How badly can a football team be outplayed, on a snap-for-snap basis, and still win the game? ESPN analyst Bill Connelly has a metric for that. It’s called postgame win expectancy.
According to PWE, Nebraska had a 17 percent chance of beating Penn State last week, after the game, given the things that actually happened in the game and when. It was, according to PWE, the most improbable win in college football last week.
Teams that have a PWE of less than, say, 40 percent rarely win. Illinois beat Rutgers with a PWE of 46 percent last week, and that was the third-most improbable win in the country.
Indiana’s PWE against Penn State week one was five percent. When you outgain an opponent by 277 yards, have twice as much possession time, run 25 more plays, have 11 more first downs, out-run them and out-pass them, fare better on third down and fourth down, have more sacks and lose the turnover battle by just one, it is almost impossible to lose that game, no matter what else is true.
There have been 362 FBS football games this season. Penn State has two of the 12 most improbable losses.
As Connelly tweeted last week: “Against Indiana and NU, Penn State… * gained 480 more yards * had a +6% or so success rate advantage * created 5 more scoring chances. That produces a 2-0 record far, far more than 0-2.’’
The Indiana loss, against a team now undefeated and ranked ninth in the country by AP, with Ohio State up the following week, had a ripple effect. The ripples were tidal waves.
The point is not that Penn State is, “better than its record.’’ It is, but so what? It’s not like that’s something to be proud of.
How did it happen? Is it all really this fragile? If so, what makes this group especially fragile?
As with all human endeavor in 2020, COVID-19 is a factor. Penn State has not had players miss games - as far as we know - due to the coronavirus. Many college teams have.
Penn State has had a rash of inexplicable false-positive tests, according to coach James Franklin, for players and coaches.
No college team could prepare for this season normally. Not every college team was breaking in a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach, a new defensive line coach, and a new wide receivers’ coach.
The old DL coach, Sean Spencer, now with the New York Giants, was Franklin’s unofficial Minister of Motivation. He may have left a bigger void than anyone realized.
“This would have been the year to have no coaching turnover,’’ Franklin said Tuesday. “It’s not a level playing field, across college football. It’s not the same.’’
The final piece, at least for this column, is the psyche and personality of the players. Penn State is not an especially young team, with roughly 40 lettermen and 12 starters back from last year.
It may be an especially immature team. That’s been argued, in particular, by tight end Pat Freiermuth.
"We can't use the youth movement - or youth, whatever it is - as an excuse,’’ Freiermuth said after the Nebraska game.
“Kids have to grow up. It's the little things off the field that are frustrating, which kind of goes on. Stuff that we've never done. Showing up late stuff. ... We just have to hold each other accountable."
After Penn State showed some unearned cockiness and chippiness that resulted in personal foul penalties at Nebraska, Franklin said it’s been going on for three years.
“All the little stuff after every single play - we’ve got to get that corrected,’’ he said.
Whose job is that?
Credit Mike Poorman of StateCollege.com for digging up this quote from a podcast appearance last week by former Ohio State assistant Zack Smith, bearing in mind that Smith was fired, by Urban Meyer, in 2018, after violating a protection from abuse order:
"When we would lose a recruit to Penn State, "it was because, 'Penn State is fun and they're cool and they're hip and the coaches are really cool.’ ’’ Smith said.
“OK, at Ohio State we're not cool at all. We just coach you hard and develop you. Every now and then you have to be an ass#$!@. They've had success. But in my opinion, that's why they can't get over the hump."