1-0 because of that.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that Penn State played an all-around lousy game on Saturday. It’s just the truth, as clearly confirmed by video evidence. We can debate whether Penn State deserved to win (I’d fall on the side that it did not), but we can not debate that it should have won.
It’s amazing, really: For a program that has had so many infamous issues with allowing officials to make a critical call against it at just the right time, it continues allowing Big Ten officials to make that decision. It always reminds me of one of the comments former Penn State quarterback and out own Scranton legend Matt McGloin made after a controversial replay review of this play resulted in a fumble call not being overturned:
“We’re not going to get that call here,” McGloin said. “We’re never going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. Doesn’t matter who the refs are. We’ll never get that call. … That’s just the way it is, man. Write what you think.”
OK. And again, I think when you play badly, you get what you deserve in the end, and Penn State got a loss and that’s fine. But I think officiating is a big problem in the Big Ten, and I think Penn State generally has legitimate reasons to gripe about it. Joe Paterno used to complain about it, so did Bill O’Brien, and James Franklin throws his hands in the air repeatedly when it comes to decisions like this.
Think about it: Officials ruled Matt Lehman DIDN’T break the plane back in 2012, and determined that Michael Penix DID on Saturday. That’s either incompetence or insanity.
There’s a huge disconnect there, and the bottom line is, replay will show you whatever you want to see. And if it doesn’t, well, you can simply say there wasn’t any evidence to change your mind.
I asked a colleague this Saturday night, after the call: If it wasn’t Michael Penix, but Sean Clifford, that had that exact same run for a Penn State win…what do you think the officials see on replay? For sure, they’re going to say they’d make the same call.
But I don’t know, man. I just can’t picture that being the case (neither could my colleague, for what it’s worth). And that’s a huge perception problem (at best) for the Big Ten, which didn’t make the right call against a team that, speaking of having huge problems…
3.) Penn State’s running game can’t be just Sean Clifford…
If you told me a month ago that Penn State’s best running back in its season opener would be Keyvone Lee, I’d certainly have picked Indiana to win the game.
No offense to Lee, who gave Penn State a pretty good boost on his six carries. But this is a position Penn State was counting on for big plays in the offense, and it really didn’t get any outside of the times Clifford was able to get outside the pocket and turn upfield on the way to a 119-yard game.
The longest run of the game outside of Clifford? Devyn Ford’s controversial 14-yard touchdown run (if it was a 13-yard run, Penn State wins). Ford, Lee and Caziah Holmes combined for 119 yards on 31 carries. That’s 3.8 yards per carry, and it’s good enough to maybe win if Clifford goes off like he did.
But it’s not going to be good enough against Ohio State. If Noah Cain can’t play against the Buckeyes — and that’s up in the air after it looked like he suffered a lower leg injury just three carries into Saturday’s game — Penn State’s running game is going to be a major question mark. Another position where there was a lot of depth and not a lot of production.
Speaking of a “position of strength” not producing strong numbers…
4.) Penn State linebackers were almost nonexistent.
Tackles aren’t everything for a lot of positions on defense. If a cornerback is getting a lot of tackles, it generally means the man he was supposed to be covering was open. If a nose tackle isn’t getting a lot of tackles, it doesn’t mean he didn’t do a great job occupying blocks and pushing piles.
But linebackers have to get tackles. It’s simply what they’re out there to do.
Did you know that Penn State linebackers registered eight tackles Saturday? Total! That’s a light day’s work for Micah Parsons.
Ellis Brooks had five of them. Jesse Luketa had three before he was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter. Nobody else had one. Lance Dixon and Brandon Smith both saw significant time, both were five-star recruits, and neither did anything to get themselves on the stat sheet.
Stats aren’t everything. But they’re something. And it’s clear Penn State needs more from that spot, especially with Luketa missing the first half of the Ohio State game on Saturday.
Tweet of the week
There was plenty of good competition for the honor this week as you’d expect, and we have a tie…
Ignire outcome, let’s evaluate where PSU actually is. Many years now into the JF era. We don’t have a great QB, arguably zero playmakers at WR, defense refuses to make a play to seal games, numerous coaching blunders late in games, & barely a top 30 recruiting class next cycle.
— Devon O’blakely (@BlakelyDevon) October 25, 2020
It’s a good exercise to look at what Devon suggests. I think the jury is rightfully out on Clifford, but after those two lousy interceptions in the first half, he’s the reason they would have won had the final call gone properly, or Devyn Ford just gone down short of the goal line.
But it is worth mentioning, the man Penn State had committed to the program — the one it wanted to be its quarterback this season — is the one who is coming to town this Saturday with Ohio State. And that’s a tough comparison for Clifford, because Justin Fields is so good.
Yes, you do need an elite quarterback to win a national title. And yes, having that player makes your good receivers great and your OK defense look really good because you can outscore anybody. And hey, coaches make fewer “bad decisions” because the quarterback can bail them out of those decisions.
I think Clifford is a winner, though. He just needs a little more help than a guy like Fields (who also happens to have a slew of blue-chip receivers) does.
When I watched it live I said, why is he celebrating, he didn't get in. My guess is the official was totally swayed by the pylon falling.
— J.T. (@JohnT41845158) October 25, 2020
It does strike me: Why is the official on the field making any kind of a call? Let replay handle it. Why does replay have the burden to overturn in a spot where replay should really be the only deciding factor?
That’s a really, really tough call for that official, and once the pylon falls, I do think he has to rule that a touchdown. Replay should have sorted it out and didn’t. But it would be better if the replay team didn’t have the crutch of the on-the-field call to lean on.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT