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Penn State’s Aggressive Game Plan Doesn’t Pay Off In Close Loss To Michigan

Penn State football lined up for a field goal from Michigan’s two-yard line on its second drive of the day Saturday.

A 20-yard chip shot from kicker/punter Jordan Stout would have given the Nittany Lions a 6-0 lead. But, the specialist didn’t kick a field goal. It was a fake through-and-through, and Stout ran out wide for a pass.

“Once I caught it, I was going to run in and score a touchdown,” Stout said after the game. “[The ball] was behind me. I saw that [the defense] was there and I had to step back and see what I could do.”

While Stout is a good athlete, he wasn’t able to make the Wolverines’ defense miss. He was dropped for an 18-yard loss, and he fumbled.

While Penn State practiced that play in the week leading up to its marquee matchup with Michigan, Stout said it was still “out of his comfort zone.” This was just one play in a string of aggressive attempts dialed up by James Franklin and Mike Yurcich, which ultimately were not enough to outlast the Wolverines.

“I’d make the call again, but obviously it wasn’t successful,” Franklin said after the game. “We were going to call the game today in an aggressive way to give us the best chance to win.”

The head coach added that since his squad hasn’t been effective in short-yardage situations, the fake field goal was Penn State’s version of going for it. Rather than a sneak, a run up the gut, or a play-action pass, the offense opted for a fake field goal.

Many Nittany Lions said after the game that they plan on being aggressive each week, but Franklin seemed to suggest otherwise. Following a timid, often cowardly approach against Maryland last week, Penn State clearly kicked things up a notch on fourth down against Michigan.

Lots of times it worked. Just one drive before the failed fake field goal, Stout converted a beautiful 18-yard pass to linebacker Curtis Jacobs on a fake punt. That kept the drive alive and resulted in three points.

Penn State opted to go for it on fourth down six times, converting four of those tries. While that is certainly an effective clip, the game was ultimately lost in the end. It wasn’t just due to failed aggressiveness, but it’s hard to ignore when you lose by just four points.

One of the most impressive sequences of aggressiveness was on Penn State’s only touchdown drive. The Nittany Lions lined up to go for it three separate times and went a perfect three-for-three — including a 4th and 2 touchdown pass to Tyler Warren.

Warren agreed that Penn State added “a little more this week” in terms of aggressive sets and play calls. His only catch of the day came on a pivotal fourth-down look and helped tie the game at 14.

Wide receiver Parker Washington was also a beneficiary of Penn State’s aggressive nature. He broke off for a 44-yard gain on a deep ball from Sean Clifford, en route to a 92-yard afternoon.

“Coach Yurcich and coach Franklin have a mindset that we want to be aggressive,” Washington said after the game. “Sometimes we execute, sometimes we don’t.”

While going for it on fourth down is obviously a sign of aggressiveness, this mindset permeated beyond just those decisions. Clifford took off to run more than usual, racking up a sack-adjusted 60 rushing yards on the day. Deep shots weren’t extremely common, but they showed up in crucial moments more than they have in the past.

Perhaps the most important fourth-down try of the day came on the last drive that Penn State’s offense had the football. Trailing by four with just about three minutes to play, the Nittany Lions basically had the game on the line.

Jahan Dotson was shaken up on the previous third down and was not available for the biggest play of the day. With two yards to gain, Franklin and Yurcich dialed up a home-run ball to Cam Sullivan-Brown, who’s had just four catches all year.

Incomplete. Game over.

The decision to send the offense back out wasn’t intrinsically aggressive, as punting basically was not an option there, but the play call certainly was. Sullivan-Brown was targeted twice on the most important drive of the game after not having a ball thrown his way all afternoon. Aggressive, or reckless?

“We got to leave the ball on the field and give [Sullivan-Brown] a chance to make a play for it,” Franklin said.

Penn State certainly left the ball on the field there, as it didn’t get it back in its hands the rest of the game. Michigan needed to convert just one first down on its ensuing possession, and the game was basically over.

Penn State’s aggressiveness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lots of the chances it took put itself in a position to win the game in the first place. But, ultimately, it was a gamble — and it didn’t pay off.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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