We’re going to hear a lot about officiating, in the wake of Penn State’s 31-26 loss to Minnesota.
Not entirely without reason. On Penn State’s final drive, two plays before the game-ending interception, wide receiver Daniel George was called for offensive pass interference, evidently, for moving his body forward.
Earlier, Penn State WR K. J. Hamler was interfered with in a way that seemed intentional, as if a Minnesota cornerback didn’t notice teammate Antoine Winfield was about to pick the ball off. No call.
There were other examples. Football officiating is just hopelessly messed up.
We’re going to hear a lot about play-calling. Again, not entirely without reason.
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This coaching staff’s love for low-percentage pass routes - “Taking our shots down the field,’’ for, “explosive plays,’’ - seems unbounded and mostly unrequited.
Penn State’s offense plays from “behind the sticks,’’ too often, and by choice way too often.
We’re going to hear, too, about perennial favorites game and clock management.
Say it along with me: Not entirely without reason.
Near the end of the first half, Penn State spiked the ball on first-and-goal at the 7 with 21 seconds left, meaning it had two, instead of three, shots at the end zone before settling for a field goal.
When the Lions scored in the third quarter to make the score 24-19, James Franklin opted for a two-point conversion, which failed.
Penn State drove to the Minnesota 5 on its next possession, where Franklin eschewed a field goal, went for the TD (with a low-percentage fade route to the 5-10 Hamler) and missed.
If the Lions get 10 points (kick the extra point, make the field goal) out of that sequence instead of six, a field goal on Penn State’s last possession probably wins the game.
Having said all that, the big takeaway from Saturday is not about the officiating or play-calling or game managing. It isn’t really even the simple fact of a loss.
Penn State isn’t as good as we thought. At least for now, the Lions aren’t good enough to approach the possibilities for this season that seemed very real before Saturday. They certainly aren’t the fourth-best team in the country.
The offense isn’t varied enough in its weapons and ability to fire them. That was known before Saturday, and could be seen as fixable, a work in progress.
But the defense, surely, was elite. Big, fast, athletic, deep. To believe Penn State was even potentially a playoff team, you had to believe that, and you could believe it with a preponderance of the evidence.
The offense had 518 yards against Minnesota. Despite everything, it played well enough to win.
The defense did not come close.
Minnesota gashed the Lions’ D for 198 yards in the first quarter, and for 449 through three quarters, before the Gophers started the grip the wheel a bit too tightly.
It wasn’t just the secondary, although it was certainly that. Minnesota wide receivers Rashod Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman had mismatches all day long.
They combined for 17 catches for 338 yards. The rest of the Minnesota team combined for one catch for one yard.
You can’t throw to just three targets, over and over and over, if you’re losing up front. Minnesota mostly handled a Penn State D-line we thought was among the best in the country.
No, Antonio Shelton’s absence doesn’t explain it.
Obviously (although it wasn’t at all obvious before Saturday) Penn State simply hadn’t faced an offense capable of exposing it. Michigan had the talent to do it, and perhaps dropped clues in the second half of their 28-21 loss at Happy Valley three weeks ago, but Harbaugh's Wolverines still labor to get out of their own way.
How the Lions react to this, how Franklin coaches it, what’s still possible in 2019, …. we’ll get to all that this week.
For now, they are 1-7 on the road against ranked teams in the Franklin Era. And they go to Ohio State in two weeks.
Elite is still the magic word. It’s still out of reach.