Some day, perhaps as soon as next season, Penn State might have a defense it can rely on to close out a game.

But until that day, the offense needs to stop its fourth-quarter routine of mimicking a turtle retracting into its shell. Nittany Lions should not behave like Terrapins.

Starting with the Rose Bowl loss in 2016, PSU’s otherwise thrilling, magical run back to prominence has been marred by fourth-quarter meltdowns in excruciating losses. Blame the defense all you want, but the offense could have put those games away with one more score.

The ugly details

  • 2016 Rose Bowl – USC  52, PSU 49: The Lions lose the fourth quarter 17-0 to blow a 14-point lead.
  • 2017 – Ohio State 39, PSU 38: The Lions lose the fourth quarter 19-3.
  • 2017 – Michigan State 27, Penn State 24: The Lions lose the fourth quarter 6-0.
  • 2018 – Ohio State 27, PSU 26: The Lions lose the last 8 minutes of the game 13-0.

I’ll do the math for you: That’s 55-3 down the home stretch of fifth-year coach James Franklin’s most painful losses.

Fourth-quarter meltdowns occurred in several thrilling victories, too:

  • 2017 – PSU 21, Iowa 19: The Lions blow a 15-7 lead in the fourth quarter before scoring a final-play TD.
  • 2017 Fiesta Bowl – PSU 35, Washington 28: The Lions lose the fourth quarter 7-0, holding on for the victory.
  • 2018 – PSU 45, App State 38 (OT): The offense doesn’t totally shut down, but is outscored 28-7 for the first 14 minutes of the fourth quarter to blow a 24-10 lead. Yes, the defense and special teams own a big share of the blame in this one. But PSU’s prolific offense could have bailed out the Lions before the situation turned desperate.

What’s the fix?

Simply put, the offense can’t go into its shell in the fourth quarter. Penn State is not the type of team that can sit on a lead. Even with this year’s vastly improved line, this offense cannot grind out first downs. It’s not designed that way.

With Trace MsSorley never going under center, it’s asking a lot of Miles Sanders to convert a fourth-and-5 when you hand him the ball 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Even if the initial blocking had been there on the fateful last-gasp play against the Buckeyes two weeks ago, it’s still a long shot Sanders makes the first down.

Turning conservative and trying to hold on will not work. Trying to prioritize eating clock along with or instead of scoring will not work. Trying to guard against turnovers will not work.

Franklin and OC Ricky Rahne need to fix their fourth-quarter philosophy. They need to let McSorley be Penn State’s closer.

When the senior, third-year starter takes the field to start a fourth-quarter drive with a two-score lead, his mission needs to be a tack-on score. Against a desperate defense likely crowding the line of scrimmage, the greatest dual-threat college quarterback since Johnny Manziel needs to stay aggressive. His numbers against Ohio State this year (286 yards passing, 175 yards rushing, zero turnovers) point to a guy nearly unstoppable when given freedom.

When the opposing defensive players are tired and desperate, Penn State should not allow them time to think, breathe or substitute. Skip the “check with me.” Let McSorley run a hurry-up that keeps the defense on its heels. With an opponent on the ropes, play for the knockout, not the decision.

Since the 2016 Rose Bowl, PSU is 3-4 in one-score games and 12-0 in games decided by more than eight points. Until the Lions reach elite status in all three phases of the game, that points to a team that must keep scoring to close out victories.

In close games, Penn State should embrace an underdog, nothing-to-lose mentality. Case in point: Franklin needs to let true freshman kicker Jake Pinegar try a 41-yard field goal against Ohio State. That’s totally in range for any decent D-I kicker. It’s a shot worth taking for what could have been a difference-making three points. This past weekend, Texas upset Oklahoma with a 40-yard field goal in the final seconds. The snapper, holder and kicker were all freshmen. Franklin has not shied away from starting the best players regardless of age or experience; he has to trust them.

Penn State comes off its bye week with its highest ranking of the season. There are plenty of scenarios in which a one-loss PSU team makes the Playoff. Odds are, several of the remaining games will hang in the balance in the fourth quarter.

It’s on Rahne and Franklin to maximize the most prolific quarterback in Penn State history. It’s on the offense not just to build leads but to hold them.