Penn State football: In a game of countless mistakes, scoring a touchdown was the fatal flaw
Coup de grâce: a French phrase meaning the action or event that finally destroys or ends something. For Penn State, its own 14-yard touchdown ended up spoiling a season-opening victory, and likely a shot at the College Football Playoff.
To be clear, Devyn Ford, who scored the touchdown to put the Nittany Lions ahead by 8 with 1:42 left in regulation, should by no means be the focal point of scorn from Penn State fans. His mistake, one that the sophomore will never make again, was simply the exclamation point on a laundry list of Penn State errors.
Reminder that Penn State had the chance to run this clock out 😬pic.twitter.com/64n8sTNRE5
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 24, 2020
“The realty is, we’ve gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team, but we’re not an elite team yet,” James Franklin infamously said in 2018 following his team’s 27-26 loss to Ohio State.
“We’re gong to break through, and be an elite program, by doing all the little things,” Franklin added. “We’re a great program. We lost to an elite program. And we’re that close.”
And, maddeningly, still that far away based on Saturday’s mistake-filled 36-35 loss in Bloomington.
Indiana isn’t an “elite” program, and needed a ton of help to top the Lions for just the 2nd time in 24 all-time meetings.
Penn State is still not executing “all the little things” to propel itself out of perpetually being a Top 25 team that can’t make the College Football Playoff.
Saturday’s game at Indiana had all of the ingredients for a potential upset with Penn State possibly looking ahead to Halloween weekend against the Buckeyes, and Tom Allen fielding the most talented team of his tenure in Bloomington.
The Nittany Lions needed to be sharp from the opening whistle to quickly extinguish the Hoosiers’ hopes, and that was far from what they did.
Sean Clifford could not have started the game much worse than he did after leading Penn State down the field on its opening drive. It took all of 14 passes for the redshirt junior to throw 2 interceptions, something that took him 184 passes to do in 2019. Neither pick was in the least bit defensible, and directly led to 10 Indiana points and a 17-7 Hoosiers lead.
— no context college football (@nocontextcfb) October 24, 2020
For a program lacking an elite QB like Justin Fields, limiting the number of mistakes is crucial.
Clifford improved, finishing 24 for 35 for 238 yards and 3 touchdowns, and was most effective with his legs. His 119 yards on 17 carries were the best on either team, but 2 early turnovers prevented a Penn State offense down to its third-string running back from ever clicking.
Clifford wasn’t alone in holding the Nittany Lions back. Questionable play calls and mistakes on special teams continually hindered Penn State’s momentum.
Twice Penn State tried to use backup QB Will Levis as its “Lion” QB. It’s the special position designation when the Nittany Lions use Levis akin to Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints. On the first try, Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense was slow running the play, drawing a flag for delay of game. The second time resulted in a Levis fumble inside the Indiana 10-yard line.
Special teams were responsible for 3 costly mistakes, with 2 coming from a pair of Jake Pinegar missed field goals (he missed 1 all of 2019) and a third coming when Lamont Wade fumbled a kickoff at the goal line and was tackled at the 5. The poor field position preceded Clifford’s second interception and led to an easy 4-yard scoring drive by Indiana.
A questionable decision at the end of regulation may fly a little under the radar given the circumstances of how overtime ended. Rather than try to run another play on third down with :08 left, Franklin opted to bring Jordan Stout out to try a 57-yard field goal. Stout’s attempt was about a yard short, perhaps a yard Penn State could have gained with one more quick pass to the sidelines.
So while Michael Penix diving full extension for the Hoosiers to win the game and the ensuing replay decision to uphold the officials’ decision will garner all of the headlines, it’s the devil in the details still keeping Penn State lagging behind. Maybe a coach should make sure a running back knows to fall down. Maybe different plays could have been called.
Instead, Indiana DB Bryant Fitzgerald wound up raising his arms in celebration as Ford scored. The Penn State back stood stunned in the end zone, looking to the sideline, as the mistake dawned on him.
Penn State outgained Indiana 488 to 211. It won the time-of-possession battle 40:25 to 19:35. Penn State never punted the ball. All of that is moot when you can’t take care of the ball or execute the little things.
Frankly neither team deserved to win. Indiana did next to nothing for 59 minutes, and Penn State looked totally undeserving of its No. 8 ranking.
But alas, it’s college football, and someone must prevail. Fans in Happy Valley can blame Ford or cry foul about the officials, but Penn State displayed far too many flaws for the loss to be boiled down to one player or one call.
The Nittany Lions likely will play better against Ohio State, but it looks like their loftiest dreams for this season already may have been dashed — unless all those “little things” that add up to elite status can be rectified in a week. In this shortened season, all their margin for error(s) is gone.