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Penn State’s Inability To Make Key Plays Down The Stretch Evident Against Michigan

After 60 minutes of classic, gritty, Big Ten football between Penn State and Michigan, it’s hard not to circle a handful of plays that would’ve changed the outcome in the Nittany Lions’ favor.

James Franklin’s group managed to hang around despite a stagnant offensive performance for three quarters, and it looked as if momentum was finally turning around in Beaver Stadium down the stretch. Sean Clifford, who endured seven sacks against a ferocious Michigan defense, led the Nittany Lions on the drive of the day to open the fourth quarter.

Penn State hit on three fourth-down conversions as part of a 15-play, just over five-minute drive that was capped off by two-yard touchdown grab by Tyler Warren. Mike Yurcich’s offense followed that with a two-point conversion on a pretty Clifford-Jahan Dotson connection that left the game tied at 14 with 7:35 to play.

From there, star defensive end Arnold Ebiketie forced a fumble that handed the Nittany Lions the ball on Michigan’s 16. All of the sudden, Beaver Stadium could taste an electric upset over the No. 6 team in the nation.

As exciting as that stretch was, however, it was clearly about the plays Penn State didn’t make Saturday afternoon.

“Obviously, the margin of error is small,” Franklin said postgame. “You look at our side of the conference, maybe one of the better sides of the conference in college football, you can pick out four to six plays each game. For most teams and most people, that’s going to determine your success.”

There’s no arguing with Franklin’s assessment here. In Penn State’s first loss of the season to Iowa, the Nittany Lions managed to hang around with Ta’Quan Roberson at the helm until the Hawkeyes hit on a 44-yard touchdown pass that gave them their first lead of the game. Against Ohio State, a couple of back-breaking rushes by TreVeyon Henderson were the difference-maker in an otherwise impressive effort by Brent Pry’s defense.

As bad as the Nittany Lions played against an inferior Illinois opponent, they still squandered multiple opportunities to win over the course of the nine-overtime debacle.

Against Jim Harbaugh’s group Saturday’s afternoon, there’s no doubt the offensive line’s struggles can be highlighted as a reason for the defeat. However, when it came down to it, the Nittany Lions didn’t do what they needed to in winning time.

Following Ebiketie’s massive forced fumble and Derrick Tangelo’s recovery, Yurcich’s offense could only muster three yards and a Jordan Stout field goal. Just six plays later, a busted coverage allowed tight end Erick All to scamper free for a 44-yard touchdown, and the Wolverines retook the lead.

Outside of Hassan Haskins’ productive afternoon at running back, Penn State’s defense did an impressive job of limiting Michigan’s offensive attack. None of that matters, however, once that play breaks the game open with just 3:30 remaining.

Linebacker Brandon Smith was one of the best examples of that overall effort throughout the afternoon, as he finished second on the team was 10 total tackles and a pass break up.

“A football game doesn’t always came down to one play, really,” Smith said. “There’s multiple plays throughout a game that lead up to it. But there’s obviously one play that really stands out…It definitely could’ve been eliminated even before that happened.”

When just watching the game, it’s certainly easier to pick out one play as the defining moment. However, considering how uncharacteristic it was for the Nittany Lions to give up a play like that based on their success the entire afternoon, it’s impossible to ignore. Pry’s defense had yet to give up a passing play worth more than 30 yards, and had given up just four double-digit yardage plays through the air up to that point. The huge connection was an anomaly, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Despite the poorly-timed score, the Nittany Lions still had a clear opportunity to win with three timeouts left and 5:55 on the clock.

Penn State’s offense worked its way to a massive 4th and 2 at midfield. The Nittany Lions’ Mr. Everything Jahan Dotson was out after taking a huge pop on the play before, so Clifford took a shot deep to Cam Sullivan-Brown that fell incomplete. From there, all the Wolverines had to do was run the clock out with their running back, who was largely their most consistent source of offense all day.

Franklin noted that it hurt plenty that the star wideout was unavailable for that play, but it’s not sustainable to so severely lack other options on offense. The Nittany Lions decided to take the shot to Sullivan-Brown, who hasn’t made a catch since the Iowa game.

“We have played hard, but we haven’t made enough big plays. You take Jahan Dotson out, and we’re not making enough big plays or explosive plays,” Franklin said. “We’ve done that for a really long time, and I don’t know if we’ve had very many explosive runs all year long, so that is something we’re going to have to look at hard, but I think that’s the biggest issue. We just don’t have enough explosiveness besides Jahan Dotson on our offense right now. ”

When making the plays needed to win football games, the struggles have been much more clear on offense. The Nittany Lions’ defense couldn’t make a stop when it needed Saturday. But it’s no secret that Yurcich’s group has struggled to compliment the opposite side of the ball with timely scores.

Now with a 6-4 record and just two games left, this issue still clearly remains. In 60 minutes of football, there are just a couple must-have plays that winning teams make. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they’ve struggled to make those winning plays all season.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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