History Repeats Itself As Playcalling Stagnates Offense
Same issues, just a different week.
That’s what the last two weeks resembled for the Nittany Lions in two of the most important games of the year. One thing should be made clear: Numerous external problems outside of James Franklin’s control plagued the Lions against Michigan. A muffed punt, poor interior blocking, lapses in tackling, and allowing constant pressure on the quarterback aren’t problems easily resolved by a coach in-game. What is, however, is the method in which players execute the offense — otherwise known as playcalling.
Again, it’s not as if playcalling alone lost this winnable game for Penn State. Michigan took over on the nine yard line after recovering DeAndre Thompkins’ muffed punt, allowing the Michigan ground game to pound it in for the score. Hackenberg was sacked only four times, but rarely had a clean pocket around him. Saquon Barkley cracked off a 56 yard scamper early in the first quarter, but gained only 12 yards from that point on. What’s more, Franklin didn’t even bother trying to score with 40 seconds left in the first half from the 25 yard line, instead letting the clock drain out — but that’s beside the point.
Here’s what doesn’t make sense. On first and goal from the Michigan three yard line, Hackenberg threw an incompletion to Geno Lewis on first down, attempted to spring Barkley out wide on a second down run (he lost three yards), and missed Kyle Carter by roughly ten yards in the endzone, mainly because Carter was egregiously out of position. The result: a field goal. The point? Why waste a down trying to throw the ball on first down, and why not load up the backfield and pound it home? So many questions, and so many points left on the table.
Let us move now to Penn State’s second field goal of the day — an 18 yard chip shot that brought the Lions within five points of Michigan with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. From the six yard line, Hackenberg goes incomplete to Polk, followed by a five yard sweep that nearly put the Lions over the hump. These decisions aren’t the problem here — that comes on the deciding third and one. Needing only three feet, offensive coordinator John Donovan opts to throw the ball, resulting in a deflating incompletion. The team, with its backs collectively against the wall, opted to play conservatively and try for the easy field goal. Not only is this confusing, it’s damn near preposterous. Smart teams shy away from the air on third and one, goal line situations, opting instead to muscle up and pound it in — remember what happened to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl? But Franklin chooses to further contradict himself, playing it safe despite gambling and converting on fourth and nine earlier in the third quarter.
“In that situation we were going to have to score and go for two,” Franklin said of his decision to kick the field goal rather than gamble on fourth down. “It was taking points now, or go for the touchdown and have to go for two. At that point, we had a very hard time punching it in in the redzone.”
There’s no denying that statement, but there’s no denying the irony of the whole situation, either.
Penn State shot itself in the foot again, and a majority of that is a result of baffling decisions made by the coaching staff in situations where it mattered most.
Penn State’s Big Ten Championship dreams crashed with Saturday’s loss, leaving nothing but mounting questions of Franklin’s ability as an in-game coach, and whether or not Donovan is capable of consistently calling games.
I realize it sounds as though I’m trying to pin this loss on the scapegoat, but the proof is in the pudding. I understand there are external factors at work that those in the stands (or the pressbox) can’t see — like Franklin burning timeouts as a result of young players making rookie mistakes. But when it mattered most, Penn State sputtered. There’s no excuse not to come away with at least one touchdown in any of those given goal line situations, and the score would’ve read much differently had that been the case.
But here we are again. This is starting to seem repetitive, as if we’ve been asking the same questions week after week. Then again, maybe it’s because we have been.