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Third Down Woes Key In Penn State’s Loss To Ohio State 

Penn State football’s offense was consistently gridlocked by a tough Ohio State defense in Saturday’s 20-12 loss, and a 1-for-16 third-down conversion rate was a big reason behind the result. 

“To me, the story of the game came down to third down,” James Franklin said postgame. “We weren’t able to stay on the field on third down on offense, which was the biggest difference in the game, in my opinion.”

A significant lack of execution of these plays is probably what cost the Nittany Lions another must-win game against the Buckeyes. First-year starting quarterback Drew Allar didn’t look like himself playing in a hostile Ohio Stadium atmosphere, and Mike Yurcich made several questionable decisions with his play calling, especially on third down.

Let’s use Penn State’s first 3rd-and-1 of the game as an example. One drive after Nick Singleton had a 20-yard and 12-yard rush, the Nittany Lions found themselves in this position at their own 45-yard line late in the first quarter. It would’ve made sense to run the ball since Singleton was playing well and a one-yard gain probably wouldn’t have been hard to pull off. Instead, the coaching staff had Allar attempt to throw the ball to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, but the pass was broken up and nearly picked off by defensive back Josh Proctor.

The same decision was made two quarters later, and then once again in the fourth quarter. Despite having two talented running backs, Penn State didn’t utilize either for easy run plays in each of these instances instead of trying to force a young quarterback who was clearly rattled to pass. The play-calling was questionable at best in what should’ve been layup one-yard gains but was instead oversimplified and simultaneously overthought by the coaching staff.

Although those three decisions weren’t the logical calls, most were, and the offense couldn’t get the job done. Allar missed targets, wideouts dropped passes or didn’t get open, running backs didn’t find gaps, and linemen missed their blocks. It wasn’t one player’s fault, but rather the entire offense’s lack of execution on third downs in a must-win game.

“Coach Yurcich had some really nice play calls, and some that we’re going to want back as players because we just didn’t go out and execute the way we were supposed to,” Allar said. “Coach Yurcich did a great job of just dialing up some of the shots that we had this week for our game plan, but at the end of the day, we as players didn’t go out and execute.”

However, the strength of Ohio State’s defense cuts Penn State a little bit of slack. Franklin stressed that their play-calling on third downs complicated things for his offense.

“Even when we did have some short-yardage situations [on third down], they were playing cover zero — we felt like coming into this game, this was one of the better short-yardage defenses that we had seen on film,” Franklin said. “They had a good plan and they executed it well.”

Ohio State owns a .341 success rate percentage for stopping teams on third down, which is tied for 35th in the nation. However, going 1-for-16 here was never going to cut it. Penn State’s third down conversion rate was .483% before the game, so why did it end up being such a stark contrast when it mattered most?

Ultimately, the offense’s lack of execution on third down, whether it was a bad play call or simply not getting it done on the field, doomed Penn State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions squandered chance after chance to do what they had done effortlessly the whole season, which was scoring points and winning games.

“We put countless hours of our work in and it sucks to have a result like this, but we have to watch [film] and learn from it,” Allar said. “Because if we don’t, we’re just fooling ourselves.”

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About the Author

Nolan Wick

Nolan is a third-year journalism major from Silver Spring, Maryland, which means he's an avid fan of all D.C. sports teams. If Nolan isn't writing about or watching sports, you can probably find him listening to all sorts of music or traveling. To keep up with Nolan, you can follow him on Twitter @nolan_wick or email him at [email protected].

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